“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% 
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.
1. Giancarlo de Carlo / 1960s / Participation and Process
“Contemporary architecture must do everything possible to make architecture less and less the the representation of its designers and more and more the representation of its users.” – Giancarlo de Carlo, Melbourne, 1971
As one of the founding members of Team X, Giancarlo de Carlo was a fierce critic of the placelessness, mindless zoning and repetitiveness of Modern architecture at the beginning of the twentieth century. For De Carlo, architecture was inherently linked to politics and required the inclusion of the user in the process – long before “community architecture” was a popular concept. His lecture and article entitled “Architecture's Public,” along with his long running journal Spazio e Società (Space and Society), disseminated his views to contemporaries and future generations.
When De Carlo was commissioned in 1969 to design social housing for workers of a steel company at Villaggio Matteotti, he seized the opportunity to enact his inclusive approach to architectural practice. De Carlo insisted that steel workers be engaged in the design process for Villaggio Matteotti; meetings were held during the workday and members of management were not allowed to attend. Workers were compensated for their time.
Linear pedestrian paths and terraces organize bands of housing. Five basic unit types aggregate in varied compositions, providing setbacks and overhangs for exterior space and privacy. The overall composition was not decided ahead of time, but emerged over the course of the project.
Another project, planning work for the Italian town of Rimini, furthered his commitment to participation. Each fortnight citizens were invited to share their concerns about the city. A key tenet was the introduction of a light rail system in the historic center that would eliminate cars. Additionally, he proposed a “self-build” scenario for the poor that was never realized, where future inhabitants were to take part in the construction.
2. Nader Khalili / 1960s / Resource Constraints as a Catalyst for Innovation
Whether it be a remote villiage in Iran or the moon, Nader Khalili belived the key to housing people in extremely resource-limited environments lay just beneath them. An Iranian-American educator, architect, and author, Khalili developed earthen construction systems that can be deployed in emergencies or by families to build their own shelters.
Khalili developed two systems (Suberadobe and Ceramic Houses) that exploit the ubiquitous prescence, thermal mass, and sustainability of earth as a building material. Both consist of a process that can be adapted to local resources and climate or even extraterrestrial settings. For Superadobe structures, long tubular bags are filled with earth and a stabilizer (asphalt, lime, or cement) and then coiled to create one or an aggregation of corbelled domes. Layers are joined with barbed wire, which provides seismic resistance, and plastered over if the structure is intended to be permanent. The Ceramic House system involves firing an earth mixture, leading to increased durability and water resistance.
His built architectural projects include prototype homes for a planned community of 5,000 in New Cuyama, California, a partially realized community intended for 20,000 in Isfahan, and the Middle East headquarters of Dupont/Polyacryl. Khalili taught at SCI-Arc from 1983-2008.
3. Yale First Year Building / 1967-present / Student Engagement
Yale’s First Year Building Project was the first of its kind, institutionalizing the engagement of architecture students in the design and construction of small scale projects for underserved communities. At the time it was a largely unprecedented departure from the traditional architecture school modeled on the École des Beaux Arts.
Connecting a student interest in design-build projects with the restlessness of sixties' society to find relevance through social activism, the program kicked off in 1967. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson had declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” and the launch of programs such as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) focused attention on alleviating the US’s internal problems.
A range of projects including community centers, affordable housing and pavilions have been constructed annually for more than forty years. Some projects endure while others were demolished after a few years. Ample publicity led to the creation of similar programs at other universities such as Studio 804 at the University of Kansas and the Howard S. Wright Neighborhood Design Build/Studio at the University of Washington.
4. Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio / 1993-present / Community Based Design, Innovation and Empowerment
“Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul, … architects should lead in procuring social and environmental change” - Samuel Mockbee
Founded by Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, Rural Studio projects bring design and material innovation to charitable works. As part of the Auburn University architecture program, students collaborate on the design and construction of housing and community facilities in Hale County, Alabama.
Salvages or recycled materials are the studio’s trademark: 72,000 surplus carpet tiles for walls of a home, worn out tires for chapel walls, a glazed roof of tiled Chevy windshields. In many projects, local vernacular melds effortlessly with contemporary design.
The program continued on after Mockbee passed away in 2001.
This list is far from comprehensive: who are other early pioneers that improved lives through designing the built environment?
(1) Paul Polak, Design for the 90%, pg 19
4. Giancarlo De Carlom Benedict Zucchi. Butterworth Architecture, Oxford. 1992
5. Hayes, Richard W. The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 2007