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“Social Design” creeps into the mainstream: Is it here to stay and in what way?

William N Hunter19 March 2012

If the two recent exhibitions held in New York are part of any confirming indication that a legitimate shift in socially responsive architecture and design has indeed arrived, then it is by time the professional and academic community at large begin engaging in a critical discourse in relation to the practices and products of this movement. The Museum of Modern Art’s Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement and the Cooper Hewitt-produced Design with the Other 90%: CITIES at the United Nations highlighted an array of projects, practices, designers, and organizations that are seemingly appearing and operating outside the usual mainstream avenues of delivery. Likewise the recently published Spatial Agency project led by Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till attempts to uncover another way of doing architecture, one that eschews the image of architect as individual hero, replacing it with an idea of architect as agent, acting and collaborating with, and on behalf of, others. These happenings represent a larger buzz gripping architectural reporting and discourse.

MoMA’s Small Scale, Big Change exhibit (image by provisions)

Cooper Hewitt / United Nations Design for the Other 90% (image by James Emery)

For all the merit and overdue satisfaction of this exposure and coverage, significant questions should be raised in regards to the resulting implications on mainstream and outsider practices as well as the perception of them. Without a doubt, MoMA by its very nature and established status is targeting architects, enthusiasts and an interested, arguably cultured public. The content is tightly edited, brief, intimate, and yet richly displayed through large format pictures, drawings, and models which is no departure from how the majority of architectural projects are processed, delivered and curated, accompanied by no less than a visually abundant streamlined website. If this is indeed a representation of a different kind of architecture, a different kind of practice, it may require a rethinking of the message. This is not meant to be a critique of the show in of itself, but rather a general determining point.  The exhibition catalogue would lead one to believe that these projects entailed a challenging re-assessment of approach and process, based on geographical situation, cultural protocol, and/or the characters of end users. These are not or at least are not meant to be perceived as typical projects. In fact the website claims that:

“These projects have been selected from an increasingly large number of similar initiatives around the world because they exemplify the degree to which architects can orchestrate change, prioritizing work that has social impact but also balances very real concerns of cost, program, and aesthetics. They succeed in providing communities not only with physical spaces but with opportunities for self-determination and an enhanced sense of identity. As a result, these architects are both designers of buildings and moderators of change. Their integrative methodologies could serve as models for the profession at large”

There is again no argument that the projects represented are operating in some different parallel to mainstream practices, some more than others. Though perhaps more unsettling is the fact that there are only eleven projects and half of them are coming from the tried and tested likes of Rural Studio (Auburn University), Elemental, and Urban Think Tank, entities which also all show up in the Cooper Hewitt’s UN-based exhibit. The exhibition at the UN is part of a larger and broader initiative and arguably more thorough in terms of data and information, but also in many cases still offers an objectified aestheticizing of the subject(s). While the details of the chosen few are not necessary here, the point to be made is that darlings of social design are emerging and beginning to monopolize the conversation in the same manner that so-called starchitects garnered all our attention over the last decade or so. It is not a case of judgement on the part of these established names and practices, but more a general caution on the criticality of who comes to represent this new movement towards socially responsive architecture and design. Furthermore, is it even necessary to put a name behind a work in the same heroic manner as before? What are the consequences if this happens? A possible co-opting of the outsider activists and true agency of architecture by the object-driven mentality of the mainstream protocols is a threat to pure potential.

METI-Handmade School, Bangladesh by Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag (image by Anna Heringer)

Medellin Metro Cable (image by Omar Uran)

The Spatial Agency project, publication, and database also sheds light on practices and people, whether of historical significance or emerging interest and whether by holistic studio vision or one off project, that are concerned as they enter into socially embedded networks, in which the consequences of architecture are of much more significance than the objects of architecture. On the list exists some of the same figures and names already mentioned in the other exhibitions as well as some suspect crossover practices, usually championed for their avant garde responses to architectural problems. Now, debating lists may very well be a waste of precious time, though the effect of such lists is without much doubt. The choices made by editors and curators and then the act of publicising them as brass is problematic on the one hand because it limits the field and on the other because it assumes both internally within the profession and externally in public that those practices and individuals are doing something genuinely different. It implies that they are thinking and acting differently. And in a subconscious way one could or would assume that they are taught differently.

Elemental’s profile on the Spatial Agency online database (image by William Hunter)

Architectural production is a process, and though this process may have become saturated as an ideology, working in less-formalized arenas or situations has its own unique challenges. These situations require new skillsets, qualitative social understanding, and more importantly, new perceptions of what it means to be a practitioner. The role of professional must be internally rethought and if not, it is far reaching that someone should claim that they have the capacity to operate in these contested urbanisms. Architecture and design most certainly has a responsibility to re-establish its worth in future development, in formalized Western settings and especially in more informal settings of the Global South. But this repositioning needs to be led by individuals who are critically and ethically up to the task.

If the buzz surrounding social design and the staging of major exhibitions and research projects are actually confirming that a true paradigm shift is happening within architecture, design, and their related disciplines, we must be aware of what it means to practice differently. The fact is that when practitioners enter into different and unfamiliar arenas, the political landscape of design changes. This change as well as the individuals they work for and with has a huge impact on the methodology of practice. If the differences are not acknowledged and the same approach unfolds, the results will be misdirected and unintentionally non-productive for those individuals they serve. In addition, if the representations and viral publicising of this movement is lazily glorified sans the critical rigor they deserve, then the larger cause of shifting an agency for practice will be lost.