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Jorge Toledo

The economic paradox of activist architects

Without getting into examples, I am going to consider it common knowledge that there has always been a current of social engagement in architecture. That although some have been more radical or felicitous than others, there have always been architects who have tried to make a conscious contribution to society through their work. Why, then, is it particularly relevant to be talking about this now? Because over these last few years there has been an upsurge of a current whose values are perhaps similar to those a few decades ago, but whose way of working is absolutely contemporary.

And yet —and this is where we get to the heart of this post— many of these designs are not fully sound economically, meaning that they do not contribute to our sustainability as professionals. And they don’t because they hardly can. Either they are compromising values or formats that are not that easy to recognise — and therefore not that easy to remunerate — or else where they actually are recognised and where they are most needed, the beneficiaries do not have the financial wherewithal to generate a reasonable return.

And so architects find that they cannot make a living from designs which, although they broaden the discipline of architecture and (re)gain social meaning, they are unable to build a viable profession.

Then why not abandon this avenue? Because underneath it all, the architect knows that social engagement means more than just doing what society demands (and pays for). Social engagement means doing what one thinks society needs. This is why the most engaged architecture cannot be governed like the profession is overall merely by the laws of supply and demand.

In fact, the crisis has “facilitated” just that. As demand came to a standstill, supply was freed up. Since developers are no longer seeking us out, we have become developers ourselves. And all of a sudden we have found ourselves in a freer position vis-à-vis our calling. In the end, as we have always intuited, rather than the architect, it is the developer that holds the key to social power. Rather than the architectural design itself, the determining factors are the conditions shaping it, the approach, the principles for initiative, the process… and this is exactly what we can choose when we unconditionally do what we feel is our duty.

At this stage, the questions that come to mind are different. What if we’re taking the wrong approach? What if we didn’t have to make what is now voluntary professional, but make what is currently part of the profession voluntary? Maybe it would be better for architects not to directly make a living off their work, but rather do what they believe in and indirectly receive from society or from anywhere else the means to continue.

I admit that I’m not very sure what scenarios this opens. Could our work be —uh— subsidised by the State? Must we live off donations as declared activists? Or should we carry on as we have thus far, investing and donating our work while earning our living from what society ostensibly asks of us, commissions us to do and (sometimes) pays us for. I don’t know. But hell, I think it’s worth considering.

And meanwhile, allow me to continue believing that my colleagues in this profession would, if they were free to do what they wanted without having to worry about their livelihoods. They would do marvellous things with and for the benefit of society. The proof is that without receiving any direct returns and while struggling with precarious conditions, they already are.

Photography by © Göran Arvidson on Flickr

Text translated by Beth Gelb
Jorge Toledo García es Arquitecto, actualmente trabajando en Ecosistema Urbano, donde lleva principalmente temas de comunicación así como la investigación y desarrollo de herramientas aplicadas a lo social. Interesado en las aplicaciones de la innovación abierta y la cultura libre a las formas de trabajo, al entorno urbano y a la arquitectura.

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