Can Architecture Solve Our Crises?

It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” —Rabbi Tarfon

On a recent flight, a gentleman sitting next to me noticed, aloud, that I was reading a book about architecture. Daring to engage in a conversation with more than two hours of flight time left, I confessed that I not only read about, but also practice architecture. His next question, with the earnest tone of a newly minted grandfather, was whether architects were “solving the housing crisis.”

“We’re trying,” I said. “But it’s complicated.”

With more clarity of thought, or less investment in finishing my book, I might have admitted that it was a grave exaggeration to say architects were solving the housing crisis. Or the climate crisis. Or whatever crisis-of-the-day was waiting to be delivered by phone notification when the plane touched down. 

A species’ ability to survive depends both on how attentive it is to crises and whether it can develop tools to adapt to and survive them. Lately, it feels like our culture has turned the dial from “crisis-attentive” to “crisis-obsessed,” threatening our ability to separate sensationalism from necessary calls to action. But this crisis awareness has also turned up the pressure on all of us—or at least, the responsible ones—to really examine whether we’re burying our heads in the sand while the world burns or doing something to help the bucket brigade. 

Enter architects, with our utopian idealism, desire to solve things, and dash of artistic inferiority complex.

Most architects care deeply about the problems intertwined with the built environment—housing, climate, health, social wellbeing—and the evidence is clear that many of these have reached a crisis point, or at least need stronger action than business-as-usual. But I suspect we portray an over-idealistic vision about the power of design to address them. We’re bombarded with articles about building types that can “solve” homelessness, conference sessions about designs for “solving” the climate crisis, and professional organizations lauding architects’ ability to “solve” the loneliness epidemic. These big claims are marketing efforts on steroids, thrown around the profession to generate clicks and ease our own qualms about the value and necessity of our work.

Admittedly, I sometimes want to believe that architecture wields a disproportionate weapon in these fights. Yet when confronted with a building-related crisis—the asbestos plaguing Philadelphia schools, for one—what good is the power to design a brilliant school building until the local politicians allot money toward building repairs and the school district decides how to divvy it up? Likewise, architects can design dense, human-centric neighborhoods until all the current cow pastures become big-box stores, but such neighborhoods can’t house more people if the zoning ordinance forbids denser housing and the price point of modus operandi single-family housing continues to exclude low-income and nontraditional buyers.

This perceived impotence is likely what drives some architects to leave the profession and become developers (where financial control resides) or planners (where policy power lies) or politicians (OK, actually there aren’t many architects who become politicians, but perhaps there should be?). 

The leverage of a developer, planner, or politician may be different than that of an architect, but if they have a silver bullet solution to these crises, they’re holding out on us. The rather obvious truth is that solutions to big problems require ecosystems of solutions, and the “ecosystem of solutions” to problems plaguing the built environment is made up of planning, financing, designing, constructing, and inhabiting. 

Less obvious are the ways that architecture may be underperforming in its role. In the way that we forgot for a few centuries the role that buildings play in their environmental ecosystems—n.b. the climate crisis—we have similarly neglected to examine, and accurately convey, how architects could play a more effective role in this ecosystem. 

Here is a non-exhaustive and non-authoritative set of suggestions:

Expand the definition of the problem. Design’s most potent product is a systematic process for arriving at a solution. This process begins by defining the problem, and the clearer a problem is defined at the outset, the more efficiently it can be solved. Consider the inputs of a typical building site: microclimate, sun patterns, soil composition, topography, views to and from the site, traffic patterns, local construction systems, neighboring character and resources, and plenty of others. Architects analyze, prioritize, and synthesize these factors throughout their design process. Consider the impact if we expanded our inputs to include more direct questions about these larger crises and help prioritize these in our definition of the problem. 

Get to the table earlier. We may not give a solution its initial push (e.g., proposing the site or the budget), but our ability to simultaneously think holistically and specifically can better direct the momentum: we understand how the details impact the big picture right from the outset, to use the site and the budget more efficiently. Or, in certain situations that I suspect we’ll face more frequently in this era of climate change, to suggest that a site should be left unbuilt.

Bring more perspectives to the table. Perspectives that have different lived experiences; perspectives that don’t have a “savior complex”; perspectives that are willing to challenge norms; perspectives that dare to be optimistic. 

Understand motivations. Even when architects aren’t the final decision-makers, we are often decision-influencers and trusted advisers. We can encourage better decisions by understanding the motivations of the decision-makers, and then creatively tying those motivations to ends that also address the bigger problems. 

An example: Light-filled gathering spaces, at a variety of scales, along the main circulation path of an apartment building can encourage impromptu interactions, which can provide the framework for reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation in residents. Such spaces can also lead to lower vacancy rates in the apartment building, which may be the client’s stated objective.

