This week’s seminar reading included chapters 19 and 20 from Eric J. Cesal’s Down Detour Rd.: An Architect in Search of Practice and “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” by Bruce Nussbaum.
The two chapters from Cesal– “How to Become a Famous Architect” and “The Citizen Architect”– examine what it means to be a “citizen architect.” The former chapter criticizes so-called famous architects, who design buildings to be used in post-disaster situations without paying due attention to the recovering community’s on-the-ground needs. He concludes this chapter with: “I worked with men and women who would likely never be on the cover of the New York Times. Men and women who did not aspire to make a statement, or ‘a weird metal thing… that doesn’t look like a house.’ Men and women who merely desired to use their skills to answer that basic human call of service” (Cesal 188).
Chapter 20 outlines Cesal’s views about architecture’s role in solving problems, “beyond those relevant to architects themselves, their paying clients, or those who track Herman’s ‘high’ architecture” (191). While some contemporary architects suggest the profession turn its attention to broader social concerns, Cesal argues that all architects should concern themselves and their designs with broader social issues. He then argues that addressing social concerns through architecture will give the profession more power.
Nussbaum’s article takes a more critical look at citizen architecture, which he refers to as humanitarian design. He examines a question that I think haunts many non-profit designers: Are we being as sensitive as we need to be to the people we’re supposedly helping? He refers to international projects in which western designers focus their work in non-western countries, asking “Are designers helping the ‘Little Brown Brothers?’ Are designers the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, ‘understand’ it and make it better–their ‘modern’ way?” He asks, “Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?”
Naturally, these readings sparked some lively discussion. In response to Cesal, we eventually boiled it down to a basic question: what can architects actually do to promote a more socially responsible agenda in their projects? Cesal has grand visions for how an architect should behave, but in the actual practice of architecture it can be difficult to keep social responsibility as high a priority as we might like it to be. And if the client isn’t particularly interested in social responsibility, what then? Should architects refuse to be the designers on irresponsible buildings? Should they go ahead with the project, regardless of what final decisions were made? Of course, the answers to these questions are incredibly personal and can vary widely based on each situation; however, we want to know what tools architects have when their ethical standards conflict with their projects. Other than quitting a job, what can an architect do? And even then, is quitting a realistic option for most designers? We certainly have no (or very little) legal support in the realm of ethical design. So what then?
In response to Nussbaum, we agreed that participating in humanitarian design is especially challenging because of the sometimes huge cultural differences that can exist between designers and users, but we also speculated that those challenges could be addressed with some careful planning. For example, most people who work for the Design Studio didn’t actually grow up in South Mississippi. In fact, none of us did. We came here to fulfill a need after Hurricane Katrina. Are there similar needs in the rest of the U.S.? Absolutely. The Gulf Coast just happens to be where we decided to focus our efforts. And in doing so, I believe we overcame one of the main challenges of humanitarian design: by focusing our attention on this region the studio has been able to earn credibility, to become a real, meaningful part of the community.
And in response to Nussbaum’s question Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers? we reply, “YES!” In fact, many of the people who work at the studio spent time in other countries for the purpose of learning how non-western societies design and build. Less drastic but just as important, upon moving to South Mississippi all of us learned (and are still learning) how things are done here. Those of us in the Public Design Internship Program came to Mississippi to do exactly that– we’re here to learn. And if we can serve the community while we’re here, the more the better.