There has been a lot of buzz lately on connecting design and the social sciences at The New School. While the articulation of this framework has not been fully fleshed out, it reflects a growing trend, amongst architecture and design professionals, to address issues of poverty, public health, disasters, etc.
Perhaps this all started with the emergence of design activists such as Bryan Bell and Samuel Mockbee in the 1990s. Certainly, post-Katrina reconstruction provided unprecedented opportunities for idealistic architects to work with clients from marginalized communities. Step back even further to consider the zeitgeist, our airwaves have been saturated by the irresistible mantra of “doing well by doing good” — which drives the boom in microfinance, social entrepreneurship, and bottom of the pyramid models, as well as fuels the popularity of the likes of Jeffrey Sachs.
As international and bilateral development institutions have undergone decades of growing pains and yet still burdened with unanswered questions about accountability and assessment (evident in leading critics in AID Watch), one begins to realize that socially responsible architecture as a practice field is still in its infancy.
That’s why I was fascinated by a recent GSAPP event that billed itself as a debate on poverty alleviation. Although there was enough differences between the fields of planning, architecture, and anthropology, the event did not provoke debate as it was a series of thought-provoking presentations/commentaries.
The first speaker, Tom Agnotti, a planner from CUNY, began by unpacking the concept of ‘poverty.’ Most people fall into the trap of thinking of poverty as a problem of income (i.e. the poor are often characterized as the ones who “make less than a dollar a day”). Agnotti points out that the heart of the problem lies in inequality. While focusing on income falsely leads us to fixate on economic growth, addressing inequality raises a whole set of structural issues. This has been articulated by the concept of capabilities championed by economists such as Amartyr Sen. Secondly, Agnotti cautions against so-called “physical determinism” in planning strategies.
[Physical determinism is also be referred to as "environmental determinism." According to Herbert Gans's People, Plans, and Policies (1968), this concept has a long history dating back to 19th century, when reformers and master planners "assume that people's lives are shaped by their physical surroundings and that the ideal city should be realized by the provision of an ideal physical environment. As architects and engineers, the planners believed that the city was a system of buildings and land uses which could be arranged and rearranged through planning, without taking account of the social, economic, and political structures and processes that determine people's behavior, including their use of land."]
Design and planning does matter, Agnotti says, when it is at the service of grassroots movements. Communities are not always constructing a building; as physical solutions cannot solve deprivation of capabilities. Planners need to engage with social movements, Agnotti concludes, they need to be engaged with institutional transformations.
The second speaker, Giancarlo Mazzanti, is an architect from Bogotá, Colombia. The noted designer of Parque Biblioteca España in Santo Domingo, Colombia, Mazzanti proposes 7 principles that enables architecture to embody social change. They are:
1) multiply uses and expand times — represented by Leon de Grief Library Park in Medellín; 2) building as an icon; 3) transparency and exchange — by breaking down of interior and exterior spaces; 4) openings and public space; 5) adaptive systems; 6) modules and lack of finish; 7) passive power setups and citizens education.
After looking at the video and pictures, it is easy to see why Mazzanti’s buildings have become pilgrimage sites for architects. Yet, Mazzani did not adequately address Agnotti’s questioning of physical determinism. While we could imagine how architecture can convey a sense of hierarchy, Mazzanti is in fact proposing a framework for architecture of (social) equality. Sadly, there was not much discussion on the panel about this daring and enticing proposal. However, it might be important to contextualize Mazzanti’s architecture in post-Escobar Colombia and socio-economic policies of Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín.
The third speaker was Janice Perlman, an anthropologist who has been working to bridge academia with public policy and civil society. Her new book, Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge of Rio de Janeiro, is probably the only longitudinal study of the urban poor. Comparing three sets of survey data of favela residents from the last 40 years, she finds that the favelas are not the end of the road for many people living in poverty. In fact, many moved on to living in residential neighborhoods — barring that they survive the disruptions of livelihood and opportunities from Brazilian government’s slum clearing policies.
Where does this leave those of us passionate about social justice and the built environment? Can Mazzanti’s proposed principles be applicable elsewhere for the same effects (say in Dubai? Jakarta? Shanghai?)? Given that social movements these days have been reduced to a few mouse clicks on MoveOn.org (at least for the middle-class professionals), we’re left to the whims of speculators with financial instrumentals that only a handful of people understand. Yet for now, the verdict is still out on how one might document ways in which socially responsible architecture live up to its idealistic promises.