You ask us what architects should do about the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. About social inequality. About poverty. About the degradation of this planet’s resources. About the pandemic, which has placed us in an almost surreal mode that begs description. We would like to respond: we can and we must do a lot.
We do not want to concede to a pessimistic view of architecture. Yes, our profession is bound by commissioning forces, the economic laws that determine our revenue streams. Yes, architects have always kept company with the world’s mighty. However, we cannot let ourselves be constrained by such a Realpolitk — perhaps a Realarchitektur — approach.
Today, we desperately need design and architectural solutions to reprogram our pandemic-stricken cities. Our world is suddenly filled with plastic barriers, distance stickers and people who cannot shake each other's hands. In the midst of such global issues, new questions arise on a daily basis. But the answer is often bad design or unconscious design. Governments and scientists are trying to find a way out, but how can we contribute to a better human experience? How can we design our way into the new normal?
Furthermore, when Covid-19 ends, the urgency will only rise along with the sea levels. It would be sad for architecture not to play a driving role against the climate crisis — especially since the building sector is responsible for a disproportionate quota of global energy consumption. Operating within the constraints of powerful clients — the same ones who led us to this point — will not be enough to forestall disaster. We architects can cling to “the world’s mighty”, but we will find ourselves without enough inhabitable land to build anything but their mausoleums. Paraphrasing the great Buckminster Fuller, it is up to us to decide if we want to be the “architects of the future or its victims”. 
The notion that we cannot change our fate, that our drawing hands are tied by clients, is a recurring one in architecture. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have listed the three most important things in our field as: “clients, clients, clients.” But this a way to look at the issue that has never been absolute. Architects have long sought to revolt against it. Some inspiration could come from Luis Barragán, who has the audacity to declare: “I am sick of listening to clients talking about their tastes.” 
Today, we desperately need design and architectural solutions to reprogram our pandemic-stricken cities
It was the 1940s, and Mexico’s real estate sector had experienced several decades of sustained growth. Amidst rapid urban expansion, Barragán had built a career designing successful but somewhat banal architecture. After years of working for difficult and unimaginative patrons, he reached a decisive moment: “I am quitting with all my clients. From now on, I am going to work for one client only: myself.” 
In the following years, Barragán designed only a handful of buildings, developing a characteristic style blending modernism with the earthy and colorful vernacular from his native Guadalajara. Those few projects — including his own studio and a few private homes in Mexico City’s El Pedregal neighborhood — came to be known as some of the greatest architectural achievements of the era.
Of course, Barragán had the luxury of approaching design on his own terms. He was financially stable and could pay the bail on his aesthetic freedom. Without obligations to a client, he was bound only by the laws of physics and his own imagination — a rare freedom, bordering on fantasy for many architects. However, Barragán’s creative emancipation reminds us of what we could achieve when the architect becomes her own client. Today, we could go even further.
Amidst rapid urban expansion, Barragán had built a career designing successful but somewhat banal architecture
Over the last few years, digital platforms have allowed designers to create first, share their ideas online, and build them if backers come. A few years ago, this was visible mostly on crowd-based platforms. However, what we can see now is a whole new architectural dynamic, based on co-creation and participation, which is gradually gaining ground. We believe that by liberating, accelerating, and connecting designers, digital platforms could give rise to a new design methodology for our century.
We do not expect this to fully replace traditional commissioning, but to become key for those projects that indeed deal with today’s pressing challenges, as we were saying at the beginning. We also do not want to propose a replica of Barragán’s solitary approach — openness and collaboration are mandatory in today’s networked and complex world. His takeaway, however, is the determination to challenge the idea of absolute dependency on clients. He moved from individuals to himself as one. In order to tackle today’s global issues, could we envision humanity as a client?
Imagine you are a present-day Buckminster Fuller, developing a new idea to fight climate change. Instead of hoping to graft elements of your scheme onto someone else’s commission, you could share the entire plan online. If you attract seed funds from backers large and small, you can develop the project further and earn additional support. This strategy resembles the emerging landscape of “crowd finance” , a democratic reimagination of venture capital. Moreover, the online forum can be a place to receive ideas and critiques — creative returns can be equally important as financial backing. With successive iterations, your idea becomes both resourced and refined. To borrow from economics, your project becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Too much of a stretch? Perhaps, but the methodology is not far from what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched last month as Climate Grand Challenges . A number of ideas to counter climate change will be selected early next year. This will lead, during a second phase, to “progress towards assembling the integrated, focused teams — eventually including partners from industry, finance, non-profits, and other sectors of society — needed to develop and implement these solutions rapidly”.
We do not expect this to fully replace traditional commissioning, but to become key for those projects that indeed deal with today’s pressing challenges, as we were saying at the beginning
As designers, we can continue executing client-based work as we do today. However, we should not let the tyranny of commissioning prevent us from engaging with today’s greatest challenges. If the ideas are good, in today’s interconnected world, they will eventually make it.
How do we proceed in practice? Amidst the volume and noise of digital platforms, the key ingredient to allow new ideas to take hold is feedback. Communication and media — which both explains and excites — can start a virtuous cycle of support and collaboration. In an era when entire projects can spawn from well-made 1-minute videos , the ability to share can replace relationships with wealthy clients.
Other opportunities for feedback are design gatherings, such as architecture biennales and design weeks. Over the past decades they have grown exponentially  and provided an opportunity for assembling new ideas without client constraints. It might seem inevitable, but, if we think of it closely, it is truly disappointing that these events have been postponed or replaced by online surrogates in the face of COVID-19. This pandemic is a staggering new design challenge: if anything, it demands that we pre-launch the gatherings that can help to overcome it. By making an experiment out of our own design weeks, we can test out solutions to revive public events that have already started to gain headway in other venues.
From both of our practices, based in Turin, Rotterdam, we have witnessed a stunning renaissance in outdoor public art and public space projects — relevant to this particular time because they are safer than gathering indoors. Our new designs are rightly defined by public safety, but ethics are generating unexpected new aesthetics. As we fight the crisis, can we discover a new sense of beauty?
These questions cannot be answered — they may not even be asked — unless we architects take a more active role in designing — and co-designing — our destinies. We can work towards becoming the autonomous, collaborative actors who can best serve humanity. Indeed, humanity is the greatest client we can work for.
An architect and engineer by training, Professor Carlo Ratti teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab, and is a founding partner of the design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati (Turin and New York). He is currently serving as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization.
Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde is a creative thinker and maker of social designs which explore the relation between people, technology and space.He founded Studio Roosegaarde in 2007, where he works with his team of designers and engineers on landscapes of the future.
- Steven Sieden L., A Fuller View: Buckminster Fuller’s Vision of Hope and Abundance for All, Divine Arts, 2012
- Zanco F., Luis Barragan: The Quiet Revolution, Skira, 2001
- Zanco F., Luis Barragan: The Quiet Revolution, Skira, 2001
- Reffell C., “Crowdfunding and Venture Capital Working Together”, Crowd Sourcing Week, 2019
- Lester R., Zuber M., “Climate Grand Challenges: A Call to the MIT Community”, MIT Climate Grand Challenges, 2020
- Murray J., “YouTube stars raise over $6m to plant trees around the world”, The Guardian, 2019
- Atelier Crilo, “L’era del Biennalozoico”, Domus n. 952, 2011