2018 AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA
Photography: Carl Bower 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante

Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl, Hon. FAIA, is perhaps the most widely recognized advocate for designing places with people in mind. His work has humanized cities around the world, including his hometown, Copenhagen, which is admired for its character, scale, and walkability. His most widely read book, Cities for People , is required reading in urban design courses.

What does it mean to put people first when designing? It begins with accountability. Design impact matters. Architects shape lives. How fully do we architects recognize and embrace the impact of our choices on the people who live in and near the spaces and places we create? “Incremental” housing designed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize, is a compelling example.

Commissioned by Chile’s copper industry to build affordable housing, Aravena was guided by two “places for people” imperatives. First, how could the project reinforce the residents’ social network, not damage it? Aravena rejected his client’s direction to relocate the project onto more “affordable” land, appreciating that relocation would mean shredding the neighborhood’s fragile social fabric. He committed to designing a cost-neutral approach that would build a stronger community.

Second, how could the project provide opportunities and hope for people who had too little of both? Aravena designed “upward mobility” into his affordable housing. Adopting his now-famous sawtooth massing (see Quinta Monroy Housing), Aravena designed “incremental” expansion into the dwelling units. By filling in the gaps Aravena left, residents can add about 40 percent more space for as little as 20 percent additional cost. The community’s social and economic fortunes were transformed by an architect who held himself accountable. Aravena designed with empathy.

Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Hon. AIA, is a psychiatrist who has devoted her career to studying social networks and the impact of urban renewal, often studying projects like the affordable housing Aravena was first asked to design. Fullilove served as “public member” of the AIA board of directors from 2013–15. She often spoke to the board of the “pathological lack of empathy” in our profession and broader society. Dr. Fullilove knew exactly what she was saying using the term pathological.

Adopting the metaphor of a family, Dr. Fullilove describes why she believes our society’s lack of empathy is fundamentally self- destructive. In every city of our great nation—the wealthiest nation in history—children go to bed hungry, attend schools that don’t teach, and live in unsafe neighborhoods. We tolerate conditions as a society that we would never stand for in our families.

In the context of current social and cultural discord, the inherent optimism of our profession is its greatest asset. If our profession is to retain its value and relevance, we architects must accept our responsibility to confront human need with the full appreciation that our decisions make a difference. There are architects in every city of our great nation who, like Aravena, accept their accountability for social conditions, design with empathy, and create great places for people. Find them. Thank them. Join them.