Architects take a great deal of pride in the fact that their profession is aimed at making the world a better place. Buildings are the molecules that make up communities, cities and society as a whole. A big part of architecture is problem solving, and good design can make an enormous impact on how individuals and groups of people work, live and interact together.
In addition, the practice has gone all-in on the issue of climate change, making sustainable design just a normal part of doing business. Reducing emissions, materials and waste are now a requirement of the projects architects work on, not just an afterthought.
In the same way, there is a growing recognition of the good that can come from design focused on people rather than just on economics and logistics. In the wake of the events of 2020, many firms are more dedicated than ever to the cause of equity and social justice. With the right intent and understanding, good architecture can raise up the lives of those it touches.
The concept is not new, even if it has become more front-of-mind in the past year. Sometimes referred to as humanitarian architecture, the idea is fairly broad but at its heart basically refers to architects using their skills to help at-risk people and communities. This may take the form of humanitarian work to build schools for impoverished villages around the world and it also may be retrofitting structures in inner-city neighborhoods here at home to create new services and opportunities for residents. Humanitarian architecture is working to address societal problems by rethinking our approach to the design of the built environment.
“Humanitarian architecture is the creation of a built environment that is centered on the needs of people. This positions the structure being built in a context greater than that of its walls and seeks to address other needs and quality of life,” explains Tya Winn, executive director of the Philadelphia-based non-profit Community Design Collaborative. “I believe architecture has to truly focus on health, safety and welfare and the context in which a project is situated. It must consider both the people and the global environment.”
The idea of designing first for the good of occupants seems like it would be obvious, but it does require a different kind of thinking. When planning a building, architects and the construction team must balance multiple—often competing—goals and requirements. Performance, aesthetics, sustainability and budget tend to fight for the front seat, and it’s easy to see how the needs of people and communities can get pushed to the side. It’s the way construction has always happened and doing it differently requires thought, effort and a paradigm shift.
“We [as architects] are trained to design within a certain system for certain people who can afford our services,” says Shalini Agrawal, director of Programs for Open Architecture Collaborative and co-director of Pathways to Equity, based in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., respectively. “But there are a host of communities and people who do not have the same level of access and yet would benefit from the availability of these problem-solving skills.”
“This mode of practice has always been compelling to people, but never had the same amount of attention. Whether one calls it humanitarian architecture, social impact design, people-centered, public interest or spatial justice, it is addressing the same thing,” Winn says. “The practitioners have always existed because the need has always been there, but it has been labeled as ‘non-traditional.’ I think the last year caused a reckoning, both in society and our field, so many will turn their attention to this kind of practice in the short term.”
Year of Change
While the nation and the world grappled with the challenges posed by COVID-19, as well as experienced a renewed rise of social justice and equality movements, the outlook of the architecture profession evolved. Adjusting to the pandemic has created a demand for rethinking spaces in healthier ways. And recognizing institutional inequality has likewise inspired many in the design community to help struggling communities.
“As long as we have had people and buildings, we have had forms of humanitarian architecture,” Winn says. “The very idea of this way of working is mostly about problem solving to support and improve the lives of those in need. One would think with all our technologies and changes in society, we would no longer have a need for humanitarian architecture.”
But challenges certainly do remain, as does the need for humanitarian architecture. The concept itself encompasses a spectrum of areas, ranging from helping communities in need all around the world to simply applying a more human-focused emphasis in the design of structures of all kinds. With the pandemic, many parts of that spectrum came together as efforts were made to adapt the function of buildings to better help and serve at-risk populations.
“All of our work is about forwarding projects important to the development of local neighborhoods, and some of our most recent work was responding to the pandemic,” Winn says. “The organization quickly pivoted to address issues non-profits and local businesses faced in trying to adjust to new regulations brought by COVID-19. Projects included new ways to serve customers or clients that kept people safe and distanced, signage and wayfinding to direct traffic to minimize virus spread, and ways to protect workers. One of the most exciting things we did this year was a design competition to look at outdoor learning spaces to transform underutilized schoolyards into outdoor classrooms. We used these lessons to create a guidebook for public use.”
PHOTOS: Pathways to Equity