Bridging The Paradox of Humanitarian Architecture: Constructing Space for Political Engagement

Below is the full paper I presented at Berkeley for the Death and Life of Social Factors Conference, with citations following the paper. The paper is an experiment to combine a design journalism controversy, my empirical observations and political philosophy. While I may not "bridge the paradox," I hope you enjoy the perspectives.

Bridging The Paradox of Humanitarian Architecture:
Constructing Space for Political Engagement

1. “Social” Architecture
In the past two decades architecture has increasingly enhanced its concern for the social, which is categorized as “social,” “humanitarian,” “public service,” “engagement,” etc. This emphasis is a result of 1960s experimentation in the profession, the professionalization of the field, a reaction to post-modernism, the expansion of environmental consciousness and the global recession.

“Social” architecture has also became central in the heart of architectural cultural production— receiving national recognition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in an exhibit called “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architecture’s of Social Engagement.”

However, as a new architectural sect emerges, internal complications, paradoxes and contradictions have surfaced, along with ambiguous relations to politics and power. A sociological examination of architectural education and practice will present the paradox of “humanitarian” architecture and a possible model for bridging the paradox.

2. Nussbaum Controversy
Architecture in academia and professional practice 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 challenges humanitarian designers visions to improve life in poor countries, rooting his analysis in work by Emily Pilloton’s Project H and MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per-Child Project, questioning whether the “humanitarian” designers collaborate with the right partners rooted in local communities. Nussbaum developed this perspective after hearing conference responses that asked: “What makes her think she can just come in and solve our problems?" Nussbaum asks whether imposing ideology—whether aesthetic, educational or green—is imperialistic. What happened when the government “perceived the effort as inappropriate technological colonialism,” “Western intrusion,” an attempt “to make it better—their ‘modern’ way?” Critical debate erupted in response to Nussbaum’s questions about the social impact and unexpected consequences of humanitarian design. Arguments denounced and enhanced the debate.

Emily Pilloton, who was directly addressed in Nussbaum’s article, agreed that often designers practice “fly-by-night” architecture that “swoop in with their capes and ‘design thinking’ to save poor folks.” But Pilloton argued that Nussbaum “greatly oversimplifies the serendipitous chaos that is humanitarian design.”

Cameron Sinclair, of Architecture For Humanity, argued that Nussbaum missed the details on the ground that includes “complex global network of multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural and diverse teams working locally hand in hand with communities on the ground.” Sinclair blames the design media for a formulaic writing style. Sinclair suggested to Nussbaum: “If you want to take on an imperialist empire, you’re going to have to shoot a little higher than pro-bono designers,” especially when, “BP filling our oceans with oil.”

Beyond these two practitioners defending their practices, others argued for a more advanced analysis and practice. Niti Bahn advocated for more “humble” and “respectful” humanitarian design process, and Maria Popova requested interdisciplinary teams of “anthropologists, scientists, educators, writers,”—to function as the “cultural glue” between architectural practice and the communities they are serving.

Quilian Riano boiled down the arguments: “When a solution – even if derived from inspired analysis of reality on the ground – is introduced from “outside” and is not sufficiently grafted to the social, cultural and productive capacity within a given system, it becomes by definition imperialist.”

And Gong Szeto called some of the reactions that outright denounced criticism as “self-righteous indignation.” Szeto boiled down the controversy by writing: "what is not being asked is what causes poverty.”
Cancer will continue to metastasize until you chemotherapy the root cause, and there is scant evidence that these assailed designers, well-intentioned as they are, are doing anything to address root causes. until then, an impoverished community will remain so if the politics they exist in, the intrinsic political realities, the presence or lack of presence of true markets and state philosophy geared towards evaluating the disenfranchised .... then design as a profession, well-intentioned or otherwise, will simply be in the business of producing bandages to persistent problems that will never go away.
Szeto provided an answer to Nussbaum’s question:
“so to answer bruce's fair question, is it imperialism? the answer is yes, whether we like it or not. it is imperialism because shelter is not the *only* thing people need, or playgrounds, or eyeglasses (and yes, these are "things") - people also need to know that their voices are being heard at the state level, that their homeland is there for its citizens... it is imperialism because there is a not-so-subtle imposition of an ideological stance that "design can save the world."

