Field Notes on Design Activism: 1

This is the first installment of a narrative survey in which several dozen educators and practitioners share perspectives on the intensifying demands for meaningful change across design pedagogy and practice. How is the field responding to the interlocking wicked problem that define our time — climate crisis, structural racism, unaffordable housing, rapid technological shifts? To the increasingly passionate campaigns to decolonize the canon, to make schools and offices more equitable, ethical, and diverse? What are the issues of greatest urgency? What specific actions and practical interventions are needed now?

Clockwise from top left: Computer Vision Dazzle makeup. [SPAN and Midjourney]; San Francisco Public Library. [Robert Dawson] Poster by Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, Oakland. Campaign buttons for Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
Clockwise from top left: Computer Vision Dazzle makeup [SPAN and Midjourney]; San Francisco Public Library [Robert Dawson]; poster by Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, Oakland; campaign buttons for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.

A while back, a student of ours declined an offer to teach for the department. Among various reasons, she expressed the reservation that “teaching children’s literacy in the local library of my community” might be a more politically effective use of her time. Can teaching design have comparable impact, for both instructor and students? There’s so much riding on the question that it could preface a design-activism handbook of a thousand pages. And if the last 500 pages covered what to do about the problem, the preceding 500-plus could be about how the problem occurred in the first place. How did design become irrelevant to communities like our student’s? Maybe a page per year, from the 15th century on, describing the wondrous, brutal project of modernization that captured and defined design as it came to be understood and practiced.

How did design become irrelevant to communities like our student’s?

Maybe I’m on the hook to draft both sections of the book — the first part as a scholar, the second as an administrator. Well, yes and no. Yes, as a scholar who needs to figure out a history of the discipline more interesting and more credible than the cuneiform-and-wheel to Steve-and-Elon story of “innovation” that the discipline is apt to trot out. If, as design theory claims, we’re all designers creating preferred situations, there are going to be as many modes of design as there are preferred situations. So what matters are intent, context, and power (i.e. historical struggle). Which means, yes again, I’m responsible as an administrator for spelling out our department’s intent, context, and power.

Children's Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Children’s Center, San Francisco Public Library. [Robert Dawson, from Public Library: An American Commons]

Notice, please, a couple of feints I’m slipping in toward grappling with urgency. But in this survey Places is asking for a #1 suggestion, and this is where I respectfully decline. Because, honestly, no one needs to hear another damn word from someone like me, from approximately the same demographic as the dudes who led the discipline to a point where students find it an also-ran compared to a local library.

But it so happens I used to work in local libraries, so let me remember some of their features:

• Multi-generational / multi-class / multi-racial hubs for communities.
• Sources of verifiable information and shared technology.
• Free. No barriers to entry. Public.
• Branches of networks. (If what you need isn’t there, try another branch — they’re more mutualist than competing.)
• Safe hang-outs. Some patrons struggling, taking a break, finding shelter, maybe getting a number to call for help. (Staff possibly able to get help.)
• There’s a quick reference section, but mostly it’s slow learning; lifelong, open-ended.
• Experts are on hand to help patrons search out what it is that patrons want to know, what they need to do, who they might be. A careers section, because people need security, prospects. But also portals to other worlds, some of them better than where we live right now.

I guess part of my job will be making sure that any future design department struck from the same mold doesn’t get nixed, like local libraries, by budgets promoting regressive taxation, the cuneiform-to-Elon schtick, and the assumption that everything’s digital and everyone has access. Though that’s a matter not only for design admin and scholarship, but for my active political citizenship.

Simon Sadler

A library, a city, and a question of social justice

The architect’s relevance to issues of social justice was bluntly questioned in June 1968, when civil rights leader Whitney M. Young, Jr., then president of the National Urban League, delivered a keynote address at the American Institute of Architects National Convention in Portland, Oregon. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights,” he told the assembled practitioners in this iconic speech, “and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

Whitney M. Young, Jr., addressing the AIA Convention, 1968.
Whitney M. Young, Jr., addressing the AIA Convention, 1968. [Via American Institute of Architects]

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968 and, more generally, in the iconoclastic context of the ’60s, when hegemonies of many kinds were being challenged, Young’s chastisement might have been expected. What is less often quoted — and more useful, I argue — is his condemnation, in the same speech, of the architect as complicit in creating “the mess we are in in terms of the white noose around the central city.” Young told his audience, “It didn’t just happen. We didn’t just suddenly get this situation. It was carefully planned.” In other words, exclusionary practices like redlining that plagued the 20th-century American city were hardly random. Federal regulators, insurance companies, real estate companies, banks and mortgage lenders, and the design community all helped to create segregated districts, making structural racism an everyday reality. Architects participated, knowingly or not, in designing social inequity to benefit the dominant classes. This charge of discrimination by design remains Young’s most searing insight from his famous keynote.

