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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book Review: Where Are the Utopian Visionaries?

Where Are the Utopian Visionaries?: Architecture of Social Exchange edited by Hansy Better Barraza
Periscope Publishing, 2012
Paperback, 160 pages

With one of the most intriguing names of any recent architecture title, Where Are the Utopian Visionaries? asks architects to "consider the people routinely consigned to silence and invisibility in the design process." "Social exchange" is the important term that directs the reader's gaze beyond business-as-usual; away from architecture as an exchange of services and toward architecture as a process for and with (a particularly important consideration) people who could hardly afford to commission architects. Or to put it another way, as Barraza does in her introduction, this is the "polar opposite of [Ayn Rand's] hero, Howard Roark," from The Fountainhead. This book began its life in a 2004 symposium at the Rhode Island School of Design called Social XChange: Architects Committed to Social Change. In the ensuing eight years, changing attitudes within the architectural profession have become more pronounced, something that lends credence to the symposium's theme and the essays and projects collected in these pages.

Hansy Better Barraza, of Boston's Studio Luz Architects, has carefully edited contributions born of the symposium, yet she has opened it up to other contributions, most notably Michael Sorkin and Alberto Pérez-Gómez; the former brings his usual spiky candor to the prologue, pointing out one thing that is evident in the subsequent projects—that architects should bring their "A-games" to socially minded projects, not just those for wealthy clients—while the latter's call for poetry and criticality in addressing the important aspects of our humanity parallels Juhani Pallasmaa's numerous books and essays. These contributions bookend the solid mix of essays and projects that come respectively from a diverse array of historians and architects.

Some of the highlights include Jonathan Massey's "Five Ways to Change the World," some of which fall well outside the realm of architecture but which nevertheless have bearing on it; Mabel O. Wilson's "Not the Opposite of Forgetting," which uses Chris Marker's film Sans Soleil as a means of looking at two polar conditions: Las Vegas, Nevada, and Marial Bai, Sudan; Pablo Castro and Jennifer Lee's eight principles of an "Architettura Povera," inspired by the art movement of the 60s and 70s but what could also be coined "Humble Architecture"; and the essays and interviews on the architecture of Balkrishna Doshi and Simón Vélez, two fairly well-known architects who deserved to be studied and appreciated even more.

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