Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism is a compilation of essays collected by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford to influence the architects of today to improve the daily lives of the general public. With activistic architecture only being on the cusp of practice, this book aims to take these core values from the margins to mainstream ideology. With the knowledge that designers have the opportunity to address critical issues of the world, 30 essays are collected from designers across all disciplines: architects, landscape architects, interior designers, graphic designers, etc. These 30 essays are divided into 8 understandable themes for architects to follow:

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Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism_©Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford.

30 Essays, 8 Categories

Social, Economic, and Environmental Design

Right at the beginning, four articles address the importance of the three-legged stool – social, economic, and environmental strategies – in successful activist architecture. Every project needs to be thought about from each lens to truly explore the role justice has in design. Without a social approach, a design becomes inhabitable; without an economic understanding, a project is unaffordable; and without considering the relationship to the environment, a building limits its longevity. To properly design sustainably, these articles prove that the person must come first, architects must focus on the now before the later, and nature can know no border.

Participatory Design

In addressing the social aspects of a project, the architect must understand the true needs of the community rather than the assumed ideals of society. Participatory design actively involves the local community in a project’s design process to ensure community needs are met. By integrating the community, they have greater awareness of the changes made and can assist in the further growth of their home.

A large barrier seen in participatory design lies in the ego of the architect. While the architect is educated in design, the community members know more about the culture of the place than the architect ever could. By working together, the public can honour the past while the architect helps in seeing the future to create a better place-centric design.

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Public Architecture_©Margot Lystra and Phoebe Schenker

Public-Interest Architecture

The cost of architects these days leads to poor design in low economic areas. Pro bono and nonprofit architecture is a way for firms to give back to the community that cannot afford their services but needs them all the more. If a firm cannot divest the time, partnering with other firms allows nonprofit work to become more manageable. These articles show that no matter how big or small the design, it makes an overwhelming difference.

Asset-Based Approaches

While architects are meant to be problem solvers, community-based architecture can seem like an unachievable practice. This section talks about reframing the needs of the people to the strengths of the whole. Rather than attempting to solve every problem, why not identify the possibilities a community possesses? By playing off strengths, architects become civil leaders in guiding a community toward prosperity.

Housing for the 98%

The world’s housing deficit is one of the largest areas architects can make an immediate impact for the community. With the high cost of projects, it is said that architects only design for about 2-5% of the entire population. “Housing for the 98%” has become a statement meant to stir the architect to dive into the untapped potential of housing.

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Site Visit_©Sheana Mitchell and Lisa Skiles

Prefabricated Affordability

Mobile and modular housing are two of these untapped opportunities. Unlike wealthy clients, the 98% needs efficient and expedient design work. With the invention of prefabrication, design can be rapidly produced with alteration opportunities and efficient construction time. By paying attention to user needs, architects can design affordable prefabricated housing options for the 98%.

Meshing with Market Forces

At this stage in the book, the essays have asked architects to become community-driven designers, environmental activists, and project developers. With all the roles an architect currently takes on, this is overwhelming. “Meshing with Market Forces” explains that, while this can seem daunting now, activist design takes a village. By getting the ball rolling on this type of work, architects can gain interest and evolve these projects to incorporate many disciplines in the future.

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Noji Commons Design Build_©Steve Badanes

The Transformative Power of Architectural Education

The practices discussed up to this point are imperative for architects to implement. Change must start somewhere, but what if it starts at the foundation of the profession: education? The current stereotype of an architectural degree is one of peer competition, challenge, and prestige. This practice has produced world-renowned architects in material exploration, building limitation, and spatial optimization. By shifting the culture from challenge-engrained tradition to a new collaborative paradigm, the next generation will be the activistic, community-driven architects the 98% is needing.

Many universities are shifting their practices towards design-build projects. In doing so, the school establishes a pro-bono-like studio culture. Peers push each other to produce their best work through collaboration and the knowledge that their work will actually be physically built. This work influences both the student and the community and has the potential to reshape the architectural ego.

Additional Reading

Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism is a fantastic place to start in a quest toward influential architecture. Additional books that might be of interest are listed below:

All-Inclusive Engagement in Architecture: Towards the Future of Social Change edited by Farhana Ferdous and Bryan Bell

Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity by Alfredo Brillembourg

Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses To Humanitarian Crisis by Architecture for Humanity


Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Architecture and Masters of Landscape Architecture, Margaret plans to use her dual education to bridge the gap between fields and break down barriers in design practice. With a love for knowledge, journalism provides her an opportunity to both learn and teach.