“There’s an incredibly interesting possibility that a building project, once completed, will change the society that built it. It’s the idea that a building – a work of architecture could directly catalyze a transformation such that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place. The building changes them.”
Architecture is inherently a social act, and in most cases, political by nature. The idea might seem peculiar but look around and you will find out that there isn't much that positions, patterns, links and divides us and influences how we perceive, interact, and move in the surroundings more profoundly than the built environment that we inhabit.
Design has the ability to influence our moods, emotions, and at times, our behavior. For instance, a well-designed public space can promote opportunities for social and community interactions; while a poorly designed building can create feelings of discomfort for its occupants.
Spatial planning had been used as a tool in the past to enforce systems of hierarchies by creating barriers between different socioeconomic groups. The unequal distribution of resources and opportunities resulted in the unequal distribution of quality architecture, giving rise to marginalized and neglected neighborhoods that prevails in the urban fabric.
Throughout history, design has served as a means to control, and exercise power, and as an act of influencing the masses. From Pyramids to the Parthenon, palaces to towering skylines, buildings are the outcomes of the values they represent. The Finnish Embassy in Washington, a box-shaped structure built of glass, granite, and copper, represents how Finland should be perceived as modern, high-tech, and well-crafted. Not that glass should always be associated with modernity, but the point is that buildings communicate stories about our past, present, and who we want to become.
The Autopoiesis theory by Patrick Schumaechar states that “Buildings, and the spaces within, between, and around them, are specialized communications that frame all other social communications." Therefore, architecture can be perceived as not just the outcome but also the driver of new systems of communication.
The role of politics, power, authority, and democracy are inextricably linked with architecture. Architecture, thus, has the potential to reinforce or challenge existing systems, be a tool for promoting new value systems or perpetuate the old. It can be used to achieve social and political objectives. Either way, buildings are not innocent. They create an impact on society larger than we could imagine.
With this consciousness in mind, Social architecture, an interdisciplinary approach seeks to influence society through design. It was popularised in the 1970s by Christopher Alexander when it gained traction in the field of architecture, urban design, and software development. It is a philosophy that recognizes architects' duty in consciously building the society for the masses of people as social beings, as opposed to architecture concerned with form and style presumably for the dominant members of society. It draws on knowledge from the intersection of architecture, urban design, psychology, sociology, and other related pedagogies. It realises that architecture is beyond designing buildings that are functional and aesthetically pleasing. It has the potential to achieve specific goals that can bring about change, foster a sense of community, and enhance the quality of life for all members of society. Social Architecture can also be called a form of creative activism wherein the architect assumes the role of a social worker by translating social goals into a tangible built environment.
This could be achieved by understanding the role architecture plays in fostering social issues, carefully considering the cultural, economic, and political context of the built environment, collaborating with communities to understand their needs and desires, and other such pluralistic methods to get the desired design outcome.
Involvement of the community in the design processes ensures that the spaces reflect the needs and wants of the people who will use them and foster a sense of identity and belonging.
On a global scale, architects and designers are emerging with strategic designs for humanitarian crises, ranging from temporary shelters, affordable housing schemes, participatory planning techniques, creation of public plazas and parks, and neighborhood revitalization projects, to developing mobile applications, software, and documentaries, all from an altruistic point of view.
With the country's rapidly urbanizing population, widening social and economic disparities, and increased demand for livable, sustainable, and inclusive cities, architects and designers now have a responsibility greater than ever before. The necessity to embrace the social architecture movement is critical in the current scenario, with the design community bearing the responsibility to “design like they do give a damn” on their shoulders and demonstrate how architecture can make a difference.
Written by Akanksha Sirsat
Book: ‘The Political Unconscious of Architecture: Reopening Jameson’s Narrative’ Edited by Nadir Lahiji
Research Paper: The Autopoiesis of Architecture – Extracts: Communication, Societal Function, Semiology by Patrik Schumacher