Activist architects: Designing social change

Architecture culture has changed, but challenges facing the 21st century city cannot be addressed by architects alone.

In Caracas, Venezuela, the architecture practice Urban-Think Tank lobbied the Chavez government into building a cable car up to the hillside barrio of San Agustin [AFP/Getty Images]

It is remarkable how the tone of architecture culture has changed in only a few years. In the heady days of the 2000s, architects were in furious competition to produce “iconic” buildings for a global market. Virtuosi such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster kept the media fed with fabulous images of museums and corporate headquarters, earning the moniker “starchitects”. But after the financial crash of 2008, it became clear that the social value of so much of that starchitecture was nil. And there was a correction, to borrow a stock market term, in the architect’s image.

Architecture schools such as the Angewandte in Vienna – once hotbeds of “parametric” shape-making – suddenly started opening departments of “social design”. This U-turn has been reflected in the media, which is now far more attuned to social architecture. Al Jazeera’s series Rebel Architects for example looks at the work of six practitioners who might be called “activist architects”. Activist architects often work in slums or disadvantaged communities, with minimal budgets and in conditions of desperate need. An obvious dialectic presents itself, but this is not a tale of starchitect versus activist. For in an ideal world neither of these characters would exist.

Both are products of neoliberalism. It is just that they operate at different extremes of the social spectrum: one serving capital and the other aiding those disenfranchised by it. Activists step in where the state has abdicated its responsibility and where the market sees too little profit. But given the scale of the problems facing cities as we speak, they have their work cut out.

Urban inequality is one of the great challenges of the century. Most urban growth is taking place in the developing world, and it is mostly not being supported by governments or facilitated by architects. Slum-dwellers build more housing every year than all of the governments and developers put together. UN Habitat estimates that by 2030 two billion people will be living in “informal” self-built communities. Without the necessary infrastructure – transport, running water and decent sanitation – we are looking at the proliferation of ghettos on a vast scale.

Can a handful of socially conscientious architects even begin to address that situation? No, this will require political will. But there are plenty of examples of architects prodding the politicians into action.

Latin America offers an unparalleled case study in how such strategies work, and how they came to be necessary. In the second half of the 20th century, South and Central America experienced mass urbanisation on a scale the world had not yet seen. Initially, governments turned to modernist planning and mass housing schemes. But they could not build megablocks fast enough, and in the late 1970s the neoliberal ideology trickling down from the United States persuaded them to let the market do its thing. By the end of the 1980s, the result of such laissez-faire policies was clear: an absolute explosion of slums.

It was not until the late 1990s that architects returned to the problem of the urban poor, reprising design as a tool of politics. Often, they had strategic solutions but needed to lobby the politicians to realise them – which is what makes them activist architects. One of the more famous of these interventions is the “half houses” designed by the Chilean practice Elemental in Chile. The premise here was ruthlessly logical: without enough money to build everyone in the community a house, the practice built everyone half a house. Thus when the residents had saved enough money they would expand into the empty gaps between the buildings. It was a pragmatic and participative solution.

But in the case of sprawling slums there are often far more urgent issues than housing. Transport is one of the essential tools for bridging the distance – both physical and psychological – between the formal and the informal city. In Caracas, the architecture practice Urban-Think Tank lobbied the Chavez government into building a cable car up to the hillside barrio of San Agustin. The journey to the top of that hill, which once took an hour on foot, now takes just 15 minutes.

This kind of architecture requires an expanded skill set – arguably, a whole new outlook. For one thing, architects working in poor communities have to be extroverts. They have to get to know the communities they want to work in, understand their needs and make them participants in the process.

However, in celebrating activist architects we must not lose site of one crucial issue: scale. The problems facing the 21st-century city are on a scale that cannot even begin to be addressed by architects on their own. Despite all the talk of “urban acupuncture” – the idea that small, local interventions can stimulate change – it needs to be implemented at a relevant scale. One school or gymnasium inserted in a barrio can make a difference to a community, but it takes a whole network of them to lift the character of a city.

This is best illustrated by what happened in Medellin, Colombia, in the first decade of this century. In the 1990s, at the mercy its warring drug cartels, Medellin was the murder capital of the world. Here, a civic movement led by the mayor used architecture and public space to transform the city. But it happened through the concerted efforts of politicians, architects and the business community, and it was backed up with investment in transport and education. Barrios that were once considered no-go zones were connected by cable cars, and seeded with schools, libraries and parks.

The lesson of Medellin is that it takes serious political will to address urban inequality. So often the privations suffered by the poor are infrastructural – they suffer more from the lack of transport or sanitation or education than they do from the quality of their homes. Architects can harness the energies of grassroots community building, but self-organisation has its limits – a community can build themselves homes but they cannot build themselves a transport network. Bottom-up impulses need to be connected to top-down infrastructural investment.

Though architects are well placed to be the mediators, they cannot merely operate as rogue loners or “rebels”. Nor can they be charity workers, doing bits of pro bono work on the side. This is as true in the developed world, which faces rather different urban challenges. One thinks of the millions of Americans who were evicted in the foreclosures that followed the crash, or the housing crisis in London, or the austerity-hit cities of southern Europe.

Again, it comes down to political commitment. Recall that in the 1950s the largest architecture practice in the world was not some corporate behemoth or starchitect’s office but the London County Council Architects’ Department, a public service full of talented but mostly anonymous architects building social housing and amenities. It turns out that the market simply cannot provide what the LCC once did, and, with the best will in the world, neither can activist architects. Yet they have a valuable role to play in reorienting the profession. They remind us that architecture is a social act and they provide the exemplars that prove to governments that change is within their grasp. In an ideal world activist architects would not have to exist but, since the world is far from ideal, we need them badly.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design critic of The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban-Think Tank. His book Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture is published by Verso.