Architecture is a reflection of various aspects of the human state of living. It encompasses our history, culture, growth, technological advances and social-economic capital to name a few. It is a representation of our needs, whims and our craving for community living. So, while architecture is a reflection of us as a society, how do we quantify and qualify the impact of architecture in our lives? This passage will explore the social impacts of architecture in our society while answering questions like, what could be defined as architecture, how the character of architecture signifies social status and if the current architectural trends signal a positive present and future.
What is Architecture?
One need not look further than ‘Form, Space and Order’(Ching, 2021) to understand the purpose and creation of architecture. In it, D.K. Ching asserts that architecture is a response to a set of conditions that are social, political and economic. While the preset conditions are the problem, architecture serves as the solution that is much more desirable (Ching, 2021, p.9). When we expand this definition we can understand that every typology of structure is a solution for our societal requirements. However, it could also mean that architecture is a vision of solutions for a new set of desirable conditions. This would not only require the eye of observation to understand a pre-existing issue, but it is also inevitable to have a creative mind to visualise a remedy of revolutionary nature. In other words, we create spaces for better habitation.
The Social Status of the Built Environment
While designing for various groups in our existing society, it is important to note what these groups possess so that the architect can gauge the scale, cost and characteristics of the space to be built. For instance, there is a significant difference in the materials, style and quality of work of an individual double story beach house while weighed in comparison to a beachside fishing settlement. However, while one of the above cases is considered as mainstream architecture that requires surveyors, contractors, planners and more essentially an architect or a designer handpicking furniture of elite international make, the other simply exists ingloriously unrecognized. The fishing settlement carries the weight of being extremely cost-efficient and sustainable (as it has to be reconstructed every time there is a cyclone). Here, there is a clear distinction in class, wealth and social status that is evident in the design of these structures.
The question that could be raised here is, could a fishing settlement be considered as a designed, planned architectural space?
Assuming that the answer is yes, who designs these structures and can they be referred to as designers and architects? This notion can seem radical and charged. But, since it is established that the very purpose of the practice of architecture is to create spaces for better living, it is essential to have an open mind to achieve visionary solutions. ‘Buildings without Architects’(May 2010, p. 45) lists the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai as an example of one of the most common vernacular buildings of our time. While the term vernacular architecture signifies a huge umbrella of various types and scales of buildings, the factor for its classification is the geographical context and as a result its cultural aspect. The key here is the cultural aspect. Holding this criterion as the base, the above-mentioned fishing settlement could be classified as vernacular in architectural language.
The follow-up questions will be, as architects, are we taught to design for fishing settlements? Are we encouraged to plan and design for nomadic indigenous peoples? Are our public spaces usable for socially under-represented groups? Should all public spaces be built with one type of material without any characteristics that denote the demographic of the geographical location?
A case study of Selma, in the USA, could be taken as an example to understand the social impact of architectural design and urban design. The white part of Selma in the west was populated with significant cultural and political structures in proximity with developed residentials, well laid and grid planned roads etc. The east part where mostly the black population resided, was connected to cotton markets with industrial and agricultural landscapes (Beardsley, 1998, p. 143). This is a classic case where technical skill and expertise is lent into creating spaces where wealth and power reside and as a result, under-represented and disenfranchised groups of people are sidelined and made to be invisible as their proximity to power is very far.
While these situations are all well known as common knowledge, it is scarcely that we see revolutionaries like Hasan Fathy, who pioneered in creating spaces for local inhabitants to have a better quality of life. In India, architects like Lauri Baker, Nari Gandhi and Charles Correa have already laid a pathway to innovating for a future where everyone has the access to expertise in architectural design while providing simple but effective solutions for low-cost living.
The need of the hour
One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure that cities and communities are sustainable. It states that by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will reside in cities(U.N.S., no date). This also indicates that there will be diverse groups of the population that seek urban life, and that the urban localities will enclose more and more varied cultural communities. Additionally, there is also an indication by the UN stats that increased urbanisation is resulting in increasing slum dwellers (U.N.S., no date).
These conditions call for a detailed study for a plan to incorporate these marginalized communities not merely as an intent to include them into the urban public spaces but to make these urban spaces belong to them in terms of architectural characteristics, functionality and representation. We need to invest in researching the existing under-represented, marginalized communities while incorporating members of these communities into the practising architectural workforce to reflect their needs and sensibilities.
“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.”
-Piet Hein, Danish Scientist, (Ching, 2021, p.9)
It is a time in history when the intent and functionality of designed spaces is increasingly democratised. There is an ethical need to cater to a population that has never looked this mixed and culturally diverse as today and these populations have various architectural characteristics and sensibilities. As a global architectural community, it should be our moral reckoning to recenter and revolutionise how we view the practice of architecture. It is essential today to ask, what we are building, who we are building it for and how we can build it better than today.
- Beardsley, J. (1998) “Race and Space,” Landscape Architecture Magazine, 6 June, pp. 142–143. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44670565 (Accessed: February 27, 2022).
- Ching, F.D. (2021) Architecture: Form, Space and Order. fourth. WordPress: IndianPDF, p. 9. Available at: https://indianpdf.com/architecture-form-space-and-order-pdf/ (Accessed: February 26, 2022).
- Division, U.N.S. (no date) — SDG Indicators. Available at: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/goal-11/ (Accessed: February 27, 2022).
- May, J. (2010) Buildings Without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture. Rizzoli International Publications.
List of Images
- Fig. 2 – Ghani, N. (2021) “Party By The Bay: Gather The Squad At These Beach Houses On ECR Across Budgets,” LBB, 10 March. Available at: https://lbb.in/chennai/Best-beach-houses-ecr-chennai/ (Accessed: March 1, 2022).
- Fig. 1 – Tejonmayam, U. (2018) “Chennai: Revenge of the sea shatters this shore,” Times Of India, 28 June. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/chennai-revenge-of-the-sea-shatters-this-shore/articleshow/64772912.cms (Accessed: March 1, 2022).
- Fig. 3 – Thorpe, H. (2018) “The first book on the philosophy and work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy,” Wallpaper*, 9 October. Available at: https://www.wallpaper.com/architecture/hassan-fathy-book-laurence-king (Accessed: March 1, 2022).
- Fig. 4 – Varma, R. (2016) “Architecture as an Agent of Change: Remembering Charles Correa, ‘India’s Greatest Architect,’” ArchDaily, 16 June. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/789384/architecture-as-agent-of-change-remembering-charles-correa-india (Accessed: March 1, 2022).