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Monday, March 09, 2009

Book Review: Expanding Architecture

Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford
Metropolis Books, 2008
Paperback, 288 pages

Through the act of building...marginalized people can come back into the community and reassert their role, their position, their political right. - Sergio Palleroni
This quote is found in the last of 30 essays on architects and architecture devoted to a broader public not typically considered in the profession and in schools: the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the individuals, families and organizations not affected by architecture and its upper-class private clients and exclusive institutions. By the time the reader confronts these words by Palleroni, one of the founders of the BaSiC Initiative, there is little doubt in his or her mind that something is at fault with a profession limited in its scope but apparently unlimited in its talent and impact.

The reasons for this misalignment run deep, from public funding and design education to the media's continued emphasis on photogenic designs for rich clients. Much has to do with how the term "the public" is defined, if it excludes certain groups or if it embraces all walks of life. In many cases, which way the pendulum swings is a matter of who wields the power, who makes the decisions and who defines the public in a certain manner. So in a collection focusing on the designer's role in "architecture for the other 98%," an incomplete picture is painted. Regardless, it should be acknowledged that design work for marginalized populations is not usually a money-making operation, it is done with strong intentions to help those excluded from consideration. Surely commendation must be given to designers willing to reverse a deeply-rooted trend, but more importantly it is the lessons learned from architects dealing with these sorts of projects that is of value, spreading their experience to others not sure how to take that leap into activist design.

The collection of essays is generously illustrated throughout, but one does not find the contrived photography found in most architectural publications. These are projects -- built, unbuilt and in various stages of realization -- that don't try to become eye candy. Beauty is not the goal, let's say, but the outcome of carefully considered design. Some designs are striking and fairly avant-garde but the majority are comfortable not attracting attention to themselves. What this means is that the focus of the book and the contributors is process over product. Without ignoring the importance of the latter, the design process is where the change is found, mainly in the dealings with clients, contractors and communities involved. One of the lasting statements in the book actually calls for overhauling architectural education, an almost impossible task that might be aided by calls for sustainability in the profession.

Editors Bell and Wakeford (founder/director and designer/editor at Design Corps, respectively) have assembled a varied group that cover the spectrum on the subject at hand, grouping essays into eight categories: social/economic/environmental design, participatory design, public-interest architecture, asset-based approaches, housing for the 98%, prefab affordability, market forces, architectural education. Like any categorization, overlap occurs and placement is sometimes questionable, but the broad direction of each contribution is apparent. The collection is an excellent starting point for architects and other designers hoping to use their skills for a greater public good, especially at a time when that public is growing larger due to the economic recession. And as more architects find themselves in unemployment lines and are able to devote themselves to pro bono work and other ways of contributing, the time might just be right for design activism to be more than just a marginalized piece of the profession.

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