How did the architecture start?

Think Global, Build Social!
Contemporary architects are committed to society

Kibera Public Space Project, Nairobi

Architects have always maintained that with their buildings they can positively shape individual social groups or even lead them into a better social future through ideal city designs. As a rule, however, they have to fail to provide concrete proof that they are actually fulfilling this claim, because too many factors have an influence on social processes that lie outside the architecture. The opposite argument, however, that architecture can be a trigger for negative social developments, seems to be much easier to prove. Large housing estates, for example, are repeatedly blamed for the development of crime and loneliness, although it is usually political and not architectural decisions that lead to undesirable developments.

What social responsibility does architecture therefore have to be assigned? Today the industrialized countries are asking more and more questions about the ethical responsibility of their consumption. The production conditions of food are questioned (“which fish / which meat can we still eat?”), But also increasingly the origin and manufacture of clothing. For it is becoming increasingly clear that the prosperity and growth of developed countries are based on an imbalance in the living conditions on the part of those who manufacture these products. In the context of ever stronger global networking, the question of the social responsibility of architecture is moving into public discussion - for example in view of the exploitation of foreign workers in the construction of football stadiums in Qatar.

What relevance does architecture have for today's global society?

Architecture has long-term and profound effects on people, from its design and construction processes to the finished buildings and urban planning. Whether kindergarten or apartment, clinic or church, but also sports facilities, factories, squares: Buildings and their spaces shape individuals and entire groups of people, even where people do not enter these buildings, but they influence their daily living environment. Architecture therefore bears a great deal of responsibility for many areas of society. In the history of the 20th century, this responsibility was also addressed by the architects themselves. The second CIAM congress (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) in 1929 in Frankfurt was dedicated to Apartment for the subsistence level, i.e. the question of how architects were able to develop new and cost-effective solutions for the housing shortage at the time. And the Berlin urban planning officer Martin Wagner mobilized with the exhibition Sun, air and house for everyone the German architectural elite of the time in Berlin as early as 1932 to present proposals for the so-called “growing house” on a 1: 1 scale. This concept was intended to give low income groups well-designed and at the same time affordable apartments that were designed in such a way that they could be expanded and expanded in the future as earnings increased. A fundamental goal in modern architecture was not only to help individuals, but the idea of ​​a better, more peaceful society as a whole: "Architecture ou Révolution", as Le Corbusier put it in a polemical way in 1922, and of course the answer should be "Architecture" ring! The architects of the time were very much aware of responsibility. Accordingly, in 1929, as the second director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer described the role of the architect as follows: “As designers, we serve this community of people. what we do is service to the people. "

After the Second World War, this socially committed attitude is no longer found in the breadth of the profession. Only individual representatives such as Ralph Erskine, Aldo van Eyck, and Giancarlo De Carlo tried in the 1960s to keep the question of the responsibility of architecture alive in their theory and practice, but also in teaching. This was also to be understood as a reaction to the increasingly frozen stance of international modernism and its prominent representatives. Since postmodernism, from around 1980, architecture has increasingly turned to formal and theoretical discourses, that is to say to a self-referentiality without any concrete relation to society, and it is no coincidence that the term “star architect” was coined with this.

Materials and processes

Industrialized construction and the idea of ​​prefabrication were developed in early modern architecture with the intention of upgrading the precarious living conditions of lower income groups. Like the car, affordable housing should be accessible to everyone in the future. In socialist housing, this principle resulted in the system of prefabricated buildings, which were spread around the world. In the course of the 20th century, however, industrialized construction has moved further and further away from its original social idea and has become an economic power in its own right, displacing locally anchored technologies and traditions as it spreads. The global economic crisis of 2008 made it clear that economic speculation with the housing market has fatal consequences.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the commercially oriented and globally networked building market is shaping the new face of megacities such as São Paulo, Lagos, Mumbai and the countless fast-growing cities in China. In the shadow of this rapid urbanization, the so-called “informal settlements” are also growing faster and faster, i.e. the slums, favelas, townships. Architecture, as a planning discipline that also addresses local, cultural and social contexts, is losing more and more importance and public appreciation. Today, architects only plan and work on average for a very small percentage of the global population.

