Recently architecture has taken a social turn, with grassroots, designer-as-activist work becoming the field’s most talked about sector. The theme for the 2016 Venice Biennale, opening in late May, is “Reporting from the Front,” and it will feature socially conscious work from practitioners around the world. Curator Alejandro Aravena likens the struggle to improving daily life on a battlefield. The show picks up, in some ways, what the Chicago Architecture Biennial started: socially engaged, often local interventions.
While this seems like it is all for the best, it comes with baggage, including—ironically—the hagiographies and moral dogma similar to its antithesis, modernism.
Additionally, these endemic remediations are often criticized for being only slightly effective, or a “band-aid on a sucking chest wound,” as critic Rory Hyde once quipped. This type of work certainly brings about a parallel discussion about the agency of design. Is architecture really effective as activism? Or is it just relevant and interesting art?
Architecture alone cannot address the structural problems that the world faces. Improving our built environment for a more just society is a two-front war. On the one hand is the liberal pragmatism of activist architecture, and on the other is the more extreme possibility of policy change.
For example, a debate surfaced online around a competition called “Building The Border Wall.” Twitter outrage followed, as many people felt that there should be “NO WALL.” This hardline ideological approach—architects should not engage with walls because this makes them complicit with state violence—builds on legitimate, preexisting anti-wall sentiments from Berlin to Gaza.
But in this instance, does the “NO WALL” protest accomplish anything? As Ronald Rael, associate professor at University of California, Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book, Borderwall as Architecture, notes in an online feature at archpaper.com, there are already 700 miles of wall on the border, creating a terrible scenario that divides cities, ecological zones, and even a college. The barrier creates a zone of exclusion, division, and violence, but it also has political support from both sides. Some in the United States want to keep out people and drugs, while some in Mexico want to keep out American guns.
Does simply saying “NO WALL” and refusing to engage with the pressing issues at hand paradoxically make us even less resistant to the realities of the situation? Perhaps the real solution is to engage architecturally with the physical reality and attempt to change the structural policy problems through the places where we can make more change: lobbying congress, drafting policy alternatives, or joining one of many grassroots immigration organizations. The architecture of the wall (or lack thereof) is only as good as the policy supporting it. This two-front approach could work by mitigating a terrible situation through design, while fighting for real structural change in the long term. These two fronts do not necessarily contradict one another.
Homelessness offers a similar conundrum. Do we simply refuse to design for the current crisis of homelessness because that implies that we are supporting the policies causing it? Can one believe in the right to full, dignified housing for all and still attempt to make clever (if often insulting) solutions that would allow the homeless to sleep under a roof, no matter how small or temporary? Is it possible to approach this issue with a two-front strategy of short-term design solutions, and a real, long-term advocacy for true affordable housing that allows every person access to a climate-controlled space with natural light and running water?
Mayor de Blasio’s recently approved zoning proposals should offer some relief for New Yorkers who feel increasingly excluded from the city. “Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning” and “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” are two zoning text amendments that aim to create or preserve some 200,000 units of affordable housing across the five boroughs. This law may not be perfect—it won’t radically transform the city into an egalitarian utopia overnight—but it can certainly get the ball rolling, as long as we continue to fight for more
affordability and public space.
At its core, architecture is complicit with all sorts of bad things: gentrification, reification of power, gaudy inequality, and even violence. Perhaps the way that architecture has the most impact is alleviating the worst political realities (on the first front), while also making the invisible visible to open up critique and (on the second front) help enact real policy change.