How Architecture Sans Frontières Improves the Built Environment With Everything But Buildings

Change by Design 2010 in Salvador, Brazil (click image to see the workshop report). Image Courtesy of ASF-UK

In a development that shocked many in the architecture world, on the 19th of January Architecture for Humanity - arguably the world’s leading architectural charity – was reported to have gone bankrupt, closing their San Francisco headquarters. By itself, this news was attention-grabbing enough, but in the aftermath two interesting things happened: firstly, many started to wonder what would become of the organization’s many local chapters in the US and beyond; secondly, some writers began to uncover small but long-standing disagreements about how the central organization had courted publicity – managing director of ’s New York chapter Rachel Starobinsky, for example, was quoted by FastCo Design saying that “visibility always went to the disaster relief projects that headquarters was working on” and that “the chapters were not really highlighted or valued as much as they could have been.” All of a sudden many people – this writer included - were talking about the importance of both creating strong networks and of sharing information to the creation of a strong humanitarian design outfit.

None of these ideas, though, would have been new to the members of Architecture Sans Frontières. Though it was founded a full two decades earlier than Architecture for Humanity, beginning in France in 1979, ASF has never really shared the public profile of some of its contemporaries. There are reasons for this – a lack of desire to actively court attention chief among them – but none of them have anything to do with ASF’s ability to do good in the world.

Defensive Architecture Creates Unlivable Cities

"Anti-homeless" spikes installed in Manchester. Image © Christopher Thomond via the Guardian

To many, the harsh turns the modern city has taken are not apparent. We see benches and bus stops that masquerade as shelters, but Guardian writer Alex Andreou’s sudden plunge into homelessness opened his eyes to the hostile realities of these and structures. In “Anti-Homeless spikes: ‘Sleeping rough opened my eyes to the city’s barbed cruelty’,” he sheds some light on misconceptions about homelessness and explains the unfortunate trend of designing unlivable architecture to deter those affected.

From pavement sprinklers to concrete sidewalk spikes, the modern city is littered with defensive techniques, discouraging the homeless from habitation and encouraging instead an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality to make spaces more comfortable for others. However Andreou argues that the dehumanizing effects of these harsh gestures affect everyone, acting as physical manifestations of society’s intolerance and making public spaces that bit less welcoming for us all – homeless or not. Read the full article, here.

Pro Bono Architecture and Designing for the Public Interest

New Carver Apartments / Michael Maltzan Architecture. Image © Iwan Baan via

Speaking of the public image of the architect, Stephanie Garlock laments that it is often akin to “Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark— arrogant, individualistic, and committed to the genius of artistic vision above all.” In a feature piece for the March/April edition of Harvard Magazine, Garlock explores the potential for architects to affect wider social change and move “[b]eyond ‘Design for Design’s Sake’.”

From John Peterson’s pro-bono architecture nonprofit Public Architecture to Michael Murphy’s MASS Design Group (MASS shorthand for Model of Architecture Serving Society), the article examines the ways in which the line between “architect as artist” and “architect as social actor” can be eroded. Providing commentary on the “traditional mode of corporate architecture,” Garlock reiterates the importance of designing for the public interest and a cross-disciplinary approach that incorporates professionals in proximal fields of planning, landscape architecture, and . Read the full article here.

Co-Housing Movement Sweeps through Europe

R50 – Cohousing / ifau und Jesko Fezer + HEIDE & VON BECKERATH. Image © Andrew Alberts

In the Spanish suburb of Alfafar, conditions were looking grim as economic hardships plunged over 40% of its residents into unemployment and left significant portions of its housing vacant. In response, a group of young architects have developed a co-housing plan for the area to accommodate its shifting needs, enabling residents to exchange and share space as needed. Using the existing buildings as the framework, the line between public and private will evolve over time with changing conditions, following in the footsteps of  European countries that have successfully employed similar undertakings. Read more about Alfafar’s co-housing plan, here.

Design Like You Give a Damn: The Legacy of Architecture for Humanity

Collège Mixte Le Bon Berger. Image Courtesy of Architecture for Humanity

In the introduction to Architecture for Humanity’s 2006 book Design Like You Give a Damn, founder Cameron Sinclair recounts a story from the early days of the organization. Half-joking yet deadly serious, he describes the day when, while still running Architecture for Humanity from a single cell phone around his day job at Gensler, he was contacted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who told him that Architecture for Humanity was on a list of organizations that might be able to help a potential refugee crisis in Afghanistan should the US retaliate in the wake of September 11.

