In design competitions, the question of "who?" is just as important as "what?"
The premise of the BERKELEY PRIZE is that architecture is a social art unto itself. With this serving as a deep undertone in my own design practice, I find that I am inspired by the potency of 'architecture' that has yet to be created. This notion arises because as I reflect on the interconnectedness of our society, I trust that architecture is no less than a potent steward for supporting our instinctual desires for survival, shelter, comfort, and community.
Essays submitted to the BERKELEY PRIZE Committee over the past nine years have demonstrated an acute perception of their surroundings and a consistent embodiment of the social issues at hand. These passionate essays ultimately reflect the very spirit required to serve social inequities. At the same time, student contributions have continually reminded me of my role in serving others. To this end, I have recently participated in several architectural design and development competitions in the City of New York for the creation of social, economic and environmentally sustainable affordable housing.
studioMDA New York, and Behnisch Architekten, Stuttgart, Germany, are rigorously conducting research on affordable housing in conjunction with their winning proposal for a mixed-use complex at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Brooklyn, NY (2007); their competitive proposal for 'Public Place' on the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, NY (2007); along with their Honorable Mention in the NHNY Legacy project (2006) all under New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
studioMDA believes that competitions are an important process for advancing critical debate and ultimately realizing unexpected possibilities in new projects; studioMDA routinely participates in Housing, Cultural, Institutional, Master planning and Residential competitions worldwide.
Behnisch Architekten sees competitions not only as a means of obtaining new work, but as an opportunity to pursue and test architectural ideas in the context of ever developing contemporary demands. Both studios value the degree of freedom afforded by competitions and believe that the research nature of such work benefits all projects of the office.
The following essay explores the possibilities of architectural competitions; introduces the social issues studioMDA and Behnisch Architekten aim to serve; describes how city-sponsored competitions are deployed to serve such goals; and finally provides a brief overview of our offices' strategies to meet these social challenges through architecture. These topics are discussed in the following sections:
1) Competitions - Above and Beyond
Who can hold an architectural competition? For whom are we designing? Who is the true beneficiary? Who are you as a designer and why is your approach most appropriate for this set of conditions? Who is determining the final design? Who is being represented? Who is speaking for who? Who needs to be involved to bring the project to life?
Establishing the parameters of the architectural competition is an opportunity to inspire participants to reach beyond their own perceived capacities. The actual competition period is a time within which competitors can enrich the scope of a project to bear architectural significance that is deep with meaning and multiplicity.
Those who sponsor competitions have an opportunity to make a statement: A statement that is important enough that the program of a building alone does not fully realize the intentions of the creators. The projects are more than the shaping of space or the building of an edifice.
Winning designs are a reflection and reiteration of the philosophies, historical moments, and visions of the given stakeholders. These designs are statements that warrant a comprehensive and complete architecture that reflects and reinforces the views of the advocates. Subsequently, every design submission is an argument for a specific interpretation of the intended statement.
A winning proposal is a testament to the designer as well as the governments and officials who judge and implement the project. The design process can become self-conscious of the two-fold task embedded in competitions. Products of competitions serve both the immediate program, but also take on monumental roles in recognizing and immortalizing the governments, cities, and individuals responsible for its creation. Especially at larger scales - buildings, plazas, parks, memorials, neighborhoods, cities - competitions seek to establish a vision of progress, or memory, or society, or a new paradigm through architecture. Designing with these considerations demonstrates an attempt to write history into the very fabric of the city.
Just as institutions find grounding through architectural design, in turn, the architecture draws power and legitimacy from the historical or cultural significance of the project. The ability of the architecture to effectively translate these concepts is ultimately what determines the power and quality of the work.
