I. Architecture and Power

Architecture is a physical manifestation of the power relationships in our world. It reveals the political, economic, and cultural priorities of those who have the privilege to build. But whether we acknowledge it or not, architects have power, too.

When we design for a more beautiful world, we embrace the power bestowed upon us, and fulfill our fiduciary responsibility to serve and protect the public good.

What is the alternative? Done irresponsibly, architecture is a weapon. It can disrupt public assets, threaten environmental security, displace culture, and reinforce entrenched social injustice and economic inequality.

We must ask ourselves: How can we use architecture as a tool for healing? Whatever we design, at whatever scale, we must seek opportunities to restructure the relationships of power inherent in all architecture.

II. A Call to Action

Our practice has been labeled “a social architecture firm.” We are unsettled by this label because it suggests the possibility that architecture can exist outside a social and political context—that architecture either has an autonomous form or a social purpose. This is a false dichotomy. Autonomous form is impossible. All architecture is social. The question is how we design processes to foster beauty, to reinforce the social fabric, and to improve lives in the communities we all serve.

We are optimistic. Today we see that architects are deepening their investigations into the social and political implications of their buildings. Designers are not only acknowledging their power but finding ways to share it with the communities they serve.

And so, form does not follow function. Nor does it follow purpose. Form is purpose.

For too long, architects have felt disempowered by systems seemingly beyond their control. But when we hold ourselves to the highest standards in our fiduciary responsibility to the public good, we not only empower architects, we empower public decision making.

We call this “The New Empowerment.”

We recommend five principles to enact it.

III. The Five Principles

Find the mission.
Each architectural project must achieve a simple, legible, and transmissible idea. We call this “The Mission,” and all architecture has one. The Mission must speak to greater societal goals outside the building and seek to affect systemic change to society at large.

A building influences systemic change by affecting policy, changing individual behavior for the better, and continually improving its own typological category.

Immerse in context.
The history of design offers myriad excuses for why context-driven research does not happen. But we know the risks when it does not—if we do not ask the right questions or build consensus, we may fail the very people we seek to serve.

Deep contextual work is usually impossibly time-consuming and prohibitively expensive. It can also be uncomfortable. Implementing such immersive methods can be a mindset problem, but surely it is a structural problem of schedule and cost, too. New practice models are needed to enable the complete architectural process. And public awareness must be expanded. The public must learn to expect more from architecture.

Search for proof.
We all know that spaces shape behavior. Ask a prisoner or a nurse whether a building affects their daily life, and you’ll quickly see that the question should not be if, but in what way and by how much. And yet, definitive proof of the impact of architectural choices is difficult to measure. That does not mean we should not seek to
do so.

Buildings are living systems. They are too complex to be explained by isolated variables and definitive causal relationships. Instead we should evaluate architecture systematically and over time. In this way, the search for evidence becomes the product itself.
Invest upstream.
All architects give away services. But for whose benefit and at what cost? Uncompensated, speculative work devalues architectural labor and forces us to trade in quickly produced renderings that rarely reflect reality on the ground or the needs of the community. Such practices threaten our ability to fully enact our responsibility to the public’s interest.

Instead, we have to become partners early in the process. We can do this by investing in the organizations and leaders we want to support and by sharing our services to accelerate the realization of their ambitions. This helps determine when a project is ready to be realized, and to unlock the capital necessary to build it.

Justice is beauty.
It is not only that all people deserve a beautiful environment, or that a building that is functional can also be beautiful, but that a building must be beautiful for it to be fully functional. All of us have a fundamental right to a built world that is beautiful, and one that improves our quality of life. The question is how far we architects will go to fight for it.

Alan Ricks and Michael Murphy (right) of MASS Design Group in the firm's Boston office.
Iwan Baan Alan Ricks and Michael Murphy (right) of MASS Design Group in the firm's Boston office.