Socially engaged architecture
Building for the breadline

Makoko Floating School in Lagos/Nigeria
Makoko Floating School in Lagos/Nigeria | Photo (detail): © Iwan Baan

Are the days of the star architect over? An interview with Andres Lepik, Director of the Architecture Museum of the TU München, on new buildings in Africa and the responsibility of architects.

Professor Lepik, after “Small Scale, Big Change” and “Think Global, Build Social!”, “Afritecture” is the third exhibition in which you treat socially engaged architecture. Why is the subject so important to you?

I spent fourteen years working at the State Museums in Berlin and was curator there of exhibitions with Renzo Piano and Rem Koolhaas. At some point I began to question whether this way of giving architecture a platform for its projects is really relevant. Or whether you don’t then somehow fall into the role of a kind of “propagandist”. Another point was the encounter with socially engaged projects that fascinated me. These include the work of the Berlin-based architect Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso. This led me eventually to the idea of putting the theme of social engagement on a broader basis and to bring together the many individual examples I had seen in an exhibition.

In an interview you’ve even said that the days of the star architects are over.

I think the whole society is noticing now that we can’t any longer only look at the surface but have more and more to raise questions about buildings such as “Cui bono – who benefits?” “Where does the capital come from?” In other areas too there’s an increasing interest in knowing the ethical background of the products we consume.

Include people

How do you define socially engaged architecture?

There are several criteria. One is personal engagement. This means that the architect leaves his office and, sometimes on his own initiative, goes directly “into the field”. Many of the projects shown in Afritecture were inspired by personal encounters. For example, when architects went into the slums of Nairobi and considered how to develop solutions for the local problems. Another criterion is close acquaintance with and study of local, social and cultural conditions. And decisive too is that you include the people who are affected by the project: when looking for the location, in planning the division of functions and during construction.

In the exhibition another point is the integration of local materials and technologies.

Right. In researching, it’s important to ask yourself what is actually there with respect to labour, materials and climatic conditions. And often the choice of local materials is the most sensible one. Because then there aren’t long transport distances and because people know later how to deal with the materials. A foreign material or technology that nobody can deal with immediately becomes trouble.

Why have you set Africa in the middle of the exhibition?

Recent architectural debates have dealt almost exclusively with Asia – or with Arab countries. But a lot has also happened in Africa.

This includes a rapid process of urbanization. In some African countries entire cities have been designed on the drawing board. Isn’t that rather the reverse of the trend?

China has just “imported” an entire city of 200,000 inhabitants to Angola in exchange for oil. This means that workers, plans and materials were shipped there. But we didn’t want to present such negative examples because they have no relevance for the cultural development. Since they have no roots in the local society, they’ll fail sooner or later.

The social responsibility of architects

The accompanying programme of the exhibition included a symposium with architects from Africa and other countries, which you organized together with the Goethe-Instituts in sub-Saharan Africa. There was much talk of “social responsibility”. Had it been especially neglected before?

Early Modernism already treated “the flat for the subsistence level”. That was the title of the 1929 International Conference of Modernism (CIAM) held in Frankfurt. So the subject isn’t new. When Modernism fell into a kind of crisis in the 1960s, this re-emerged. And today it’s timely again because the importance of the problems hasn’t lessened.

You’re therefore currently working on a “Manifesto for a Humane Design Culture”. How should we envision that?

We presented the manifesto in November 2013 at the conference Metropolis Nonformal in Munich. Along with me there were several other architects, urban planners, town and country planners, designers, curators and journalists. The manifesto consists in seven points that treat in the broadest way subjects such as social responsibility, the relation to locality, and also beauty. Because beauty too plays a role in socially engaged projects. The manifesto is an attempt to summarize all our convictions as theorists and designers. We want to set a kind of theoretical focus to which various disciplines can orient themselves.

Andres Lepik is Director of the Architecture Museum of the Technische Universität München and Professor of Architectural History and Curatorial Practice. The exhibition “Afritecture – Bauen mit der Gemeinschaft” (Afritecture – Building with the Community), curated by Lepik and Anne Schmidt, and on display at the Munich Pinakothek of Modern Art until 2 February 2014, presents 26 examples of socially engaged architecture from sub-Saharan Africa. Lepik already treated this theme in 2010 as curator of the exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change: Architectures of Social Engagement” at the Museum of Modern Art and in 2013 in the exhibition “Think Global, Build Social!” shown in Frankfurt and Vienna.

Exhibition: “Afritecture – Bauen mit der Gemeinschaft” (Afritecture – Building with the Community), Architecture Museum of the TU München (Munich Pinakothek of Modern Art), 13.09.2013–02.02.2014