Architecture is inevitably a negotiation. Professionally, teams of developers, contractors, engineers, city planners and other city officials, clients and architects must all be assembled in order to produce a proposal. Conceptually, there are ever-changing sets of constraints, conditions and forces which shape the design. Such vast, interdisciplinary concerns are often difficult to reconcile. The process presents an ongoing challenge for architects to be the most rigorous at every turn. Architects need to demonstrate why architecture is important, so as not to make themselves obsolete in a world of competing stakeholders. It is precisely this the balancing act that architects learn to do by integrating (in varying degrees) all other disciplines into design that makes Architecture particularly relevant and rich.
2) Competitions - Dialectics and Legacy
The commitment to history, context, theory, art, and the social should be continually recognized as a critical foundation of any design practice. Architecture must create more than commodities, and commodity houses. Competitions exploit and emphasize this quality of architecture and offer a fertile ground for questioning, researching, and ideally creating potent solutions to real topics and issues.
In asking, as the BERKELEY PRIZE 2008 question does, "What is the most important social issue architects should address," it is imperative to consider the following ideas:
In a discussion accompanying the 2004 BERKELEY PRIZE, Ananya Roy concluded, "Architecture and physical planning remain saddled by the cumbersome legacy of environmental determinism." This caveat is extraordinarily important as a starting point for any kind of design with a social motivation. Distinctions must be made between "the social art of architecture" and "designing society" or "social engineering." Historical precedents have revealed mostly failure or colonization in attempts to implicitly alter human behavior through architecture. Recall Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia superblocks, Robert Moses and Urban Redevelopment, or housing projects like Pruitt Igoe . Another salient point from the 2004 competition discussion comes from Keith Mitnick who points out that "there is a big difference between asking 'what do people need?' and 'what can architecture provide?'"
The idea of social and sustainable architecture has taken a much firmer hold in the past few years. This only makes sense considering the massive shift in consciousness of the public and the political acceptance of concepts like global warming. Coupled with international efforts such as the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, there is a widespread awakening of the designer's conscience. Last year, for instance, the winner of the prestigious TED award (Technology, Entertainment, Design) was Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, head of the firm that published a book called Design Like You Give a Damn, that was featured on the BERKELEY PRIZE website.
The trend has moved beyond obscure design niches : the recent Cooper Hewitt Design Museum (New York) exhibition, called "Design for the Other 90%," has generated very heated debate among designers and activists alike. As an example, David Stairs offers a critique of the exhibit on Design Observer called "Why Design Won't Save the World."
The exhibition facilitated a debate that lies at the very heart of what it means to design - to make things and put them into the world with intention. While many relevant points are raised, Stairs' title betrays fundamental flaws in his critique. He titles the piece, "Why Design Won't Save the World," before recognizing that no assumptions have been made that design CAN, MIGHT, or SHOULD save the world.
From this prompt, the recognition of your own assumptions will be important to clearly articulate the intention of what designs you want to encourage. Note the way the prompt is phrased: "social issues architects should address." To address this question you must engage inquiries which embrace architecture as an art that is both poetic, and physical.
3) Housing Design – Seeking Complete and Vibrant Communities
While environmental determinism is a somewhat archaic notion, there is no doubt that architecture and design are critical components for shaping the cities and thereby, the societies that inhabit them. The question for designers defining architecture as a social art is then one that Ananya Roy has posed, "What are the ways in which we can develop a form of praxis that allows us to tackle social concerns without the arrogance of the 'expert'?"
studioMDA and Behnisch Architekten share a simple belief that the social dimension of architecture is not to be underestimated. Understanding how people notice, respond to and interact with their immediate environment is essential to promote a sense of civic responsibility, as a result of which residents and visitors can live fully and creatively. Our design approaches and physical architecture have an important role to play in promoting inclusiveness and community values. Our aim is to create architecture in which empathy and respect for the individual becomes manifest in both the cultural and functional patterns of a community.
To this end, we have attempted to realize these visions and address today's pressing social, economic, and environmental housing needs through competing in Requests for Proposals (RFPs) led by the City of New York's department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD).
Trained in Architecture and Public Administration, HPD Commissioner Shaun Donovan's following statement encapsulates one of the many principles guiding our competition research:
"We want to create an exemplary housing model that could not just put in place the best standards of design being used elsewhere but could actually create new standards for design going forward."
