I’m often intrigued to read about how architects and planners talk about the social impact their work is intended to have. Along these lines, “the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Curator for Socially Responsible Design” talks about what she thinks are pressing issues:
AS: How did you get involved in humanitarian work?
Cynthia Smith: Because I’ve been working on civil and human rights issues most of my adult life and was trained as a designer, I was looking for a way to combine these worlds. I headed to the Kennedy School at Harvard where I met others like me from 44 different countries and every profession. Inspired by the stories and work taking place in the local universities and schools, I returned to New York and began to gather socially responsible design projects from around the world to include in Cooper-Hewitt’s first exhibition dedicated to this type of design work, Design for the Other 90%, mounted in 2007.
AS: What’s the most pressing issue that architects and designers should be addressing?
CS: Today, for the first time in history, more of us are living in cities than ever before. It is critical we create more sustainable and inclusive cities. We can look to emerging and developing economies on how to create innovative solutions from limited resources and challenging environmental requirements. Whether you are a designer, architect, or planner working in your own city or on an international level, engaging and listening to members of a community about what they need is one of the most effective ways to improve urban regions.
There is potential in architecture, design, and planning to create positive social environments, places that give or encourage life versus making like more dreary. However, this can be difficult to bring to fruition and not all designs live up to these standards. Does New Urbanism provide a better way of life? An IKEA house? Concrete modernist buildings (work by Bertrand Goldberg)? The “not-so-big house“? Neighborhoods like those advocated by Jane Jacobs and others? The “High Line” in New York City?
I like the emphasis at the end of the last paragraph quoted above: the process requires interacting with the people who will utilize the structures. Often, architecture seems to be imposed from above, built more around aesthetic or or ideological perspectives than on what people want. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all buildings need to be pragmatic or that strip malls should automatically be built if people like strip malls but there has to be a balance of design expertise and community input.