Re-thinking Social Inclusion in Architecture

How can architecture foster social inclusion and equality? How can users be more involved in the design process? These are some of the questions that Time Space Existence exhibition explores through the projects of its participants.

Built environment can facilitate or hinder the ability of people to participate in society. Practicing architects have the ability to be advocates for design that enhances social inclusion and equality, by considering the equality of experience and acknowledging all demographic factors, such as gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity, for the creation of an environment for equal access to the individual. In inclusive design, the user is an important source of knowledge, since through his spatial interaction and experience, he is in the position to provide important feedback to the designer and ideally, have the possibility to participate more actively in the decision making process of the design.

What affects perception of decision making in the process of inclusive design? Does society shape Architecture or Architecture shapes the society? We caught up with some of the participants of Time Space Existence, whose projects attempt to raise awareness on the importance of the community in the decision-making process and re-address the definition of social inclusion in architecture.

Magda Mostafa participates in this year’s edition with her project about Autistic Imaginaries of Architectural Space at Palazzo Bembo. The ASPECTSS Design Index project aims to raise awareness on the current status of social inclusion in architectural space from an autistic lens and to encourage the creation of more diverse and broadly accessible architectures based on alternative perceptual models, while expanding designers’ lens to include Neurodiverse views.

Pedro Aibéo from Architectural Democracy who encourages active participation in the decision-making process for urban planning, stating that the ‘’kind of people we want to be is the kind of cities we should be designing for’’. He presents in Palazzo Mora the project The Decision Machine, a gamified platform, which aims to open responsibility to citizens and open up decision-making gathering public opinion for a sustainable future.

Christian Hermansen from The Scarcity and Creativity Studio, a design-build studio within the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), showcases projects of the studio’s work at Palazzo MoraAmong them are projects of public space and buildings whose function express a strong wish for a sense of community and its social needs, and encourage the community to participate in decision making during the design and construction processes.

The Wave, project by The Scarcity and Creativity Studio at Palazzo Mora. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani.

How does your participating project in Time Space Existence reflect on your idea of the social value of architecture?

Magda Mostafa: My exhibit aims to bring the autistic voice first and pose what an imaginary world created with the autistic need at its center would be. It is in two acts – the first demonstrating our principles of designing for autism – the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index and how it has been interpreted across the world.The second act showcases the autistic voice, the autistic lens, and includes photography, film, design and interactive installation from the perspective of autistic individuals themselves. They span age; with perspectives from childhood to adulthood, and geographies; from the US, Europe and Africa. They are in my mind the most valuable parts of the work. More than anything I hope that it starts a conversation.

Pedro Aibeo: Our Decisions. City is proposing a parametric gamified urban planning tool, where people can play with variables and cast decisions, a vote, on real practical matters. We try to manipulate people as little as possible, because face it, there is no such thing as complete neutrality! You see, architects have no morals, they follow the money, and if we continue designing cities like we do, there is no escape route to having the same kind of people the designers have become..

Christian Hermansen: The main aim of architecture is to provide shelter for society’s activities. Architecture is not such if it does not shelter some human activity. That is why we consider ‘installations’ to be artistic expressions rather than architecture. In any case, artistic works can also be inclusive or exclusive, in as much as they invite a wider or narrower segment of society to participate in them.

ASPECTSS Design Index, project by Magda Mostafa at Palazzo Bembo. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani.

How do you translate ‘inclusion’ in the language of design?

MM: As designers we are trained to think of the user-built environment relationship as the launching point for any design- but in that lies the dilemma. If we limit, restrict or discriminate who we define as “user” and who has legitimate claim to inclusion within space, then we exclude. For over a century the modernist views towards design,… determined this launching point as one from the lens of the able-bodied, seeing, hearing, 6 foot tall white male form and determined this to be the “normal” with anything lying outside it becoming “abnormal”, “special”…The reality of our user profile is far more nuanced, far more on a spectrum of ability, cognition, perception, gender, size, shape, race, ethnicity and their infinite intersections. I think if we are intentional about taking that step to stretch the user model to be more representative of the spectrum of our human reality, and we remain committed to the true process of design- in that it is from a point of empathy, user-centrism and social responsibility- we can be more authentically and effectively inclusive.

PA: Easy: Kill the starchitect! Inclusive design today translates as: publicly I am all about it but in practice stay away from my genius! Architects are like rebels, not revolutionaries. Rebels criticize the establishment but do not really want a change, because it’s whole existence depends on the criticism. Design today lives from the idolitrization of certain individuals, thus no one can really talk about inclusive design, it can’t exist under such terms.

