When I moved to London as a young man I was fascinated by the form of the city and in particular the melding of the ancient with the new and its ability to absorb growth in an organic manner. As a city blessed with examples of the finest architecture, from the very modern to pre-Elizabethan, London has always been a center of design and exploration of the built form—the result of which is that the built environment has influenced the culture as much as the culture has dictated the built form. The city is of its people, and as a direct expression of its identity has had many successes and many pronounced failures. The remnants of the brutalist social housing schemes from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s still dot the landscape of suburban London and act as a constant reminder of the power of design and its ability to influence the broader culture. Architecture born from mass housing experiments that broke the village culture and added a bleakness to the national psyche, compounded by high unemployment and the grey skies of the north Atlantic resulted in a culture of crime, depression, drug addiction, and alcoholism, but also gave birth to rebellious art, music, and film: think Trainspotting and Punk Rock.
I am reminded of what social engineering means to design with the announcement of the tentative end to the one child policy in China. As a new resident of Shanghai I have listened to cultural observers lament that the one child policy has led to the destruction of traditional family life, created a gender imbalance, incited female infanticide, produced an aging workforce, bred a petulant and spoiled generation of entitled young adults, and also a lonely generation of people with no siblings, and, by consequence, another generation to follow without cousins, aunts, and uncles. Conversely, some argue that the policy has moderated growth and served to contain development within a decade of runaway urbanization, managed partly by a reduction in birth rates. But everyone agrees that what still haunts the national psyche of China is the destruction of the village culture, the social norms and traditions of close-knit communities destroyed by housing of millions of people in residential towers in mega cities—and also leading to a rise in highly expressive and humanist forms of art, music, and film: think Ai Wei Wei.
So, now we have a reversal of policy, once again originating from good intentions, with a desired outcome of boosting economic productivity. Will the result be yet another example of social engineering? What role will architects, urban designers, and landscape architects play in yet another public experiment? Will we be able to adequately interpret the cultural and social needs of our fellow man as we promote new forms of community to house the expanding generation to come? I cannot even fathom the answer to these questions yet, and because the track record of designers on this issue has not been all that positive, I’m concerned.
Jeffrey Craft is a Principal in the Shanghai studio.