The question of relevance haunts architectural pedagogy, as schools struggle to respond to demands for equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Lest we forget, Young delivered his speech two months after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was signed into law in the United States. How much has changed since then? More than a half century later, the question of relevance continues to haunt architectural pedagogy, as schools struggle to respond to demands for improved equity, diversity, and inclusion — primarily because there is not, nor will there ever be, consensus on what equity and diversity mean socially and politically. But have architects gotten over the Howard Roarkian ego-centrism and socially disengaged formalism that Young’s generation witnessed and brought to task, thereby opening new ways for discussing architecture’s complicated relationship to society? In 2014, Zaha Hadid refused to participate in the contentious debate regarding the deaths of migrant workers (mostly from South Asia) during the construction of the Al-Wakrah stadium in Qatar, which she designed for the World Cup 2022, on the grounds that these preventable tragedies were a matter for the Qatari government and not for her office. Hadid’s position was exasperating but, sadly, also representative of professional practices around the world. This makes me wonder about the philosophical dimension of an architect’s social citizenship. Are we teaching our future architects the skills and vocabularies needed to participate in public policy debates — in the legal, economic, and infrastructural decisions that impact architecture’s ability to shape equitable values?

Lobby of the New York Public Library, 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City.
New York Public Library, 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City. [Robert Dawson, from Public Library: An American Commons]

Let’s bring this conversation to city planning. A city is most inspiring when it is fair to all its inhabitants, and a city is fair when it creates a culture of social justice across all its domains. A city ensures social justice when it offers equal opportunities to all its people. But fairness and equality are abstract ideas. How does one institute these values in the physical conditions of the city? Is it possible to transform the abstraction of social justice into something we can visualize and experience? As I ponder these questions, I recall what the American poet, playwright, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said: “I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South, all the way up until I walked up the steps of the New York City library, I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK. It really helped me as a child, and that never left me.”

A public library — accessible to all, irrespective of economic and social backgrounds — is an especially poignant symbol of a city that values social justice. Angelou’s memory of racial discrimination in a segregated library in the American South could be mitigated by the robust publicness of the New York City library. She could walk right up the steps of this library and feel that she could enter without having to pass exclusionary barriers. The assurance that you can access opportunity without facing social and economic hurdles is a monumentally empowering condition. When that feeling is pervasive among a city’s people of all ethnicities, ages, economic and social classes, genders, and physical abilities, then that city is fair, and practices social justice as its moral foundation.

But what kind of spatial planning would inspire such feelings? This is where pedagogy needs to complicate and decolonize the canonical, and often romantic, meanings of such concepts as accessibility and equity. The goal should not be to calcify these concepts into preordained patterns and replicable stories (including that of Angelou’s library), but to subject them to relentless and productive scrutiny. Future architects will need to imagine new skill sets to create the physical conditions conducive to social justice, and the time to inspire them is now.

Adnan Z. Morshed

Architecture’s relationship to the carceral state has gone through numerous phases, being hidden, revealed, fetishized, ignored, critiqued, experimented on, and subverted. Yet the American prison system — its processes and policies, and also its buildings — remains responsible for social inequities that can last decades after an individual is released. While architecture may not be the primary culprit in policy-driven activities like stop-and-frisk or the War on Drugs, it has emerged as an accessory after the fact. By participating in the design and construction of prisons, the for-profit building sector has enabled structural racism and class-based violence. This designed system can and should be un-designed, with the acknowledgement that the architectural aspects of the problem are not neutral.

To refuse unethical projects, architects need structures of social and institutional support.