CH: This is a doubly difficult issue to comment on.. All architecture, even installations that are not meant to be inhabited, are socially inclusive, in as much that they address people. Should we not be asking for design that addresses issues of social inequality? A design that seeks to redress the inequities which exist in our world. In this sense, inclusive design would be one that aims to maximise participation in the benefits which design may bring to society. We believe that an inanimate object, by itself, can do little to address inequality, but architects, as members of society, can seek to work for those people that would normally be excluded from commissioning architecture, and thus include the excluded in the benefits which architecture may bring.

Photo credits: Architectural Democracy

Which factors affect your perception of decision making in the process of designing inclusive spaces?

MM: The first factor is the reversal of the architect-user relationship from one of expert-subject to one of shared knowledge and the user as expert. The user voice and their legitimate agency over their bodies in space, greatly informs my design decision making process…The second role I value is that of an informed spectator and responsible actor. Almost all the design strategies we have developed in our work began with an observation, a conversation.

Autistic individuals have had the responsibility of coping, masking and adjusting their bodies to space for far too long since our built environment largely ignores their perceptual and sensory needs. My premise is to reverse that responsibility and shift it to the shoulders of the creators of our built environments- the designers and architects of our spaces.

I also work to demonstrate tangible impact of such approaches – not only on autistic users and their communities but on everyone… The design decision making process however, is a complex one.

PA: Inclusive spaces are not about gender neutral toilets. Inclusive spaces are those where people can appropriate them and give them identity. Such can only happen if the space is understandable and if the design of it allows for transformation. The good old seed planning is still a good example. In other words, don’t give the fish, teach how to fish, don’t tell what to think, teach how to think.

CH: Spaces that are not inclusive or exclusive in themselves, it is the way spaces are managed that make them accessible or not. The most exclusive private golf club could be managed so that it was open to all, and thus inclusive making small changes to its design.

Inanimate objects are made exclusive by their scarcity and management, and also by the management of their scarcity.

If the designer has the choice, she can take on, or refuse, a commission which is inherently socially exclusive, However, it is generally the program set by the client the one that is the major determinant of the inclusivity/exclusivity of the spaces being designed.

The Wave, project by The Scarcity and Creativity Studio

Childrens Teaching Restaurant Xiamutang China Dining Room, project by the Scarcity and Creativity Studio

In your opinion, does society shape Architecture or Architecture shapes the society? Please share some thoughts on your position.

MM: I think of this as a symbiotic relationship, one that succeeds when there is mutual respect and legitimacy given to both poles of that symbiosis. I think that the architecture/ society relationship is a cyclic one, with each informing the other. I also believe that architectural form, like nature, creates affordances for behaviours, often unintended and unexpected, that emerge organically with use by different members of society. Much can be learned from these interactions and folded back into the design process to create a continuously improving cycle of social awareness of the role architecture plays and can play in society. This process is why inclusion, access and representation are so important- if an individual or group is excluded from space their experiences cannot inform its future iterations, and their exclusion is only embedded further and reinforced.

PA: It’s a vicious circle, we shape it and it shapes us back. What we ought to be concerned about in this cycle is the direction of the increments. Towards which direction are we shaping it? Is it towards a society where we all try to understand it and be a part of it, or one where most of us blindly follow what is told and few ones lead? The latter is the trend, and we are shaping cities accordingly. The vicious cycle could end if we design tools to understand the viciousness of the design process. We do not need a democratic architecture, we need an Architectural Democracy!

CH: In October 1943, following the destruction of the Commons Chamber by incendiary bombs, in a debate regarding the shape of the debating chamber which would replace the destroyed one, Churchill said ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’

We could extend the quote to, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us, we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us, we shape our buildings and afterwards …’ in an endless circular loop, which has no beginning or end.

The question is similar to, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? What is important to point out is that buildings and spaces do not determine human behaviour. Society determines the activities it wants to perform, and finds or commissions the buildings in which to perform them. A building can facilitate or get in the way of those activities, but it can never determine the nature of human activities.

You can discover more about each project on the catalogue of Time Space Existence 2021 – download here – or by exploring our Virtual Tours: Palazzo MoraPalazzo BemboGiardini della Marinaressa – Levante.

Other useful links:

Mgda Mostafa’s interview with Katerina Zachou and Valeria Romagnini from the ECC team – watch here.

Magda Mostafa’s #WaitingForTimeSpaceExistence2021 video – watch here.


Intro and interview by Katerina Zachou.

Re-thinking Social Inclusion in Architecture

How can architecture foster social inclusion and equality? How can users be more involved in the design process? These are some of the questions that Time Space Existence exhibition explores through the projects of its participants.

  • Published: 19.10.2021
  • Category: In Focus
  • Subject: Participants
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