Social Spaces by aSocial Architects?
Deciphering the Proliferation of Contemporary Heterotopias
By Michael A Vidalis
Registered Architect, MArch – Athens, Greece
PhD Candidate in Urban Sociology
Kitagata Housing project, SANAA Architects. More at Google Images
We are in a new era, setting forth another perception of urban space: A totally subjective, idiosyncratic view of space.
It is supported that architecture in synergy with sociology could produce “better” architecture. Architecture that is socially functional will have an added value. Thus, a new level of meaning can be added to architecture, enhancing the quality of reading of the urban space. Additionally, a holistic and continuous dialectic juxtaposition of all perspectives (absolute, relative and relational space), produces meaning in regards to the space and its transformations.
Vasilis Avdikos (2010) notes that “The view that space has also a relational dimension, fills that void, establishing the human is, as an equal part of a relation. A dialectical relation between the structures/infrastructures and superstructures of a society, between its signifier and the signified. The relational view of space cannot function independently of its absolute and relative view. Only a holistic and continuous dialectic juxtaposition of all these perspectives, produces meaning in regards to the space and its transformations”. Defining superstructures as the meanings, ideology, logic, culture, feelings, consciousnesses, values, traditions and memories, that arise as a result of the operation and use of the structures (market, laws, justice, political parties, school, etc.) and infrastructures (the “built” or man-made environment: buildings, squares, streets, technology and the like). In short, as Avdikos observes, the superstructures operate like a mirror image or reflection of the absolute and relative space, within which specific spatial frames are formed.
In 1999 I was invited to present a paper in a conference; In “Towards a Social Architecture”, I supported the view that we must comprehend and address the social aspects and priorities of architecture. A short time thereafter, a journalist visited my office, surprised for the ideas presented. I replied laconically that it is surreal to think otherwise, regardless if the architectural community in the western world had abandoned the idea of a socially responsible architecture a few decades ago.
It is reminded that the new architecture of the Modern Movement promised to promote or foster social change, in order to alleviate the misery of the working class in the industrial city; or, to at least ameliorate the quality of their lives. Initially the Modernists had the best of intentions for a socially responsible architecture, although they failed as their plans often contravened reality.
Nathan Glazer observed that architects did a 180 degree turn and renounced the social ideals of the Modern Movement, disillusioned with the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project and similar projects. Realizing that they were incapable of addressing social problems, they abandoned the initial enthusiasm of a social agenda and decided to focus on what they undoubtedly knew best: Design. To be specific, design as a solely artistic form.
The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe (1976) would essentially mark the beginning of a new era, setting forth a different perception of space for architects: A totally subjective, idiosyncratic view of space. Sociologist Robert Gutman often noted that humans and their needs are not within the main interests of architects. In short, architects no longer concern themselves with what sociologists or social scientists have to say.
As a result, today’s spaces designed by starchitects, imbued with elements of sensationalism, surprise or disorientation, with an emphasis on escaping reality through heterotopias (Michel Foucault, 1967), etc., should come of no surprise. For architectural space produced today has as its point of departure the aforementioned negation of the social agenda; in this light, today’s architecture appears entirely logical as faithful to the new creed. Space, especially urban space, where most of humanity now resides and communicates, has become idiosyncratic, becoming a monument to its designer.
To prevent any misunderstandings, this is not to negate the entirety of contemporary architecture or imply an inferiority of the new aesthetics; but to suggest that architecture in synergy with sociology could produce better architecture. Architecture that is socially functional will have an added value. Thus, a new level of meaning can be added to architecture, enhancing the quality of reading of the urban space. For the social dimension will not limit or harm the architectural aesthetics, as some practitioners may fear. On the contrary, a holistic perspective will redefine space and its associated aesthetics, as the absolute, relative and relational readings will coexist.
As architecture is undisputedly considered an art form, the definition of art surfaces, reminding us of the feelings evoked upon reading or viewing a subjective creative work. When the social parameter is absent or suppressed, as is often the case today, the feelings produced will most likely be negative or indifferent at best. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that society often perceives architects as non-practical people, relative to the use of space by humans, i.e., in reference to the social dimension.
As a consequence of the above limited standpoint, we are often hearing architects talk amongst themselves, getting the impression that they view their profession solely as the practice of whimsical art that earns them monies; regardless of the rhetoric. A rather cynical view, by a profession that designs human space, because this is what architecture essentially does…
I don’t think that architecture is about solving human problems at all. Psychologists solve human problems, sociologists solve human problems, economists solve human problems. We’re none of those things. We do culturally necessary projects to me, which have a value for the culture in general. What should the architect do in society? I don’t think the architect should do anything, frankly. Peter Eisenman 
 Vasilis Avdikos, “Space as relation: Methodological approaches and research framework”, Geographies, v. 17, 2010, p45 (Hellenic journal).
 Ibid. p42.
 Interview to Aris Karer. The paper was published in its entirety in Express, April 1999, Health section, p17. The title given was “Residences for … humans” (Hellenic economic newspaper).
 David Basulto – ArchDaily. Interview in 2011 in: http://www.greekarchitects.gr/tv.php?category=291&video=475#first_division (January 9, 2015).
Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. London: Thames & Hudson, 1992.
Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1998.
Harvey, David. Social justice and the city. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1991.
Massey, Doreen. Space, Place, and Gender. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Sassen, Saskia. The global city: New York, London, Tokyo. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton: University Press, 2001.
Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1989.
█ SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) is a multiple award-winning architectural firm based in Tokyo, Japan. It was founded in 1995 by two Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima (妹島 和世 1956-) and Ryue Nishizawa (西沢立衛 1966-). In 2010, Sejima and Nishizawa were awarded the Pritzker Prize. Examples of their work include the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio; the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, NY; the Rolex Learning Center at EPFL in Lausanne; the Serpentine Pavilion in London; the Christian Dior Building in Omotesando in Tokyo; the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa; and the Louvre-Lens Museum in France. Read more
█ Kitagata Housing project, SANAA Architects
The apartment building is part of a large scale public housing reconstruction project located about 15 minutes from Gifu City by car. Four women architects were selected under the coordination of Japanese architect Arata Isozaki to execute the projects. This L-shaped Wing designed by architect Kazuyo Sejima sits on the south-east part of the site where the idea for the overall layout of the development was to run the buildings around the perimeter. Sejima: “Given that this building is made up of rental apartments, it could be assumed that various types of families would live in those units. In other words, we imagined that forms of co-habitation would not be restricted to the existing standard family, but that different types of groupings of people should be considered…”
In the project master plan, the courtyard lies between the four separate housing blocks designed by Akiko Takahashi, Kazuyo Sejima, Christine Hawley, and Elizabeth Diller. Because of the diversity of architectural design found within the project, strong site imagery and geometry have been created for the courtyard to unify the distinct parts of the project and to give the project a memorable identity. See more at http://gifuprefecture.blogspot.co.nz/
Posted by Elizabeth Kerr
*Images: Kitagata Housing project, Gifu City, Japan – (top) Wikimedia Commons: Raphael Azevedo Franca; (bottom) via gifuprefecture.blogspot.co.nz