polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

The Narrative of Engagement

by Rebecka Gordan

Just as other professionals and organizations, architects, design firms and NGOs retell their own stories again and again. I find these narratives interesting as they reveal the nature and aims of these actors. In recent years, the past has become more important in their descriptions. Commitments and visions are probably predicted to appear more trustworthy if presented as parts of a long process.

Writing an article for the Swedish Review of Architecture I lately had the chance to study the narrative of the contemporary movement of socially engaged architects. What surprised me was that no real emphasis was put on the past. After presenting some praised examples of recent projects I wrote that ”well composed buildings, designed in dialog with clients in need is nothing new.” Then, I looked for historical examples in the the two new books I was reviewing: MoMa’s Small Scale, Big Change and The Power of Pro Bono from Public Architecture.

To my surprise, it turned out that only Hassan Fathy's village of New Gourna (1945-47) was mentioned. In Fathy's ideas of a low-cost architecture, sustainable building techniques, participatory processes and respect for the Egyptian local building traditions I could trace the ambitions of the engaged architectural community of today, even though this particular project in many ways became a failure.

I know other parts of the movement have been trying harder to map its history. One example is Kate Stohr’s chapter ”100 Years of Humanitarian Design” in Design Like You Give a Damn from Architecture for Humanity. Still I cannot help wondering why the most recent publications don't pay more attention to historical traces. Are there really too few good examples from the past? Or are the authors simply trying to brand the movement as something new? In any case, the absence of history is also a narrative to ponder.

Credits: Image of New Gourna from publishing.cdlib.org.

Sources: Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, Andres Lepik (ed.) and Moma, New York 2010; The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients, John Cary (ed.) and Public Architecture, New York 2010; Design Like You Give a Damn. Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, Architecture for Humanity (ed.), New York 2006.