Social relevance & concerns of architecture… many of us in the architectural profession often work for private clients, whether single family dwellings in my my practice or institutional, commercial or industrial to name a few other categories. The social impact or relevance is often mute… we are trying our best to meet the client’s needs for program, aesthetics & budget. But for those who have or are doing architecture that has social relevance such as public housing, landscape design (parks & all open public spaces), etc, the impact on how we as a society operate can be of tremendous import to all of us.
History has taught us much in this vein… we probably all know the archetypal story of the many soon to be disastrous public housing experiments done from the New Deal to the Great Society days. Some were successful but many typically packed people in high-rises that became infested with crime. This was obviously not the intent but housing types & their relationship to each other have been completely rethought as a consequence. Today, many new housing developments are light on the highrise & heavy on townhomes with proper open areas.
One such early practitioner was Oscar Stonorov, an early to mid-20th century architect & urban planner who designed the East Falls Towers in the early 1950s. This is the neighborhood where I grew up so it has intimate import to me. It was known as a social housing failure, a hotbed of dangerous crime. Finally in the mid 90s, the towers & more successful low rises were imploded & replaced with new town homes & lower apartment blocks. The architect’s intentions were noble, but it did not dovetail with reality. I think any of us in our profession would love every project to have an overt social relevance… even if they are typically private commissions, we hope that the aesthetics & relationship to place will at least feel inspirational to the public that comes into contact with our work. This is a big topic so here is some history to get the conversation going.