IN the past century, principal architects like Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies were articulate in the language and practice of social architecture. Be it through innovating with healthier and more affordable housing, writing books like Toward a New Architecture, or organizing model exhibitions like the Weissenhofsiedlung, generous and empathetic design was once a top priority in architecture for the masses.
Unfortunately, this fluency petered out by the end of the 20th century. A great deal of aspirations was since then neglected and dismissed — what was once admirable became hubristic and eventually, naive. The narrative of social responsibility in architecture was marginalized and propelled out of the norm. Coupled with the advent of the pandemic outbreak, we begin to see the current built environment as one crowded with a suffocating state of affliction.
Luckily, we are easily consoled by the thought of individuals and firms working to create architecture that prioritizes human dignity — spaces that put the human experience first by supporting the community while strengthening social responsibility. Our social compass points to one architectural firm, WTA Architecture and Design Studios, whose practices and projects champion and speak the long-lost language of social architecture.
Social architecture is a human-centric approach toward the built environment — a practice for the people, by the people. The current built environment's trajectory postpones this principle, often lacking an authentic connection to nature and our communities. The modern definition of good design has shifted from considerate to utilitarian — an apathetic transition to host more investments and densify cities. But the keenness to densify without considering the long-term quality of life only presents a new set of problems.
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WTA challenges this current norm by taking an engaging and inclusive approach that relearns and reteaches what social architecture can mean for future cities. By investing instead on purposeful design, they reexamine the idea of "social" and put into perspective two often unassociated, but deeply kindred philosophies: architecture and change.
WTA's renewed commitment for a socially responsible architecture is reminiscent of early ideals, and it convenes one simple wake-up call: design like you give a damn. What they embraced was a campaign to develop architecture-based solutions that foster social interaction — places where programmed space and accountability intermingle. From emergency quarantine facilities to mobile public library systems, they prove that contemporary social architecture is achievable and crucial in increasing the vitality of life and life-support systems.
But the modern decline in social fluency nowadays is not because most people don't share WTA's sentiments about architecture; in fact, most might be inclined to admit that architecture does play a huge role in social responsibility. It is simply because the process of how architecture is created, and even finished, is often rendered invisible. The thought of architecture is usually linked to a mere profession. But don't most professions come with obligations to serve others? If both iconic and non-iconic architecture are, by definition, "social" purely because of profession, then what is so social about social architecture?
With the built environment so imbued inside the wider web of society, its social purpose is often left to the imagination. In a moment of irony, realities that are ever-present to the human eye like architecture, are so "normal" that they become invisible. Something we pass by again and again, but don't bother giving a passing thought to. WTA deconstructs this habit and takes apart the idea of architecture being "normal." Not by scrapping its current state completely, but by reconstructing it in a new way that is less oppressive and more equitable.
Lamentably, architectural practice doesn't have the right vocabulary to articulate the merit of social change when it cannot easily be quantified with measurements or value. If architects could quantify the impact of their designs, perhaps the discipline's social facet would be much more powerful. Ultimately, most social projects are left to thrive in their own ingenuity. But just because "social" isn't recurrently associated with architecture, doesn't mean its collective function isn't needed.
Social architecture is here to drive big change, one project at a time. WTA's commitment to a social architecture is best understood as a resolve to start up old conversations and begin new ones. By bringing forth the spirit of creative activism amid a dynamically changing landscape, architecture can, in fact, make a difference.
WTA breaks down selectively exclusive barriers and brings accessible, meaningful institutions to the people. In turn, architecture is able to recreate networks and function at a more human scale. While we are still left wondering to what extent a design's quality can make a difference, one thing is for certain: there is no need for a shortage of designs that can leverage small ways to bring about big social change.