How do we come to terms with this complex set of perspectives? Is humanitarian design the new imperialism if the very humanitarian design is not the vision of the community? Where is the client’s voice? What is the role of the architect?

3. Ethnographic Polaroids from the Field
A deeper critique is necessary that interrogates the newly emerging humanitarian design, design-build programs, and approaches to environmental sustainability—to determine the strengths and weaknesses of alternative architectural movements—and to bridge the paradox to create emancipatory spaces. I will begin with two ethnographic polaroids of failed projects as polemical documentation to sharply contrast the dominant celebratory representations.

Through ethnographic fieldwork research gathered during months of participant observation of the Rural Studio, the Alley Flat Initiative and others, which integrated the perspectives of various communities involved (architects, students, clients, communities)—the intertwining of current discourse with empirical data presents a more complicate narrative to connect architecture’s “humanitarian” visions with radical theories of emancipation.

The Rural Studio is a design build program out of Auburn University founded by Samuel Mockbee as a reaction to the postmodern mystification of the architectural process—to connect students back to the building process as citizen architects. The studio has constructed over a hundred buildings, which have been rightly so published throughout the world. However, I would like to nudge the history against the grain and present a failed project and a project with an ambiguous future (that is strangely celebrated however unquestioned ). In 2001, the Rural Studio built a Boys and Girls Club in the small town of Akron as a safe haven for children after school. In the famous books The Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, which have become the dominant representation of the Rural Studio as “social” architecture for the poor, Andrew Freear was quoted saying:
“This is the closest you can get to community architecture.” He contrasted the town's involvement in the club's construction with that of “so-called community architecture that is driven solely by architect-developer motives.”

However, the project was built on private property and the owner decided not to donate the land to the town, so it never become a Boys and Girls club. After this failure, five years later, new students figured out how to build another boys and girls club on property the city owned, which became known as the Boys and Girls Club II. However, when I was in Alabama, an instructor warned that the Boys and Girls Club II also might fail because the students have not figured out who was going to run the building (a warning that was particularly relevant in an environment where the student’s tools and building supplies were being stolen by the community members). The instructor described the complicated circumstance:
And we've gotten smarter over the years, being clear who owns the property. And the difference this time is that we know the city owns the property. We know they'll take it over. And the next question is: Who's going to run that damn thing? And if they don't get AmeriCorps or somebody in the community to do that it's going to fail again. And it's going to be this beautiful thing that sits there and dies. And it's very likely that that might happen. And the team did a lot of work in the forefront to sort of set that up—for it to happen. But the town is really the people that have to take advantage of it.
When we compare public representation with the voice of an instructor on the site we should begin to wonder what kind of methodology could incorporate the community voice into the design and construction of the building.

The Alley Flat Initiative is a program at the University of Texas at Austin designed by Steven Moore and Sergio Palleroni to apply a critical pedagogical strategy or Herb Simon method (“transform conditions into preferred ones”) to empowering Latinos from being gentrified out of their neighborhoods. However, Susana Almanza, a Latino intellectual who runs a local organization called PODER, interpreted the Alley Flat Initiative as another engine of “yuppie” gentrification. Mark Rodgers, a non-profit partner that represented the Guadeloupe Housing Development Corporation, interpreted the professors’ value systems, even though they were “green sustainable designs,” as jeopardizing the process of empowering the Latinos because ultimately individuals have difficulty putting their values aside, even when community voice is heard. Rodgers aligned Moore and Palleroni with the “social” architecture modernists that were prescribing a broad vision on society.

When the architects balance between multiple values do they disempower the voice of the community? What if they diminish the community’s vision of their own society? Does the architect or the community know how to best improve society?

