- Design is a Social Act: Most architectural designs inherently address social issues intentionally or not.
- Design Matters: Architecture has positive and negative impacts on people and communities.
- Design Cannot Solve Social Problems: On its own architecture cannot eliminate structural problems in society.
This may sounds pessimistic, and is certainly not what architecture students or professionals want to hear. Since the 19th century, when engineers and contractors threatened encroachment on their claim to primacy in building design, the architectural profession has distinguished itself by its ability to integrate artistic creativity and technical knowledge with a broad sense of social and environmental responsibilities. Much of the early modernist movement was based on the ideal that design could solve social problems. The failures of Utopian visions and experimental theories in the 1960s, which backfired either because of inherent flaws or poor execution due to the structural constraints of the society at the time, led post-structuralist architect theorists to throw off the idea that architects have any social responsibility in design at all. In recent years the pendulum seems to be swinging back to a very idealistic social mission for architecture.
While I embrace and want to further the sense of social responsibility and sensitivity of architects, it is just as important to temper the dangerously self-righteous sense of heroism, the mistaken belief that design alone can solve problems like poverty or injustice. Socially sensitive architectural design can solve physical problems that have social consequences, like improving poor quality housing or unsafe streets. Design may also be able to mitigate the symptoms or experiences of problems like segregation, crime, stigma, or disinvestment by altering the patterns of the built environment or changing its perception visually. But design cannot solve economic decline, poverty, racism, or discrimination; these problems are structural, defined by our fears, beliefs, values, policies, economic practices and laws.
Understanding the limits of what design can achieve need not discourage young idealistic designers who want to make change. It only challenges them to understand the true causes of the problems they are addressing and look for long-term solutions that combine design with structural reform rather than quick formal fixes. I would challenge the next generation of designers to fight for reform in the built environment and to take risks: making bold proposals for change that acknowledge of the complexity of issues while challenging the status quo.