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Is There a Role for Design Activism in this Down Economy? Could Be

Stymied by a still-reeling economy, D.C. architects return to design as a healing profession

By Leigh Franke

The AIA|DC Awards for Unbuilt Architecture react to today’s sinking economy by offering humble contributions of restorative placemaking, not grand theoretical doctrines that do little more than leave the designer’s artistic stamp. In many cases, this is how previous generations of architects (including those enshrined in the Unbuilt→Built P/A Awards exhibit on display at AIA National headquarters) dealt with a down economy—by retreating to the studio, reading Jacques Derrida, and focusing architecture in on itself.

If the architecture of Unbuilt→Built is notable because of its influence, the works featured in the National Building Museum’s satellite exhibit Could Be: The AIA|DC Awards for Unbuilt Architecture (on display at the AIA|DC Center for Architecture through June) are remarkable for their aspirations and activism. Faced with a sagging economy and a shrinking pool of clients, the younger architects featured in this exhibit have come up with designs that strive to renew architecture as an agent of positive social and economic change. The projects identified by the AIA|DC exhibit may be more or less successful at one day becoming reality than the redirected energies of previous generations, but they are defiantly out in the world, facilitating the improvement of social and infrastructural ills.

The Inscape Publico Haiti Relief Dwelling, by Washington, D.C.’s Inscape Studio, responds to the need for prefabricated rapidly buildable and affordable housing that can also withstand seismic and wind forces. The National Nursery project proposed for Washington’s National Mall by University of Virginia landscape architecture students Andrea Parker and Ashley Wolff revisits original plans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to incorporate a botanical garden around the Washington Monument. The student proposal readapts this plan to restore the city’s tree canopy and better connect the park with the rest of downtown Washington.

Acqua Venezia: Prototypes for a Sustainable Water Economy by Nicole Keroack and Alexa Bush presents a solution to Venice’s longstanding challenges of attaining potable water. The students proposed a restoration of the city’s historic freshwater cisterns fed into public fountains, coupled with a prototype container that would function as a souvenir but is also recyclable. Many of the other projects in the exhibit follow a similar theme: responding to local ecosystem challenges, adapting cultural traditions, and using architecture as a means for social change.

How many of these will be featured in the next generation’s P/A Awards retrospective? Probably the ones that are built, which means that the current generation of architects’ career-long quest may not be to evolve new formal and theoretical languages for architecture. It may simply be to get their work from “could be” to “should be” to “is.”


Haiti Relief Dwelling Prototype designed by Inscape Publico. Image courtesy of Stefan Schwarzkopf, AIA – Inscape Publico.


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Slideshow: The Washington that Might Have Been


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