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Credit: Asaf Hanuka

One muggy afternoon this summer, on my way to JFK International Airport at the end of a reporting trip to New York, I stopped off at the campus of PS1 in Queens, a satellite of the Museum of Modern Art, to see an installation by the Brooklyn architects Interboro Partners. “Holding Pattern” was the winning entry in PS1’s 12th annual Young Architects Program (YAP), a competition that gives one firm each year the chance, on a punishingly small budget, to remake the courtyard of the museum for several weeks.

Interboro’s installation was a clear rejection of the bold, often self-congratulatory formalism of some recent YAP winners. It instead offered a wry commentary on wastefulness, ephemerality, and local context, breaking down the proverbial fourth wall that typically keeps the competition tightly sealed against any meaningful interaction with the neighborhood beyond the PS1 courtyard walls. The firm began work on its competition entry by meeting with residents and community organizations in the area immediately around the museum, including schools, a farmer’s market, a YMCA, and a senior center, asking them in particular what kinds of physical resources they most lacked.

The trees, benches, ping-pong tables, and other items those groups requested made up the physical structure for “Holding Pattern” and served as the backdrop for a number of parties and other events at PS1. From that point of view the installation was designed, like many YAP winners before it, to promote social interaction within the space of the museum courtyard. But all the items were also earmarked, at the end of the summer, to be donated to the people who’d asked for them. Each one carried a small sign, about the size of a luggage tag, indicating where it would wind up. The goal was not just to recycle the physical skeleton of the installation but to turn that recycling into a kind of strategic local outreach; the project used social ends as architectural means.

In that sense, “Holding Pattern” was clearly allied with the humanitarian design movement that has leaped to prominence in the architecture profession over the past five years or so. Also known as “the architecture of consequence” or “the architecture of engagement,” humanitarian design is a broad, fluid, catch-all category that includes disaster relief efforts, schools and housing for the poor, certain corners of green architecture, urban agriculture, and community-minded projects like “Holding Pattern.” With extreme weather and economic volatility on the rise, and with terrorism and earthquakes a constant threat, humanitarian design is most clearly of all a response to a world that seems more dangerous and anxiety-filled by the year.

As anyone who follows young architecture firms or spends much time on architecture-school reviews these days can confirm, humanitarian design, in its various guises, has eclipsed neo-modernism, bio-mimicry, and even parametricism (sorry, Patrik Schumacher!) to become the single most visible architectural concern of the moment, at least among designers younger than 40. It has gone from the geographical periphery (Samuel Mockbee’s visionary and hugely influential Rural Studio in Newbern, Ala.) to the cultural center (MoMA’s 2010 exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement”).

Outside of universities and museums, meanwhile, the spiking number of natural disasters around the world, increasingly linked with climate change, along with the deeply compromised rebuilding efforts following the 9/11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina, have made it clear that architects need to learn a more nimble, engaged, and politically savvy approach to practice. The ongoing crisis in the American and European economies has reminded them of the essential folly of building yet more condominium towers in places like Las Vegas or Madrid. It has also given architects more time than they ever had in the boom years to think and write about their larger priorities—and to begin aiming their talents where they might have a substantial social impact.

It’s not hard to understand why the rise of humanitarian design has the feel of a sea change for the profession. The moment’s emergence comes on the heels of a half-century in which architecture found a remarkable variety of ways to detach itself from the world’s growing list of social, economic, and—perhaps most of all—environmental problems. First Modernism turned entirely corporatized, abandoning the social conscience that had once driven it. Then architecture drifted into a facile, essentially scenographic kind of Postmodernism. In the 1990s, the profession used a flirtation with deeply opaque Continental philosophy to drag its academic and high-design wings toward almost complete social and political irrelevance. And in the past 10 to 15 years, as everybody knows, it has turned a vanishingly small coterie of high-design architects into global superstars who work mostly for wealthy private and cultural clients—or for autocratic regimes from Dubai to Beijing.

On top of that, in recent years, the one part of architecture that indicated that the profession was paying attention to the rest of the world and to the planet—the ever-growing sustainability movement—hit something of a rough patch. Green architecture has moved toward a small-minded checklist mentality, many of its leaders happier promoting flawed benchmarks like LEED than spurring a larger conversation about how we build our houses and cities. Indeed, the genuinely fascinating and politically potent debates that have emerged over food policy in the past decade, driven by Michael Pollan and others, reveal by stark comparison the way the green-design movement has failed to advance.

Given that backdrop, humanitarian design arrives as a refreshing and overdue corrective. But the truth is that the movement is also floundering a bit, searching for leadership and a sharper sense of definition. Indeed, whether it even ought to be thought of as a movement—as opposed to, say, a measure of the architecture profession’s increasingly insistent conscience—remains an open question. Humanitarian design, which often sends first-world architects into third-world countries, has fought off charges of imperialism connected to work in Africa and elsewhere. Perhaps most challenging of all, humanitarian designers are also finding that their own profession is ill-equipped in many ways to deal with their growing influence.

One obvious problem is that the various figures and institutions that define architecture and make architectural careers—museums, critics, universities, and deep-pocketed clients chiefly among them—continue to see bold, aggressive form-making and innovative architectural practice as synonymous. When a design with patently different priorities comes along, they’re often unprepared to understand or properly frame it. They encounter a series of houses built for a neighborhood flooded by a tsunami, say, and expect them to have a Case Study crispness and polish, or to look as striking in a magazine spread as a London townhouse by David Adjaye.

“Holding Pattern” was a case in point. The project was impressive in the abstract. It was a smart response to the socially disconnected formalism of earlier YAP winners and a cunning concession to current economic conditions, which have left many architecture firms simply trying to survive until a real recovery takes hold.