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  • Writer's pictureAngella Darling J

Socially Responsible Practices in Architecture

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

For most of my academic upbringing, we were taught how to design spaces adhering to bylaws. The technicalities of construction, ratios, proportions, graphics, and climatology were all at the tip of our tongues. But today, I believe what was missed in this academic process is a closer focus on being a professional who will positively impact or benefit society at large.

I believe Architecture is more of a philosophy that gets embedded in us rather than something that can be taught. As human beings, right from birth we develop a sense of our surroundings and respond to them. We come to associate spaces with the experiences in our life. But as we enter into professional life and begin observing the world with a different lens, many factors influence our understanding and simultaneously instigate a deeper conversation with our peers as well as within ourselves.

Architecture as a discipline has a dual nature where it is simultaneously an academic as well as a practical discipline. And precisely for the same reason, the professional community needs to be extremely conscious of the impacts of their decisions and proposals. Architecture can help set precedents for agendas as well as propaganda, it has the potential to set the narrative for a community. Therefore, it is vital that the architectural fraternity understand and respond to the larger community whose welfare is at stake.

As we are being constantly made aware, the earth’s natural resources are experiencing incomparable demand and simultaneous resource crunch globally. All aspects of human life including building materials, energy requirements, water requirements, etc, have an extreme impact on our environment. Architecture as industry demands social responsibility from its professionals in this time of rapid development and exponential population growth. As architects, we have a fair role to play in at least slowing down the pace of this crisis.

Social responsibility: the ethical framework within which an individual works and engages with other individuals and organizations for the broader benefit of the community.

We decided this would be the right time to hold a discussion among our home architects at Elemental to explore their takes.

Architect Nimmy Alex believes that architecture has the power and potential to change lives.

"Architecture needs to be empowering, it should be able to uplift the users and make their lives easier, not harder." adds Architect Nimmy Alex.

She opines that the way aspects like hostile architecture or anti-homeless architecture affect day to day lives of people is something that is not given much thought to. Practices like anti-homeless architecture are an inhuman way to deal with the issues at hand. Historically, architecture corresponded to the social milieu that consisted of the underlying societal framework of the rulers and the ruled, the worshiped and the worshipers, and higher and lower economic classes. This dichotomy of a higher and a lower has constantly been cultivated and practiced. With new-age developments and globalization, we must be more open to the exchange of thoughts and philosophies. Architects and planners should be the harbingers of societal change in the spaces we inhabit.

"While discussing architecture and an architect’s social commitment, addressing the environmental concerns the world is facing right now is an inevitable aspect," chimes in Architect Shilpa.

"Sustainable practices are the only way forward to recover from the grave damage that we have already inflicted on this planet. Future practices should focus on reconnecting people with their natural environment and working in harmony, rather than competing against it," says Architect Shilpa Elizabeth Kuruvilla.

The multitude of disasters and unprecedented climatic changes we are experiencing with each passing year is a clear indication for us to look for alternative practices that are climate responsive. Architectural social responsibility is understanding the needs of not only the community but also their surrounding environment and responding accordingly. The architect has a responsibility not just to their clients but also to nature and the planet.

As architects, we must capitalize our knowledge to engage in sustainable practices. Our responsibilities while planning involves the tackling of a plethora of issues. It will include issues like reduction of traffic, lesser commuting distances, accessible public transport facilities,walker friendly access planning,cutting down the usage of private vehicles, introduction of green spaces, more recreational spaces,multi-functional spaces,etc. All of this should be directed at ensuring a healthy environment for people of varied lifestyles to thrive in. Our efforts should be to look for sustainable solutions without compromising on modern day developments and technologies. This ability to strike a balance between the two can be termed as the greatest responsibility an architect can take up, states Architect Anugraha Neelankol.

"As architects, our motto should be to come up with sustainable solutions while catering to modern day needs of the world", states Architect Anugraha Neelankol

Another important aspect that should be normalized and popularized is the use of traditional materials, practices, and artisans for construction. This would directly create a massive impact on the reduction of carbon emissions as well as boost the local craft by providing economic support. There are a lot of communities that have traditionally been engaged in certain aspects of construction like woodwork or stone work for ages. With the onset of machinery, many of these communities have lost not only their livelihood but also their identities. Therefore by involving them in modern-day projects we get to learn about these techniques as well as revive and empower a community, opines Ar Haritha Gangadharan.

"Our responsibility towards the society does not stop at our clients but also to those people who are working along with us." says Architect Haritha Gangadharan

People are often accustomed to seeing and using spaces as they have been provided to them. It becomes the responsibility of an architect to study those lifestyle patterns, devise ways in which the current pattern is least affected, and propose a better design that responds to the current global scenario. Context and users will always demand a different set of planning concepts and that should be the driving force to make amendments. An efficient way to achieve this is to incorporate a participatory approach to design, says Architect Megha Shaji. This will facilitate the direct engagement of the users in the design process. Methods like citizen urbanism or tactical urbanism are similar initiatives to develop public spaces that propose to trigger long-term changes via short-term interventions.

"A participatory approach will ensure creation of architectural spaces that connect people and strengthen communities while making way for sustainable solutions." adds Architect Megha Shaji.

"A little bit of thought and consideration while designing can go a long way in making the users comfortable and ultimately make the design a sustainable solution", opines Architect Riya Susan Mathews

She believes that while designing for a community, it is very important that the design is for everyone. Architects wield greater power in letting people feel included and considered. An inclusive approach to design offers an insight into the way we interact with the built environment. This can help bring about a seamless and barrier-free design experience to its users thereby facilitating a level ground for all.

Be it any industry, for any professional to be committed to their profession, it is extremely important for them to feel valued and consequential. Sadly, in many architectural practices, this is not the case. There are instances where architects fresh off from their academic life eager to join the workforce in an endeavor to make their contribution, often being disheartened by the unreasonable hours and meager salaries offered, laments Architect Neha Liju. This not only kills the enthusiasm in the young professionals but often even their drive to remain in the profession. The ones who take up such jobs are often left drained and devoid of any motivation to contribute. Unpaid internships and frequent all-nighters are a common occurrence in many architectural practices leaving the professionals often detesting the profession itself.

As a fraternity, it is also the responsibility of the senior professionals to ensure more ethical practices in order to foster socially committed architects in the field, suggests Architect Neha Liju.

Today, architects are a part of a bigger game wherein a holistic approach toward user-centric, climate-responsive designs that adheres to the social fabric with a view to attempting corrections made in the past becomes crucial. An approach where we are able to cater to the growing problems of resource scarcity, dangers of calamities, and an alarming state of strain on the current infrastructure with a response that sensitively embraces nature, and all living species equally. Simultaneously making people understand the language of architecture, its role in society, and its responsibility towards the socio-economic fabric is another challenge for architects to take up.

Elemental, as an organization is committed to involving ourselves with projects that are beneficial to the community and hold some meaning for the users. As a practice that advocates sustainability, we are constantly on the lookout for innovations and practices that are not detrimental to the community, the planet nor the idea of architecture itself.

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