Designed to improve? The makings, politics and aesthetics of ‘social’ architecture and design


  1. Introduction: the ‘social’ as a category of improvement in architecture and design

    Debates on the so-called social turn in architecture and design have in the last decade (again) increasingly turned to reflect on the disciplines’ contributions to current societal challenges, architects’ ways of generating ‘social impact’, of improving the life of neighbourhoods and the disciplines' potentials for social inclusion and/or cohesion (Bell and Wakeford 2008; Lepik 2013; Anderson 2014; Till 2014). So-called ‘socially engaged’ building and design practices are discussed as the (new) means to challenge how design operates and how it gains relevance in the eyes of the public (Jones and Card 2011; Stickells 2011). Such practices often have an overall focus on action and processes rather than aesthetics only, including the explicit rejection of expert knowledge in favour of participation of non-experts, self-organisation, learning and improvisation by (local) communities. While their outcomes are buildings as well as smaller and temporary interventions into urban spaces, the inspiration for these kinds of interventions in European and North American cities frequently derives from practices of informal urbanism in the cities of the Global South (Brillembourg, Feireiss, and Klumpner 2005; Angélil and Hehl 2012; McGuirk 2014). This interest on the part of architecture and design practitioners in self-organised and bottom-up urbanism in the Global South is also reflected in prominent architectural prizes and international recognition for projects that seek to learn from informal urbanism. It is not by chance that the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Biennale di Architettura was not given to a design project but to a documentation of a squatter community in a half-built high-rise tower in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, the Torre David (Brillembourg and Klumpner 2013). This trend of the so-called social turn has picked up pace in the arts (Bishop 2006; Jackson 2011; Kester 2011) with the Turner Prize 2015 as one of the most important art prizes being awarded to Assemble, a group of architects and artists concerned with performative aspects of the built environment and local community building in a neighbourhood in Liverpool, and has gained still more traction with Aravena's housing project winning the Pritzker Prize in 2016. Without doubt, a somehow socially informed design thinking has entered the architectural discourse and simultaneously blurred the lines between disciplines concerned with the ‘social’ as much as between formal and informal projects.



Richter, A., Göbel, H., Grubbauer, M., 2017. Designed to Improve?: The makings, politics and aesthetics of ‘social’ architecture and design. In: City Vol. 21, Iss. 6, 2017, 769-778 | Published online: 25 Jan 2018

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Prof. Dr. Monika Grubbauer


Professor, History and Theory of the City

Dr. Anna Richter


Post-doctoral Researcher