PROCESS, PRODUCT, PROGRAM The Architect as Facilitator of Social Change
Garrett Nelli, AIA
The Role of Architects in Our Lives
Around the world, architects are recognizing the latent potential of the architectural profession to serve their communities in a far greater capacity. Bold new designers are harnessing their influence as facilitators, organizers, and provocateurs, alongside their existing roles as builders, to realize the true disruptive potential in assisting communities to realize profound social change. At its most fundamental level architecture is social - a tool for engaging in politics, economics, aesthetics, and culture. As architectural historian Spiro Kostof puts it, “architecture is a social act and the material theater for human activity” (Kostof 1985, 10). For much of the profession’s history, aesthetics has been the primary acknowledgment and obsession of the architectural profession, but a new generation of socially minded designers are leveraging their full professional capabilities to use architecture as a transformative tool for progressive change.
Architecture evolved as a response to the relationship between human needs (shelter, security, community, and the creation of the social fabric) and skills, materials, and knowledge. As this collective practice materialized and was formalized through tradition, that craft became recognized as architecture, and architects were society’s master builders. Architects were tasked with the primordial responsibility of sheltering humanity, and these edifices began to aspire to greater significance, striving for the sanctity of purer geometry, artistry, astrology, and psychology to satisfy the evolving human spirit. Cultures across the world altered their environments to better reflect their most intimate desires and, in doing so, associated collective meaning to what they had built. Through this existential lens, architecture became the backdrop for human existence, charged with immense consequence in the eyes of the beholder.The separation between culture and our built environment blurred, as did the roles and responsibilities of the architect.
Born from this ambiguity, a line of inquiry into the “correctness” of architecture developed: a philosophical questioning of the proper approach to constructing buildings and having consideration for the people served. These questions prompted society to examine architecture as more than geometric form, seeing it instead as a primary driver of culture and social evolution. Through this association grew a desire for the architect to impose certain ethics, values, and aesthetics onto space. This evolution of the architectural profession and realized cultural relevance of architecture reveals the primary query for this essay: how do we assess the quality of our built environment, and how does that quality impact our collective and individual lives?
Firmitas (durability), Utilitas (utility), Venustas (beauty): these are the three tenets of architecture as defined by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an architect and military engineer from ancient Rome, whose text Dc Architectura (c. 30-15 BCE) served as a guide for the Roman Empire’s construction projects - bridges, forums, baths, etc. - and is one of the sole surviving texts on architecture from antiquity. His work sought to address the ethos of architecture, grounding the practice in an ethical and pragmatic framework that ensured a successful and healthy built project: it must be a self-supporting structure (Firmitas), it must have appropriate spatial consideration (Utilitas), and it must appease the eye through clear ordering, shapeliness, and symmetry (Venustas) (Rowland and Howe 1999, 45).The former two are considered prerequisites to achieving the latter.There is academic consensus regarding the original meaning of Firmitas and Venustas, but what is unclear is the underlying considerations of Utilitas, the appropriateness of spatial consideration. Vitruvius outlines that “the principle of Utilitas will be observed if the design allows for faultless, unimpeded use through the disposition of the spaces, and the allocation of each type of space is properly oriented, appropriate, and comfortable.” Important to this text is the phrase “faultless, unimpeded use,” which points toward a belief that in the Roman Empire architecture was a civic amenity for the use of the civitas, the social body of citizens.This provision’s implications are twofold - that architecture is a public infrastructure available to all members of the society, and that the functional needs of those people who inhabit the building and those who are affected by its presence should be considered equally.
“Our Western architectural psyche deals with Vitruvius’ shadow in one way or another - honoring or critiquing ‘durability-utility-beauty,’” as Gregory Palermo puts it (Palermo 1999,190). Early in architectural studies, these values for assessing a building’s efficacy are impressed upon the student as foundational teachings. In many ways, these values serve as the bedrock for the profession, establishing a rudimentary understanding of the built environment and its role in our lives.Vitruvius’s writings lay the groundwork for a thesis that the social, psychological, and cultural impacts of our constructed world extend beyond the building footprint.
Throughout history there have been debates about the public utility of architecture. Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti states,
let it be said that the security, dignity, and honor of the republic depend greatly upon the architect: it is he who is responsible for our delight, entertainment, and health while at leisure, and our profit and advantage while at work, and in short, that we live in a dignified manner, free from any danger.
(Lewis 2016, 165)
John Ruskin’s seminal text The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) states: “Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure” (Ruskin 1989, 8). This basis of beliefs illustrates a direct link between societal wellbeing and the condition of our constructed world. The role of the architect not only encompasses the creation of structural, functional, and aesthetically appealing buildings, but expands its purview to ensure the health - both physical and mental - of an entire population. As such, should this not demand an ethical and civic obligation by architects to design in the public’s best interest?
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has attempted to address this requirement within their Code of Ethics as a contemporary pseudoreinterpretation of Vitruvius’s seminal triad. It is noted under Canon 1 - General Obligations, “Members should employ their professional knowledge and skill to design buildings and spaces that will enhance and facilitate human dignity and the health, safety, and welfare of the individual and the public” (AIA Code).This commitment demonstrates an intention and understanding that the profession bears a responsibility to serve the social welfare. Let’s break down these remarks in further detail. “Facilitating human dignity and health” is a declaration to provide equity in design: that wealthy neighborhoods will receive a school as well designed and equitable in function as one built in a low-income neighborhood, as well as ensuring that a building will support healthy interior environments so as to not be detrimental to its inhabitants or neighbors. In many ways, this canon has a direct connection to Venustas as it too seeks to create a sense of dignity and delight, to design in a manner that elevates the human spirit. Second, “safety” remains unaltered from the Firmitas of2,000 years ago as both require safe inhabitation of all buildings. Our contemporary use of Utilitas is also intriguing: defined as to “enhance and facilitate welfare of the individual and the public,” it points toward an architecture self-aware of its potential and responsibility to inspire positive social change. This statement also reasserts the architect’s role as civil servant rather than hired hand. Sadly, this Code of Ethics, although its aspirations are true, is merely an internal self-audit of sorts, rather than a strict moral code that projects are measured by and held to. Throughout its history the architectural profession has shown a general understanding of what it could be but has yet to take ownership over what it must be. This raises the question of why it is important that a profession whose contractual obligation is to design buildings for individual clients be held responsible for the society as a whole.