Field Notes on Design Activism: 4

This is the fourth 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: EnVerde Energy Cooperative, Extremadura, Spain; Community garden at Tempelhof Field, Berlin [Sonja Dümpelmann]; Los Angeles Tenants Union; from WAI Architecture Think Tank, A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture.
Clockwise from top left: from the website of the EnVerde Energy Cooperative, Extremadura, Spain; community garden at Tempelhof Field, Berlin [Sonja Dümpelmann]; from the website of the Los Angeles Tenants Union; from WAI Architecture Think Tank, A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture.

We won’t imagine “what if” we were writing a handbook for design activism …. We have written manifestoes for kynical architectures that turn disappointment into subversive critique; for total architectures that are not totalitarian architectures; for anti-racist architectures that strive to un-make the White-supremacist legacy of our buildings and cities; for architectures that are porous and connective like foam, but not made of empty foam shapes; for pure hardcore icons that seek to reclaim the power of form from fascists and despots; for revolutionary architectures that are not propaganda for fake revolutions. Through allegories, collages, and narratives, we’ve denounced greenwashing as an imperialist exercise that benefits a few elites while exploiting everyone else. We’ve warned against architecture as a service to and materialization of hegemonic power.

Two years on from 2020, all we have left is a fire that burns, and the belief that other worlds can rise from the ashes of hegemonic institutions.

We have penned letters that call for action against problematic institutions, tried to address urgent issues in our editorial work, drawn chrono-cartographies that trace White supremacy as a planetary struggle, and argued that history doesn’t exist — that all we have are historical narratives installed by the powerful. We’ve written about how trans-feminist discourses are at the center of our collective emancipation, and how we must get rid of our disciplinary silos as a holdover from the Bauhaus and other Euro-modernist models. We’ve denounced the usual “moves to innocence,” outlined post-colonial methods, built networks of solidarity, and practiced free and accessible forms of loudreading (creating a cross between podcast, YouTube channel, Zoom meeting, lecture series, curatorial program, and workshop, online and in the streets). When we drew anti-racist spirals, we demanded that all form, history, theory, and media be intersected by anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-ableism, and ecological justice. In that same document, we insisted that education (especially in the U.S.) address the ridiculous tuition fees at institutions that profited from violently stolen Indigenous land, displaced Indigenous lives, and enslaved Black labor. From the undercommons we even outlined some notes on the dangerously precarious labor of anti-racist education.

From WAI Think Tank, A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education.
WAI Think Tank, from A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education.

From WAI Think Tank, A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education.
WAI Think Tank, from A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education.

Now that the regimes of brutality, capture, and predation that structured plantation economies have spilled across the rest of the world like so much organic matter, it is impossible to identify just one area of profound urgency. Today a vertiginous assembly ties together the material and ideological legacies of the plantation: the construction-for-exploitation of Blackness in particular and race in general; the spoliation of environments at the expense of marginalized peoples; the intensifying dismantling of public and communal infrastructures under the aegis of neoliberalism; the global topographies of repression and destruction drawn by the military and prison complex; and the gore violence of necropolitics. Two years removed from 2020, as institutions stop even pretending to care, all we have left is a fire that burns, and the belief that other worlds can rise from the ashes of hegemonic institutions.

Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski, WAI Architecture Think Tank


What a list! Climate, decarbonization, racism, shelter, pandemics, and all those other things. What about mass migration, human trafficking, and then simply running out of stuff? Take just this last item: If the economy continues to grow at three percent per annum just to maintain equilibrium, it will have doubled in 24 years and, collectively, we shall be consuming at twice the rate of today. Even at today’s rates, by 2050 the world will have been scraped clean of gold, silver, copper, nickel, tin, zinc, lead, and antimony. Add lithium and coltan, and we can see that in the global rush to electrify our vehicles and infrastructure, the social and economic strife we see in the Congo and Bolivia is but a prelude to far greater distress.

If the course does not exist, start one. If the community-based energy project does not exist, start one. The menu does not stop here.

So what is an architect to do? Stop work? And, by the way, why place the burden on architects? Or, to put it another way, why don’t we architects just stick to our knitting and build “sustainable neighborhoods” and “net-zero buildings,” a synthesis of culture and technology at which we are so good? Here are some thoughts, material, actionable and specific (profoundly urgent and practical):

• For the academy: Architects are also human beings, and we are all in this together. In addition to the requisite studies in cultural history and building science, I propose that the academy locate these skills within the context of the world (let’s call this Vitruvius Book XI) so that, collectively and equitably, we can learn to live within our means. Basic readings for this course will be the 1972 anthology The Limits to Growth, edited by Donella H. Meadows et al.; Kate Raworth’s ongoing exploration of Doughnut Economics; and Aviva Chomsky’s Is Science Enough?, published earlier this year.

