The first is called Collective Impact: if you want to effect social change, the most effective and sustainable way to do so is through an aggregation and [alignment] of all social entities in a given area. For example, if you have a lower than average high school graduation rate, you should engage not only the school, but athletics, arts, churches, youth groups, parents, [and] PTAs to align them on overarching goals, share data, convene and foster collaboration, and collect those resources to push in the desired direction.
We try to work with these corporations to link a social challenge with a business opportunity, with the intention of making it profitable. At that point, it's no longer CSR—you're creating sustainable social impact incentivized by its profit.
We have a model called the "Virtuous Cycle," that we use to help explain Shared Value. Basically, if you have a social issue and you can directly link it with a business opportunity, you can incentivize its continued effectiveness and scalability.
We see two possibilities: one, develop the city so that people would be more attracted to live there, or two, train local residents and young people in the necessary trades to obviate the need to import labor. In this way, we look at the social issue first, and then try to figure out how to solve it through economic incentive.
We have an advocacy component. For example, we did a project with Fair Share Housing Center, and also with Poverty and Race Research Action Council, where we did some federal legislative advocacy around the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. Our students did some work in response to a guidance issued by the treasury department regarding LIHTC, and then also some legislative advocacy, drafting portions of a bi-partisan bill.
It’s instances like this where we get to think at a more macro-scale, asking: what role does an affordable housing project play in revitalization, and what role should planning play alongside the development? A 100% low-income housing project is not likely to have an effect on its own, in the absence of new parks, jobs, transportation, et cetera.
Most groups that I work with are singularly focused on building affordable housing. However, there are two problems at play here that are the result of longstanding racist federal policy: one is where people live today, and the other is the location of wealth.
Even if you want for people to live in a place like Guilford, on the assumption that their kids are going to Guilford schools, and will therefore be more likely to succeed later in life—that alone is proving more difficult. [Living in a place like Guilford] does not let people accumulate wealth, but it does allow them to accumulate some non-cash resources that are going to be very helpful later. But, even then, you are only able to help a small number of people.
If I see optimism, it is in these budding YIMBY movements, and a generation of people [who] are willing to talk about race. I find more and more people [who] are willing to say, "diversity isn't just something that I'd like my kids to have in college." I don't know why magically, when they turn 18, diversity becomes important.
You represent somebody that has goals and ambition and you try to effectuate that to the best of your ability. When you are representing clients that are under-resourced, or are volunteers, the waters get muddied.
I felt like architecture wasn’t able to address any of the major challenges of our times—the financial crisis, social integration, religious tolerance, climate change, migration, housing crisis, or economic inequality—and what we needed to do was to redefine the practice and the tools that we can apply to those sorts of questions. It started out pulling me away from design, and actually, I think that it has brought me back to it in a much more fundamental way.
She looks at how homes have been designed to assert gender roles, tracing the lineage as far back as into the Victorian era. One of the things I am exploring in my book is how can we rethink the effects of changing labor practices, from the architectural scale, to the design of neighborhoods, and then to crash that into the reality of new family types, ways of living, and emerging technologies.
You build affordable housing as a part of big project, and the affordable tenants go in through their own door... about as offensive an idea as one could imagine. We were trying to do the opposite.
Opening this up was an opportunity to imagine the legislative authority necessary to create that kind of environment.
But what about people outside that neighborhood who will also be affected? Why are they not part of the community? Where does the community begin and end? And who are these people? And what gives them the ability to represent the people in their neighborhood, let alone people outside of it? One thing that communities try to do is to keep everyone else out of the decision making process.
It's interesting that going far enough left, in which this idea of community becomes so central, almost misses the fact that it's strong communities that lead to things like segregation. Once you start asking people in a neighborhood what they want, it might turn out they don't want people that are different from them.
One great thing about Central Park in New York is how many kinds of people are there thinking "this is my space, no more and no less than it's anyone else's space." It was created by the government. It's very hard to make public space because many people will still feel excluded.
Architecture is still a niche product. I think we have more to offer, but how do we get it to the people that actually need it? We started thinking about flipping the system. Instead of the developer at the top of the food-chain, it should be the end-user, describing his demands, his budget, and the outcome that would be an optimum fit. With www.WeBuildHomes.nl, we took this idea and inverted the development chain.
If architecture is the custom-made suit, which is full of expensive R+D and prototypes, how can we make architecture available to normal people? It should be a suit that fits, provided in many sizes.
We are taking high-cost, high-quality design, and selling it multiple times. We have Mecanoo and NL Architects providing designs, of which there more than a hundred. These are architects the average person would never be able to afford if the cost wasn’t spread out over multiple sales.
If we accept the fact that we are independent of context, independent of client, but actually do provide the project that our client desires, then we have a project and a client that would otherwise not have access to architecture.
I'm always hoping that it doesn't come across as judgemental or holier than thou. Like you say, on the left side it says "what we do" and on the right side it says "what we don’t do," and I'm not saying that other architects shouldn't do those things, or that it's immoral for other architects to do those things.
I don't find an ethical focus in any way being at odds with great design. I'm just as focused on form, light, material, and construction detail as any other architect I know. I’m 51 years old; our generation witnessed firsthand the transformation of modernism from social movement (through arguably the mid-to-late 1970s) to the neoliberal world of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.
Reinhold once said, "Why is it that all of these movies depict the end of the world because of climate change, but none of them depict the end of capitalism?" To which Ken Frampton quipped, "Because the end of the world will come before the end of capitalism." I'm not powerful enough, or arrogant enough, to believe that I'm going to overturn capitalism.
I cringe when I hear architects say, "I only want to do the luxury condos because that is where the good budgets are." That just means they are not doing their job well.
I've had very good friends—Pritzker Prize winning architects—say to me they like working in these places far off in the desert somewhere; they know the buildings are being built by slaves, but it is the only place where they get to experiment! To which I respond, "What kind of colonialist bullshit is that? What do you mean, experiment?"
We basically decided we are not doing open competitions: open competitions are incredibly exploitative of architects, and it just doesn't make a great deal of sense to us. But, obviously, competitions have been the main process by which young firms get themselves known in the world. So, we are trying to think of an alternative paradigm to that.
The project is a provocation. It is a provocation not only to India, but to the United Kingdom, and all other past-colonial powers. We think it is the power of architecture to talk about these kind of tough social issues.
Facts are important: we live in a time when the very nature of facts is under assault from the highest powers of the land. I really believe that we are living in a moment where the Enlightenment itself is under question. The last thing architects should be doing, in that environment, is rejecting the importance of facts.
But, at some level, the case has to be made – and it will not be made by architects alone, because we are a relatively small part of the overall system of the making of the built environment – that the built environment is of sufficient importance that society needs to invest in improvement and change. That's where we are at the far left of the problem, and all these ideas kind of branch off that fundamental proposition. Nobody really espouses that.
Forget about the architect's role in all this, if we really want to create these opportunities for the systemic improvement of the built environment, then the problem needs to rise to the level of social policy. Maybe there should be a Secretary of the Built Environment. There's a secretary of transportation because people decided that moving around was important. There's a secretary of the Interior because people decided that natural resources were important. Everybody in the whole goddamned country lives in a building.
We don't want to constrain future optionality, and we don't want to make bad choices or do bad things that violate our ethics or morals in the here and now, but we are committed to taking action, we are committed to doing things and not just talking about them. That’s the bias that we use when projects come across our desks and the various opportunities we consider.
If we as a group of people really care about the built environment and improving it, we can't just do it as enlightened architects, we also need enlightened clients. People who sit on the other side of the table are incredibly important.