Design as Activism

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Book: Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism. edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford. Metropolis, 2008


By Morgan Greenseth:

" I recently read a collection of excellent accounts of architects and designers who are bridging those gaps, and becoming engaged citizens, in the book Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford. This visually rich book, (published by Metropolis) is an inspiring read for anyone, but its clear and instructive descriptions also make it a reference book of sorts for those interested in acting through architecture.

This book presents diverse examples of architectural projects directed towards the greater public good, in stories told from the perspectives of the architects. The stories aren't about the individuals themselves, but about their experiences. As they discuss projects that range from a public transit shelter in a disadvantaged neighborhood to new dwellings in a rural part of Taiwan, each designer describes the design process, challenges they faced and the proposed solutions. Some explain in first person; others speak along with their team as a whole; some speak more at a distance. Through stories told this way, we view the architects and the projects on a more personal level, rather than as typical textbook descriptions.

With detailed accounts of projects located both in the United States and abroad, the book shows how architects have met the needs of people in all types of development. One chapter described the Social, Economic and Environmental Design Network (SEED), a group that emerged from a meeting in 2005 at Harvard, where attendees discussed ways for architecture to help communities. One of their first efforts was in New Orleans, where they helped local residents by teaching them to build furniture from salvaged materials, thereby created jobs as well as the needed furniture. Their work became the Katrina Furniture Project. One of the designs, a church pew made from debris, was used in many of the rebuilt churches that had been destroyed.

Another group profiled in the book is Platforma 9.81 in Croatia. This creative group is all about reclaiming public spaces. They have "taken over" abandoned properties and created public events such as theatre openings and art shows. Platforma 9.81 re-envisions these structures, and sees how they can use them to add meaningful interaction and experience to their community.

Expanding Architecture is arranged into eight chapters of various topics that allow designers of all interests to relate. As a professional designer, I found it easy to be inspired by a project. What I found extremely helpful was that this book offered guidance on how to proceed with projects in a similar way to those described, showing me exactly how I could make a difference myself. The architects profiled discuss their processes step by step, telling what worked and the actions they took." (