“I hope it’s a long list,” says Sinclair. “No,” comes the answer.

“We’d like to think it was because we had already become a voice for humanitarian design – an unexpected touchstone in the movement for socially conscious architecture,” writes Sinclair of the incident. “The sad truth is that until 1999, when our fledgling organization got started along with a handful of others, there was no easily identifiable design resource for shelter after disaster.”

Now, after their sudden and rather unceremonious demise, Architecture for Humanity has left architecture a very different world from the one it entered almost sixteen years ago.

Six Public-Interest Design Projects Honored with 2015 SEED Awards

Studio H Collaborative. Image Courtesy of Design Corps

The 2015 winners of the annual Social Economic Environment Design (SEED) Awards for Excellence in have been announced. The international competition celebrates designs which excel in these realms, and strive to create manageable sustainable impacts. The winning projects, selected by a jury, will receive $1000, as well as attendance to the annual Structures for Inclusion conference in Detroit, Michigan in April.

The six winning projects each encompass the ideals of community outreach, socio-economic improvement, and environmental awareness in the context of their unique locations. Though the designs are distinct, the values they embody are universal.

Read more about the winning designs after the break.

Spotlight South Africa: Three Designs Instilling Dignity & Defeating Stigma

Mamelodi Pod, a home and temporary soccer club with solar electricity and rain water harvesting. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change

How do you undo centuries of inequality? How do you overturn an inequality so ingrained in a culture that it manifests itself physically - in the architecture of its homes and in the misshapen nature of its cities? 

This is the question post-apartheid South Africa has been struggling to answer for the past twenty years. And while the government has made many concerted efforts, for far too many the situation has remained largely the same. 

However, there are currents of change afoot. Many who have been marginalized are now working to defeat the stigma and legitimize their communities, and they are enlisting architects to the fray. From an organization in Capetown that aims to transform the role of the South African designer, to another in Johannesburg that uses design to legitimize informal architecture, to a project in one of the most violent townships in that has transformed a community, the following three projects are making a difference for the users who have the most to gain from their designs and design-thinking. All three represent not only the power of design to defeat stigma and instill dignity, but also the power of communities to incite these projects, make them their own, and enable them to thrive.

Classic Architecture with a Social Agenda (1960-Today)

Rural Studio: Hale County Animal Shelter. Image © Timothy Hursley

“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]         

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.

The Winners of the 2014 SEED Awards for Excellence in Public Interest Design

Six public-interest design projects have been announced as this year’s winners of the International SEED Awards, held by the SEED NetworkDesign Corps, and Parsons The New School for Design. According to the jury, these six are those which most creatively and successfullyaddress the pressing social, economic, and environmental issues of our world today.

See the six SEED Award winning projects, after the break…

Six Projects Selected as Public Interest Design Global Award Winners

Butaro Doctor’s Housing. Image © Iwan Baan

Six projects have been announced as the Public Interest Design Global Project Winners, an award organized by the Ecole Spécial d’Architecture, Design Corps and the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network. The award is given to projects which exemplify design for communities with the aim of improving lives, and the winners will be presented at a two-day event in Paris on April 18th-19th 2014.

Read on for descriptions of the six winners after the break

Yale First-Years’ Latest New Haven House Complete

Courtesy of 2013 Instagram

Most architects have to wait years to see their first project realized – but if you’re an architecture student at Yale University, you may just have to get on campus.

The Jim Vlock Project, established in 1967, gives first year graduate architecture students the opportunity to design and build a single family home in New Haven, Connecticut. The most recent iteration of the program, which investigated prefab design and construction, will be dedicated today at Yale University.

More info on this year’s Jim Vlock house, after the break…

2014 SEED Award Call for Entries

Design Corps and the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network announce the Call for Entries in the fourth annual for Excellence in Public Interest Design competition. Recognizing excellence in social, economic and environmental design, the Awards represent the confluence of forces needed to create truly sustainable projects and change in the world.

