December 7, 2022
Swati Janu is Founder of Social Design Collaborative, a practice that combines architectural activism, community engagement, policy advocacy and design pedagogy. She is an architect, writer and community artist based in Delhi with an MSc in Sustainable Urban Development from University of Oxford, UK. Swati was recently awarded the Moira Gemmill Prize in Emerging Architecture 2022 and now wants to shape her practice to become more interdisciplinary. She spoke to Bhawna Jaimini about the challenges and future of social design—and the risk of getting co-opted into the neoliberal economic structure.
BJ: What led you to set Social Design Collaborative at the conjecture of social issues and architecture?
SJ: I never really set out to set up this practice, but it has happened organically, more so as my personal response to what has been happening in the world. I was working in a mainstream architecture firm for a few years and I realised that this is not the kind of work I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I then started working in micro Home Solutions (mHS)—a multidisciplinary social enterprise in Delhi—and while I was there, I took on the task of building ModSkool, a school for children living on the floodplains of Yamuna River in Delhi. The project snowballed into something much bigger when people from all walks of life started to come and help with the building of the school, with fundraising, etc. That made me realise the power of collectives and it also opened an entirely new aspect of approaching architecture, which then culminated into Social Design Collaborative.
BJ: How has your practice changed since its inception?
SJ: It has continued to grow to become more and more multidisciplinary where we are not just looking at design and built projects, but also doing communications design, advocacy work, and research.
Though I started with a strong focus on doing grassroots work, I have realised that it is not enough; one has to look at policy too—so we have started doing a lot of advocacy-related work. I have currently taken a sabbatical for a few months to pause, reflect and decide on the future of the practice.
BJ: In the last few years, perception towards socially oriented design and architecture practices has changed tremendously. From Pritzker acknowledging people like Diébédo Francis Kéré and Alejandro Aravena to your recent Moira Gemmill Prize, what do you think is causing this shift?
SJ: Though I agree that there are more socially oriented design and architecture practices today than there were a decade ago, I also feel that it is still not enough. The examples you pointed out look great by themselves, but once they are put against all the work that is happening and all that is recognised by all the different awards in the world, a very different picture emerges.
The Pritzker Prize was started in 1979 and it took more than 40 years for them to recognise a Black man; and there were only six women architects who have received the prize so far. That said, I am glad that an award like the Moira Gemmil Prize, which is meant for women and non-binary people under the age of 45, exists. A lot of people in our industry believe that there should not be special prizes for women, saying that you are an architect and not a woman architect. But that is just hiding the discrimination that we have to face at every step of the way, from home and the workplace to the society at large. When we are dealing with roadblocks everywhere, special initiatives are needed to bring confidence and visibility to people who have been ignored for the longest time by the mainstream establishments. The shift will only happen when we have more of these.
BJ: Sustainability has turned into an industry, especially when it comes to architecture where it is becoming increasingly hard to separate greenwashing from meaningful change. Do you see socially conscious design also turning into an industry like that and what can we do to prevent that?
SJ: Before I answer your question, I would like to talk about why sustainability has become an industry like it is today. Our lives are pretty much governed by the neoliberal order—the economic structure of the present times—which has led or added to the inequalities and inequities around us. Architecture is a tool of this same system and that is why most practices are responding to the needs of a neoliberal world. The idea of sustainability—though it started with environmental concerns—had to respond, exist and flourish in this neoliberal order. A lot of practices and individuals, including you, who are practising socially conscious design, are questioning and challenging these hegemonic economic structures, and I don’t see them getting co-opted into this system.
However, as this kind of work gets more visibility and recognition, there are architects who tend to jump on the bandwagon without putting the rigour or being thorough with their processes of participation and community engagement, thus, reducing it to mere tokenism. But I strongly feel that over time, it shows. Even though there is a whole industry around sustainability, we all know who is really practising it in its true forms.
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Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai, India. Trained as an architect, she currently works with Community Design Agency on projects that seek to improve the built habitats of some of the most marginalised communities in India’s urban areas, using participatory tools. She is deeply passionate about gender rights and using architecture and design to address issues of social inequality and inequity in these areas.