Architecture — the bedrock with which livable, sustainable communities can be built upon.

The great divide in our cities. Dharavi in Mumbai, India is the country’s largest slum area. Source: Johnny Miller via businessinsider.com

On her insightful TedTalk, urban theorist, social innovator and architect Liz Ogbu posited: Why I’m an architect that designs for social impact, not buildings. Ogbu, an alumna of Harvard University, introduced herself as an architect who does not design buildings. For the layman, this might be rather puzzling, as most of us are familiar with the standard definition of architecture and what architects do. But she went on to expound how architecture, in another way, can be employed to build opportunities for impact. But what exactly did she mean by that? Can architecture actually pave the way for providing an avenue to tackle the deeply entrenched problems hounding our cities and communities? She carried on to explain how the traditional meaning of architecture is shifting and evolving into a more collaborative approach, where solving a particular problem that is rooted on the concept of space, becomes democratized and open-sourced — meaning to say, no single individual has the answer to the problem at hand. In the process, the role of the architect is being redefined, as he becomes a mediator between the contrasting poles of ideation and translation.

The Architectural Design Process. Source: mhai.com/design-phases/

The pressure of global urbanization has left many developing cities hanging by a thread, leading to environmental deterioration, inhospitable living conditions, and poorly built settlements for those who are scraping the bottom of the barrel. In the the poorly-serviced slums in the port city of Iquique, Chile, the long-term dearth of homes make it hard for the slum dwellers to survive, but their impoverished way of life offered insights into how intuitive, unsophisticated design has helped them overcome homelessness. Elemental, a Chile-based design studio led by Alejandro Aravena, designed and constructed semi-finished houses called as ‘half as good houses’ for around 100 families on a shoestring construction budget. Doing away with regular housing development scheme, the innovative design studio utilized the concept of incremental construction, and created a social housing that is accessible and affordable to its actual recipients.

Designed by Aravena, the half-finished houses were meant for hundreds of poor Chilean families.

His socially-minded opuses and advocacy towards the underprivileged , landed him the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture in the year 2016. Sending shock waves within and without the architectural circles, as former laureates seemed to have belonged to an elite group of architectural practitioners who pander to well-heeled clientele, Aravena was finally able to carve a niche for architecture that brings social impact to the grassroots people.

Being trained as an architect, I lament the fact that I did not fully learn early on the magnitude and significance of architecture as a powerful tool that can empower the excluded, and sustain the global path towards a shared prosperity. Looking back, I felt that the education I received did not give much emphasis on the role of architecture in creating sustainable habitats that promote equitable societies. This realization only unraveled later on in my practice as a young professional and as an engaged volunteer, when opportunities and vulnerabilities presented themselves in various forms and in different circumstances. Emerging schools of thought such as public interest design, design thinking, humanitarian architecture, and social impact design, among others, bring to the fore the potency of architecture as a key to overcome the long-drawn-out infirmities hounding our society. Established and emerging practitioners can still have their skin in the game. New breed of young, hopeful architects have a good head on their shoulders — they can easily buy into this cause and carry on with this crucial work.

Architecture has many facets. It can be both celebratory and prosaic, relatable and haughty, beneficial and detrimental, empowering and excluding. Depending on how we wield the pencil and draw the lines, if we lack the sensitivity to be aware of the motivations and experiences of the users we design for, and if we disregard the delicate conditions of a particular site and its immediate environment, we can perpetuate the long-standing issues that keep people from achieving their potentials and communities from flourishing. We then become complicit to the wicked problems that entangle our cities and communities into a downward spiral.

Both Ogbu and Aravena, transcending the established expanses of design and pushing the envelope of innovation, made a clear case about architecture: that it is deeply transformative. Diving deep into the topic of development, I have come to realize that architecture can advance social justice, inclusive society, innovation, and sustainable development. Design — its power to weave narratives of struggle into meaningful products that create experiences— can bring about positive transformation needed in these tenuous times.

Liz Ogbu. Source: re-thinkingthefuture.com
Alejandro Aravena. Source: architecturalrecord.com

In our today’s world where many conflicts still remain to be fought and won, architecture is but a revolution. Architects, planners and designers must reflect on the pressing challenges and urgent work of our time, and put to better use our resources, expertise and sense of collectivism as we build livable, sustainable communities on a solid, unshakable foundation.

Rodelon Ramos is a Filipino architect/urban practitioner. He likes to write about public interest design & social impact architecture.