Could we give birth to a new architecture for equitable cities? One that recognizes sustainability and racial justice must be knotted together to make the world we want to live in? An architecture that begins to right the deep wrongs that the first half of 2020 has so viscerally exposed? The potential for this rebirth, fraught with labor pains, resides in the field’s own DNA of world-building that opens new possibilities. We can start by following our words not just with actions, but with real labor.
The flow of outrage about racial injustice floods my email and social media accounts, matched by a continuous supply of concern about my health during the pandemic. Today, universities, corporations, public agencies and individuals deploy language — which we read — against racism, police brutality and social inequities. Words in the public domain can be evidence of new moral discourse when the shared, public conversation today lays foundations for tomorrow’s collective action addressing white supremacy, reparation and divestment in policing. But words are surely not enough at this moment of intersectional crises. At the intersection is discrimination against Black, Brown and Indigenous lives, exaggerated by environmental degradation and amplified horrifically by COVID-19 because of systemic and pervasive injustice that includes an inability to quarantine, employment in service industries, living in crowded households, overrepresentation in prison and homeless populations and inadequate medical insurance and care.
Most architects I know are deeply concerned, but they don’t see how to engage their own practices. Clients don't ask for anti-racist public spaces, and housing developers won’t throw away financial spreadsheets to create more just design. We are all asking, "what can we do?" because architecture is fundamentally based on its action-orientation, and because architecture must overcome its history as an enterprise of whiteness where the privileged design spaces of privilege. My own position is problematic as well as privileged: I am a white woman writing words here — words that arise from decades of architectural activism but still encrypt systemic biases. This will only lead to reforming rather than abolishing the old practices that prevent bringing new ones to life.
When words are inadequate, we usually call for “action,” but even that is insufficient now. What we need is real labor, the kind that brings with it a certain pain and discomfort. If architecture is “pregnant with possibility,” large and small increments of inspired labor is required from all of us — community activists, civic leaders, practitioners, students, educators and public servants. This will be a collective effort that depends on creative partnership.
We can take heart from the evidence of the immediate past that such labor leads to radical transformation — something we need now more than ever. Take the pandemic’s ability to immediately shake loose the status quo. In architectural offices and schools, an old guard faced its technological shortcomings, learning from younger designers who showed them how to work effectively online. Firms reduced their carbon footprints overnight by accepting work-from-home as the norm, an idea that was deeply controversial before the emergency. And since working from home is not possible for everyone, more labor is required to address the injustices that face students and young architects without adequate childcare, workspace or computing capacity. In the wider world, in cities rife with inequity and facing the pandemic, “anticipatory politics” of everyday life are creating "new modes of urban configuration," according to urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone. A transformational architecture can help build such a reconfiguration.
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The summer of 2020 has taught us that ALL our actions implicate systemic racism, so we will need to do the work each step of the way. For example, at schools of architecture, it is obvious that hiring, recruitment and admissions must change. Teachers know that history surveys need an upgrade, but how could basic professional skills like drawing or structures be biased? How can cultural politics and environmentalism become drivers of beautiful form rather than its antithesis, as yesterday’s architects believed? It takes work to make these changes: study, workshops, field testing, more meetings, and not least, seeking out underrepresented and Black voices to lead some of these efforts (without displacing our own strenuous labor with theirs). The rebirth of architecture education may seem small compared to the movement at large but think of the generations of newly trained architects who would become part of the movement.
As an architecture teacher and researcher, in 2006, I founded an activist design center at UCLA called cityLAB, which has been dedicated for the last decade to creating innovative, design-led solutions for more equitable housing. We co-authored California’s accessory dwelling law so that thousands of small rental units could be built across the state. We are working now to unleash the public land of our school systems to construct permanently affordable housing for teachers, janitors and cafeteria workers. Though I thought we could hardly work any harder, I see that our real labor lies ahead. We begin by asking questions: Is our work as anti-racist as it can be? Can we create designs and policies that are both more just and repair past inequities? We will need the labor of our collaborators: those with privilege and means will join without being paid; those who have been underserved must be paid by us and others with means; those who have faced systemic discrimination deserve positions of leadership. It will take work to convince them to join us. It will take work to change our practices.
If architects and designers want to be part of the solution, we must sign on to painful work that marks a real rupture with the past. Waiting for the right client, modifying an existing class, advertising for new, more diverse employees — those are easy, good and not enough. Radical agency is in our DNA to imagine worlds that do not yet exist, and a sustainable anti-racist world will necessarily be something original. Giving birth to cities where all of us will be better off won’t be easy. We can start by undoing the violence built into our built environment — from gated communities to prisons and creating instead a plurality of dignified spaces open to wildly varied lived experience. We can include voices, buildings and spaces that have been excluded. Our projects can deal directly with climate change, so there IS a future world for all of us. Uncomfortable and strenuous, we can bring that approach to the clients, students and educators we have now as we shape far more robust and equitable built environments for tomorrow.
Top Image: Backyard Bihome Exterior (2015) | cityLAB UCLA and Kevin Daly Architects, Photography by Nico Marques/Photekt