I recently read an article by the Urban Think-Tank (UTT) called "SOUTHERN EXPOSURES" in an old archithese magazine from March 2010 that advocates for "social responsibility in architecture and architectural education."
UTT develops a critique of mainstream architecture education. They even critique progressive programs that attempt to serve poor communities, arguing that they are entrenched in and in service of their western institutions. "Rather than incubating or interchanging ideas the schools have become places of passing on pre-packaged formats of intellectual and cultural supremacy; a lack of true interchange and unwillingness to cross bridging cultural divides and difference are the result." UTT reiterates Bruce Nussbaum’s question: Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?
UTT’s analysis of architectural education recreating cultural supremacy is similar to the architectural sociology of Garry Stevens. Stevens has a website at the Key Center for Architectural Sociology and the book The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. Stevens applies Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural economy to architecture. "For almost the entirety of its history, the field of architecture has relied on the transmission of symbolic capital through chains of master and pupils, webs of personal contacts, to reproduce itself." (The Favored Circle, 168) The architects of today directly transfer power to the architects of tomorrow. Culture justifies itself. As Stevens goes on, this system, or in Bourdieu’s language – habitus – becomes “a form of generalized embodied cultural capital, a ‘cultivated’ disposition." (187) What is the problem? The classroom becomes an agency of domination as a system “to preserve the existing social structure." (189)
UTT exposes that this self-justifying logic is being applied in "the export of northern hemisphere ideas ... a form of neo-colonialism." UTT’s own projects bring students into the context to ask questions and to raise consciousness of informal urbanism because an "open design framework can accept cultural, social, and ideological differences."
UTT confronts architectural practices in a fundamental way. They advocate for architects not to emphasize form, but to emphasize process. The architect should not justify an architectural form through statistical analysis. Architects must get involved in the community. Then architecture becomes an “urban catalyst."
The "activist architecture" does not develop formulas for city development that "serves as camouflage of the most pressing problems of urbanization today, without changing the politics of design." Architects must move beyond their “frozen politics." The architect can mediate "between top-down infrastructure and bottom-up community development." Here, architects apply their skills to support the organic self-growth of the city. They support informal growth. They support of migrations. They can provide professional guidance by providing self-building tool kits, modular designs, improving quality while spurring self-motivation.
Architects can become humble. Maybe the architect cannot resolve all the contradictions and misfortunes of society through an absolute form. But perhaps the architect can provide support through puzzle pieces for ordinary people.
Then architects can empower people. This process will encourage personal agency. Social change must ask: Who is change for? In Marxist terms: Who is the revolutionary subject? The people then deploy their own creative power. It is the people’s city. In Henri Lefebvre or David Harvey’s terms – people should have a human right to the city. They must act.
As architects in reflection, UTT end with a question that all architects would be wise to consider: "Are the people better off than they were before we arrived?" I would add: Do the people think they are better off than before we arrived?