Redefining Architecture

When trying to field the questions from concerned acquaintances and prospective clients alike on how our emphasis on addressing social issues is related to our profession of Architecture, I find myself asking the question, “What does it mean to be an Architect?” If we cannot demonstrate how our architectural training gives us an advantage in dissecting and understanding social issues, we are practically painting ourselves into a corner.

Essentially, we would like to redefine what constitutes the practice of architecture through our social enterprise, eventually opening the doors for other architects to be able to contribute to social good without necessarily having to take on side projects on a pro bono basis.

Many believe that the job of an Architect is designing buildings, and making them pretty at that. We believe that buildings are the physical structures where human interaction is mediated, and thus, have the power to enable and restrict our ways of living. At architecture school we are trained to consider the activities that goes into to projects we design, and how the act of placing one activity in close proximity to another can mutually enhance one another. There are also associated costs and resource-saving benefits of not having to build separate facilities when they can be shared in a efficient manner among many.

MASS Design Group’s Maternity Waiting Village in Malawi is an example of a facility that has been conceived as a solution to a social issue- maternal and infant mortality. A cause of this problem was the lengthy times expectant mothers in rural areas had to commute to hospitals, forcing many to give birth at home in substandard conditions. The facility offers the mothers a place to stay near the hospital from the 36th week of their pregnancy. While the idea of maternity waiting homes have been around since the 1960s, MASS’s approach replaced the standard provision of a big open ward with clusters of 4-bed units around small courtyards, recreating the village-like feel to which the women are accustomed while improving ventilation and sanitation.

MASS Design’s Christian Benimana proclaims that “Architects don’t just design and build buildings. We think about systems. How do we take the inherited natural architecture and change it into the built environment? That’s the mission of architects.”

Systems Mapping

In our practice, we are in the process of developing a methodology of diagrammatically mapping out the system of all parties affecting and affected by a social issue. We will look at an issue through the eyes of the afflicted and identify the places one might go to on a daily basis and the places one goes to to seek help. We then evaluate the efficiency of the system to identify where services can be co-located and opportunities for interventions in new locations. The image below shows the work-in-progress of our systems mapping for domestic violence. Reflections on the development of our methodology will be the topic of a future post.

Hard and Soft Architecture

With regards to the nature of our ‘solutions’ and how they can be considered as ‘architecture’ if they do not involve a design of a building, I would like to propose the usage of the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ architecture. This is somehow analogous to terms ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ in IT.

Incidentally, Rem Koolhaas observed that “ [t]he words and ideas of architecture, once the official language of space, no longer seem capable of describing this proliferation of new conditions. But even as its utility is questioned in the real world, architectural language survives, its repertoire of concepts and metaphors resurrected to create clarity and definition in new, unfamiliar domains (think chatrooms, Web sites, and firewalls).”

Perhaps its time for us to turn the tables around and start taking words from the IT industry, especially with regards to the usage of the word ‘architecture’ to mean “ a conceptual model of components in a system and the design of how these components work together.”

So if we think of ‘hard architecture’ like ‘hardware’, it means we design a building or space.

If we think of ‘soft architecture’ like ‘software’, it means a we design a way with which facilities already available in a locality can work together to address a social issue. This draws back to our training in architecture school in investigating how putting multiple activities together can create new outcomes. A simple example for domestic violence could be that there is a strong correlation between licensed liquor outlet density and incidences of violence. Our question then becomes how we can leverage licensed liquor outlets to promote awareness and services available for the problem.

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