Following decades of ongoing socio-cultural and economic crises across the globe, the design community has realized that it is time to “design like they give a damn”. And with that, they embraced a movement that saw architects and designers use their acquired skills to develop design-based solutions to humanitarian crises, ranging from building modular housing and mapping landscapes, to developing mobile applications and documentaries, all from an altruistic standpoint. But since pro bono work is not yet ingrained in the ethos of architecture, how have architects broken out of the traditional model of “corporate” architecture and established a way to ensure ethical responsibility for human welfare?
One of the greatest humanitarian challenges that the world faces today is providing permanent shelter for all mankind. For refugees, being evicted from their homes automatically instigates concerns of finding a safe and stable shelter to rest, eat, and sleep. Unfortunately, many find themselves sleeping in tents, parking lots, abandoned buildings, or on the floor of their relatives if they are lucky, which even then, they are still not safe. In 2016, clashes between police and migrants took place in the French city Calais after authorities dismantled parts of the refugee camp known as the Jungle, demolishing the homes of 200 people living in that camp and leaving them displaced yet again, but this time by their host government. For those who are not homeless because of war, they find themselves displaced and without permanent shelter due to overpriced housing schemes and unfair living conditions.
The shortcoming of governments created opportunities for architects to achieve impactful solutions. Years of architectural training, along with the anthropological mindset and design thinking strategies have created innovative approaches that meet the needs of the community and respond to specific cultural and economic contexts.
For decades, individuals and organizations have been putting an effort into improving human welfare, whether it being in the fields of educational, health, or human rights. Architecture firms, both small and well established, have found ways to contribute to the community through the built environment, whether it be building schools and camps from the ground up, or aiding in renovating existing ones, pro bono. After a fire destroyed parts of Camp Lakota’s structure in Greater Los Angeles, Perkins+Will built a 9,000-square-foot dining hall and 36 insulated A-frame cabins free of charge with the aim of supporting the Girl Scouts’ mission of empowering girls and young women. Skid Row Housing Trust constructed three apartment buildings that offer permanent housing to formerly homeless citizens. OMA designed the master plan of the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality, a museum space in an old palm oil plantation in Congo. Locals are able to generate income from selling local-made art to international buyers, and then buying back the plantations once owned by international corporations to transform them into sites for ecological farming. The project “supports a more egalitarian art economy where value produced by Congolese laborers is retained in the community, rather than being channeled through international corporations into an art market beyond the local labors’ reach”.
In 2010, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) published “guidelines” for pro bono work to systemize the process, and then partnered with social impact design movement Public Architecture a year later to further promote it across practices. The latter established a program that provides the necessary knowledge to use the design of the built environment as a tool for the “public good” by acting as a matchmaker between nonprofit organizations and pro bono design practices.
To further reflect on the topic of design and its impact on the social sector, organizations, foundations, and design firms have put together initiatives that present solutions that inspire action, such as IDEO’s "Design Thinking for the Social Sector” and Change By Design. Architectures of Displacement brought together experts in forced displacement, archeology, and architecture to evaluate the overall experience and living conditions of shelters in the Middle East and Europe. The project focused on four main aims: to record and categorize the different emergency accommodations of forced migration, to evaluate the socio-cultural and legal impact of these shelters, to produce detailed imagery of them through essays and film, and to present successful policies and designs of emergency shelters through discussions with humanitarian and governmental agencies.
In terms of legal and political processes, Forensic Architecture was founded to investigate cases of corporate or human rights violations and environmental demolitions across the globe, and present them as study cases for future projects. Using digital and physical models, animation, cartography, and VR, the team uses the generated media to locate, analyze, and potentially reconstruct areas that have been subject to violent events. As a response to the global refugee crisis, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition titled “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter in 2016, which showcases solutions put together by organizations and design firms. One of the projects on display was Better Shelter, a collaboration between IKEA and the United Nations Human Rights Council that provides modular shelters made from an adjustable frame and tarpaulin sheets for refugee camps across Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Other action plans focused on bringing people together through talks to discuss innovative ideas and solutions on the role of architecture in designing a more sustainable future, such as in RIBA + VitrA’s fourth Architects Beyond Architecture talk, which featured four award-winning experts that looked at architecture beyond its traditional boundaries to develop socially-oriented projects. The speakers included Emmy nominee Mark E Breeze, architect-turned-filmmaker known for his upcoming feature Shelter without Shelter, a six-part documentary that investigates how forced migrants from Syria were sheltered across Europe and the Middle East, Kishan San, architectural researcher at Forensic Architecture, Lindsay Bremner, research architect who focuses on "human-more-than-human entanglements", and Chris Hildrey, an award-winning architect and developer of ProxyAddress, and initiative that tackles systemic issues faced by homeless individuals.
The question of how to build “great” yet effective architecture remains on the table. Although “public interest architects” have pushed the boundaries of the discipline and embraced a new set of responsibilities working not only as designers, but as policymakers and planners that create a “ripple effect” within the community, their impact is not yet extensive. Many justify the lack of pro bono projects as a shortage of funding from architecture committees or syndicates, if there are any. Others explain that architecture is a practice that requires several external factors, notably construction material. So while the design services can be provided without compensation, the actual construction of the project is where the funding is needed, especially if it’s a small or newly-established firm. And with that, architecture’s reality remains ambiguous; have architects lost touch with those who benefit the most from what they have to offer or have they prioritized the approval of their precedents over serving the community?
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Architecture Without Buildings. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.