In Spain, EnVerde in Extremadura is an energy cooperative working with villages to ensure planetary survival and at the same time to preserve the cultural and economic integrity of rural life.
In Spain, EnVerde in Extremadura is an energy cooperative working with villages to ensure planetary survival and at the same time to preserve the cultural and economic integrity of rural life.

• For the real world: Architects are both defined and confined by their professional skills and responsibilities. Within that confined world, the achievements of net-zero building and planning are making progress, albeit slowly. As in the academy, with a grounding in social and economic knowledge, the profession can bring its organizational skills to make changes outside the frameworks of either private clients or the state. To take one example: The current drive toward electrification is being determined largely by the profit criteria of multinationals at the expense of local interests. Community-based energy cooperatives are a constructive alternative that take into account the social and economic externalities ignored by large companies. In Spain, EnVerde in Extremadura is an energy cooperative working with villages to ensure planetary survival and at the same time to preserve the cultural and economic integrity of rural life. Similarly, Brampton and Beyond Energy in the north of England is a community-based nonprofit enabling individual homeowners and entire neighborhoods to reduce energy consumption and switch to clean sources. Architects (and architecture students) can — and do — bring their range of skills — cultural, technical, organizational and social — to help direct these projects in the service of Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas.

If the course does not exist, start one. If the community-based energy project does not exist, start one. The menu does not stop here.

Hubert Murray


Designing Activism

Design activism is a much slower, more measured business than the urgency often associated with the term might suggest. Design, after all, is predicated on action: we set out steps to bring something into being. And activism means advocating action. How salutary to discover, then — how useful to learn — that significantly changed outcomes emerge far more often from considered and patient advances than from bold leaps and daring insights.

My own experience in this field is with a project advocating for the thoughtful redevelopment of the site of a Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in central Dublin. The remaining buildings of this repressive institution (which for more than a century incarcerated unmarried mothers and vulnerable women) were in an uncertain state, their sale for redevelopment having been halted through political pressure. A leading campaigner in the Justice for Magdalenes group, a colleague, approached me with the idea that a graduate design studio might put forward proposals for the site, both to respect its fraught past and to sketch a fitting future. Great plan.

Drawings from the Open Heart CIty studio at University College Dublin.

From the Open Heart City architecture studio at University College Dublin.
From the Open Heart City architecture studio at University College Dublin.

In fact, the studio turned out quite differently, with most of our collective effort spent on surveying and documenting the site. For weeks, the students simply “sat with” the place in its empty, semi-ruinous state, absorbing its implicit stories and palpable traces through sustained noticing. Their meticulous drawings and photographs of every detail — stair-rails and doorframes, mirrors and tiles, an abandoned suitcase, a dead pigeon — proved far more potent in leading the site towards new life (about which more below) than a rapidly produced design proposal might have. The review of this work, with many campaigners and activists in attendance, unfolded in a charged atmosphere unlike any other I can recall. One of the campaigners, who had worked for years gathering testimony from survivors, asserted that the straightforward act of drawing everything meant that the place itself could now be fully seen, appreciated as the location within which a harrowing history unfolded. That history had already, to some extent, been acknowledged. But now it could be situated.

Design activism is a slower, more measured business than the urgency often associated with the term might suggest.

Reflecting on this studio, and more generally on the potential of design activism within the academy, I would say that success relied entirely on partnership with campaigners and thinkers already versed in the complexities of the subject, but also alert to the value that architectural thinking might bring — in our case, shifting the focus from design solutions to detailed descriptions, allowing the site to speak. This in turn suggests that there are optimal moments where the needs of a specific campaign coincide most potently with the desired learning outcomes of a specific studio. Hence we took the decision not to run the same studio the following year. The campaign’s modus operandi had shifted, and the appropriateness to students’ learning had diminished.

From the Open Heart City architecture studio at University College Dublin.
From the Open Heart City architecture studio at University College Dublin.

The studio did, however, set in motion a process through which a number of young architects on the faculty began a long campaign of consultation, exhibition, publication, and advocacy, a campaign that finally bore fruit earlier in 2022 with the announcement that the Sean McDermott Street laundry would be developed as a “site of conscience,” home to a national archive of the Magdalene Laundries, along with an appropriate mix of social and cultural functions. Early on, we had christened our initiative “Open Heart City,” connoting a need for generous empathy as well as specific and significant intervention. It remains to be seen how this spirit informs the final development.

