There are many architects who believe physical design can positively impact social life and solve some of society’s problems. A basic example would be when a sign or landmark in the middle of a city makes people find orientation easier. However, most social scientists believe it is more of a social dynamic that plays a role in shaping our space. Perhaps a fair conclusion would be that interaction between physical design and social change is a two ways process? Both design and social dynamic influence each other.
Whilst it is good to embrace the sense of social responsibility of architects, it is just as important to balance the mistaken belief that design alone can solve problems like poverty or injustice. Socially sensitive architectural design can solve physical problems that have social consequences, like improving poor quality housing or unsafe streets.
In 1966, a British planner called Maurice Broady came up with a new term: architectural determinism. This was to describe the practice of asserting that design solutions would change behaviour in a predictable and positive way. Over the latter half of the 20th Century, there became a loss of faith in these assertions due to a string of failures. The high-point of this loss of faith was the demolition of the famously dangerous and dysfunctional Pruitt-Igoe urban housing complex in St Louis in the US. It was designed by architects George Hellmuth, Minoru Yamasaki and Joseph Leinweber to provide “community gathering spaces and safe, enclosed play yards.” By the 1960s, however, it was seen as a hotspot for crime and poverty and demolished in the 1970s.
However, faith in architectures power to change human behaviour is being restored but perhaps with a little more caution to not make the same outlandish claims for social change as before. The fact is that environments do affect us, regardless of whether by design or by accident. In 2008, researchers in the UK found that a ten-minute walk down a South London main street increased psychotic symptoms significantly!
Design may be able to mitigate the symptoms or experiences of problems like segregation, crime or disinvestment by altering the patterns of the built environment or changing its perception visually. But design cannot solve economic decline, poverty, racism, or discrimination; these problems are structural, defined by our values, policies, economic practices and laws. So, it is fine to understand the real limits of what design can accomplish without discouraging idealistic designers who want to make change. It simply means that designers need to understand the true causes of some of society’s problems. They can then choose which projects will have the most impact and feel embolden to take more calculated risks.