What Role Can Architecture Play in the Development Agenda

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Tuesday, May 10th, 2016
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Paul Goldberger writes that great buildings are those that have expanded our sense of human possibility — they shape our very experience of who and where we are in the world.

Buildings are not just inanimate objects; they are occasions for human contact, they frame our understanding of place and this makes them a living part of our world.

As we begin to take on the new Sustainable Development Goals architecture figures prominently in the propagation and implementation of the goals on the global stage. The act of designing buildings consistent with the SDGs ensures we are creating healthier places and, therefore, healthier people, communities, and societies. Given the immensity of the 17 goals adopted last year, this new agenda requires not only strong collaboration among varied stakeholders, but also practical ways for less traditional development players to incorporate the goals in their activities.  Why does this matter?

Well for one thing, the fundamental notion of sustainable city life is one of 17 goals. Goal 11 recognizes the important role of cities in addressing global challenges with the need to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. While ambitious, this goal is certainly timely given the need to develop more resilient and sustainable cities with issues such as urbanization having important consequences on migration and risk reduction.

The SDGs as a whole reiterate the importance of cities both in terms of terms of their vulnerability as well as their growing opportunity. The world’s population is rapidly urbanizing and by 2050 the urban population is expected to outnumber the rural population, according to a 2015 UN-Habitat report.

This change requires policymakers to begin to take a deeper dive and focus not just on urbanization and migration but on overlapping issues, like land use, living space, mass housing, and design that can be operationalized. The issues of climate change accompanying greater urbanization also pose a unique set of challenges linked to health, access to water and sanitation, and increased resiliency.

So what can architects do to solve these issues and do they have an integral role to play?

Given the leading role of the architect in how cities are envisioned and designed the architect can directly shape the outcomes of a design process to the betterment of a community’s overall quality of life, sustainability, social equity, health and resilience. In owning this central role, the architectural community can reimagine and tackle issues in a holistic manner addressing the larger needs of collective social responsibility.

Architects practice all over the world and can be “ambassadors” of the new SDG’s through their daily work and through the transmission of knowledge from their practice into local marketplaces and communities. This is happening in some clear cases where architects that are incorporating social and environmental factors a core part of their design strategy.

For example, consider the work of Pritzker laureate, Glenn Murcutt who has worked extensively on how to design environmentally sensitive houses that respond to their surroundings and climate change.

Building on these trends and to catalyze on this new line of thinking the Sustainable Development Goals Fund together with the Pritzker Architecture Prize recently collaborated to encourage a broad dialogue exploring the role of architecture in contemporary society. As champions for the link between the role that architecture and new stakeholders can play in building cities that are more sustainable and livable, the SDG Fund organized a unique forumfor some of world’s most renowned architects to discuss some of the pressing issues facing the field.

One of them was Alejandro Aravena of Chile, this year’s Pritzker Prize laureate, who was recognized for his commitment to social housing as well as his excellence in architectural design. Aravena and his collaborators have envisioned projects with clear social goals through his company Elemental. The firm has built more than 2,500 units combining innovative, flexible and direct architectural solutions for low-cost social housing. The team works on all aspects of the complex process of providing housing solutions for the underserved with a deep understanding of the importance of the community and its residents.

Aravena believes that it is important to involve the public in building processes rather than relying strictly on government action and on the housing market. He has also publicly shared the drawings for his firm’s social housing projects on his firm’s website so anyone can access and use them.

Looking forward, it is clear that sectors such as architecture provide the much-needed tools to better meet the complexity of urbanization and the delicate balance that is needed to manage public and social needs against environment and design. Consider the work of Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban dedicated to humanitarian housing and sustainable design whose innovative DIY structures have been instrumental in providing refugee shelters and disaster relief.

While accolades come and go, prominent buildings are often forever. To this end, innovative solutions and functional design perspectives linked to the field of architecture have an important role to play in thinking beyond traditional parameters and in thinking more holistically about the environment.

In his remarks at the United Nations, Aravena said: “It’s a mistake to think that if the problem is big, the solution must also be big. Solutions for climate change, waste management, migration — can be engaged by specific architectural designs.”

The sum of the individual initiatives currently underway — if replicated globally — can yield a bigger return on investment by creating more socially just, economically healthy, environmentally sustainable and resilient urban communities.

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