Louis Kahn The Street

Rethinking Social Institutions – Scales of Participation

“In a city the street must be supreme. It is the first institution of the city.The street is a room by agreement, a community room, the walls of which belong to the donors, dedicated to the city for common use. Its ceiling is the sky. From the street must have come the meeting house, also a place by agreement. Today, streets are disinterested movements not at all belonging to the houses that front them. So you have no streets. You have roads, but you have no streets”.

                                                                                    Louis Kahn, The Street.**

As an architecture professor, I find myself constantly reminding students of the importance of understanding the ‘political unconscious’ of architecture and urban design. In current times, this is especially difficult due to the almost total absence of a serious contemporary project of critique in both fields – a predicament intensified by the vagueness of a globalized, image-centered culture.

When searching for examples, Louis Kahn’s concern for institutions as a driving force behind his work, often comes to mind. Kahn was interested in understanding what lied behind ‘why’ and ‘how’ people came together in agreement – and how to give presence (form and space) to it. Although his architectural exploration can be viewed as pertaining mostly to the ‘formal’ realm of architecture, his way of thinking about the constructed is also valuable when dealing with the by-products of the institutions that shape contemporary society – such as informal settlements, which as argued by many could be considered a by-product of the forces and ideologies that drive current economic and political systems.

In this sense, I would like to briefly discuss two concepts presented by sociologist Jonathan H. Turner that I think are critical in setting a sociological framework through which we can start to rethink social institutions and to understand the importance of participation and agency at different scales. This is critical to me because as bottom-up approaches and so-called ‘urban guerilla interventions’ in marginal spaces become common expressions of emerging social movements – where spatial agency is sometimes viewed as disconnected from traditional institutional structures, it becomes critical to understand the relationship between so-called ‘peripheral practices’ and more dominant organizations. Just to put a simple example: the need for strong and constant capital influx to avoid the fragile long-term impact of some ephemeral urban interventions (which in many cases may generate civic consciousness but often lack continuity) becomes critical when one thinks about the broader institutional changes of governance.


Similarly to other sociologists, Turner defines social institutions as “those population-wide structures and associated cultural (symbolic) systems that humans create and use to adjust to the exigencies of their environment”. “Without institutions, humans do not survive, and societies do not exist” – he argues.[i] In an analogous way, Johannes Urpelainen defines institutions as the “set of shared individual expectations about self-enforcing collective behavior in a social situation”.[ii] So, for instance, among the first and most important social institutions we can find kinship, economy, politics, law, religion and education. And going back to Kahn’s words, these institutions serve societies’ “will to be” and “to express” and thus should be considered the main forces behind the processes that shape our environment.[iii]

Now, in order to understand the capacity of individuals or social movements to challenge the ideologies and mechanisms behind current institutional and ideological frameworks, it is critical to understand that as Turner points out, structural outcomes (such as institutions) occur and are shaped at three different levels: the macro, the meso and the micro (see figure 1). At the macro level, forces shape the core, social institutions mentioned earlier. At the meso level, forces shape corporate and categoric units, which in fact can be related and affect each other. Corporate units are those based on division of labor or to pursue specific goals such as groups, organizations and communities. Categoric units are based on distinctions that people make and use such as race, gender and age, class or religion. And finally, at the micro level, forces shape face-to-face individual interactions.

Institutional Actions

According to Turner, institutional ideologies are controlled by a set of structures and processes that influence whether they meet society’s needs or not – for instance: economy (production and distribution), politics (regulation) or education (reproduction). Clearly, these are not static needs as they exert pressures on humans to organize along certain lines. Human agency is thus the process by which lines of reasoning shift and a social selection process takes place – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But most importantly, rather than being significant because of their disruptive power, these shifts or social movements are important because of their capacity to bring out traits and opportunities that lied undetected within the existent institutions. In other words, because social institutions are based on community agreements and function through a series of actions at different scales of organization, any recalibration needs to happen at all three levels. For this reason, it becomes critical for agents of change to act as both individuals (citizens) and all the way up as members of broader institutional organizations (professional, political and educational).


It is in this sense that if we want to re-think our current institutions, participation – not only of individuals but also of medium and larger organizations, is key. In fact, one of the most important goals behind urban-related participatory processes (such as participatory budgeting and participatory design) is to manage the tension between institutions, social movements and individuals in regards to the rights each has to the city. In fact, that is why these types of processes are based on the premise that in order to provide equal access to the city, it is imperative to democratize the parallel processes and institutional agreements that produce it. For instance, if urban production is understood as a fundamentally capitalist process, then the methods by which capital is accessed, controlled and distributed become critical for the success of the common socio-urban project and the institutions that shape it.

Example: Medellín’s Transformation Model

Just to put this idea into context, I want to briefly refer to an example that is discussed in more detail in other posts in this blog: the city of Medellin, specifically to how economic resources are generated and distributed through institutional organizations that have had a more continuos impact that temporal, spatial interventions. First, it is important to say that Medellín’s Transformation Model is based on the ideology of a multi-scalar redistribution of economic, organizational, cultural and territorial resources. For this matter, the organizations that manage such resources have been structured in such a way, that for example, a large part of the economic resources received by the Municipality, are generated by a multi-million, public-private company – Medellín’s Public Utilities Company [EPM], and is distributed all the way down to neighborhoods and individuals through the CEDEZO and other financial programs. The CEDEZO is a micro financial system that reaches into the barrios of the city and which emerged from a series of community needs that came out of participatory sessions. In this sense, the institutional change happens at all levels: the micro level, when individuals interact among themselves and needs arise; the meso level, when public sessions and institutions such as the Municipality receive constant input from citizens; and lastly, the result of a broader ideological, institutional change.

Final Thought

In conclusion, the specific lessons from Medellín (and other cities) do not lie solely in the power of individual or small-scale architectural and urban interventions, but also in the strong organization, institutionalization and collaboration of the political, social and governmental agents that allowed them to happen and who constantly assess their true impact. The huge change that the city has had was possible because it happened at all three level of Turner’s structural outcomes. Now, the pivotal role that activist, small-scale interventions play in urban and social transformations is undeniable, however, we need to understand that they are partly the expression and afterwards manifestation and materialization of a pre-existent broader system. The role that institutionalized resource management or institutionalized knowledge provide within a society are just reminders that architecture and other forms of spatial activism are dependant on external factors that we cannot obviate. And so, as times change and a new paradigms emerge, let’s always keep in mind that architecture’s history is full of examples of good intentions but bad outcomes, and that many times the solution to a spatial problem is not just a building (object) but something that takes place in another realm and at another scale.



** For interesting information on Louis Khan’s work and theory, please refer to this Louis Kahn page by Artsy.net.

[i] Turner, Jonathan H. Human Institutions: A Theory of Societal Evolution. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.

[ii] Urpelainen, Johannes. “The Origins of Social Institutions.” Journal of Theoretical Politics. 23.2 (2011): 215-240. Print.

[iii] Lobell, John, and Louis I. Kahn. Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn. Boulder: Shambhala, 1979. Print.

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