Thoughts on the Wikihouse and Design Democracy

More and more I see the conversation come up around the meaning of Design Democracy for the masses. Democracy is a strongly held value of mine, and part of what makes me interested in design is the creative potential it can unleash to literally shape our lives. So, when I saw the title of this TED talk,  Architecture for the people by the people, my ears perked.

Alastair Parvin on TED

There’s a lot to take away from Alastair Parvin’s talk. He rightly points out that in order to solve this world’s pressing problems (sustainability, rapid urbanization, and social inequality to name a few) we’re going to have to rethink the practice of architectural design beyond it’s traditional constituency of the top 1%. This means finding a different imperative and financing model for design. This means finding solutions that more people can take part in. I argue that often times “the people” are firstly the users of the space itself and secondly those that its built form impacts.

Here’s where I think Parvin falls short: he argues against a top-down design model while proposing a mass-distributed blue-print for a standardized home. So, while the labor gets localized, the design does not. But, what if you live in a part of the world where a gabled roof is not customary, where you need a house on stilts in case of flood, or where traditional homes are made circular rather than rectangular? The very nature of a mass-distributed blueprint is that it limits the ability to customize. This takes us right back to the top-down approach that Parvin argues against.

The danger of these one-size fits all solutions is that they miss the mark on what I think really puts the democracy in design: participation. And I’m not just talking about participating in building (in fact, most of the 99% already do that) but in the creative design process. I believe that people are the best experts about their own lives, and that without real participation democracy is just a buzzword. Is it helpful to have, tools, best practices, and suggested shortcuts? Sure. But as soon as we start to assume what the solution literally looks like, we are erring dangerously towards buzzword democracy.

Secondly, is anyone asking how the 99% get access to the 3-D printers needed to construct a  Wikihouse?  I’m a graduate student in the richest country in the world, and even I couldn’t tell you where I’d find one. It seems like an obvious question, but sadly its omission is symptomatic of a larger trend of interventions that don’t create opportunities for the masses to access the information, relationships, and material (including money) necessary to scale solutions like these up. I don’t mean to suggest that the Wikihouse folks are completely blind to this, but all to0 often inventors, industries, universities, and entrepreneurs come up with technical solutions without coming up with a plan for how the people that most need these solutions actually get access to them.

While I have my critiques, I appreciate that Parvin is taking a stab at a solution, and its only through trying some things out that we can come up with something better. I challenge him and the rest of us to take the Wikihouse concept a step further by thinking about how to scale up on solutions without sacrificing participation, customization, and opportunities that grant access.

Whether you’re thinking “right on, preach woman!” or “what a negative Nancy” go ahead and watch the clip to make up your own mind. Don’t forget to let me know where you stand in the comments below.

Lynda Turet is a graduate student in Geography at the University of Washington. Holler at her at http://www.lyndaturet.com

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