Social architecture has been appreciated and trivialized in equal parts for visualizing and valuing informal architecture, vernacular techniques, and a commitment to those who have been left behind in society.
“Architecture is a social act and the material theatre of human activity.”- Spiro Kostof
Social architecture has been appreciated and trivialized in equal parts for visualizing and valuing informal architecture, vernacular techniques, and a commitment to those who have been left behind in society. Known as the architecture that responds to the needs of people, the relevance of social architecture in reducing the margin between the haves and have nots has unceasingly been a topic of discussion and discontent in the architectural community. Debates on the social turn in architecture and planning in the last decade have increasingly turned to reflect on the disciplines’ contributions to current societal challenges, ways of generating social impact, improving the neighborhoods, and its potential for social inclusion and cohesion. Social-engaged buildings and design practices are being considered as the means to challenge the status quo.
Popular with new generations, the trend of social architecture, and overall focus on actions and processes rather than aesthetics, with increased participation of organizations and the local communities, has become crucial to the field of urban planning. Though currently, their major outcomes are buildings and smaller and temporary interventions in the urban spaces, the interest in this particular branch of architecture and design reached its peak when the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Biennale di Architettura was not given to a design project but a documentation of a squatter community in a half-built high-rise tower, the Torre David located in the city of Caracas, Venezuela. This trend has gained still more traction with the prestigious Turner Prize in 2015, one of the most prominent art prizes being awarded to Assemble, a London-based art and design collective for their Granby Four Streets project.
The neighborhood of Liverpool was in a state of neglect due to a series of failed regeneration policies which led to the formulation of a community land trust in the year 2011 to rehabilitate the locality. Hired by the community, Assemble worked with the residents to transform the dilapidated buildings into quality living spaces. The project involved the renovation of 10 houses and a series of empty shops with the creation of outdoor spaces and winter gardens, generating commerce by offering building jobs and training the local people. Furthermore, Assemble created a workshop selling homeware, designed in collaboration with the local artisans and craftspeople.
The selection of Alejandro Aravena’s Quinta Monroy Housing as the winner of the distinguished Pritzker Prize in 2016 epitomized the revival of socially engaged architecture. Located in Northern Chile, Aravena’s architectural practice, Elemental, was commissioned to provide almost 100 low-income housing units in the central Iquique area by the Chilean government. Completed in the year 2004, Elemental partially built 93 houses with the most fundamental infrastructure, allowing the families to move in right away, but also providing a framework for future expansions. Building better neighborhoods, housing, and urban infrastructure to promote societal development and overcome the circle of poverty and inequity of our cities along with a guaranteed incremental value and assured return on investment are the principles driving Elemental. Social housing should be viewed as an investment and not as an expense.
The social design has become a key ingredient in worldwide planning decisions, enhancing a sense of unity within the divided communities and promoting diversity in civil society, social initiatives, gathering as well as the inclusion of wider public. As Elemental provided the design framework for underprivileged residents to achieve homeownership, Superkilen, a creative collaboration between BIG Architects, Topotek1, and Superflex, constituted a rare fusion of urban architecture, landscape, and art. The half-mile-long urban space, wedged through one of the most ethnically diverse and socially challenged neighborhoods of Denmark, was conceived as a giant exhibition space, displaying a global collection of objects that come from 60 different nationalities of the people inhabiting the area. Each object is accompanied by its description- in both Danish and the language of its origin- inlaid on a stainless steel plate in the ground. A surreal collection of global urban culture, Superkilen is a world-class exhibition promoting diversity and social inclusion.
A local example of social architecture can be witnessed in the Delwara Community Toilet projects, undertaken by Vir Mueller Architects. Public sanitation facilities are essential for any country, yet, India severely lacks these basic amenities. A prototype for a community toilet was constructed in a rural area of Rajasthan, in concurrence with the citizens of the Delwara village. The proposal was to develop a locally built facility, emitting zero waste, and preventing groundwater contamination. Yet, the design is not just a simple toilet facility but has a bigger latent agenda of providing a congregational space for the community. The addition of an orchard serves as a meeting place for the villagers, and the proximity to the bust stop ensures usage of the toilet complex. Additionally, washing and laundry stations accompany the dry-composting toilet, thereby providing a collective solution to the age-old problems of sanitation and community living.
Designed for the masses, the aforementioned projects have advanced the concept of inclusive design to another level altogether. Undoubtedly, socially informed design thinking has entered the architectural and urban planning discourses and has simultaneously blurred the lines between formal and informal, private, and social. Social engagement, specifically of the marginalized and underprivileged classes is as prevalent now, if not more, as it was fifty years ago. Consequently, urban planning schemes have to factor in these masses and build for the people, by the people, and of the people.