“Design activism” studios need to insert themselves into the longer trajectories of campaigns, to consider carefully how best to be effective, and, most critically, what needs to come next, after the studio ends. In other words, our activism needs to be carefully designed.

Hugh Campbell


“Design activism” imagines design as a mode of activism or design as activism. Could designers also imagine it as activism without design? As architects, we are often hung up on proposing “design solutions.” But what we do best may not be all that relevant to a political struggle. Moreover, our educational system and professional practices may not give us the experience, tools, and credentials necessary to address the most pressing spatial justice issues of our times.

We are hung up on ‘design solutions.’ But what we do best may not be relevant to political struggle.

I am not anti-design. Good design is essential to the equitable distribution of space, resources, and opportunities. But I do find it limiting when I see studios rush to find design solutions to complex spatial justice issues, like housing the unhoused or the precariously housed, all within the span of a single semester! It is disingenuous to claim to engage with questions of spatial equity only to an extent that makes us feel relevant or that is convenient. Such habits foreclose the possibility of carving out new roles for ourselves as advocates, collaborators, and co-conspirators.

What if all that students did in a given studio was to deepen their understanding of why and how so many people struggle to find safe shelter and decent livelihoods? What if we committed to listening to individuals and grassroots groups, and learning from their everyday survival tactics and long-term strategies for change? Along the way, we might figure out how to best support ongoing efforts toward a just society, either through our designs, or by lending our voices, or just by showing up.

From the website of the Los Angeles Tenants Union: "The LA Tenants Union has been collecting the stories of tenants in Los Angeles to show evidence of deplorable living conditions, landlord harassment, and unjust evictions."
From the Los Angeles Tenants Union: “The LA Tenants Union has been collecting the stories of tenants in Los Angeles to show evidence of deplorable living conditions, landlord harassment, and unjust evictions.”

In Islamabad, designers have been strategizing with squatters and vendors to stop their forced evictions and harassment; the images is from the Facebook page of the Awami Workers Party, Rawalpindi.Awami Workers Party, Rawalpindi, Islamabad.
In Islamabad, designers have been strategizing with squatters and vendors to stop their forced evictions and harassment; the image is from the Facebook page of the Awami Workers Party, Rawalpindi.

Thus, my #1 area of profound urgency for equitable and politically motivated design education and practice is to liberate ourselves from the hegemony of “design solutions.”

And my #1 practical suggestion for grappling with this urgency is for design practitioners, students, and faculty to join a struggle, by an individual or a group, for their right to space. This may mean that architects in Los Angeles join tenant organizers in their call to end the financialization and commodification of housing. Or designers in Islamabad strategize with squatters and vendors to stop their forced evictions and harassment. Instead of relying on solutionism, design activism must demand a dismantling of existing structures of dispossession and exploitation as a necessary precursor to good design.

Faiza Moatisim


Accept Your Dispensability

The Dutch landscape architect Ingrid Duchhart spent much of her career practicing in the Global South, principally in Kenya. She mentored scores of students who went on to practice in countries from Indonesia to Surinam, and they have accomplished much good. As Duchhart retired, in 2021, she wrote an essay summing things up: “Make Yourself Dispensable.” Her title could be a motto for design advocacy.

In 1978, Ian McHarg published a now relatively obscure chapter in an unlikely book on planning theory with the subtitle “The Planner as Catalyst.” He wrote: “The planner who comes from out of town and is prepared to solve problems is a menace. I prefer to think of planners as catalysts. The planner suppresses his own ego and becomes an agent for outlining available options.” Surely, one is less menacing if one is dispensable.

This does not suggest that the designer be a potted plant who merely listens and takes notes. The designer certainly should listen and take notes — and read, look, watch, sketch, take pictures, study maps, and generally get to know the place in question, including its deep structures in climate, geology, and hydrology. The designer also needs to learn from experience what is relevant; not every word spoken at a public meeting is wise, but it still might be useful.

Designers need to work within their skill sets so as to lessen their potential to do harm.

Designers need to work within their skill sets so as to lessen their potential to do harm. Design is not applicable across scales. No one without a background in soils, plant ecology, and/or sociology should be allowed to design a park, for instance. But a vision for a new park can help to change peoples’ lives. Most people are keen on designs that can improve their health and safety, or their children’s. Designs that are friendly to the pocketbook are certainly welcome, as are designs that create beauty, and protect other critters, too. A designer can help equip people with compelling models by which to realize such goals.

