Understanding Social Engagement in Architecture

Toward Situated-Embodied and Critical Accounts

Authored by: Isabelle Doucet

The Routledge Companion to Architecture and Social Engagement

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138889699
eBook ISBN: 9781315712697
Adobe ISBN:


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Since the 1960s, the social project in architecture has undergone another round of important innovations and revisions under banners as varied as participatory architecture, self-build, community design, user-based design, advocacy planning, and so-called “live” projects. The emancipatory ambitions and perceived successes of such projects often evolved around the empowerment of the user over the designer, layperson over expert, and bottom-up over top-down. When such ambitions become overly reliant upon the opposition of user and designer, layperson and expert, they risk not doing full justice to the complexity of architecture’s social agency. Architecture’s social responsibility operates through a tangle of actors, including not just users, designers, builders, and decision-makers but also materials, ideologies, construction techniques, aesthetics, activism, technology, and so on. Not only does such tangle resist being theorized through oppositional pairs, but there is also the perceived problem of ideals associated with socially responsible architecture, such as emancipation, otherness, resistance, democratic inclusion, creativity, and collectivity, having become co-opted, and sometimes de-politicized, in mainstream architectural and urban design. Art historian Claire Bishop (2012: 13, 16), for example, argued that virtues typical of socially engaged art have been appropriated by neoliberal politics in terms of entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, self-interest, and performance. In addition, as eventually all spaces risk getting absorbed into capitalism’s cause of growth, the “outside” position as locus for (oppositional) resistance is questioned. The challenge thus becomes to rethink social responsibility and emancipation in terms of resistance from within. 1

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