Architecture Activism

Can we change the future through architecture? Can architecture be political? Can architects be activists? Yes, yes and yes!

Can we change the future through architecture?
Can architecture be political? Can architects be activists?
Yes, yes and yes!

Architecture is not about building walls and ceilings. Instead it’s a service that stems from a broad understanding of people, their activities and the physical surroundings. At the same time, architecture reflects society: its distribution of resources and authority, its history, beliefs and values at a given time. In our work, we can address societal issues with integrity and vision. In short, be activists.

A few examples.

Together with my collegues Saija Hollmén and Helena Sandman we are currently designing girls’ hostels in Iringa, Tanzania. Through our NGO Ukumbi and Lyra in Africa we are building the dormitories they desperately need. By engaging the local community in the actual design and using sustainable building methods the projects we aim at are strengthening their economy, social status and health. Through activism like this architecture can be a powerful way to mitigate poverty.

My colleague Lionel Devlieger at the Brussels-based office Rotor is passionate about recycling. His designs are based on salvaged materials from demolition sites. In our consumer society, the lifespan of buildings built with modern techniques has dropped in half compared to old wood, brick and stone buildings. It’s become cheaper to demolish than to repair. Since tons of usable materials are transported daily to landfills, Devlieger is asking: why are we obsessed with creating everything from scratch?

German architect Anna Heringer has a simple definition for sustainability. If something can be done over and over again, then it’s sustainable. So, whenever Heringer designs something, she asks herself: could all the people in the world afford to build in this way, both economically and ecologically? The resources of our planet are limited but in an equal world they could be distributed to all of us for adequate shelter, today and in the future. If this principle were to guide our architects and constructors, significantly less would be built. Perhaps with better quality.

Can a handful of socially conscious architects make the world into a better place? Obviously, huge transformations will require strong political will. But there are plenty of examples of activist architects pushing people with power for change.

As a teacher at Aalto University, my most important task is to help young architects to become talented agents of change. This means taking small steps, that’s for sure. But with knowledge, empathy and engagement there are possibilities to change our environment to the better. In my book, every single architect that is able to work for a more sustainable and beautiful future is a true hero.
An architect activist hero.

Jenni Reuter

Jenni Reuter is Associate Professor in Architectural Principles and Theory at Aalto University. She also practices as an architect both in her own office and together with architects Saija Hollmén and Helena Sandman. In 2007 they founded NGO Ukumbi, the mission of which is to offer architectural services to communities in need.

We are in a race against time: The UN Sustainable Development Goals must be achieved within 10 years. Aalto University’s Designs for a Cooler Planet event at Helsinki Design Week 2020 will showcase inspiring scenarios for the future in September at its Otaniemi campus. Collaboration between designers, researchers and stakeholders will lead to better solutions for people and the environment.