Note: this essay won the grand prize in a national essay-writing competition.


©2000 Nathan Koren

When considering the topic of "Architecture as a Social Art", I am immediately struck by the multiplicity of interpretations -- more often conflicting than not -- that such a phrase might lend itself to. The words themselves are ambiguous. What is "Social"? What is "Art"? In the practice of architecture (or should I say "Architecture"?) we are vaguely aware that these words imply some principles which our work ought to encompass, but the imprecision of the language itself leaves us without guidance. Architects with utterly oppositional philosophies can each claim passionately that theirs is the only truly social architecture, with both sides mustering copious amounts of verbiage to support their views. Debates have raged for a century, with no position declaring victory for longer than a moment; today the question of architecture's place in society yields such a bewildering diversity of responses that few even bother asking any more.

In academia, however, the situation is worse. It is my experience that, lacking decisive examples of how social considerations play a role in the actual practice of architecture, today's educational institutions are instead electing to dodge the question almost entirely. They are wholly unequipped, at least during the formative years of an architectural education, to impart any social ethics -- even contradictory ones -- to future generations of architects. Before delving into this critique, however, we must explore some of these potentially contradictory definitions of "architecture as a social art".

One definition of "social art" is art that is created by a society. By this interpretation, architecture has been an intrinsically social art throughout the vast majority of human history. In societies without a high degree of specialization, the ability to design and construct a dwelling was considered an essential survival skill. Even today, most dwellings are still built out of sticks or mud by the very people who will inhabit them. It is a decisively social phenomena: evolved rather than dictated, vernacular architecture cannot be credited to any single individual, but to the collective intelligence, needs, and aesthetics of the society as a whole. Emerging from the group wisdom without pretension or self-consciousness, this art is nothing if not social.

But vernacular architecture -- although encompassing the vast majority of human habitation, both modern and historical, often ingenious in its accommodation of culture and climate, and indeed the font from which all other architecture springs -- vernacular architecture is not the historical architecture that we are directed to study in school. Instead, we look to pyramids, parthenons and pantheons, and other buildings designed by highly specialized classes of architects with seemingly infinite resources at their disposal. Nevertheless, I believe that these monumental buildings can still be considered "social" by the definition that we are currently employing. Although the designs are the product of individual initiative rather than social evolution, vast segments of those societies were nevertheless involved in their creation. Tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of individuals participated in their construction, so that no member of the society could be wholly unaware of the undertaking. To one extent or another, these monuments required the approval and cooperation of the societies that built them. To the people who labored to construct them, such buildings must have been seen as icons of their societal goals, values, and place in history. Although these buildings might owe their design to a single individual, or a specialized class of designers, they owe their actual existence to the society as a whole, more than most other buildings. In that sense, they can be considered truly social architecture.

It is useful to define what cannot be considered social in this respect: namely, architecture that is incompatible with the needs, customs, and aesthetics of a society. Many examples of this "non-social" architecture be can found throughout the world, particularly in regions where more traditional cultures have found themselves all but forced to live in "universal style" housing, and are struggling to adapt this new environment to their old lifestyle. One striking example of this can be found in the relocation of many Navajo from their traditional earthen hogans to standardized tract homes provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The new dwellings were hotter in the summer, colder in the winter, failed to account for the ritual clockwise circulation patterns which Navajo tradition dictates, and were impossible to repair using indigenous materials. Even worse, they had indoor plumbing. Many a Navajo, upon having the functioning of the toilet explained, would exclaim in shock and indignation: "you want me to do what in water?!" Water, to the Navajo, is precious and sacred, and must not be thus defiled. Since indoor plumbing was an offensive, even nauseating concept, many of them immediately set about digging outhouses in their back yards. Others walked back to their hogans. The architecture that they were given had entirely failed to address either their environmental or cultural conditions, and therefore could not be considered "social" by our present definition.

Architecture can also fail to be social, in this respect, when it is so sufficiently removed from the public sphere that society does not notices it at all. Historically, large architectural projects required legions of craftsmen and laborers, and this kind of isolation was perhaps more difficult to achieve. Today, however, specialization and mechanization now make it common for vast architectural projects to be undertaken with a minimum of societal participation. Occasionally, external forces such as advertisement (or scandal) might draw such a building into the public sphere, but the resultant "socialness" cannot be considered an attribute of the architecture itself. Consider the immense retail outlet malls that now lurk far beyond the urban boundaries of many American cities: being commercial centers, a limited variety of social exchanges might actually take place within them, but only so long as they are aggressively promoted through billboards and television ads. Since the placement in the landscape is so far removed from other centers of public interest, a constant barrage of propaganda is required to remain in the public consciousness. Truly social architecture can speak for itself; it does not require propaganda to survive.

A second, not necessarily compatible definition of "social art" is art that is created for a society; in other words, art which deliberately seeks to shape society through its presence. While vernacular architecture is shaped through the environmental conditions and daily routines of its inhabitants, and monumental architecture is shaped by the collective aspirations of the society as a whole, this other kind of "social" architecture is more shaped by philosophical intent. Sometimes the two definitions are in accord -- particularly when the intent is to strengthen some extant societal structure. Frequently the two definitions are not in accord, and the collision of the to two can result in anything from disaster, to irrelevance, to societal epiphany.

