Designing Activism

Projects in Public Architecture

“Building A Nation: Architects as Civic Leaders” – Designing Activism

Crit 73 featured

Published by AIAS Crit 73

Article by Stephen Klimek

To address this issue we must start by asking some fundamental questions. What is the role of architecture? What do we need architecture to be? Architecture needs to inspire, to envision alternative futures that could have otherwise not been conceived. And what does the world need today? We need big ideas; we need inspiration for a sustainable way of life, one that is environmentally friendly, economically fair, and politically just. We need to be lifted up. We need to be inspired.

What is our capacity and what can we offer to society? There is an emerging call for a shift in the way we think about and practice architecture. Architects need to recognize our role in the urban ecosystem of the 21st century and actively participate in its sustainable evolution. Civic leadership is about creatively reengaging architecture with the populations we serve and embracing our social and political responsibilities.

In 1968 Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, gave a keynote address to the American Institute of Architects. In speaking about the contentious social issues of the time, Young gave the architectural profession an objective description of its role: “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this does not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”[1]

How far have we come since one of the most radical years of social and political transformation in America? It should not come to us a shock that Young’s statement is as relevant today as it was forty years ago. The profession needs to seriously address its civic role. We should not talk of sustainability or engagement as forms of specialization in the field; they should be common practice. The question of engagement with communities and the public our work effects should become a set of processes in which all designers engage. Bruce Mau argues, “The practice of architecture – the practice of synthesis that generates coherent unity from massively complex and diverse inputs – just might be the operating system that we need to solve the challenges that we face in meeting the needs of the next generation.” Mau continues, “Architecture, and the design methodologies at its core, could be central to the future of cities, governments, ecologies, and businesses…please raise your voice in the chorus of potential. Get into the discussion and leave your worries about the fence that separates you from the rest of the world behind you. Stop the complaining – and join the revolution of possibility.”[2]

I believe meeting this call is the task of civic leadership, a responsibility every architect must be honored to carry. At the core of Mau’s intention is relevancy. The question of relevancy is important to consider, and we may need to face some ugly truths before moving on. Mau’s contends, “To the degree that there are problems in architectural practice in America, they are self-inflicted. Architecture is largely irrelevant to the great mass of the world’s population because architects have chosen to be.”[3]

There is a need to rethink citizenship across the board and architects can lead. We cannot simply do this through the traditional role of the ‘citizen architect’; we must also reorient our practice and the philosophy on which it stands. Architects have an obligation to participate in the public realm. Design is the critical tool for transforming contemporary democracy by creating processes of communication and engagement, enabling empowerment and creating opportunity.

Civic responsibility is a project for architecture – the only project that will sustain the profession and the social structures it is intended to serve. What is being called Public Interest Design cannot be thought of as an alternative career path. This call is for a proactive democratic design which breaks from the institutional barriers and walls which have isolated architecture for decades.[4]

Civic leadership in architecture will equip the profession with the tools to successfully match architecture and design to the problems facing the world today, big and small, local and international. The University of Texas School of Architecture asserts, “In the United States, laws, rules and regulations have been enacted regarding the practice of architecture through licensure. In return, architects have the responsibility to create the physical world in a way that improves conditions and makes progress towards the greater public benefit, serving the general public just as other professionals do. However, the profession has largely focused on a small part of the population and a very limited set of issues, and it is currently the wealthy, the powerful and large institutions that are involved in design decisions.”[5] Architecture must expand its definitions of its practice and reconfigure the processes mandated to become an architect.

Our current legal definition of architecture limits our agency and capacity for social change. Discussing the influential role Maya Lin has had on architecture and the public imagination, John Cary, a leader in the movement for Public Interest Design, believes that “we need more architects like [her] to lift us up. But there’s a problem: Lin is not considered an architect by the architecture profession itself.”[6]

Architecture is a manifestation and testament to the social values of its time. Unfortunately we often don’t see this in the current built environment. Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford argue, “To make design relevant is to reconsider what ‘design’ issues are,” and our professional standards and regulations need to adjust accordingly.[7] Building a discourse around public engagement as a primary mode of design needs to begin in our schools.

Architects need to help give form to what is and imagine what can be by engaging everyone affected by a project, no matter how big or small. Scale matters. We need big ideas and big visions. It might be radical to consider the proposition that architects are critical to rebuilding today’s civic structure. But the power of small changes cannot be underestimated. In many cases students and small groups are leading the way in this new field of design. Leading academic institutions such as Syracuse University and the University of Texas are already exploring new modes of architectural education rooted in ‘scholarship in action’.

“Working pro bono — for the good — is no longer the provenance of attorneys. Around the nation, professionals in design, healthcare, business and architecture are answering the call to serve, getting on-the-job training while making lasting contributions to struggling municipalities,” states Cary.[8] But to truly reconceive citizenship and the way communities operate in society, pro bono can only be the beginning. Today this is one of the few outlets for professional practice to contribute to public concerns and social issues.  The relevancy of architecture will only grow with a series structured changes which integrate today’s Pro-Bono w into everyday mainstream practice.

We must admit our weaknesses. Architecture has a relationship with dozens of professions critical to an equitable society, but our architectural training does not provide us expertise in those professions per se. We need to understand how to productively engage and with those disciplines and participate in the complex urban ecosystem which defines contemporary society.  In doing so, architects will learn the critical lessons of communicating with the intended beneficiaries of their work.

“By making thoughtful contributions to the physical spaces where collective experiences occur designers will produce and valorize democratic social relations,” according to Peter Aeschbacher  and Michael Rios.[9] People have the most impact in their role as citizens when they act as members of a community. Creating new arenas for collective action are an important step in overcoming the crisis of democracy. The civic and public spaces of the city need to be considered just as carefully as the ‘architecture’ starchitects are touting as the future right now. When individuals participate in their built environment they become part of a complex community. Competing ideas for the common good is the basis of democratic politics and participation in this process enables empowerment.[10]

Traditional political engagement is not enough for design to empower the public realm and create a new trajectory for architecture. Breaking from institutional norms and becoming a discipline defined by social entrepreneurship and activism will be hard, and it should be. But we can no longer be defined by a thunderous silence or complete irrelevance.

[1] “Whitney Young 1968 Speech to the AIA,” ArchVoices, accessed January 30, 2012,

[2] Bruce Mau, “You Can Do Better,” Architect Magazine, January 3, 2011, accessed January 30, 2012,

[3] Mau, “You Can Do Better.”

[4] Peter Aeschbacher and Michael Rios, “Claiming Public Space: The Case for Proactive, Democratic Design,” in Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, ed. Bryan Bell Katie Wakeford (New York: Metropolis, 2008), 84-91.

[5] “Background,” University of Texas – Austin School of Architecture Public Interest Design Program, accessed January 30, 2012,

[6] John Cary, “Why Architecture’s Identity Problem Should Matter to the Rest of Us,” GOOD – Design, October 9, 2011, accessed January 30, 2012,

[7] Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford, preface to Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, ed. Bryan Bell Katie Wakeford (New York: Metropolis, 2008), 14-17.

[8] John Cary, “Pro Bono, Pro Cities,” Next American City, Summer 2011, accessed January 30, 2012,

[9] Aeschbacher and Rios, “Claiming Public Space: The Case for Proactive, Democratic Design,” 84-91.

[10] Aeschbacher and Rios, “Claiming Public Space: The Case for Proactive, Democratic Design,” 84-91.

Email Stephen | All posts by