To the extent that we can challenge ourselves and others, we believe that we are able to contribute to a larger agenda beyond the sphere of a single design proposal. Therefore, an important inquiry for us has been whether or not design alone has the capacity to move entire housing industries forward. Our findings show that some of the most fruitful developments in social architecture have also been produced through the integration of information and collaboration with other disciplines.
We have proposed such collaborations in our three most recent housing submissions each of which have varied in scale and scope. They have included the New Housing New York Legacy Project, Bronx, NY that measured a half city block (and received an Honorable Mention in 2006); a residential tower and performing dance facility at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, 2007 (First Prize, September, 2007); and three city blocks of new construction called "Public Place" along the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, NY, 2007 (In Progress).
4) The Social Issue - Housing for all New Yorkers
"As our city faces unprecedented levels of population, some fear that change will not enable opportunity, but rather erase the character of communities across the city. That is why we cannot simply create as much capacity as possible; we must carefully consider the kind of city we want to become."
The population of New York City will grow to over nine million by 2030. The question is how to meet the growing demands for housing, and ensure that both existing and future housing stock can be available to a wide range of individuals with varying degrees of income. In order to decrease the gap between housing supply and housing demand that has existed in recent decades, let alone the projected demand for 2030, Mayor Bloomberg has implemented "The New Housing Marketplace Plan," which is the largest municipal housing agenda in the nation's history. This plan creates and/or preserves 165,000 low, moderate and middle income units for 500,000 New Yorkers by 2013. It also aims to cultivate innovative partnerships and pioneering new tools in affordable housing". In order to do so he asserts that,
"We must also continue to vigorously pursue targeted affordability programs that seek out our most vulnerable populations and provide them with secure homes and needed support". This plan quickly uncovers the dualities and complexities of serving society, alongside the need for each relevant discipline to make their own unique contribution"
5) NYC's vision for Affordable Housing - plaNYC 2030
On Earth Day 2007, Mayor Bloomberg released a manifesto, entitled plaNYC 2030, articulating, among other important issues, New York's vision for Affordable Housing.
plaNYC is a comprehensive sustainability plan that seeks to address six principle categories: Land, Water, Transportation, Energy, Air Quality and Climate Change. Each of these categories is fundamentally inseparable from the complex matrix of forces that comprise our social and physical environments. To this end, the introduction states that:
"This is not a plan that supplants other City efforts, such as those we are making on crime, poverty, education, or social services. Here we have focused on the physical city, and its possibilities to unleash opportunity. We have examined the tangible barriers to improving our daily lives: housing that is too often out of reach, neighborhoods without enough playgrounds, water and power systems in need of upgrades congested roads and subways—challenges that if left unaddressed, will inevitably undermine our economy and our quality of life."
While our own housing proposals fall under the category of LAND, we have attempted to address many of the plaNYC categories inclusive of the local building scale, the larger urban context, the global manufacturing industry in partnership with United Technologies Corporation, and the larger typological category of housing. This being said, identifying a social issue that you as an architect should address is in no way limited to the design of buildings per se. Designers should not disenfranchise themselves from multidisciplinary approaches that rigorously engage political forces, city planning, economic and cultural development, business, manufacturing, or other perceived externalities which may have a profound influence on any final design.
6) Request for Proposals – The Serving Process
In the United States, a common type of architectural competition is called a "Request for Proposals" (RFPs). While RFPs can be formulated in an effort to address social issues, they are also opportunities for redefining them. In governmental RFPs, the judges hail from every possible realm - divisions of housing, economic development, planning and preservation, along with members of the "community" for "whom the project is intended." The benefit of the multiplicity of clients is that it prevents designs from becoming too insular - a danger architectural design often faces. Simultaneously, RFPs can also facilitate opportunities for new designers to be more experimental.
