Design or Revolution

Is socially responsible design an oxymoron? A special clinic that was launched at the College of Management in Rishon Letzion is tackling this very issue.

We're rebelling against the existing agenda and declaring a revolution. These days interior design is a synonym for gaudiness and hedonism. Designers work for the luckiest of the lucky: healthy and wealthy young people who have everything. Architects glory in the large homes they've planned for the rich and compete over whose are more luxurious, glitzy, worthy of notice in the media and "in." They have their sights on cities, neighborhoods and buildings for those who belong to what is considered the privileged class: Yuppies, bon vivants and high-tech tycoons. Magazines are filled with photos of homes that celebrate design. How rare it is when an architect boasts of reducing construction costs, or creating beauty in a public housing project.

Tour Bois Le Pretre

But we believe that designers will once again talk about social responsibility and be proud to do so; that city planners will once again be concerned first and foremost with taking the distress out of poor neighborhoods. Design had days like this in the past, and we believe they can return.

The remarks above were not taken from the fiery manifestos of do-gooders of previous centuries, but may be found in a position paper called "Is socially responsible design really an oxymoron?" by architect Yaron Turel, a senior lecturer in the interior design department of the College of Management in Rishon Letzion (and a former member of the leftist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair ), which was publicized at the launch of a design clinic at the college last week.

The clinic, the result of collaboration between the design department and the Rishon Letzion municipality, will operate as other such pro bono enterprises do in academia, providing services to the needy, in this case in the field of design, according to the founders, who have not yet completely formulated the method of operation. Establishing the clinic in the design department is an attempt to restore the historical social role designers took on at the beginning of the 20th century, when they were occupied with improving the world, and stars in their ranks supplied solutions for the housing of workers, or at least planned them.

The goal of the design department is at once ambitious, pretentious, promising and at the moment a bit unclear to the founders as well. As they put it, the clinic aspires to be a platform for the improvement of daily life "through the power of architecture and design" - by providing a framework for needs that are not met by the private market, the state or local authorities, cooperating with the community and developing environmental awareness. It aims to interfere as little as possible with existing structures, refrain from demolition and serve as a "catalyst for social unity," answering the need to change current designs while acknowledging that good design in a world such as ours is not a luxury but no less than a vital need.

These are demanding challenges for design's narrow and indulged shoulders.

A quiet revolution

And so the establishment of the clinic is also an attempt by the department to broaden the definition of design and locate it as an area "uniting the human experience, talent and knowledge involved in the ability to suit the environment to physical needs."

The appointment last year as department head of Carmella Jacoby-Volk, former editor of the critical journal "Block," marks an additional step in the attempt to square the circle of design and social responsibility.

The clinic was not established in a vacuum, although it is true that design and architecture have not changed yet. The superstar method still prevails; the wow-factor of the Bilbao effect does not yet register and the Pritzker Prize is still not awarded for service to humanity, but to Frank Gehrys and their spiritual heirs. But nonetheless there is change in the air, whether in the wake of the financial and environmental crises or because people are tired of the bubble.

This way or that, in the discourses of design and architecture, in education and practice, there is more and more talk of society, the public, democratizing planning, cooperation, low-rent projects, environment and the rest of the issues swirling around under what is called "involvement" and "responsibility."

Architectural exhibits are no longer merely demonstrations of ego and power but also include projects that are not even photogenic, but which contribute to humanity. This is a quiet revolution, says Gil Mualem Doron, an artist and scholar of urban culture and marginal groups, and one of the founders of the clinic. Last year he conducted a workshop with members of a poor neighborhood, and he teaches at various schools out of an uncompromising ideological social stance that is exceptional in the local landscape.

Change starts from within

Over the last decade many non-governmental organizations that work pro bono have arisen around the world, to plan for poorer communities, providing a possible model for the new clinic in Rishon Letzion, whose founders are still trying to explain to themselves "how to do it" and are mulling over questions of principle - whether design has at all to take on social obligations, or whether socially responsible design is indeed an oxymoron. Senior members of the department and clinic founders gathered at the round-table conference with academics, architects, designers and social activists to brainstorm on the subject.

