In recent years, the architecture world has seen a significant surge of interest in socially-conscious design; from sustainability to social housing, and from public space to disaster relief, architecture is beginning to take on some of the biggest humanitarian challenges of our era. But despite its popularity, public-interest design is still only a fringe activity in architecture, either bolted on to existing design or only practiced by a select group of people. In this short article originally published by Metropolis Magazine, Metropolis Editor-in-Chief Susan Szenasy makes the case that rather than working on the periphery, "the drive to improve living conditions for all life should be at the center of contemporary architecture and design."
On a bright April weekend, a group of committed, passionate, accomplished designers and their collaborators from the Americas and elsewhere gathered in downtown Detroit to speak about socially responsible design. It was the 15th annual Structures for Inclusion conference. The convener, Bryan Bell, is the architect behind the nonprofit organization Design Corps, and the spirit behind the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) rating program.
What better place to connect on the issues of social responsibility than in this once prosperous, beautiful city of creative people—the home of the American auto industry and Motown. But the heyday of those eras was a time when investment in cities, their people, and community was still part of our ethos. Then came outsourcing, disinvestment, abandonment, and decay. Here, in this slowly reviving place that put “urban farming” into our consciousness—hundreds of abandoned buildings were torn down to make way for subsistence farming—there are signs of new life. But there’s a lot to be done, as one local audience member pointed out. If you “go to Martin Luther King and Third,” he said, you still find “a fourth-world place.”
Over the weekend, we listened to the inspiring stories of many real-world projects—from Rio to Oklahoma, Mexico to Rwanda. We heard about a new master’s degree in public-interest design and design/build programs in architecture schools that address local community needs while researching building materials and process.
A potentially far-reaching development, announced at last year’s Greenbuild to little fanfare, is the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) adding social consciousness to its LEED rating system through SEED, thus putting humanity into sustainable design. This is good. But let’s keep asking ourselves: Why do we need to segregate social consciousness as a marginal practice in architecture? Why can’t architecture everywhere put human beings (in all our poor and rich conditions) and the environment that supports every life, at the center of all design?