Deadline for applications is Tuesday, November 12, 2013 by 11:59 p.m. EST. Winners will be announced January 22, 2014. For application details and guidelines, go to www.designcorps.org/awards.

More information after the break.

Making Space Resonate: Incorporating Sound Into Public-Interest Design

The syn chron space by Carsten Nicolai. Image Courtesy of artcentron.com

“The modern architect is designing for the deaf.” Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer makes a valid point. [1] The topic of is practically non-existent in modern architectural discourse. Why? We, as architects, think in terms of form and space; we balance scientific understanding and artistic vision. The problem is, we have a tendency to give ample thought to objects rather than processes and systems. Essentially, our field is ocular-centric by nature. So how do we start to “see” sound? And more importantly, how do we use it to promote health, safety and well-being?

Public Space Popping Up in London’s Suburbs

A Mobile town square designed for Cricklewood, by Studio Harto and Studio Kieren Jones. Image Courtesy of http://cricklewoodtownsquare.com/

Cricklewood, a North suburb devoid of public space, is finding a new lease of life through a series of pop-up interventions - including a mobile town square designed by Studio Hato and Studio Kieren Jones - put together by civic design agency Spacemakers. While the project might have a bit further to go before any benefits are truly felt by the local residents, the project is part of a wider scheme financed by the Mayor’s Outer London Fund which will hopefully lead to the rejuvenation of more of the capital’s suburbs. Read Liam O’Brien’s full article in The Independent here.

Criticizing Gentrification: The Ultimate Hypocrisy?

Image via Flickr. Image © Abbey Hambright

This article in the Atlantic Cities summarizes the work of John Joe Schlichtman, an urbanist who has set out to analyze the “elephant sitting in the academic corner” when it comes to contemporary urban theory: that many (middle-class) urbanists who criticize gentrification are themselves some of the worst culprits. Schlichtman wants to encourage urbanists “to locate themselves within their own literature” – you can read the full article here.

VIDEO: 40 Years On, The Lessons of PREVI

The students of the MSArch in Landscape and Urbanism program at Woodbury University in San Diego have shared this video on Proyecto Experimental de Vivienda (PREVI): a late 1960s social housing experiment in Lima, , which, backed by the Peruvian government and the UN, involved the best social housing architects of the day.

The designs, part of the later, more humanist strain of modernism, were intended to allow families – who were used to holding complete control over the construction of their own homes – to appropriate the houses. However, they were also designed to imply how future construction might prevent the proliferation of chaos present in previous slums. The video asks how residents feel about their experimental homes today, questioning the success of this design strategy, 40 years after the project’s completion.

Find out more about the outcome of the PREVI experiment, after the break…

Restorative Justice: An Interview with Deanna VanBuren

The Mediation Womb, a space “for restorative justice and peacemaking as a holistic model for change,” designed by FORUM Design Studio. Image Courtesy of

We’ve recently covered the topic of prison design on a number of occasions – more specifically the work of Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility, led by Raphael Sperry. ADPSR is campaigning to have the AIA forbid its members from designing prisons; however, we have previously questioned the effectiveness of this tactic, with professionals, such as engineers, often willing to design prisons in the absence of architects. In another article on the topic, we suggested that the problem lies not with the ethics of architects, but with the US prison system itself.

This raised the question of how architects might actually change the system – are we stuck with the political landscape we are given, or are we capable of leveraging our expertise to make positive changes to society?

It turns out that Deanna VanBuren of FOURM Design Studio is doing exactly that. Through her designs, as well as workshops and events with the public and with prisoners, VanBuren is championing restorative justice: a form of incarceration centered around rehabilitation rather than punishment. We interviewed VanBuren to find out how she is encouraging people to accept restorative justice above punishment.

Read on after the break for the full interview.

Yale Abandons, Re-locates Vlock Building Project

Courtesy of Yale Building Project

Every year, students at Yale design and build a single-family home in a low-income neighborhood. Called the Vlock Building Project, it’s one of the longest-standing and most admired public-interest design-build programs in the US. Unfortunately, it’s under threat. A/N reports professor Paul Brouard was assaulted and robbed on-site in Mid-May (he has since recovered). Despite the desires of dept. head Robert A.M. Stern, Yale University demanded the project be abandoned and re-located to an approved neighborhood. Did Yale make the right decision? Let us know what you think after the break.