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Resource: Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism
Morgan Greenseth, 24 Dec 08


Throughout history, some architects have earned reputations as egoists who want to impose their ideals on culture through their massive structures. Industry masters are often viewed as untouchable, as few can afford their services. Not to mention, the majority of highest-profile buildings tend to be located in the urban environment, culturally and geographically removed from rural and agrarian communities, who often are equally in need of good design.

But the role of today's architect is changing. I recently read a collection of excellent accounts of architects and designers who are bridging those gaps, and becoming engaged citizens, in the book Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford. This visually rich book, (published by Metropolis) is an inspiring read for anyone, but its clear and instructive descriptions also make it a reference book of sorts for those interested in acting through architecture.

This book presents diverse examples of architectural projects directed towards the greater public good, in stories told from the perspectives of the architects. The stories aren't about the individuals themselves, but about their experiences. As they discuss projects that range from a public transit shelter in a disadvantaged neighborhood to new dwellings in a rural part of Taiwan, each designer describes the design process, challenges they faced and the proposed solutions. Some explain in first person; others speak along with their team as a whole; some speak more at a distance. Through stories told this way, we view the architects and the projects on a more personal level, rather than as typical textbook descriptions.

With detailed accounts of projects located both in the United States and abroad, the book shows how architects have met the needs of people in all types of development. One chapter described the Social, Economic and Environmental Design Network (SEED), a group that emerged from a meeting in 2005 at Harvard, where attendees discussed ways for architecture to help communities. One of their first efforts was in New Orleans, where they helped local residents by teaching them to build furniture from salvaged materials, thereby created jobs as well as the needed furniture. Their work became the Katrina Furniture Project. One of the designs, a church pew made from debris, was used in many of the rebuilt churches that had been destroyed.

Another group profiled in the book is Platforma 9.81 in Croatia. This creative group is all about reclaiming public spaces. They have "taken over" abandoned properties and created public events such as theatre openings and art shows. Platforma 9.81 re-envisions these structures, and sees how they can use them to add meaningful interaction and experience to their community.

Expanding Architecture is arranged into eight chapters of various topics that allow designers of all interests to relate. As a professional designer, I found it easy to be inspired by a project. What I found extremely helpful was that this book offered guidance on how to proceed with projects in a similar way to those described, showing me exactly how I could make a difference myself. The architects profiled discuss their processes step by step, telling what worked and the actions they took.

And the stories also discuss how designers overcame challenges mid-project. For example, during the Design Corps Summer Studio in Asheville, NC, the group's bus shelter design came to a halt when a police officer joined the discussion mid-project and opposed the location of the proposed site. By working with the policeman, the group was able to select a new site near a park with a stream, which turned out to be more beneficial to their project.

The actual design of the book facilitates its use as a valuable reference. Graphics, color-coded chapters, block quotes and overall organization combine to allow easy perusing, whether you enjoy reading from cover to cover or just flipping through.

Architects and designers are uniquely poised to help communities around the world solve pressing human problems such as the need for shelter, the need to rebuild in the face of natural disaster, and the need to craft a built environment that uses the Earth's resources sparingly and efficiently. It's wonderful to have a collection of stories that so strongly makes this point, by showing the broad array of projects that are already making a difference, and hopefully inspiring more like them in the future.

For those who have already read the book and want to discuss, and learn more, Metropolis Magazine is hosting Conversations on Design as Activism.

Morgan Greenseth is an interior designer living in Seattle. She currently designs hospitality and retail spaces, but is also focused on public spaces.

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If the next generation does not do better than my "Not So GREAT GREED GRAB Generation" of elders has done to protect Earth from reckless environmental degradation and resource dissipation, then I cannot even imagine what the future will look like for those who are alive 40 years from now. The "pale blue dot" may not be so beautiful a place to inhabit in 2050, I fear.

Our children will do better; but first they will need to understand that the patently unsustainable overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities which their elders so adamantly and relentlessly advocate will have to be forsaken....soon. Accepting human limits and Earth's limitations, and behaving accordingly, could be a goal worth achieving.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 25 Dec 08

Keep going, Morgan. Very best wishes for 2009.

Thanks for all you are doing to protect the environs from wanton, irreversible degradation and global biodiversity from massive extirpation; to preserve Earth's resources from relentless dissipation and the future of our children from reckless endangerment; to save "the pale blue dot" from the ravages of unbridled global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species in these early years of Century XXI.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 26 Dec 08

I wonder this "extreme" experinces can really helps to improve also our "normal" built environment! Best wishes and congratulation!

Posted by: Clara Masotti on 30 Jul 09

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