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Social architecture needs to become the norm

Zoë Cave

The growing faction of architecture working to prioritise human dignity sits in stark contrast with the market-led norm, argues RIBAJ Rising Star 2020 Zoë Cave

Recently someone shared photos on Twitter of a very everyday scene, sitting in the garden of their ex-council flat with their morning coffee. The caption celebrated the simplicity of this scene, thanking the late architect Ted Hollamby for the empathy and generosity with which he designed the space. For the majority of people, generous and empathetic design isn’t a feature of everyday life, but these are values that were once common priorities in architecture for the masses. Instead, with simultaneous crises worsening, we see the built environment compounding the associated state of suffering. 

While we point the finger at who we think might be behind this – individuals, a profession, ‘the system’ – there is a growing faction of architecture working to reduce suffering and prioritise human dignity. Practices and projects with this mission are championed as ‘social’ architecture; but how social is social architecture? How does it differentiate itself in thought and practice from a more generalist field? And does it matter either way? 

Balcony Credit: Zoë Cave

Whether self-identifying or not, social architecture is recognised in those working in areas such as social housing, eg Peter Barber, or community centres, eg RCKa; as well as organisations that tackle societal issues, flexing what constitutes architecture, combining design with alternative ownership and programming, such as The Foodhall. Equally, the term could apply to a collective that disrupts the patriarchal, individualistic and colonial role of 'The Architect' through their organisational structure and methodology, such as Matrix. There's a growing collection of practices sitting somewhere along this scale, but the general umbrella encompasses organisations that challenge a 'capital-intensive, client-dominant model' of architecture. 

This current trajectory of social architecture should be contextualised within the wider political-economic climate. Looking at iconic architecture procured by the state or corporations, Paul Jones claims to 'put architecture in its social place' by outlining its 'cultural political economy'. To crudely paraphrase, Jones says that architecture, by its more rigid and conservative definition, works with the state and corporations to produce the bits of our cities that dominant classes use to justify their domination. Diane Ghirado highlights that architects often distance themselves from this ‘hard’ economics of capitalist enterprise by forefronting the artistic and aesthetically meaningful aspects of architecture. 

This might feel like it’s creeping into bashing architects; it isn’t. Jones weaves architecture as a field of cultural production into the bigger web of ‘society’, showing how it becomes imbued with meaning, both professional and lay. He shows how everything produced by the field of architecture – media, events, exhibitions, buildings built, buildings not built, manifestos, marketing brochures – is cultural production. This cultural production can either be co-opted by or proactively take part in ‘socially embedding’ capitalism; celebrating it, normalising it. 

What Jones does, and what C Wright Mills coined ‘the sociological imagination’, is to pick an aspect of our social world that is so normal it is invisible and then deconstruct the processes by which this thing became ‘normal’. The promise is that by making even the most familiar features of our social world feel strange and, taking apart how they became  ‘normal’, they can be reconstructed in a new way, a less oppressive way, a more equitable way. 

Children leaning out of window.
Children leaning out of window. Credit: Zoë Cave

Architecture is part of the process to normalise relationships of power and socialise systems of capitalism. However, to many people the process of how architecture is created, maybe even the finished project itself, is often rendered invisible. This is why it is of sociological interest and why it should be more generally of societal interest. As Jeremy Till keenly conveys, there is never a situation where a building can be understood in abstraction. If people like Till and Jones provocate that all (iconic and everyday/non-iconic) architecture is social because profession, product and person are bound-up in society, then what is so social about social architecture? 

We should be inquisitive towards social architecture and not rest on our laurels that it is the way out of this. Critical as we may be, what we recognise as ‘social’, more often than not, does conjure a sense of ‘good’, of civicness and morality, of the non-commercial relationships that tie us together. These are our values. They are qualitative and difficult to measure, like empathy, generosity, care. They stand in stark contrast to the context of where objective rationality, market logic and quantitative value preside. When the logic of the market can be applied to everything, all objects, things and people are allocated a value, reducing everything to exchangeability. But, because values are hard to capture with rationalised language, they are seen as subjective, emotional and so, by binary default, superfluous. 

Washing line
Washing line Credit: Zoë Cave

Such an analysis of value and values has already been done on the privatising of the UK’s care industry. Although this is a very different industry in practice, the analysis is hugely useful when translated to the built environment. For instance, in our cities where every inch must generate profit, there is a constant drive to spawn value. This is viscerally felt in the loss of community and youth centres. Planning practice doesn’t have the vocabulary to defend places with no explicit instrumental value, planning can’t articulate the values of a place when it doesn’t fit within a measurement of value. Thus we’ve seen 750 youth centres close in the UK since 2010.

It would then seem that having a faction of architecture explicitly creating and defending places for values is vital. Yet, with the rise of ‘social’ economies, businesses try to address crises and social issues, but risk falling into the contradiction of making something explicitly ‘social’. By adding it as a hyphenated add-on, it is something to be opted in to and, in a political-economic context that favours efficiency and profit, it's also something to be opted out of. In a society where 72 people can die in their home because of flammable cladding, can we afford for this to be a choice?

Clarinet player
Clarinet player Credit: Zoë Cave

The reductive back and forth of whether ‘social’ should be bolted on to architecture or not can be quashed when reminded that the profession – and even the word ‘architect’ – doesn't exist in some countries. That’s not to say it isn’t needed. More that, given its uglier contingencies, the elitist hyper-capital-carbon-dependent version that has become normalised in places such as the UK, can no longer be an option. Once we’ve highlighted just how strange this version of architecture is – that to reduce suffering, a ‘social’ version is pulling together in the face of crises – maybe it can be reconstructed in a new way: a less oppressive way, a less carbon-intensive way, a more equitable way, where values take precedent. 

Zoë Cave is a sociologist working at Open City as head of projects and a RIBAJ Rising Star 2020Entry to the 2021 RIBAJ Rising Stars Award is open until 6th September 2021.


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