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Robin Cross, article 25, on social responsibility, architecture and philanthropy

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Architecture is a channel towards the opportunity to contribute to society. Architects should engage with humanity, the global environment, and culture,’ said Japanese architect and philanthropist Tadao Ando, about the work of Article 25.

In an era that has seen the rise of the global ‘starchitect’, with architecture often viewed as a luxury for a privileged few, Ando’s comment is a timely attempt to return the architectural profession to its roots: aligned with global social responsibility.

As the starchitect era collides with the vacuum created by the ‘Big Society’, it is crucial that the individual is equipped with tools to build something positive from within the empty space. A creative re-imagining of our profession is urgently required. The government’s new Localism bill demands that a two-way street is created between designer and user as joint decision-makers, challenging the omnipotence of the designer and creating more locally appropriate buildings.

The work of Article 25, the UK’s leading built environment charity, is testament to the fact that hard economic times do not signal the end of high-quality design. Rather, our work building schools, homes and community buildings in developing and post-disaster regions worldwide demonstrates a synergy between a more user-oriented approach and high-quality expertise. Article 25 believes that there are many protagonists in the creation of a building, so when we leave a project, we ensure that we leave behind more than just a building. Crucial to the long-term sustainability of the building is a community empowered and equipped with the necessary construction skills to maintain and rebuild their environment.

Those who shape our built environment have the capacity and the responsibility to harness their skills and make a tangible difference. There is a valuable alliance to be had between architecture and philanthropy, and Article 25 sees this as an opportunity that as a profession, and as a world, we cannot afford to miss. As our trustee Norman Foster testifies, ‘Article 25 is demonstrating in a very real way how design can be a force for good.’

Nowhere has this potential for good, and the need for collaborative and imaginative solutions been more apparent than in Haiti. Generally earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people. So it is critical that when we build back, we do it better. As we mark the one-year anniversary of the devastating Haitian earthquake, Article 25 is breaking ground on an ambitious school reconstruction programme, strengthening the communities’ capacity to build safer futures.

Intelligent, collaborative, and user-driven design in the aftermath of disaster has proven every bit the necessity and not a luxury. ‘We have learned in post-earthquake Haiti that we need highly competent technical people to provide the architectural and engineering support needed to do these [reconstruction] jobs well,’ says Outreach International’s Haiti Emergency co-ordinator Matthew Bolton, Article 25’s partner in Haiti. ‘We can’t make the world a better place without architects, engineers and construction professionals.’

Conceptual re-imagination must begin on our doorstep. Article 25’s UK work focuses on interdisciplinary education and networks. The RIBA online forum, the Knowledge Community for Development and Disaster Relief, stewarded by Article 25, and regular CPD courses are two such examples. With rises in tuition fees and a disenchanted commercial sector, such efforts enable people to apply their skills where they are most needed using sustainable methods. Designers and the ‘Big Society’ must work in parallel if we’re to create a new role for the profession. There lies before us an exciting new challenge to harness the world-class level of technical expertise to reinvent the paradigm.

While masterplanning 75,000m2 of new National Park in Sierra Leone, an Article 25 project architect pauses to design a padlock using only forest materials. Mobilising the time-honoured skills of the designer – cultural sensitivity, a defined palette of materials – is part of the daily creativity demanded of the Article 25 architect. As Foster says, ‘One of the things that excites me as an architect is to try to push the boundaries – to challenge accepted methods, to “reinvent” solutions, and to do “more with less”.’ Article 25 is doing just that.’

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