Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Monday, July 19, 2010
Friday, July 9, 2010
Bruce Nussbaum is right to point out the danger of 'humanitarian' design in his recent Fast Company Design post, and we thank him for pushing the dialogue, but he largely misses the point. His critique of humanitarian design is really a critique of aid. And that critique, recently churned through by Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid, is of the neo-imperial approach to humanitarian work and addresses the exhaustion about development and aid in general. Moyo's critique, like the crowd at Pilloton's talk, is that aid has largely failed to 'listen' to the needs of the local. This is William Easterly's critique of Jeff Sachs as well, which argues for the same solution: More on the ground, localized, culturally specific problem solving. We agree that this is imperative, but how can architecture offer a new solution to this common critique?
Cameron Sinclair's response is spot on. First he rejects the idea that humanitarian architecture and design is isolated to a few specific projects that fail to meet the mark, and second he critiques the talkers from the doers. It's easy, he seems to say, as writers and reporters to reject something as a failed project. But isn't it much harder to show how something is working well to create social impact than it is to reject it?
As much as anyone, Sinclair and Stohr are responsible for our current trend in design, rethinking the end-user, and advocating for a movement to change the hegemony of architecture. But it is not simply a trend any more, it is the zeitgeist in architecture. And if it is the zeitgeist, it takes hold in thousands ways, in thousands of places, all over the world and all at once. So what we need, instead of failed examples, are principles to help us articulate what succeeds in order to mold this movement into projects that empower.
We can begin with a few principles:
1. Industrial Design and Architectural Design are not the same thing.
Nussbaum's article commits the first sin in my opinion. Which is to interchange industrial design for architectural design. Industrial Design has the luxury to address one problem in one context. When it fails, it often can be traced to specific failings in the delivery system or that it didn't actually address the root problem. For architecture to be successful, it must weave together hundreds of thousands of problems, in difficult climates, with limited expertise. It requires local buy in AND top-down policy that is successful. And it costs exponentially more than what industrial design costs. This makes the stakes higher by far, and when it fails, it devastates. For us to rate architectural success, we must see the holistic picture, the complete impact, and to anticipate the years it will take to fully quantify the impact of a successful built environment. When industrial design fails, it simply grumbles away.
2. 'Humanitarian Architecture' IS Architecture
From this point forward, we must stop referring to architecture and humanitarian architecture as two different things. Principles of social value have always been a part of architecture and space-making, it just has been lying dormant under the weight of designers who’ve believed in artistry over impact, ego over articulation. With the new zeitgeist, architecture reclaims its dormant responsibilities to care for and consider the user, the underserved, and the appropriate.
3. Failure, success, and what's in between.
If good architecture is a matrix of hundreds of thousands of decisions, some projects will work well and some will miss the mark. Great buildings to date have been thought to hit all of the marks in terms of form, program, and space. But with architecture that considers its humanitarian impact, the metrics are much more complex and much more difficult to quantify. Bryan Bell at SEED has pushed the agenda to quantify social impact alongside environmental and economic solutions. We are indebted to him for leading this charge and being an architect of the zeitgeist.
But it makes me think that what is actually being asked here is Nussbaum's and Moyo's and Easterly's similar question: How can development and aid have a more quantifiable positive impact? Through our work with Partners in Health on the design and construction of the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda we have found that architecture provides a unique way in. We have learned from our Rwandan collaborators that capital “A" architecture is better understood as the physical manifestation of successful top down policies AND community-based design. Without both in place, you have buildings. These buildings may have some success and some failure, but they are not Architecture. With more advocates and practitioners of the zeitgeist seeking this new definition of capital “A” architecture, we will have an increasingly better understanding of policies, materials, and design innovations that are successful. We will understand what work results in the development of real solutions and where re-calibration is required, rather than dismissing its potential out of hand.
MASS Design Group, Executive Director