Architects and planners are the torchbearers for social innovation and the designers of the future. Their scope of work extends far beyond the scale of buildings. Subjects such as community building, disaster mitigation, and societal cohesion have become extremely relevant to our field. Architects are beginning to focus on architecture as a means of social empowerment. It is no longer a matter of form only, but of what the projects enable. Architects and urban planners alike have realized the importance of socially-responsible architecture and planning. Over the past few decades, social architecture has gained momentum in the world. Important changes have been witnessed due to natural catastrophes, global warming, war, diseases, political crisis, and economic upheaval, all of which have had a significant impact on the way we inhabit the planet.
Innumerable architects have dedicated their time and effort to suffice the greater social, humanitarian, community, and civil needs. From the Pritzker winner, Alejandro Aravena’s democratic urban environments, to Shigeru Ban’s post-disaster housing design, the contribution of architects as creators of a better society and the propellers of a more socialist and less capitalist community is notable. But, is social architecture limited to mere block structures sans innovation? Can this distinct style be expanded to include ingenious planning, unconventional materials, and inventive designs? Can it provide a breath of relief to the underprivileged masses? Let us answer these intrusive questions with a few examples.
A multifunctional community center is designed on the Diamond Island, adjacent to the newly emerging center of Ho Chi Minh City. Eight large and small bamboo pavilions are scattered throughout the area, accessible not only for localites but foreign tourists as well. These structures are used for numerous purposes such as banquets, conferences, community events, and restaurants in the future.
Inspired by the traditional bamboo basket sheltering fowls, two large domes are created by skilled weavers locally. To construct an efficient structure, prefabricated structural units are assembled. The double-layered dome structures require no artificial lighting for daytime activities as a skylight and open periphery provide diffused light. Despite the integration of traditional construction methods, the project aims to reproduce not a vernacular, but a sustainable social architecture suited to the present and future needs.
The 8 House is an innovative approach to mixed-used social housing. Located in Copenhagen, this 61,000 square meters project consists of 476 units for different configurations, namely, single or family, young or old, rich or poor, growing, or shrinking families. The name of the complex is derived by the bow-tie and 8 shaped plan interspersed with commerce and communal facilities. Rather than a traditional block structure, the 8 House stacks all the ingredients of a lively urban neighborhood into horizontal layers, connected by a continuous promenade and cycling path up to the tenth floor. The three-dimensional urban neighborhood merges suburban life with the energy of a city, where business and housing co-exist.
The 8 House consists of two intimate interior courtyards, separated by a block of communal facilities. The apartments are stacked on the top, while the commercial activities unfold on the base. A continuous public path allows people to bike from the ground to the top, winding through an urban perimeter block. Two sloping green roofs are strategically placed to reduce the urban heat island effect and provide a visual identity to the project. Using size to its advantage, the project plays with heights, thereby creating a unique sense of community, with spectacular views toward the Copenhagen canal. 8 House is an example of architectural alchemy, the idea that the mixture of traditional ingredients, retail, row-housing, and apartments in untraditional ways, can create a valuable piece of community living.
The award-winning Izola social housing, for mine workers in Spain, is designed as two perpendicular blocks, complementing the surrounding countryside. The complex consists of 30 apartment blocks of variable sizes, from studio flats to 3-bedroom apartments, with no structural elements, providing flexibility and possibility of reorganization. A veranda is proposed for each apartment, giving intimate outdoor space, partly connected with the interior, shaded, and naturally ventilated. A textile shade protects the balconies, yet, allows the inhabitants to enjoy the views, due to its semi-transparency. Perforated side panels allow summer breeze to ventilate the space. The strong and vibrant play of colors creates a unique atmosphere within each apartment.
A 400-meter long elevated pedestrian pathway, in the heart of Rotterdam, is the world’s first piece of public infrastructure to be accomplished mostly through crowdfunding. This three-dimensional cityscape provides an evolutionary character to the city. Designed by ZUS architects, the Luchtsingel connects three major districts unifying several public spaces. By simply increasing accessibility for pedestrians, the 400-meter-long bridge ensures synergy between various commercial and cultural districts. The pedestrian footbridge is part of an overall plan for the city development which includes numerous interventions, all connected by this single route. The pathway is implemented along with a plethora of public-space projects, namely, the Schieblock, offices for young entrepreneurs, the Dakakker, urban rooftop farms, the Pompenburg Park, a vegetable garden and playground, and other projects. The social urban planning along with architectural interventions has made Rotterdam a green and livable city.
Socially informed design thinking in the architectural and urban planning discourses have had fruitful outcomes. They are evolving way beyond the stereotypical block structures, which had efficient planning and functionality, but were limited in aesthetical appeal and design innovation. Although this is just the beginning, social architecture has the ability to completely transform societies for the better.
“This most modern art discipline- social sculpture social architecture- will only reach fruition once every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism.” – Joseph Beuys