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Architecture with a social conscience

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Instead of a news story, today’s column is prompted by a wondrous AFP photograph by Khaled Desouki of a tourist visiting the Temple of Karnak to watch the winter solstice at sunrise on December 21.

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The towering height of the temple, its climbing extent lost in shadows, was intended to astonish. Steps and portico of the U.S. Supreme Court building dwarf visitors for a similar reason. Ditto the grand entrance to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Loftiness has served institutions like these well.

But when private homes stand aloof in middle class neighborhoods with their imperial pitch on the order of Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation home, a.k.a. McMansions, the question goes pleading: do these homeowners need astonishment in their personal space? The question goes pleading because the McMansion era ended when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and now they’re back now.

New single-family homes are hitting a reported high of 2,306 square feet. Yet at the start of the economic downturn, the American Institute of Architects noted that 60 percent of McMansion owners were ditching their big-footers. Even architect Reno Piano, designer of the largest museum of modern art in Europe, styled a house 8.2 feet wide by 9.8 feet long by 11.5 feet high for a company in Germany.

Piano called this house Diogene, presumably after the ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. The architect explained that he sought “self-moderation.” More self-moderation came from architect Richard Rogers, who offered energy-efficiency called 'Zip Up” - a prefabricated house made of standardized components based on refrigerator panels.

Mind you, Rogers’ projects are not usually known for moderation. You may remember what Prince Charles said about his Paternoster Square near St Paul's Cathedral in London: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."

But as any architect will tell you, clients’ demands can throw any social-conscience architect off message. And since architecture clients direct design traffic, what the world needs – now, please, right now - are clients with a social conscience.

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