What do we learn from in the context? My empirical observations parallel those warnings by Nussbaum, Riano, and Szeto’s—that if people’s voices are not the sole motivator of a ‘social’ architectural project, then the project reproduces another’s set of values and is arguably imperialistic. Clearly, the impressions reveal the “totally pessimistic way of looking at it,” as one Rural Studio student commented. The radically critical orientation of the presented perspective here was not meant to denigrate the work of the Rural Studio or the Alley Flat Initiative, but to counter balance ever so gently, the overly-celebratory accounts that the design media has propagated. Here, I tried to generate controversy to get closer to the really existing complexity on the ground.

4. Theoretical Analysis
If we deploy sociology as a tool to analyze “humanitarian” architectural process, we must recognize that sociology began in Chicago with participant observation and in Frankfurt with a reexamination of Marx and the development of critical theory. In the United States, sociologist Robert Gutman entered the architectural classroom 40 years later to carve out the foundations of the sociology of architecture. He applied the sociology of the professions and attempted to solve disciplinary dependencies, necessities, and ideals. He characterized architecture’s “natural market” as monumental buildings. From this dependency on the elite and powerful, Garry Stevens expanded the concept through Pierre Bourdieu’s symbolic and cultural capital to explain that it not only produces, but in doing so justifies the “domination of the social order.” Another architectural sociologist, Paul Jones, expanded this examination by describing how architects not only “disguise the operation of capitalist society, but … make it meaningful.”

Therefore, due to the ineffective practices and esoteric philosophies of architecture—as highlighted by Margaret Crawford claiming architecture cannot be socially responsible —architects must locate themselves on the social battlefield in relation to the political and financial distributions of power or else they will be the first to “serve the hegemonic class,” as argued by Thomas Dutton and Lian Mann. How can architecture not serve those in power? How can we enhance architecture’s engagement with the social?

5. What does it mean to “Bridge the Paradox” of Social Architecture?
What is an architecture that is universally social? What is an architecture that confronts societal production of social inequality and alienation? We must situate ourselves on the social or education battlefield. Do we accept Fukuyama’s claim to the end of history—that our liberal-capitalist economy is the best or least painful of possible societies? Or can we challenge the current financial and political distributions of power? Slavoj Žižek argues we must “to locate antagonisms within historical reality which make [action] a political urgency.” Why take action? Why take sides? Žižek articulates broader crises: (i) ecological catastrophe, (ii) privatization of intellectual property; (iii) privatization of biogenetics; (iv) and the new forms of social apartheid. Architectural sociology argues that architecture has preconceived value systems aligned with the powerful—so perhaps architecture should turn its role into subverting those in power.

To bridge the paradox of a “humanitarian” architecture that is ineffective and not universally “social,” architecture must challenge its professionalization (stepping beyond Gutman’s interpretation of the profession) or its esoteric and utilitarian “professional exchange value.” Architects must consider their public projects as a facilitation of the democratic construction of society.

Erik Swyngedouw argues for a democratic environmental production in response to the post-politics and post-political city—in which “expert knowledge” and “technologies of management” have become a systematic formula for representative (supposedly) democratic governing. However, "the postpolitical condition is one in which a consensus has been built around the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism as an economic system, parliamentary democracy as the political ideal, humanitarianism and inclusive cosmopolitanism as a moral foundation.” Žižek argued: “a political act does not start 'from the art of the possible, but from the art of the impossible'. But we must carry caution and remain ambivalent towards the dominant social structures that radical practices seek to disrupt; however, to not remain ambiguous—one must take sides.

How does political philosophy relate to architecture? I hope architects do not expect for the philosophers to draw the blueprints for the future. They have provided the questions. Architects should grapple with their complexity and consider redrawing processes for organizing a democratic society. Why must architecture grapple with questions of democracy? Erik Swyngedouw argues, drawing on French philosopher Jacques Rancière: "In the end everything in politics turns on the distribution of spaces. What are these places? How do they function? Why are they there? Who can occupy them?” Social architecture must produce architecture and spaces that enhance the social’s vision of their reality.

