Where is the social project?
Journal of Architectural Education, 2014
In the last decade, a range of participatory and activist practices have emerged as the self-proclaimed inheritors of architecture’s social project. From Architecture for Humanity’s aid in poor and disaster- stricken regions to temporary urban interventions, many of these initiatives transcend conventional definitions of architecture. A new generation of architects, designers, and urbanists are turning down office jobs to build shelters in Burma, reclaim the streets of Sevilla, guerrilla-garden in London, or study the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Privileging activism, informality, and alterity over what is perceived as a dominant architectural culture of tired formalism and celebrity obsessions, such practices expand design from the manipulation of form and material to the development of procedures and the creation of models of engagement. Despite their potential for change, many critics remain skeptical about the ultimate results and repercussions of these initiatives. Those policing the disciplinary boundaries of architecture have been most readily dismissive of what they consider to be social work and not architecture. Perhaps the most conspicuous challenge to such disciplinary rejection has been the 2010 MoMA exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement. With projects that include low-cost housing, community facilities, school building, access to public transportation, and the renovation of existing social housing, the exhibition claimed novelty for a socially relevant form of architectural practice. While this direction is far from unprecedented in the history of twentieth-century architecture, it is indeed rare in MoMA’s curatorial tradition. Yet, despite the symbolic importance and the galvanizing project of such exhibitions, contemporary architectural culture seems to be increasingly fragmented by a fundamental fault line: that between architecture as social process and architecture as formal object. On which side of this split can we locate the social project of architecture today? Is it a matter of devising social procedures or designing novel forms? How can new imaginaries be produced, through projection or activism? Can architects, if they wish to be socially responsible, remain designers or should they instead become social workers, as some practitioners continue to claim?