Accessible Architecture: Democratizing Design and Information
Earlier this year, I witnessed an intriguing situation. I followed, via an architect friend, the negotiation for the contracting of an architectural project for a single family home. The land owner, a public school teacher, sought professional help to build her dream home, estimated at about 60 square metres. It was a challenging terrain, with specific cutouts and a very steep topography that was compensated by the view of the city. The limited budget and the owner’s history indicated that this would be the seaside version of the famous Vila Matilde House by Terra e Tuma.
In the course of the story, the first proposal presented by my colleague was not accepted, it was far beyond the expectations of the future client’s expenditure. However, it was already too late, the architect was too involved with the story and the challenge that would come with the project, so he suggested her to make a counter proposal according to her budget. The counter proposal was made and, with a symbolic value, they decided to start the project. But something happened between the verbal acceptance and the formal contract. After a talk with the master builder who would be responsible for the construction, the client declined her offer and decided to go on with the adventure without the help of a professional.
The fellow architect’s expectations collapsed, as did, most likely, the architectural quality of the house, and this unfortunate outcome brought up some important reflections. There has a lot of talk about the democratization of access to architectural design, a topic that has numerous initiatives created by architects so that the project becomes more accessible, especially in terms of budget.
In addition to independent strategies that offer free or affordable projects and consultations, such as the one by the aforementioned colleague, other similar initiatives can be listed. One of them is the Law of Technical Assistance in Housing of Social Interest (ATHIS) which, in practice, is a government subsidy for the elaboration of projects, monitoring and execution of works aimed at families with an income of less than three minimum wages. Its fundamental principle is the universalization of access to architecture and urban planning services, paying for the technical work and facing the prejudice/ignorance of the category by the communities.
In another line of work, well-known architects have also contributed to ease access to architectural design through initiatives such as open source sharing. Its exponent, without a doubt, was the Chilean architect, Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena, who in 2016 provided four of his most famous projects for free, allowing anyone interested to use and adapt them freely. With this strategy, Aravena focused on private initiatives and governments, stating that there would be no more excuses for not investing in good affordable housing projects. In addition to it, other international platforms make projects available for free, such as Paperhouses, which offers free projects by renowned architects such as Tatiana Bilbao Architects, EMBT and architecturespossibles, or Wikihouse, which provides low-cost projects for the construction of sustainable housing .
Fundamental to democratize access to architectural design, these initiatives – with very different approaches and levels of action – demonstrate that there is an effort on the part of professionals in this direction, although there is still a long way to go so that, in fact, they can cover the entire population in need. However, it seems that in addition to the strategies of sharing technical knowledge that make the architectural project more accessible, there are structural and ideological barriers that need to be broken for this democratization to actually take place.
The advantages of hiring an architecture professional are numerous, listing them here is to reaffirm the basics, however, such advantages clearly understood by us seem not to be so evident for a large part of the population. This lack of appreciation for architecture happens in different situations and for different reasons, it is something that is not exclusive to a social class, to the scale of the project or to the amount to be invested, although it is possible to notice a greater resistance to architectural services in the less affluent classes, mainly due to the stigma of being a luxury activity that increases the expenses in the work.
In other words, democratizing architectural design also means democratizing access to information about the profession through initiatives that present the role of architecture and urban planning and their ability to transform spaces in a genuine way. In Brazil, the Architecture and Urbanism Council itself has organized strategies and events with the main aim of reinforcing the appreciation of the services of architects and urban planners, demonstrating that the cost is low and that this enables significant savings in renovations and constructions. However, these initiatives still struggle to leave the architectural circuit and reach other people.
In short, it is not enough to make technical knowledge available altruistically if there is no clear understanding of the advantages of having the professional support of an architect. In this sense, perhaps my colleague lacks a better argument on the subject, a final effort to show the importance of the architectural project for this democratization to be effective and accepted.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Democratization of Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; If you want to submit an article or project, contact us.