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 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, Peru, 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 FOURM Design Studio

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 other 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 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.

AIA 2013: Citizen Architect

Cameron Sinclair at the 2013 AIA National Convention in Denver © ArchDaily

“When you build a beautiful building, people love it. And the most sustainable building in the world is the one that’s loved.” – Cameron Sinclair, Co-founder of

Cameron Sinclair is a man who sustains his passion for helping improve the world, one project at a time, by tapping into the skilled enthusiasm of like-minded architects from all over the globe. Since the co-founding of his non-profit organization with Kate Stohr in 1999, Sinclair and his interdisciplinary teams of citizen architects have provided shelter for more than two million people worldwide.

Under his leadership, Architecture for Humanity’s infectious mantra has inspired thousands to join its cause every year, allowing the organization to expand at an unbelievable rate and become the exemplar of public interest design. Considering this, it is no surprise that Sinclair was selected to be the keynote speaker on day two of the 2013 AIA National Convention.

Keeping the momentum from yesterday’s inaugural speech, where TOMS founder shared his success story of “doing well by doing good,” Sinclair urged architects to hold close the true value of their profession.

Learn what Cameron Sinclair believes to be the ‘true value of architects’ after the break.

AIA 2013: Conscious Capitalism and the Future of Business

president Mickey Jacobs © ArchDaily

Thousands have flocked to the Mile High City in Colorado to attend the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2013 National Convention. The three-day event was enthusiastically kickstarted this morning by AIA president Mickey Jacobs who honored Architects with the 2013 Architecture Firm Award; highlighted this year’s theme of leadership; and featured words of advice from TOMS founder and chief shoe giver, Blake Mycoskie.

Learn TOMS Founder Mycoskie’s top advice for architects after the break. 

Portland State University’s School of Architecture launches Center for Public Interest Design

via State University

Portland State University’s School of Architecture has announced the launch of its new Center for Public Interest Design, a research center that aims to investigate and utilize the power of design to make social, economic and environmental change in disadvantaged communities worldwide. The Center is the first of its kind in the nation.

Make Your Summer Count with Global Architecture Brigades

While architecture students spend their summers strolling the streets, seeing the sights, and contently sketching, you could be getting your hands dirty, turning your designs into reality, and making a difference in a community that needs you.

Every summer, Global Architecture Brigades (GAB) activates student volunteers to work with a community in Honduras, helping them alleviate needs in health and education. The program isn’t a lesson in a charity; it’s a hands-on experience of the community-entrenched work of a designer of the 21st century.

Read more about Global Architecture Brigade’s work in Honduras, and how you can get involved, after the break…

SEEDoc: Nyanza Maternity Hospital / MASS Design Group

Since June, we’ve been reporting on the Design Corps and SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design)‘s, SEEDocs, a series of -documentaries that highlight the stories of award-winning public interest design projects. As each mini-doc has been an excellent, inspiring exploration of the challenges and benefits of community-oriented design, we are pleased (and not a little sad!) to announce that the final seed-doc has just been released.

This month’s mini-doc, probably the series’ best, focuses on the Nyanza Maternity Hospital, designed by MASS Design Group. MASS of course garnered much attention for their Butaro Hospital, also in Rwanda (for an interesting inside-look at the construction of Butaro, read this excellent article by MASS co-founder Marika Shiori-Clark). Should this hospital be funded and realized, it will no doubt make more headlines for the innovative public-interest design firm.

Read more about MASS Design Group’s lastest project in Rwanda, after the break…

Where Did All the Patrons Go?

The Statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center. Image © Jean-Cristophe Benoist

At the close of the 19th century, the funding of architecture was enriched by a new paradigm: that of the wealthy patron and philanthropist, who financed buildings through a sense of moral and social duty. This resulted in a number of grand public buildings, spanning cultural, educational and political institutions: the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Music Hall, a huge number of Carnegie Libraries and even the UN Headquarters would not have been possible without the generosity of these men.

Where are gifts like these today? Are there modern versions of people like Carnegie and Rockefeller? In the 21st century, an age of encroaching corporatism and “the one percent”, it might be easy to believe that this form of construction funding is dead. This interpretation, however, does not reflect the reality at all. In fact, the recent history of the ‘wealthy patron of architecture’ is more interesting than you might think, and is rooted in the lessons learned from the pioneers of the past century.

Discover more about the fate of the architecture patron after the break.