A successful two-pronged approach will include radically projective, paradigm-shifting proposals that dismantle prisons at systemic scale, as well as a targeted reworking of the codes and policies that allow prisons to become sites of violence and dehumanization. In 2020 — after a sustained campaign on the part of Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility — the American Institute of Architects updated its Code of Ethics to discourage designers from participating in projects that include rooms of execution, torture, or solitary confinement. The International Building Code, which lists these building types in Occupancy Group I-3 but is otherwise thin on codes specific to conditions of imprisonment, could formally adopt the same recommendations, or even prohibit the construction of such spaces. The IBC can also set robust minimum standards for daylighting, temperature, and fresh-air circulation in every part of a correctional facility, similar to the standards we have now for homes and offices.

Posters from the successful campaign waged by Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility to revise the AIA Code of Ethics to urge architects to boycott the design of prison, especially spaces of solitary confinement. Left, poster by Jan Sabach; right, poster by Miguel Bermudez.
Posters from the successful campaign by Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility to revise the AIA Code of Ethics, which now advises architects to boycott the design of prisons, especially spaces of solitary confinement. Left, poster by Jan Sabach; right, poster by Miguel Bermudez. [Via Polis Blog and ADPSR]

Architects also need structures of social and institutional support under which to collectively refuse when approached by clients seeking unethical design work. Unions are one mechanism to achieve this; another is Universal Basic Income, which would decouple creative work from revenue generation, giving even beginning designers choices about the kinds of projects they take on.

Finally, architectural discourse is ensconced in the academy, with only a few tendrils extending into media and policy. We have no architects in the U.S. Congress, for instance (though two ran recently). American architecture tends toward the repetitive, and this uniformity camouflages spatial design as a system that shapes experience and reinforces ideology. Yet every public issue we debate — incarceration rates and prison abolition included — has an architectural dimension. Spatial reasoning is lacking in public policy discourse in part because the expertise is absent; getting architects in the room is one way to (begin to) change this.

Aneesha Dharwadker

Tenure and adjunct systems are colliding

Current institutional infrastructures of higher education, radically transformed over the last 40 years by neoliberal and market austerities in both the United States and Canada, put (and keep) precarious faculty in profoundly destabilizing and extractive conditions. To be sure, many universities didn’t start out like this. But years of conservative whittling — under Reagan, Bush, or Trump; or here in Canada under Stephen Harper (or, more locally in Ontario where I am, under provincial premiers Mike Harris and Doug Ford) — have exacerbated existing structural inequities. This is particularly evident in many (not all, to be fair) schools of architecture and design. Adjuncts, contract lecturers, and graduate students with teaching appointments have become, in effect, what Davarian L. Baldwin, in his 2021 book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, calls “a massive contingent of low-wage labor.”

An immediate revision of tenure and adjunct systems is needed to address a fundamentally broken system. Faculty must lead this effort.

Money is not and never has been “the” problem. Even a cursory glance at institutional endowments is staggering when you look at the usual suspects (to whom we also “look” as academic leaders): Harvard: $53.2 billion; Penn: $20.5 Billion; UVA: $14.5 billion; the UC system: $168 billion. In Ontario (I teach in Ottawa) there have been sixteen years of decreased funding to public education, and, in 2019, that amounted to eleven percent less than in 2002; Alberta saw a stunning 31 percent drop in funding. No, “the” problem has always been a matter of what we value. This is not an existential issue. We decide what, where, and whom to bankroll, support, value, fight for, believe in, commit to, refuse. Systems serve to replicate themselves, and academics — tenured faculty — have largely been content to let others step in to deal with “the” problem — and into this space step administrators, accountants, bean counters, consultants, investors, wealthy alumni, trustees, and so on. Charles Munger’s “dormitory” project for University of California, Santa Barbara comes to mind; or the experience of Nikole Hannah-Jones at University of North Carolina, where her tenure was scuttled through alumni/donor interference.

Tweet by The New School AAUP protesting cuts to faculty.

What to do? An immediate and urgent revision of tenure and adjunct systems and models by laddered faculty is needed to address a fundamentally broken system that continues to hold contingent faculty, many of whom belong to systemically and historically excluded groups, in extractive hierarchies of teaching and service, to the detriment of their financial security and their health. (See, for example, a recent Twitter thread by The New School chapter of the American Association of University Professors which describes that institution’s “shock doctrine.”)