Get to know the local scale. It is unhelpful at least, and harmful at worst, to rely entirely on generalizations about a crisis when formulating plans of attack. Impacts and severity manifest with hyperlocal specificity. Architects already work with such specificity: each building we design exists on a real site with characteristics that are both unique and representative of a particular region. In particular, mitigating the effects of climate change demands a knowledge of local conditions and local resources.

Knowing the local scale also means taking time to know the needs, fears, and dreams of the people who live there. Architects have useful skills to assist in longer term outreach efforts, digging deeper than a one-day charrette or an evening open-house: listening, researching, and responding, all while building trust with community leaders.

Leverage your toolkit. By more thoroughly understanding the tools in our control, we can more effectively employ them and stretch their limits. Zoning and building codes are hardly an area we associate with creativity, but if we understand their ins and outs, we may, for example, find pathways to allow more housing units on a specific lot, which reduces per-unit costs and provides shelter for more people. 

Don’t underestimate the power of visualization. Architects spend most of their time looking into the future: What will this space look like when we’re done helping to shape it? Engineers and statisticians and economists may be able to provide quantitative analysis for the solutions, but architects can provide a qualitative overlay. There is power in a compelling visual story of what these futures look like; they can spark hope, which is not an insignificant tool in overcoming the obstacles and apathy we face in getting to better futures. 

Don’t underestimate the power of narrative, either. Ned Cramer, editor-in-chief of Architect magazine, wrote an editorial in 2017 titled “Architecture as an Antidote.” He posited that our discipline would be more relevant if we increased our focus on the transformative power of a building’s Function—specifically, how it fights the consumption of resources. But, there is also a role for Narrative:

“Just as importantly, the profession needs to craft a popular narrative around the possibilities. [Designers] should show the world what architecture is capable of achieving.… We must lobby, market, and proselytize. We must sell the smart, efficient, living building with passion and persuasiveness. And in so doing, we will point the way to a better future.”

Indeed, how we frame the work we do is a critical piece. Non-architects, such as my airplane seatmate, may often wonder why the “design” part of the ecosystem matters. In making time to tell them—honestly, without the steroids—we clarify and challenge our own understanding, illustrate the hopeful futures we need help advocating for, and fight the paralysis brought on by crises that seem intractable.

Fight the tyranny of the urgent. Looking out at the landscape of disasters the built environment is a part of, it’s hard not to ask why anyone should care about a building’s relationship to the topography, let alone what material the siding should be. Yet in our haste to react to these crises, we can’t reduce our commitment to making good buildings that function well, don’t leak, and contribute, however subtly, to our shared cultural and civic legacy. Jello can stave off immediate hunger quickly, but a continuous diet of it doesn’t lead to long-term health; it takes marginally longer to make a well-balanced meal, but it satisfies longer and does better for the body.

There are grand and elegant solutions born from crises in our past. Though it excluded several still marginalized groups, consider the Works Progress Administration. Many of the physical places that came out of that program are still beloved today, buildings whose construction provided a balm of employment and purpose in the midst of the Depression.

Norvelt, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, a 1,500-acre planned community built in the early 1930s under the WPA and with the help of its nearly 1,200 residents, most of whom were unemployed bituminous coal miners. Images from Special Collections and Archives, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Two public buildings, both built and funded in the 1930s through the WPA: The Robert N.C. Nix Federal Building (left), in Philadelphia, and the Allentown, Pennsylvaia, Post Office. Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Make time for the details. We must find time to focus on the details, not for frivolous or egotistic ends, but because the details are largely in our control, and their impacts add up quickly. For example, architects are responsible for specifying building materials, and if we know what materials are the most effective at reducing embodied carbon or increasing healthy indoor air quality, we can focus on the highest impacts when financial resources are scarce.

Design beyond the edge of your computer screen. We shape places that affect real people and a real, and very fragile, environment. This is best done by designing through lenses of humility and empathy, remembering that we are human beings, even before we are professionals who sit behind computer screens and drafting boards. We should continually think beyond and outside of whatever project is immediately at hand: to consider the relationships built within a project team, to stand as advocates with professional credentials, and to raise the level of discourse that surrounds these crises.

It is far easier to write about these ideas than to enact them. And to be abundantly clear, even if architects leveraged our role in all the ways above, we are never going to design our way out of any crisis. 

There are systematic changes to the political, economic, and social ecosystems we operate in that are required for solutions to take hold, and these changes will only be achieved through education, advocacy, organizing, and political action. It’s worth acknowledging this, both so we don’t dull ourselves into ignoring the urgency of our responsibility as citizens, but also because architects have some expertise that can help organize, educate, and motivate other citizens toward such change. 

While we work toward these larger changes, there are things we can do inside the architecture profession to improve the outcomes of our current societal calamities. Design has power, but with an asterisk: its capacity is intimately related to the ecosystem in which it operates. May the reminder of our place in this ecosystem be comforting, in that we’re not fighting alone. But when the limits of our own agency stalk the edge of our conscience, let it be motivation away from complacency and toward more effective actions—and solutions.

Featured image created by the author.


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