The medieval cathedral, seeking to amplify the aspirations of a community and strengthen the role of the church within it, is "social" by this definition. So is Corbusier's plan for Paris, which proposed destroying the extant urban fabric and rebuilding it within a more ordered and "rational" matrix. Schemes as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright's anti-urban "Usonia" and Paolo Soleri's ultra-urban "Arcologies" can both be included within this rubric -- but these are merely the most dramatic examples. The New Urbanists -- when not attempting to be synonymous with blithe historicism -- have developed some distinctly new concepts of social interaction within communities. The Cohousing movement, which has fortuitously avoided being pigeonholed within any particular "Style", has successfully taken many of these ideas even further. On the other hand, even the numbing clone-homes of Levittown could be considered "social" in this respect, for they consciously incorporated many novel ideas of construction, land usage, and home ownership. The designers of Levittown were well aware that their work was something new, with the power to potentially reshape society.

But after a thousand Levittowns had been built, this was no longer the case. This kind of social art, in contrast to the former, requires continuous innovation to survive. Unlike vernacular or monumental architecture -- both of which find strength in repetition -- architecture that is created to shape a society loses its power when repeated without conviction, built within a context where it lacks any meaning, or reduced to mere "style". The fist Levittown redefined the "American Dream" almost overnight. The thousandth Levittown knock-off, however, could do nothing more. But even as the form lost all claim to "socialness" by our current definition, its success allowed it to be legitimately considered an aspect of the American vernacular, and hence "social" in our first sense. This is not the only way that these two definitions can come into conflict. Revisiting the story of the relocated Navajo, it is easy to imagine the Bureau of Indian Affairs conceiving of their tract homes as a deliberate intervention, meant to "improve" the societal condition of their inhabitants. Suddenly, architecture that was entirely non-social by our previous definition is now ambitiously social, intending to be a determinant for a society rather being determined by it.

Finally, it is worth noting that some architecture can exist entirely outside of either of these spectrums of socialness. Corbusier's oft-cited definition of architecture as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light" is a shining example of this. His precept ignores the social sphere altogether, and a building designed in accordance with this doctrine alone will rarely become part of any social matrix. In hindsight, it is all too obvious that the widespread modernist conception of buildings as "objects on a plain" was responsible for some of the least socially efficacious buildings in human history. On the other hand, Corbusier's dictum was not exactly anti-social, and there are many modernist structures that, either through embellishment of the underlying principles or sheer coincidental luck, have achieved some degree of social functioning. Still, I think it is safe to say that if one wishes to address the role of architecture in society, the endless permutations of light falling on abstract geometry provide a very poor place to start.

Unfortunately, this is exactly where my architectural education began. Our first year in studio was spent wholly engaged in the abstract. Not only were we prevented from bringing social considerations to bear in our work, we were even discouraged from conceptualizing of our designs as "architecture" in any respect. Issues of human scale were not to be considered. "Windows" and "doors" were to be thought of as "apertures" and "openings"; walls, roofs, floors, and the site itself were reduced to different kinds of geometric planes. All human considerations were to be cast aside for the sake of pure, unblemished, and utterly irrelevant formalism.

In the second year we were finally allowed to think in terms of the most basic architectural tectonics -- "spaces" were allowed to be "rooms", "groundplane" slowly transmogrified into "site". On two occasions we were permitted to explore some programmatic notions -- although these were still so limited and abstract as to preclude any precedent studies or real-world considerations.

The first semester of the third year retreated again from real consideration of place and program, as we were encouraged to develop somewhat theoretical structures using a more precise tectonic vocabulary. In one project, we were granted an actual site, although the careful investigation of it seemed to be regarded as optional. Now, in the latter half of the third year -- six semesters into our architecture education -- we have been given a project which requires deep and conscious interaction with the social sphere. We are now, at long last, being unambiguously introduced to the notion that the inhabitants and location of a building, along with one's own social intentions, should be some kind of design determinant. Three quarters of the way through our undergraduate education, we have finally been asked to consider Architecture as a Social Art.

This is too little, too late. Most of my classmates have already imprinted a definition of architecture that has nothing to do with its role in society. Others have tried from the beginning to interject notions of environment, culture, or economy into their process, but such actions are seen as rebellious, and have become increasingly tinged with cynicism and bitterness. I have certainly noticed this occurring in myself.

Why is the educational process failing so spectacularly? I believe it is because the sequence in which concepts have been presented is almost exactly the opposite of the way it ought to be. Psychologists speak of a "hierarchy of needs", in which an individual's physiological needs must be met before their social needs can be addressed, and their social needs must be met before self-actualization can be achieved. My education has attempted to build that pyramid from the top down, and it has not worked. Turning towards biology, we find the maxim "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- in other words, that the development of an organism mirrors the evolution of the species. The development of an architect should be no different. Our education should begin with a study of the historical process of architecture -- not a rote memorization of various historical styles, but a thorough understanding of the many ways in which social and environmental determinants have shaped the built environment. This done, we should proceed study more contemporary ways in which the built environment has reciprocally shaped society, both by design and by accident. Finally -- fully aware of the many roles that architecture can play -- we might be ready to wrestle with the infinite subtleties of "volumes brought together in light," and we would finally be equipped to do so within a meaningful, socially responsive context.

©2000 Nathan Koren