Bridging the Paradox of Humanitarian Architecture

I will be presenting a paper at the Death + Life of Social Factors (A Conference Reexamining Behavioral and Cultural Research in Environmental Design) at the College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley, on April 29th at 5:00pm. If you are in the bay area you should come by! The paper will expand the abstract written below.

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Bridging the Paradox of Humanitarian Architecture

The architecture field and discipline rarely question architecture’s social mission. In May 2010 Bruce Nussbaum published an article on his Businessweek blog titled: “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism.” Nussbaum’s argument uncovers humanitarian designers failed expectations to improve life in poor countries, rooting his analysis in work by Emily Pilloton and MIT’s Media Lab, Pentagram, and Continuum, questioning whether these designers are collaborating with the correct partners, or in a deeper sense, whether this humanitarianism is imperialistic.

What followed Nussbaum’s publication was a period of intense online publication and blog responses, creating the broadest public debate ever on the social effects of humanitarian design. A number of standpoints were developed, both denouncing Nussbaum, by Architecture For Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair who claimed the truth is “in the details” that Nussbaum missed, while other’s enhanced the debate, from Niti Bahn advocating for more “humble” and “respectful” design and Maria Popova outlining a linguistic flaw and need for teams of interdisciplinary study as “the cultural glue between design and its social implementation — anthropologists, scientists, educators, writers.”

The discussion of architecture’s social mission has also entered high culture on a scale the discipline has not received in thirty years. Currently at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, is an exhibit called “Small Change, Big Scale, New Architecture’s of Social Engagement,” exposing the broader public to the contemporary movement in humanitarian design.

A deeper methodological critique is necessary that interrogates the newly emerging humanitarian design, applied processes (design-build), and approaches to environmental sustainability—to determine the architecture profession’s methodological insights and weaknesses, to establish where partnerships are necessary or where new skills are needed.

Through ethnographic fieldwork research gathered during months of participant observation of Architecture for Humanity, the Rural Studio, the Alley Flat Initiative, and others, which also bridged the gap between various communities involved (designers, clients, communities)—the intertwining of theory, current discourse, and empirical data, sheds light on the imperial tendencies of architecture, in and out of its humanitarian sector. The theoretical framework integrates classical sociological theory from the Chicago School of sociology and the Frankfurt School of critical theory, with 20th century modernist social vision (and their idealistic pedagogical model, Bauhaus), with the last 30 years of bridging the gap between sociology/philosophy and architecture: Robert Gutman, Dana Cuff, Gerry Stevens, Paul Jones, Heike Delitz, and Christopher Illies. Enhancing the popular debate with academic interdisciplinary inquiry will force the profession and the academy of architecture to confront its imperial cultural construction and empowering of the dominant classes.


Architecture for the Underserved

"Architecture for the Underserved" is an ethnographic film on design-build architecture programs around the United States that I documented during 8 months of participant observation fieldwork on the Rural Studio of Auburn University in Alabama, the Alley Flat Initiative of the University of Texas, Studio 804 of the University of Kansas and others (as part of my undergraduate sociology thesis at Marlboro College, Vermont).

Architecture for the Underserved from Kenton Card on Vimeo.

The video was edited with Douglas Adams and a team of transcribers. The film would not have been possible without the open doors of the architects, students, clients, and community members.

Following the traditions of sociological mosaic by the Chicago school of sociology and of Walter Benjamin's belief in constructing history as montage, I believe such a collection of interviews and observations can present an alternative glimpse into the process where "I needn't say anything. Merely show."