Week 11: Activist Architecture


Bryan Bell, architect; Co-founder & Executive Director, Design Corps

 “Less than 2% of all houses are designed by architects.  Architect Bryan Bell questions the ethics and value of leaving the nature of dwelling to corporate construction companies that are not structured (or intended) to address the full spectrum of issues that flow from the social and economic inequalities of American society.  Bell offers a different approach to housing–one that is developed in partnership with its future residents and is affordable, sustainable, and culturally expressive. In this lecture, he will discuss the work of his firm Design Corps and the opportunities that an activist practice offers.”

“Designers are superheroes… Designers are empowered with a divine gift for seeing what the rest of world cannot see” (Bell). As per Peter Parker’s dead uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility”, I would translate, is the mantra to which architect Bryan Bell is devoted. As the world get immensely closer to the possibility of extinction, as Clive Dilnot points out, architects, designers begin to have shifting responsibilities to the world. Is it imperative the architects choose the socially responsible route? Or is social responsibility inherent when coming to designing places for shelter?

Clive Dilnot points out that the discipline of architecture centrally addresses inhabitation. Yes, buildings are made to house people. Simple. Do we really need architects if this were the only function to building a structure to house people? What purposes do architects serve beyond just drawing houses? One hundred thousand dollar educations need to result in some sort of expertise beyond knowing how to draw rooms, right? Dilnot also introduces that modernism was set in a time where imminent global extinction did not come to play. As architects are regarded as the holders of knowledge when it comes to advanced and current means of building design, it is necessary to integrate the needs of the world into the standards of architecture.

Bell founds his paper, and his ideology of work, on the idea of integration of the ideas of the client. His Rural Studio project selects a family with need, and addresses their needs in a collaborative effort to construct a building to their needs. I fully believe in the ethics in which Bell supports, however, I question whether or not his intents reach to far beyond his clients in his execution. Is a $10,000 bus shelter necessary in a community of 112 people? It was strange to me that despite Bell’s reuse of salvaged materials, that costs would amount to such a large amount, given the amount of community involvement in the actual construction of this building. It is true that craftsperson’s charge a fee, to every extent, but I wonder, how much of this supposed budget is wrapped around the fee of the design?

Do alternative clients, whom seem to live quietly and relatively effectively need a designer of such high caliber to fix the town’s problems? His solution, if it were effective as such, would integrate the limits of a small budget—not to match a manufacturer’s cost, but to lower the price tag with better quality. Yes, a person’s got to pay the bills in the end of this all, but should Bell be masking his good deeds with a business with a profit margin as a bottom line?

As cynical as these questions may seem, these questions are realistic in the current financial crisis in the world. Is high design necessary in a low culture world? Bell isn’t in the wrong here, though, as I would come to conclude. The world does need more from architecture. Design serves to the betterment of society in all ways, so why not strive to create objects, buildings, and things that are concurrent with the necessities of what society and the earth demands? Business, money making, should be founded on a table of ethics that demand betterment for the world, or at least to not result in detriment of the world, there shouldn’t be any sort of footprint in the result of trade. Living sustainably should not be a matter that comes into question, it should be inherent in the responsibility of both inhabitants and, as Bell and Dilnot make note, designers.


Bryan Bell is a activist architect that seeks to accommodate the needs of people by constructing structures that satisfy such needs– buildings that don’t ignore the necessities of the client. 


To Approach this, Bryan Bell uses 4 methods to developing projects: 


1. “The Personal Approach”: Simply put, is direct solicitation of the client

example: MOCKBEE & HARRIS 


1996 – 1997, Mason’s Bend, Alabama

Mockbee (Director, Rural Studio) approaches Anderson Harris for Architectural consultation.

Harris Refuses, then in convinced to agree.

Harris now an advocate of design.


2. Establishing Criteria for Participation: Interview process to determining family with “most need”, selected family is chosen to be helped.


First meeting: Family presents current housing situation and needs

Second meeting: Clarification of the impact of the resulting new house

Third meeting: Final assesment of need, final selection of project


3. Researching Alternative Clients: “”Research into a specific community or issue, which can reveal social problems in need of a built solution”


Outreach Studio, extention of Rural Studio

Address the entire community by direct solicitation of every community member, discuss solutions

The studio selects lackluster family, the Fields, to participate in community improvement.

Studio hit with skepticism, distrust, hostility

Outreach made a breakthrough, by disclosing it’s own goals and needs, rather than suggesting assistance. 


4. Surveying Needs: Construction of well-designed housing through personal, meaningful contact and community participation

Design Corps personally addresses clientele through survey
The results of such survey then generates solutions to needs of community
With needs in mind, solutions are then generated and proposed to potential clientele of the community


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