Faculty must lead this effort. It can’t be otherwise. This isn’t design activism, either. It’s neither a radical proposition, nor is it anarchically leftist. It’s an issue of human and labor rights, of basic and elemental justice, of equitable pay, collective bargaining, the protection of intellectual property. Health Insurance. Benefits. How do we, with straight faces, teach an ethos and practice of design justice to students? Bring this restitutive practice to the city and beyond? How do we do this if what we aspire to is fundamentally lacking in our own houses, campuses, schools, and studios? This is not design activism at all. It is, however, a long overdue part — and a part only — of institutional reparation and repair.

Ozayr Saloojee

A Thousand Flowers

When my mother moved into the house where I was born, there were roses in the front yard. As a child, I’d picture the previous owner, an old lady from England, yearning to recreate a piece of Babylon in the Northern Suburbs of Harare (then Salisbury), and the financial and emotional toll this must have taken. I used to imagine those roses, waiflike and wilting, and their stark contrast with the new characters that had since taken root. Among them, a frangipani tree whose branches would snap as I clambered too adventurously over them, eliciting a milky white substance I was told could make a person go blind — and, by the kitchen door, a Downy Thorn Apple, or “moon flower” as we call it, which unfurls white trumpet-like blooms at dusk and, I recently learned, can induce delirium, tachycardia, hyperthermia and, in some cases, pronounced amnesia.

Now I have been transplanted to the land of the roses. “It dread inna inglan,” said Linton Kwesi Johnson on the BBC in 1979, after a similarly turgid period of Conservative rule. (He also said “Inglan is a _____ / dere’s no escapin it,” and, well … ) A florid, fluorescent blue, lime green, and magenta book has been on my desk at home and at work, in the bottom of my bag when shuffling between the two, and in the pockets of various coats and jackets as the seasons here have changed. Nothing short of a horror story, this 2004 book — A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities — details the ways in which public universities in Africa have been attacked and dismantled through successive Structural Adjustment Programmes, now more commonly understood across Europe through their successor, the toxic specter of Austerity.

Students, academics, administrators, and cleaners confronted the budget cuts, defending African universities as a home for design, imagination, and ideas.

Central to the project of “Adjustment” was the construction of a bogeyman. African universities became “sacred cows” that overgrazed on fledgling economies, with “too much devoted to the refined needs of too few at a higher level and too little to the general needs of too many at a lower level.” The World Bank particularly attacked “non-teaching staff,” who were framed as an unproductive urban elite holding back development. At the same time, the Bank pressured African governments to cut funding for students, ensuring that they would live in such impoverished and indebting conditions that further study would be rendered undesirable. A widespread program of privatization was pushed through African academia, with university graduates and lecturers being pushed out of a public system that could no longer afford to sustain them, into a private sector of so-called “emergency” and aid work, consultancies, and donor-funded projects, in which private donors set the agendas and fees, and limit the scope of work.

A Thousand Flowers (edited by Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, and Ousseina Alidou) does more than describe the intricacies of this violence. It details the myriad actions that students and university workers — academics, technicians, administrators, cleaners, and more — took to confront these cuts, defending the university as a home for design, imagination, and ideas, fiercely valued beyond profitability; creative and combative work urgently needed to face the challenges of a world struggling to emerge from centuries of repression, exclusion, and dehumanization under capitalism, colonialism, and their cousins in anthropocentrism and patriarchy.

The occupation of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, in 2019 by cleaners, porters, and security guards on strike over outsourcing and unjust working conditions.
Occupation of The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London in 2019, by cleaners, porters, and security guards on strike over outsourcing and unjust working conditions. [David Roberts]

It is easy to imagine that our battles are fresh, but the truly haunting fact is that the experiences detailed in A Thousand Flowers are uncanny. Headlines read like they were written yesterday. Policy directives echo, and “innovative” ideas for university restructuring ring strangely familiar. But so do the forms of resistance, bursting up from the ground and insisting that something other can and must grow.

