October 26, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Autonomy as Engagement

Hashim Sarkis ALUD. Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre. Tyre, Lebanon. 1998–2008. Image by Joumana Jamhouri

MoMA’s exhibition Small Scale, Big Change exposes the fallacy of opposing architecture’s autonomy to its social engagement.

Over the past twelve years, our office has been working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in rural Lebanon, designing projects related to social and economic development. After the 1975-1990 wars, many relief-based NGOs have shifted their attention to development. Their numbers, areas of activity, budgets, and impact have increased exponentially as they have moved to partner with international NGOs, the private sector, government agencies, and one another. The growing power of NGOs relative to the state and civil society has been a source of heated debate around the world. They have also become significant clients for architects.

While difficult to generalize, NGO-commissioned projects differ from those of conventional clients in that:

– We, as architects, are brought into the project ahead of final decisions about site, program, and budget. As such, we help in determining these factors and in removing significant constraints ahead of design.

– Design becomes an instrument of fund-raising.

– Program, budget, and design tend to constantly change based primarily on targeted donors.

– Design and construction schedules are negatively affected by fund-raising and donation schedules.

– When communities are involved (and it is not always the case that they are), their members tend to defer to us as “experts” more than regular clients do.

– It is generally accepted that the uniqueness of the social situations addressed by NGOs warrants unique social solutions and therefore unique design solutions. However, international partners tend to be more comfortable with replicated solutions and with stereotypes of “local architecture.”

– In general, however, NGOs want their projects to transcend immediate context. They want to stand out and to strategically displace accepted social and architectural norms.

– The degree to which architects can play a role in this effort depends on the degree of their “aesthetic autonomy”—their ability to operate outside of the constraints of context and inherited forms and to provide original expression to emerging audiences.

In this strategic autonomy lies the key to effective social engagement.