It was one of the most fascinating discussions on this issue, which raised more doubt than hope. At the same time, the fact of its existence was proof that there is a chance that the design department will be the place where change starts from within. Design is not what it once was, said Mualem Doron. Architecture and design studies have adopted research methods and activities from anthropology and art, and use them as informal tools and for work with poor neighborhoods. The interior design department already offers courses and a workshop in "the mutual relations between design and responsibility," whether in how to work with communities or formulate critical positions.

The workshop, "Community Architecture," conducted this year by Turel, Mualem Doron and Shimrit Kaufman, had students improve public spaces between and around buildings in the Jesse Cohen neighborhood of Holon, one of the oldest poor neighborhoods in the city, developing informal methods of cooperation in collaboration with residents. One project included the design of kitchens and dining rooms in the backyard of a building, a regular meeting place for tenants.

Even if one semester-long course and one kitchen don't change the world, Mualem Doron believes that such experiments open students' eyes to the community, living conditions and lifestyles which are not conceived as part of the design mandate.

In reality, outside the college gates, life goes on as usual. For example, except for the close cooperation between the design department and the Rishon Letzion municipality, when it comes down to the moment of truth for a new master plan that will determine the nature of the next decades, social messages go out the window. The project exhibited at the clinic launch channels most of the municipality's planning effort into gestures to attract the privileged classes - boulevards and promenades, leaving behind those who are considered undesirable, but who have a greater need for efforts and resources. The road ahead is long and winding.

Model project

The department's guest at the clinic opening was architect Ann Lacaton of the Lacaton-Vassal company of France, which recently attracted attention and appreciation on the international front for renewal of a public housing block from the 1960s in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, on the northern edge of the city. The project, developed in cooperation with architect Frederic Druot, was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in an exhibit called "Small Scale Big Change," which aroused a lot of interest even though it included not even one gaudy project.

In her lecture in Rishon, under the utopian-coquettish title "Tomorrow will be a beautiful day," Lacaton offered a suitable answer to the architecture of showmanship. The renewal of an apartment block in Paris and other projects carried out by her office provide exactly what architecture schools should aspire to: excellent architecture, social responsibility, environmental awareness, low-key activities and a belief that "all design work must be include a kind of volunteerism on the level of small-scale politics. Architects and designers can return to their roles as key players in present reality," Lacaton said, adding that good structures are well-lit, airy, pleasant, convenient, flexible and worth the money they cost.

This project, called Tour Bois Le Pretre (tower of the priest's forest ), exemplifies the spirit of things. The 50-meter tall building was planned in 1959 by architect Raymond Lopez at the invitation of the city of Paris, and included 100 apartments. Today it would not be possible to construct such a tall building in the city, which limits height to 37 meters. In the 1990s it underwent an extensive renovation which changed its external appearance completely, essentially spoiling it without improving living conditions for tenants.

The block is part of ring of housing projects around the historical center of Paris, built in the years after World War II to house blue-collar workers and immigrants. Over the years it became a focus of unrest, for which living conditions played no small part. The Parisian planning department has recently been conducting large renovation projects in these kinds of neighborhoods. Their intention was to demolish the tower and erect a new building, so that the decision to renovate marks a new approach to neighborhood rehabilitation.

Now two-thirds of the department's projects are for renewal rather than eviction and demolition. In 2005, Lacaton's office along with Druot won the municipal competition to renovate the tower building, not an accident when one takes their credo into account. An ever-increasing number of architects and planners in France are advancing similar approaches, which are not only economical and ecological but also socially aware in that they allow tenants to remain in their own environment with improved housing conditions. The project grew out of studies and interviews with block residents, and included building additions, increased living spaces and openings to permit natural light to enter the dark apartments.

The most significant change was the erection of an external ring of clear porches around the original structure, among them winter gardens inspired by agricultural and industrial hothouses, the office's signature style on other renewal projects. The construction process allowed tenants to remain in their apartments while work was ongoing or to move temporarily into empty apartments in the same block. The project's social, ecological and architectural lesson spreads way beyond the borders of Paris, and I wish it will make its way to Israel.