Architect Afaina de Jong presenting at the The World Around event in Rotterdam in July 2022
Aad Hoogendoorn courtesy Het Nieuwe Instituut Architect Afaina de Jong presenting at the The World Around event in Rotterdam in July 2022

Moaning and groaning about the evils and impasses facing the design professions is easy. It is just as easy to find people around the world who are devising ways to make a difference in their communities and to do architecture differently—as part of a collective, for instance, thus offering an alternative to corporate practice. Or by focusing on craft or new modes of construction. Some are not even making buildings at all, but working as activists. For a global overview of what to me are the exciting new possibilities in architecture practice, some of the best forums out there are the events organized by The World Around, a nonprofit based in New York and headed by curator Beatrice Galilee and financier and art collector Diego Marroquin . I had been following some of The World Around's conferences and seminars virtually, and this summer was lucky enough to attend its 2022 Summit in person at the New Institute (Het Nieuwe Instituut) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. I came away heartened by what I saw: Good architecture is possible if you redefine your terms and find new ways of working.

The World Around co-founder Beatrice Galilee
Aad Hoogendoorn courtesy Het Nieuwe Instituut The World Around co-founder Beatrice Galilee

The World Around states its goal as: “enriching and empowering contemporary architectural discourse…to connect and create a progressive, diverse, and exciting global network of thinkers and makers today.”

I have to say that I was initially turned off by this bit of pablum, but the introduction to this event in June, entitled “Precarity,” brought up more specific issues: collaboration, and “asking what design and architecture’s role could be as crises mount, collide, and burden communities, ecologies, economies, and global supply chains.” The call to the presenters was to “provide actionable solutions and proven strategies.” That, as it turns out, is what many of the presenters in Rotterdam did.

Some of the participants represented more established firms or organizations, and have had a chance to test their approaches on various projects. Those included Maria Lisogorskayam, founding director of Assemble in London, and designer director Megan Suau of MASS Design Group's Kigali, Rwanda office, for instance. The latter firmespecially has moved on to larger and more conventional projects, though they still remain involved with communities in Africa and elsewhere. MASS does so in a manner that is truly collaborative: the firm not only involves, but also trains local craftspeople, and the resulting buildings use minimal technology to achieve sustainable goals. Assemble has an even better track record both in terms of setting up workshops in communities, communities which are now self-sustaining, and in continuing to act as an open collaborative.

Other representatives of this slightly older generation (or at least a more accomplished one) continue to develop new techniques and approaches: Swiss architect Philippe Rahm reiterated his analysis of the importance of climatic accommodation and alteration in the history of architecture, while designer Maarten Gielen, of the Belgian cooperative Rotor, highlighted RotorDC, which specializes in salvaging and marketing building components taken from mid- and late-century Modern buildings.

Megan Suau of Mass Design Group presenting at the Rotterdam event.
Aad Hoogendoorn courtesy Het Nieuwe Instituut Megan Suau of Mass Design Group presenting at the Rotterdam event.

Several of the designers taking part in the Summit focused on methods of recycling and reuse, and have turned that into the center of their activities. Rosario Hevia, for instance, founded Ecocitex, which focuses on recycling textile waste through a network of over 250 women-owned businesses in Chile. Others chose to focus on activism and awareness, treading the line between art, social action, and design. Architect Afaina de Jong of the Amsterdam-based AFARAI agency creates installations that bring a strong sense of geometry and color to art projects that show us how to rethink our wasteful society and its economic system, while the Karrabing Film Collective makes films about Indigenous collectives resisting state control. Perhaps the most well-known of this group is artist Alfred Marasigan, whose Cargo Collective uses deliberately crude computer graphics and what they call “serendipitous research and transmedial practices” (it sounds good, though I am not completely sure what it means) to address a wide range of topics ranging from sustainability to sexuality.

Quite a few of the other designers, however, choose instead to focus on using the simplest, most affordable, and locally available material they can find—building with the land and traditions, rather than importing materials or technology. This approach makes what is constructed contextual in a deep sense, as it is tied to what the context is made out of, rather than what it looks like. Etta Madete Mukuba, for instance, is part of a new crop of architects of architects in Africa who work with bricks and other materials made on site by local constructors. Her BuildX Studio, based in Nairobi, Kenya, creates simple structures open to the climate. Similarly, architect Anupama Kundoo takes the literal building blocks of traditional structures in India and opens them, both literally and aesthetically, to new ways of living and creating community. Elias and Yousef Anastas do the same in Palestine with their firm AAU Anastas, which uses stone as their starting point and then erects structures that help develop a sense of place into a new civic awareness, for instance, in the design of a new courthouse for the Palestinian State. Being able to see the variety of approaches taken by designers from around the world made me aware of the possibilities of invention and appropriateness that arise up if you strip architecture down to its most basic elements.

Finally, several architects specifically address the question of “precarity” in the sense of crisis or living on the edge. Alexander Shevchenko, a Ukrainian urbanist who for obvious reasons was not there in person, both asked those present to watch his Zoom presentation to support him and his fellow citizens in the current war on his country, and to help him think about future restoration. In an ironic juxtaposition, architect Manuel Herz presented his monument to the victims of the Babyn Yar Holocaust in the World War II, which is located in what is now suburban Kyiv and which came close to being obliterated by Russian missiles during the invasion. In a less immediately topical mode Hsieh Ying-Chun presented his ongoing work with communities in Taiwan rebuilding after disasters.

 Swiss architect Philippe Rahm presents at The World Around event
Aad Hoogendoorn courtesy Het Nieuwe Instituut Swiss architect Philippe Rahm presents at The World Around event

What was most exciting to me was that almost all the work that showed up on the New Institute’s screens, and that was the topic of further discussion during the cocktail hours, group wanderings around town, and other informal events during the event combined a high degree of design thought—beauty, integrity of materials, composition, and form—with concrete ways in which the discipline can address important social and environmental issues. The ways in which much of this design was produced showed the new contours of an expanded practice emphasizing collaboration, collective action, community involvement, and research and development. The event also showed the benefit of discussing that work together in one place, as opposed to zooming through disconnected moments and sites. Being there together allowed for discussion, debate, serendipitous discovery, and connections that may allow these designers to form networks as global and resilient as those established by large design firms working for even larger corporations around the world.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: Aaron Betsky has recently traveled the globe, walking the streets of the Postmodern "theme park" that is Portmeirion, exploring Assemble's neighborhood activism in Liverpool, disruptive ways to exhibit art at MVRDV's Depot in Rotterdam, and the innovative scrappiness of Bangkok's architecture.