For more, here is a link to my documentary film.

Harvey Sacks’ conversation analysis would recognize the above categories (social, humanitarian, public service, green, etc) as “modifiers” should tell as much about the broader field of architecture as they do about the sub-practices. Is the broader architectural practice by default then a-social or not-green? (Paul Jones and Kenton Card, 2011)
“Small Scale, Big Change.” http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1064.
Bruce Nussbaum, “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism: Does our desire to help do more harm than good?,” written on July 07, 2010.
Design Observer published a “Debate Summary,” http://changeobserver.designobserver.com/feature/humanitarian-design-vs-design-imperialism-debate-summary/14498/.
Emily Pilloton, “Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds: Not all American designers are leaving the country to do good,” http://www.fastcodesign.com/1661885/are-humanitarian-designers-imperialists-project-h-responds: written on July 12, 2010.
“Architect (who they can easily interview/contact) designs building (in an interesting location) that improves X (insert systemic issue of poverty here).” From Cameron Sinclair’s blog: http://www.cameronsinclair.com/index.php?q=node/74.
Cameron Sinclair, “Admiral Ackbar, It’s a trap! – How over-simplification creates a distorted vision of Humanitarian Design,” written on 07/08/2010.
Quilian Riano, “Humanitarianism and Humility,” Design Agency, 8.08.2010, http://www.dsgnagnc.org/search/label/Humanitarianism.
Gong Szeto commented on Susan S. Szenasy, “Why Bruce Nussbaum Needs Emily Pilloton,” July 12, 2010, http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20100712/why-bruce-nussbaum-needs-emily-pilloton. Szeto writes a blog called Gongblog here: http://gongszeto.squarespace.com/.
Suzanne LaBarre, “Life After Sambo,” Metropolis Magazine, July 22, 2009, http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20090722/life-after-sambo.
Dean, Andrea Oppenheimer and Timothy Hursley, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and
an Architecture of Decency, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, 145.
Rural Studio website: Akron Boys and Girls Club I, http://www.cadc.auburn.edu/rural-studio/Default.aspx?path=Gallery%2fProjects%2f2001%2fakronbgc1%2f.
Gary Stevens, The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction, Cambridge: THE MIT PRESS, 1998, 86.
Paul Jones, "Putting Architecture in its Social Place: A Cultural Political Economy of Architecture" Paul Jones, Urban Stud 2009; 46; 2523.
Margaret Crawford, "Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?," (ed.) Diane Ghirardo, Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture, Seattle: Bay Press, 1991, 27-45.
Thomas A Dutton, Lian Hurst Mann, Reconstructing Architecture: Critical Discourses and Social Practices, “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Architecture’s Social Project,” 20.
Slavoj Žižek, “How to Begin From the Beginning,” New Left Review, 57, May-June, 2009.
C. Greig Crysler, "Critical Pedagogy and Architectural Education," Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 48, No. 4, (May, 1995), 208-217.
Erik Swyngedouw, "The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 33.3, September 2009, 609.
Slavoj Žižek cited in Swyngedouw 2009.
In a practice that attempts to be subversive against social forces, we must remain critical and self-reflexive. Crysler calls for critical pedagogy to retain an “ambivalence toward--the hegemonic discourses and institutions it seeks to disrupt.” Cornel West writes that an alternative practice must not “result in a mere turning of the tables.” And Dutton warns against simply “politicizing students.” With radical action taken there must be a critical ambivalence towards one’s background, theories, alliances and methodologies. Cornel West, “Race and Architecture,” The Cornel West Reader, New York: Civitas Books, 1999, 456. Thomas A Dutton. "The Hidden Curriculum and the Design Studio: Toward a Critical Studio Pedagogy." 178.
Swyngedouw, 2009, 607.