Sure, I was asked to write, for this survey, “tactical, practical, nuts-and-bolts suggestions,” to provide “material, actionable, specific” recommendations for design activism today, and I have written mostly about flowers. Hanif Abdurraqib probably puts it best: “What is the black poet to be writing about ‘at a time like this’ if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower — that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes?” The thing about flowers is that they will always delight and surprise. You might think you are looking at something frail, but it can stop your heart and take the breath right out of you. You might think its life is fleeting, and yet another will emerge in its place, bolder, brighter, and hardier. For all those concerned with designing a world otherwise, my “suggestion” and “action” would be to spend time looking at the thousands of flowers that have emerged from these ground conditions before. Here we find conjoined struggles that require our solidarity, from which we can learn and which, in turn, can nourish our collective liberation.

Thandi Loewenson

We’re all fired up. Impatient for radical overhaul. Turning our attention to myriad urgent matters threatening our planet, each more pressing than the next: war, natural catastrophe, totalitarianism. Deep down, there’s a sense of morality, maybe altruism, or an ambition to contour a better social order, though what constitutes better is always up for grabs. In the face of acute and escalating struggles over resources and rights, the very term design activism strikes me as redundant. What choice is there but to act, to shape political will using all tools at our disposal?

Facing acute struggles over resources and rights, the very term design activism strikes me as redundant. What choice is there but to act?

And so, let’s drop the second half of the phrase. Activism, so thoroughly ingrained in the emancipatory promises of the 20th century, has lost its sheen. Both abetted and maimed by contemporary information technology; professionalized through philanthropic enterprise; and instrumentalized with corporate and/or institutional boosterism, present-day ideas of activism have gradually revealed their limitations and intrinsic paradoxes. Self-identifying activists, like foragers or roller-derby enthusiasts, occupy a particular algorithmically sorted sector of our cultural ecosystem, bound together through identity and ideology, be they rightist or leftist.

Without nostalgia for the activisms that sponsored a breadth of emancipatory outcomes prior to this digital age (think civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism), we must reflect on why the power to transform existing situations to align with our desires remains chimerical. Radical social division, further fractured along the fault lines of affinity factions, continues to frustrate the resolution of our individually chosen issues. It also stymies broader social and class-based movements that stand in solidarity to challenge power, authority, and capital. As designers, we have the capacity and responsibility to transcend identity-driven categories, to devise courses of action that renew commitment to pluralism, and to cultivate collective imaginaries that address the causes, not just the symptoms, of historic inequity.

Agence Ter – Akoaki, Cultural Center Planning Initiative project office, Detroit.
Agence Ter – Akoaki, Cultural Center Planning Initiative project office, Detroit. [Dori Sumter]

Akoaki, Agence Ter, Dr. Harley Etienne, and rootoftwo presenting the Detroit Square proposal for the Cultural Center Planning Initiative at a public meeting at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Akoaki, Agence Ter, Dr. Harley Etienne, and rootoftwo presenting the Detroit Square proposal for the Cultural Center Planning Initiative at a public meeting at the Detroit Institute of Arts. [Dori Sumter]

In my own studio, which looks to address social and environmental crises by countering conventional growth and development imperatives, the design process acknowledges how we ourselves contribute to the institutions, governments, and practices we wish to repudiate. The self-reflexive stance not only helps us understand how our work influences outcomes, but also how it might be instrumentalized by organizations and funders toward unintended results. We like to check ourselves. Do our words match our actions? Do we need to make greater sacrifices in alignment with our ideals? Recently, for instance, we returned a significant charitable grant because the funded project would inadvertently contribute to forced displacement and an uneven distribution of capital in an economically marginalized neighborhood. Declining the gift instigated criticism, and it also motivated our studio to downsize. But we could not move forward without an ethical framework.

A functional collaborative structure, of course, doesn’t mean that all stakeholders must agree. In fact, many of our projects require prolonged and agonistic engagement. The Detroit Cultural Center Planning Initiative, a project launched to unify 80 acres of public and institutional space in Midtown Detroit, for example, has engaged more than 4,000 people over the last two years, many whose core values and social concerns differ from ours. By inviting alternate perspectives to the table, investing time, and exploring commonalities rather than divisions, we manage to foster collective perceptions and goals. Throughout it all, we continue to adjust our entrenched dogmas by embracing relativism and self-consciousness.

