Design Activism—or Just Good Practice?

With the world facing unprecedented challenges, it’s time for the profession to redefine the terms of social engagement.

Their professional code of ethics obliges architects and interior designers to work for the benefit of human health, safety, and welfare. Starting in 2009, architects will be required by their national trade organization to earn eight HSW—or health, safety, and welfare—credit hours (out of an annual total of 18, which now also includes four units in sustainable design, a new category) to keep up their professional standing. It’s a step in the right direction, to be sure. But since old habits of thought die hard, it’s fitting to ask here: Whose health, safety, and welfare are these professionals protecting?

The “user,” as it is fashionable to say these days, is apparently the ultimate beneficiary of good design done for corporations, institutions, and developers, among other clients. But can this trickle-down theory of design work in a world of growing inequalities and the threat of climate change, with its predictions of population displacement and resource depletion? Though I’m willing to concede that those who live, work, or get educated and entertained in today’s environments do indeed benefit from designers’ good intentions, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” keeps playing in my head.

Who will design for the three billion slum dwellers expected to populate the world’s cities by 2050? The good news is that a growing number of architects and designers, and an even larger number of students in the field, want to make the profession more directly connected to people, regardless of the “user’s” income or social standing. Their inspiring example is helping to redefine what it means to be a designer, providing a blueprint for a new way of operating, and calling attention to the rewards of reaching out to underserved populations. Our cover story, “Public-Interest Architecture”, introduces some of these quiet heroes. They tackle everything from education and research to technology—all in the service of building sustainable communities. The stor­ies we present in brief in this issue were inspired by Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, a title published this month by Metropolis Books. Together, the magazine and the book provide an opening salvo for the design community.

Marvin Malecha, the incoming president of the American Institute of Architects, describes our editorial intentions best when he calls Expanding Architecture a “primer for our conscience and a mean­ing for our work.” His words have even more heft when you consider that he is the dean of North Carolina State University’s College of Design. We need more of this: bringing the profession and academia together in a long-overdue dialogue about social relevance.

We continue this dialogue with a series of seminars (sponsored by Steelcase) that starts in New York next month and travels to three other cities. At each stop, we’ll bring together activist architects with a diverse group of local designers and policy makers, challenging ourselves to find ways to expand the professional and social understanding of design.

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