Where is the Common Ground?

International architecture exhibitions like the Biennale di Architettura in Venice are still an important hub for those ideas that drive contemporary architecture and move them publicly. However, if you look at the last Venice Biennale, it becomes obvious that architecture today is no longer able to position itself as a relevant influencing factor with concrete proposals in relation to the pressing issues of global society. Some exceptions are all the more obvious: For example, the architect Toyo Ito, who after the tsunami disaster of 2011 questioned the foundations of his own profession in the following year in the context of the Japanese pavilion, under the title Architecture. Possible here? Home-for-All; or the installation Gran horizons from urban think tank to the Torre David, an occupied skyscraper in Caracas. Such presentations made the responsibility of architecture for the whole of human society clear.

Small scale = big change?

The exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement (2010), presented contemporary architects who are seen as new representatives of socially committed architecture. Eleven specific projects from all regions of the world were shown, which at the time of the exhibition had either already been implemented or were already under construction. The exhibition was designed as a platform to encourage dialogue between the architects, who until then had been acting separately, and to strengthen their public awareness. With Small scale, big change Approaches to an architecture were presented that are based on comparable ethical values ​​and goals, but cannot be assigned to a specific political direction or architectural school. This also applies to the numerous other examples that have since been published through other exhibitions and publications. Unlike in early modern times, their aim is not to improve the living conditions of society in an entire country or an entire city, but to actually change spatially defined situations through architectural means and planning - regardless of political framework conditions. Compared to their historical models, these new approaches thus prove to be more pragmatic than programmatic.

Even if there is no common political background to which the various examples of socially committed architecture in the present can be related, at least two areas can be identified that form a common intersection. On the one hand, this is the clear focus on questions about the local and social context - and on the other hand, the simultaneous focus on global issues. A central example for the question of the local context is the search for the appropriate materials and construction methods. Here, for example, investigations into the tradition of earth building play an important role, which, as a millennia-old practice, lost its appreciation in the 20th century, although it offers many ecological and economic advantages, especially in underdeveloped countries. The Egyptian architect Hassan Fahty had clearly foreseen this around the middle of the 20th century. The current projects by Anna Heringer, Emilio Caravatti and Francis Kéré not only revitalize earth building with their buildings and link it with participatory processes, but also use high-quality architectural design to ensure that the use of this material is also valued again takes place on site. When such regionally anchored projects are awarded prizes by the renowned Aga Khan Foundation, it helps these often small companies to achieve global attention. In the local communities in which these structures were created, their own exemplary character is made visible again and a deeper identification (“ownership”) with the building is achieved. The success of such projects can be seen from the fact that they entail further buildings on site or in the neighborhood with the same architects. This is not about aid in individual cases, but about sustainable commitment that stimulates complex processes through the involvement of local craftsmen and the population. The so-called "Design-Build-Studios", which have been set up for years at many universities in industrialized countries to develop practical solutions with students, also create the basis for change on several levels: Many of these projects have specific follow-up projects and thus led to the formation of viable local networks or, as in the case of Rural Studio in Alabama, they have become permanent.

Numerous publications and exhibitions in the past few years have created a relaxed group from what had previously been a fairly manageable number of individually acting architects, who now meet quite often at conferences and can pass on their convictions on a larger scale through teaching positions. With the so-called Laufen Manifesto - Manifesto of a humane design culture these different positions have formulated a common program that defines common goals and principles, but remains open to the diversity of approaches. It is to be hoped that the next generation of architects will take up the already existing and hopeful approaches towards a new social responsibility. Architecture, as a spatial planning and spatial design discipline, has to develop new solutions for the whole population in view of the dramatic challenges posed by global urbanization processes. In doing so, it must itself take up the ethical claim inherent in its tasks, because only then can it prove its relevance for the society of the future.


Andres Lepik is professor at the chair for architectural history and curatorial practice at the Technical University of Munich and is also director of the TUM Architecture Museum.

This article is based on the article of the same name in: Think Global, Build Social!, Special edition and catalog for the exhibition of the same name by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt, and the Architekturzentrum Wien, ARCH +, Magazine for architecture and town planning, 211/212, 2013, pp. 4-10.

April 2016