Anya Sirota

How can the client-driven model of architectural practice more fully engage the urgent challenges of our time, foremost among them climate change and social inequity? The most important and frequent decision our firm makes (about once a week) is whether we will pursue a potential project. For many years, a key aspect of our mission and business development strategy was to seek like-minded clients. But as social injustice and the climate crisis accelerated in 2020, we realized that we needed to more rigorously assess each new business opportunity in its larger physical and social contexts. This led us to make crucial adjustments to our mission statement and to create a wholistic rubric for vetting new work.

As architects and citizens, we have a responsibility to address environmental and human impacts beyond the apparent limits of our work; our strategic vision to create architecture for a healthy planet and a just society is grounded in an ethos of inquiry, collaboration, and engagement through design. In conjunction with revisions to our mission statement that more fully articulate this vision, our Business Strategy + Communications Director led the development of more robust criteria for evaluating the diverse range of potential projects that we typically consider.

How can the client-driven model of architectural practice engage the challenges of our time, foremost among them climate change and social inequity?

As in the past, this inquiry includes questions about the client, program, site, and budget, as well as possibilities for innovation and research. To these were added questions about the client’s goals and the embedded power structure: who will benefit from, or be served or impacted by the architecture, as well as how it will be implemented. Such questions frame further research by our Business Strategy + Communications team, the results of which are assembled into a concise briefing document. This evaluation process includes assembling a diverse team of consultants. Through this early information-gathering and discussion, we come to understand whether a particular project is right for us, and if the office as a whole and staff members as individuals would be proud to work on it. If so, we are better prepared to respond and, we hope, to be shortlisted or selected. Importantly, this research also helps us to leverage opportunities to address environmental and social issues, even if these are not explicitly included in the brief.

This new framework for business development is consistent with our belief that our practice is itself a design project that continuously evolves through how we shape our methodology and culture. This is one of multiple aspects of our operations that are changing, together with our design work for clients. Many of these initiatives are generated and led by employees, a participatory paradigm that helps our firm to weave together process and projects.

Adam Yarinsky

Toward a Handbook of AI Activism

Activism is always tied to demands. So what is demanded by a world increasingly entangled in an opaque network of Artificial Intelligence applications? Even without us being aware, our behaviors are continuously surveilled, mined, categorized, labeled, and put to use in neural-network applications designed to lure us deeper into consumerism, agitation, and envy; to keep us a little longer on a website, to bombard our attention with targeted commercials until we are completely numb.

Examples of Computer Vision Dazzle makeup, designed to elude facial recognition, created by SPAN (Matias del Campo, Sandra Manninger) and Midjourney, 2022.
Examples of Computer Vision Dazzle makeup, designed to elude facial recognition, created by SPAN (Matias del Campo, Sandra Manninger) and Midjourney, 2022. [Courtesy Matias del Campo]

Algorithms fine-tune the targeting of messages from political and economic leaders, grinding their way into our minds without us noticing. In the data sets, inherently racist and culturally exclusive biases amplify sexism, White supremacy, and settler-colonialist histories. Neuroscience has not only made the magic of AI possible; it has opened a Pandora’s box of manipulative tools that are deepening the political, racial, and economic divide.

Forms of resistance include AI activism, guerrilla face paint to avoid facial recognition, and abstinence from social networks.

What would be my demands in such an ecology? AI activism, use of guerrilla face paint to avoid facial recognition, and abstinence from social networks are baseline forms of resistance. This is not a rallying call against AI; not a Luddite reaction to what has become unavoidable. Obviously, it is too late for that. It is an appeal for a conscious, critical use of Artificial Intelligence, an appeal for resistance against the mugging of our personal data by a small group of uber-rich companies. The evil actor in this context is human greed, not the technology that abets it. Such technology, after all, could be used to improve the living conditions of billions; could help to mitigate climate change by offering feedback in decision-making processes — provided that we act now, and use this technology to support a more equitable world, instead of to maximize profit.

Matias del Campo

Design activism can be viewed through many lenses and each imparts its own sense of urgency. This Field Note will highlight why the framing is timely and important. At the University of Miami, I coordinate our second-year core studio, Architecture & the Environment, a course that exposes students to ecological, social, and political issues in design. The aim is to introduce them to changing climates, vulnerable landscapes, marginalized communities, and social factors ostensibly outside the purview of architecture that positively and negatively contribute to our work — and it is an alarming reality for most. It was in this course that I was asked one of the most sobering questions I’ve encountered, from a White student: “Why am I doing this? I’m not Black. Should I be designing something in this neighborhood?” The student was slightly embarrassed to raise the issue as we stood in the Brownsville neighborhood of Miami-Dade, a historically Black district.

