Architects are trained to become ‘problem-solvers’ through innovative thinking which involves but is not limited to the intense study of human behavior, their needs, their comfort, and what appeals to them visually. We are indirectly taught how to address human issues and find proactive solutions using ‘design’ as a tool. This may suggest that architects are some of the best people equipped to deal with the challenges that face society today. At the grassroots level of every human conflict is the concept of inequality. So what is this ‘inequality’?
Inequality refers to an imbalance or bias between groups of people. This bias can exist due to gender disparity, social status, caste-system, racial or ethnic differences, and many other factors. But it does exist. Inequality exists in a variety of forms in our society. As a segment of this society that has the power to bring monumental change, architects and designers have to start thinking about how we can fill this inequality gap within our scope of expertise. Theoretically, technology creates equality but in practice, the story is very different.
Poverty is one of the hardest, global challenges that we face today. Homelessness, inadequate housing facilities, unhygienic living conditions are all social urges that concern architects. There is a gigantic void or gap between the living conditions of people in our society. There are glass veiled skyscrapers built next to congested slums, there are piles of unmanaged waste sitting on viable land and there are thousands of drifting vagrants on streets that are also linked with the mansions of wealthy homeowners. If this doesn’t convince you to rethink our contribution to the society, then maybe these numbers will help – According to an article in 2017 by Yale University, it was estimated that over 150 million people (or 2%) of the global population were homeless. Moreover, 1.6 billion people (or 20%) of the global population, lacked adequate housing. Another shocking figure that I discovered was that according to data collected by the United Nations, as of 2018, almost 736 million people lived below the international poverty line. These appalling statistics represent our failure as a society to accommodate every one of us.
When we are in architecture school, most of us are so fascinated by the glitz and glam of designing fancy malls and flamboyant residences that we often don’t pay attention to those parts of society that need our aptitude and skills the most. And even when some designers do contribute to the greater good, they are barely recognized and appreciated. From affordable housing to low-budget healthcare and educational facilities, we can do a lot more than we credit ourselves with.
We all want to change the face of modern design and architecture. But that change is simply not possible until we take into consideration the need for efficient social housing that will put a roof over the heads of every individual. Effective, sustainable, and intelligent design can bridge the inequality gap between living standards. From revolutionary construction technology to fresh and experimental design concepts, the skills we pick up in design school are like superpowers that can mitigate the housing shortage. When under-represented communities are not given a seat at the table, our designs become standardized only for the wealthy and privileged. But in architecture, one-size does not fit all. Designs have to be diversified to suit the requirements of its users. This means integrating their social character – catering to not only a physical shelter but a holistic design that significantly improves their overall quality of life.
Chilean architect and Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena is one such architect that advocates the importance of social impact projects like housing, public space, and transportation. He does so through his ‘do tank’ called ‘ELEMENTAL’ with projects in Chile, the USA, Mexico, China, and Switzerland. His group has also worked on disaster rehabilitation projects after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile.
CAPTION – Quinta Monroy Housing Project in Chile by Ar. Alejandro Aravena
Michael Murphy, the founder of ‘MASS Design Group’ is another architect that focuses primarily on public-interest design. In a life-changing TED Talk back in 2016, Michael Murphy described what he called the ‘Lo-Fab’ technique. It had four simple principles that he believed could change the way we construct and design buildings that can be site-specific, user-centric, environmentally, and economically feasible. These principles were – a) Hire locally, b) Source regionally, c) Train where you can and d) Invest in the dignity of the place you are designing at. In his TED Talk, he extensively talked about how architecture has the potential to do so much more and about buildings that can heal people. From healthcare to racial justice and gender gap, he believes architecture can have a profound impact on people.
CAPTION – Hospital in Butaro, designed by Ar. Michael Murphy
‘The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing and Real Estate’ was a research project on socioeconomic inequalities and their co-dependency with architecture and design, that was led by a team from The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture in 2015. The research project is an in-depth look at the inequality gap in housing, related to social disparities. It is an eye-opening text that tells how much we have neglected the needs of people based on their gender, ethnicity, income, and geographical location. We are nowhere even close to bridging this gap. The fight for equality in the built environment is an on-going and uncertain battle that only we as future designers and architects can tackle.
CAPTION – Social Inequality, as seen from the Sky
It is undeniable how emergent this topic is for us today. While there are people all around the world that feel passionately about society-based inclusive design, it is still not enough. Great architecture is not about extravagant and high-class buildings only to serve the majority. It is about utilizing modern resources to create something that alleviates the struggle of minorities.
Filling the inequality gap, simply means, how much are we willing to accommodate? How ready are we to put the needs of the entire community over the needs of the privileged communities?
So, can architecture and design fill the inequality gap in our society? The answer is yes, it can. But more importantly, will it? When? And how?