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Classic Architecture with a Social Agenda (1960-Today)

“Ninety-five percent of the world’s designers focus all of their efforts on developing products and services for the richest 10% of the world’s customers.”  - Paul Polak, Design for the 90% [1]         

Rural Studio: Hale County Animal Shelter. Image © Timothy Hursley © Matteo Brancali © Adam Hopfner, Yale School of Architecture via

The vast majority of contemporary architectural practice today is service industry based, where a fee-paying client commissions a firm for a defined scope of services. Master of self-effacing cynicism Philip Johnson wryly accepted this structure, calling architects “high-class whores.” The recent surge of interest in designing for traditionally underserved communities, from groups such as Architecture for Humanity, MASS Design, Project H and Public Architecture challenges the traditional firm model. The Prizker Prize jury’s recognition of Shigeru Ban’s humanitarian designs highlights that high design and a socially conscious practice are not mutually exclusive.

Believing that architecture can alleviate societal ills and improve the quality of life for all people is not a new concept. Two eras, the 1920s and 1960s-70s, brought a social agenda to the forefront of the discourse. Hindsight reveals flaws of each. Modernism’s utopian visions for public housing and urban renewal are blamed for the detrimental impact of Post-WWII urban housing projects; participatory design in the 1960s and 70s is criticized for ceding expertise in the name of consensus, ending with projects that were no better than the status quo. Despite this, there are lessons to be learned from those who emphasized the social and humanitarian role of architecture.

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