Studios encourage design speculation at the expense of real people who do not have the privilege to speculate.

My response was swift. “You absolutely should be designing a project in this neighborhood. Should you decide to continue a career in architecture, will you reject any project proposed for an area that is not predominately White? Until our discipline’s racial demographics drastically shift, the average architect assisting people of color will be White.” This leads me to a larger issue, which is that far too many professors propose theoretical projects absent of real constituents. The theory of architectural saviorism exceeds the reality of architectural disinvestment. If you are proposing a studio that deals with serious issues such as affordable housing, sea-level rise, or community-oriented design, and your brief does not include one-on-one conversations with residents, you are doing it wrong. Unequivocally wrong. There is a serious lack of empathy that is infiltrating classrooms where tutors, advisors, and professors are encouraging design speculation at the expense of real people who do not have the privilege to speculate.

University of Miami School of Architecture students participating in a tree-planting project with the Thrive Delray Faith Forward Project.
University of Miami School of Architecture students participating in a tree-planting project with the Thrive Delray Faith Forward Project. [Andrea Martinez]

Design activism is work that requires heroic effort and dedication. That is not to be confused with work that requires a hero. Ethical architectural practice requires constant communication in feedback loops with local constituents. Part of that approach is explaining to your students that architecture’s current racial makeup skews significantly White, so knowing how and when to use the talents you will develop responsibly, as an ally, are essential skills. This is work that must incorporate real-world approaches. It is necessary work. It is our job to do it correctly.

Germane Barnes

I am writing from the Bay Area, where the increasingly desperate housing crisis is never far from top of mind. Even if you are one of those lucky enough to have a secure place to live, it’s impossible to ignore the ubiquitous tent encampments, and the plight of students and colleagues sleeping in their cars or enduring two-hour commutes, and the near universal sensation of being squeezed between skyrocketing rents or mortgage payments and stagnant paychecks, and the persistent racial segregation of neighborhoods in one of the most putatively progressive regions of the United States.

I write from the Bay Area, where an increasingly desperate housing crisis is never far from top of mind.

It’s hard to know how to intervene, as an architect or otherwise. The causes for the crisis are multiple and structural: the financialization of housing and the rise of what urban planner Samuel Stein calls the “real-estate state”; governments’ abnegation of responsibilities to build housing; decades of gentrification following on decades of redlining and disinvestment; the erosion of rent control; building and zoning laws, along with (often racist) NIMBYism, that have led to a massive underproduction of housing in the suburbs. At the root of it all is the treatment of housing as private property — a financial asset — rather than as a social good or essential need. In a 2019 interview in The Nation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it succinctly; there is no housing crisis — “it’s just housing under capitalism.”

Posters created by the Bay Area housing nonprofit Tenant and Neighborhood Councils.
Posters created by the Bay Area housing nonprofit Tenant and Neighborhood Councils.

But if the causes seem abstract and immovable, the levers for change are reachable, and at least somewhat more workable. Many of the most consequential decisions about housing production and rent regulation are made at the local level — by municipal planning commissions and housing authorities. And much of the most potent housing activism also occurs locally — through tenant unions organizing rent strikes, community organizations mounting anti-foreclosure occupations, community land trusts and cooperatives working to take properties off the speculative market and to empower residents, and YIMBY groups who become gadflies at planning commission meetings (even if they often ally themselves uncritically with developers).

So, my suggestion would be: join your local tenant group. Find a local activist organization working to de-commodify housing, desegregate neighborhoods, or build affordable housing in your neighborhood. Show up at actions and demonstrations, and speak up at planning commission and city council meetings. Local politics can seem parochial and myopic. But this is also where small groups of determined and organized people can achieve victories that prefigure larger transformations.

Irene Cheng

Simon Sadler, Adnan Z. Morshed, Aneesha Dharwadker, Ozayr Saloojee, Thandi Loewenson, Anya Sirota, Adam Yarinsky, Matias del Campo, Germane Barnes, Irene Cheng, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 1,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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