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Viewpoint – Redefining value: The Architecture of Engagement

As designers and advocates for the built environment, architects are at the beginning of a new and interesting journey.

Darryl Condon

Architects have long believed that we add significant value: we improve things, we take under-utilized sites and buildings and help to transform them to a higher and better use.  At least that is our aim.  Traditionally, this added value has been understood primarily in physical and economic terms, then more recently in environmental ones.

In the past two decades, we have seen a remarkable transformation in how we approach design, and in our perceptions of the value that we add.  The ongoing revolution in  the building industry, with its emphasis on reducing our collective impact on the environment, and its contribution to climate change, is far from complete. It is neither as broad nor as deep as we need it to be, however, it does provide an example of what we can accomplish with a sense of common purpose, and a commitment to accountability.

In November of 2016, in what many believe will come to be seen as a watershed moment in the evolution of architecture, Patrik Schumacher, Principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, delivered a shocking keynote address at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin. Schumacher outlined his personal manifesto for the future of cities and thus for the architectural profession at large. This manifesto advocated for the privatization of public space, the elimination of social housing and the dismantling of social safety nets. He further argued that architects have no place, nor indeed any responsibility, in contemplating or attempting to influence the social impact of our work.

It was shocking, outrageous and just plain sad. More positively the reaction in the room was angry and it was clear that most, were offended and felt that this was a betrayal of the central tenets  of the profession. The reaction from the public was equally swift and powerful, and even sparked a demonstration in front of the offices of Zaha Hadid Architects.  More startling still was that the firm, which Schumacher leads, and the estate of Zaha Hadid, issued written statements denouncing his position.

I believe that this moment marks a turning point, bringing a new sense of focus and purpose to a transformative movement; rejecting what has been either an overtly formalist or narrowly functionalist agenda, in favour of a more holistic, values-based approach to design.

Without question, we live in tumultuous times. Increasingly, we are conditioned to focus on the extreme weather events that have become the new normal, and are inclined to overlook the great human challenges of our time, such as income inequality, the unravelling of the social fabric, and political isolationism. At a time when consensus-building and cooperation are most critical to our future resilience, we find them in increasingly short supply. 

Darryl Condon is Managing Principal at HCMA Architecture + Design in Vancouver and wrote the above text as a foreword to The Architecture of Engagement. Published electronically in PDF and e-Pub format, it is available from abacus editions. Please direct enquiries to