In order to guide the creative possibilities for the responses in some capacity, RFPs, like other competitions, generally clarify a set of objectives and guidelines. These are determined through a variety of community and official processes. [NOTE: Once again, Architects do not always determine the parameters of the architectural competitions.] It is important within any competition prompt to be specific enough to clarify your intentions without limiting the possibilities for creativity. The clarification of these guidelines will help you understand the assumptions that are being made, the true intent of the project, and a real statement about your beliefs on what exemplifies good design.
New York City's decision to take on a social issue such as housing manifests itself through various types of RFPs. Mayor Bloomberg's plan to rejuvenate social housing reflects the most significant increase in urban housing since the era of Robert Moses, who created massive amounts of public projects while asserting "When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax." Despite the intense controversy of Moses' statement, he took a bold position towards urban development and committed himself to it enough to articulate it. Such polemics continue to face parties seeking to provide viable solutions within an arena of increasingly complex parameters.
Commissioner Shaun Donovan, who heads The Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD), is in charge of implementing Mayor Bloomberg's ten-year $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan. (See article: "A National Housing Innovator Leads City's Effort for the Poor". New York Times, September 25, 2006.) In an address to the U.S. House of Representatives Housing Subcommittee on July 10, 2007, Commissioner Donovan cites the connection between population growth and the need for affordable housing:
"The crisis of abandonment that plagued many New York communities in the 1970's and 80's was solved by rebuilding neighborhoods, driving down crime and improving schools. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved to New York to share in our success and we are predicting that New York City's population will grow by close to a million by the year 2030. That population growth will add to our current challenge of housing affordability".
As the nation's largest municipal housing development agency, HPD's mission is to promote quality housing and viable neighborhoods for New Yorkers. In your own 2008 Berkeley Prize submission, you too have the opportunity to ask what social issues are most relevant in your community. Beyond this, you should address how a project might bear Architectural significance to serve these goals.
7) Collaboration Architecture
In the larger context, the projects created by HPD are actualized through partnerships with private, public, and community stakeholders. These alliances are fundamental to strengthening the neighborhoods of New York City in ways that any one single party would not be able to achieve individually at the same level. HPD also encourages the preservation of affordable housing through education, outreach, loan programs and enforcement of housing quality standards. We believe that architects can play a role in identifying these stakeholders, and aligning the strengths and contributions of each of the various parties. Doing so allows for yet another layer of enriching a project's potency.
At the individual building scale, designers can be more proactive about incorporating these considerations into every aspect of the design process and engaging in collaborations with all arbiters. The BERKELEY PRIZE has recognized this value and has sought to encourage collaborative and multidisciplinary submissions.
Throughout our design work we have proposed that buildings cannot be prescriptive and that we should pursue strategies that allow the individual to adapt and personalize their immediate environment to their own requirements. At the same time, we seek a high level of "civic sustainability," i.e. the ability to sustain the needs and ambitions of a larger community. Here, our design approach is holistic and often far-sighted, addressing a community's quality of life while establishing local amenities and alleviating concerns about segregation, alienation and our increasingly privatized lifestyles. By employing collaborative processes within and outside the conventional understanding of an architect, we can foster the development of innovative design and help overcome habitual means and methods for design, construction, and place making.
As Architects, we aspire to create lasting architecture which exceeds our own and others expectations of what a place can be. We also believe that the notion of architecture as social art is in no way confined to a particular architectural typology. Therefore whether designing a museum, affordable housing, a public plaza, or a private residence, the opportunity to serve is all pervading.
For better or for worse, the legacy which surrounds us represents a long history of choices and contributions that, without discrimination, represent our current condition.
The potential legacy we can envisage to offer one another rests with our ability to connect, at some level, with ourselves as inseparable from each and every individual far and near. Society, as it were, is our true client. Competing to Serve is an occasion not only to challenge and question the possibilities of design, but also confront the intimate notion that the places we do create have every capacity to touch the lives of others.
Berkeley Prize Committee 2008