"My bookshelf is filled with books, exhibition catalogues and project documentations that carry names such as Urban Catalyst, Urban Pioneers, The Other Architect, What Design Can Do, Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, Design for the 99%, Design Like You Give a Damn, Start-up City, Happy City, Urban Acupuncture, Future Practice, Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, Good Deeds, Inclusive Urbanization, Good Design: Community Service Through Architecture, Where are the Utopian Visionaries?: Architecture of Social Exchange, Small Scale, Big Change. New Architectures of Social Engagement, and AFRITECTURE – Building social change. The list goes on.
The books’ titles almost speak for themselves. The story they tell might be particular to this part of my bookshelf; it might be giving away where my interest lies or the field I am interested in, but I don’t think this captures all there is to it–the sheer number indicates a different narrative–one that is about a growing interest in the role that design can play in the reimagination of the production of space along ethical, communitarian and equitable principles. They are all about the hope–in one form or another–that cities can be constructed from below, that every little bit helps. Some of the strong recurring themes of those publications and their theories concern situatedness, embeddedness, and the challenging of class or patriarchal relationships. They talk about the importance of relationships before they engage material concerns, which often are secondary to the declared need of social impact. There is talk of social justice through spatial interventions. Interventions in urban interstices are celebrated as beholding the power to trigger change. We find claims about resilient designs combatting–amongst other things–climate change. And, other authors who argue that a choice of a specific material might contribute to less inequality. The excitement that I felt initially when some of these books first came out, however, has given way to a growing unease, skepticism and sometimes polemic response when I'm alerted to the release of yet another publication in this field. It might seem strange that one could feel troubled about projects that critique the profession’s unreconstructed structures, architectural pedagogy’s reliance on images, or developments counter the construction of global sameness. Yet, I can’t get rid of this suspicion that what’s been termed the ‘social turn’ in architecture has, in fact, not managed to go beyond the good intentions. On the contrary, the naivety of some of the projects (that was so seductive to begin with) has come to play into the hands of those very neoliberalist and commodifying forces it was critical to begin with. The radical nature of the the urban beach-bar, the pop-up cinema, meanwhile uses, modes of participation and the development of process-based strategies have seemingly been absorbed by the marketing and branding mechanisms of the ‘corporate city’–fully integrated by city elites into event management structures that churn out one biennial and triennial after another. With history repeating itself (think about the counteer-spaces produced and counter-events performed by Coop Himmelb(l)au in the 1960s and 1970s and their absorption into popular culture) one could ask why thee current 'social turn' should end up any different. Why should today's social architecture, contrary to its earlier incarnation, manage to escape the clutches of hegemonic productions of space–even if we wished it to?"
When, on the one hand, social engagement offers hope that things can be otherwise, it rarely challenges the very structures and mechanisms that the discipline is dependent on. This text, published as one of many chapters in a companion on socially engaged architecture, conceptualizes this dilemma social architecture finds itself in and offers ways of re-thinking and re-framing its position.