Introductions: Starting a new practice

I’m an M.Arch student at the University Technology Sydney. As part of our Prototyping Practice subject, my group and I are starting a social enterprise offering design-led solutions to social issues. We have chosen the issue of Domestic Violence as our pilot project.

This process has proven to be very, very difficult. What services and products are we exactly selling? Who are our fee-paying clients when we want to offer assistance to marginalised communities? What can we offer that social workers cannot? What if the most logical solution is not tied to a building or space? How can we design for this and still claim it to be ‘architecture?’ What role do we play in the solutions that we offer? Will we be merely consultants?

We are inundated by these sticky questions everyday and, 7-week in, are yet to be able to clearly articulate our answers. These are very difficult question that take time and a lot of research and introspection. Hence, I have created these Medium posts as a place for me to reflect upon the issues we have come across in the process. The thinking that might not make it to the latest iteration of the slick business plan or presentation slides, but nonetheless have influence on the decision making process and potential to be re-looked at for further interrogation. The opinions in these post might not reflect that of the whole group, hence, I will refrain from stating our company name until the business has further crystallized.

Why an Architecture-based Social Enterprise?

Firstly, we must ask ourselves, why are we really starting this business? It has to be honest and it has to be personal. It has to be self-serving. Anything less will be inauthentic and unsatisfactory.

To put it bluntly, I am an architecture student. I have invested many years of my life at an architecture school and am now at my final semester. I have put my career as an interior designer on hold so that I can study architecture because I found the interior design industry to be too materialistic. To be honest, there were many other things that I would liked to have studied if I were younger and did not have to worry about making a career. Architecture just seemed like a natural progression from interior design. However, I never had a flair for anything artistic visually. I had an aptitude in mathematics in high school that was not realized due undiagnosed ADHD. I like to think in abstractions, big concepts, systems and patterns, and connecting the dots between disparate parts. But I can also be overwhelmed and crushed by the weight of the web of links that I spin in my head. Therefore, I understand how it feels to be an underdog, an underachiever. I understand how the needs of some people can be under-represented by those in power. I understand the impact proper mental health diagnosis and treatment can have in improving people’s lives.

Honestly, I do not think there is a place for someone like me in the current architecture industry. I do not want to help create another multi-residential building promising sweeping view of the city but taken up by foreign investors. I do not want to help create another town center that touts to be a new community hub for city, but displaces an existing community to an obscure location, away from the support system they have built up for years.

People say it is not the duty of the architect to think of the social implications of their projects. They say our duty is to find a way to put together a building in the most cost-efficient and aesthetically pleasing manner to the client. After all, a client comes to us with a commission and pays us to see the commission through. But by agreeing to a commission, we are indirectly condoning what it represents. We have our name indelibly associated what we design. It’s values are propagated into the cultural consciousness through all the slick renderings and images that we produce. Is this the world we want to build?

I want to find a way to create place in the industry for people like me. People who are not caught by the trappings of what it means to be a successful architect, but genuinely want to do projects that would provide relief and representation to marginalised communities. A common quoted statistic is that 98% of the world’s population do not benefit from architectural design. Is the value of our 5+ years of architectural training so feeble, or is this a result of the way the industry is structured and how the role of the architect is defined?

At the end of the day, my reasons for starting an architecture-based social enterprise is very self-serving. It’s not just about wanting to help people. It’s about serving the imperative of wanting to put my architectural training into use by helping people. I refuse to believe that there is another way.