Then what? Accept your dispensability.

This is not to suggest abandonment. I usually reflect about the experience and write about it. I try to learn from every intervention and remain open to feedback from former colleagues and communities where I’ve worked; I continue to follow their hopes and challenges. In the mid-1970s, I worked as a community organizer for a Catholic social services organization in Northern Kentucky. One of my jobs was to help prevent a mob-connected liquor store from tearing down several 19th-century brick houses adjacent to an elementary school, which had been built by German immigrants. We were successful. The neighborhood was subsequently hit by a devastating tornado, but it survived; many places there and elsewhere that I helped to save or to build have endured too, and remain desirable places to live. No one in that neighborhood across the Ohio River from Cincinnati knows about my tiny contributions now, because my work was done and I moved on. And this is just fine. The Northern Kentucky experience instilled in me the value of organizing people around a common purpose. It was a lesson in how to be a catalyst.

Frederick Steiner


The Futures of Architecture

For the past five years, I have been tracking the development of Amaravati, a new capital city for the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. In 2019, following the appropriation of thousands of hectares of land and three years of expedited construction, elections and the resulting change in leadership brought the project to a halt. Since then, Covid, weak governance, and legal volleys have meant that little has been done for farmers whose livelihoods were devastated. Architects and planners played a part in this mess. They dutifully imagined a singular future for the new capital and ignored the instability of political, economic, and environmental alignments buttressing the scheme. When the future asserted its unknowability and plans fell apart, architecture’s wager on certainty collapsed.

Such failures of design — at Amaravati and in familiar examples elsewhere — tell us that architecture must reimagine its relation to futurity. Rather than enforcing singular projections, architecture can make legible some of the multiple possibilities ahead. To do so is to counter traditional ways of thinking about professional services and client expectations; it goes against ways of teaching that reward individual authorship and uncritically reproduce models of design as problem-solving. Architects know how to project spectacular imaginations — filmic environments, planetary-scale schemes, utopian speculations. But these visions — whether offered as answers or provocations — often foreclose discussions rather than sustaining them.

I propose a reframing of design imagination — a shift from the singular solution to the plural contingencies: the ‘what ifs?’ that could be.

I want to propose a reframing of design imagination that shifts our objective from the singular solution to plural contingencies: the “what ifs?” that could be. This discursive world-making could take the form of architecture as scenario planning, where each “scenario” posits a different future. In the 1970s, amidst the uncertainties of the oil crisis, executives at Shell conceived scenario planning as a method by which to identify various plausible futures. They articulated these futures as “stories” told from different stakeholders’ perspectives, and “backcast” those narratives to inform decision-making. The conflagrations of climate emergency point to the method’s limits when corporate strategy defines interests and constituencies. Likewise, in contexts such as urban planning, scenario-planning exercises sometimes depend on quantitative descriptions that limit the visceral impact of the “stories” told.

Amaraviti, India, October 2019. Photo by Sony Devabhaktuni.
Amaravati, India, October 2019. [Sony Devabhaktuni]

Amaravati, India, October 2019.
Amaravati, India, October 2019. [Sony Devabhaktuni]

Architectural scenario planning addresses these limits. It begins with architects joining interdisciplinary teams of stakeholders and researchers to identify parameters that are unpredictable yet important to the development of a neighborhood, a city, a region. Different configurations of these parameters describe differing scenarios for what could be. Architects contribute to the “stories” of these scenarios through spatial and visual projections; their evocative descriptions then help to guide discussions between policymakers, planners, and community groups. The architectural project in this mode comprises multiple alternatives, each reflecting contingent trajectories.

In Amaravati, such imagined alternatives could challenge the inertia of governmental decision-making by clarifying the stakes of current choices. Architectural stories about potential scenarios could also sustain participatory processes, redistributing agency to communities left out of the site’s initial planning — driven as it was by a singular, settled vision. Rethinking design imagination in this way engages with the future’s unknowability and acknowledges the openness of space in relation to time. It is a project of open futures that re-situates architecture’s capacity to act in the world.

Sony Devabhaktuni


The responses of vulnerable communities to environmental hazards are inextricably intertwined with social forces. Therefore, those working with communities under ecological and economic threats must understand that place is a cultural construct, and that solutions to a problem of place — be it risk of storm surge or risk of displacement due to rising housing costs — should be rooted in the ecology and history of that place and the people who have shaped it. This calls for elevating the knowledge of those who inhabit threatened sites.

Design activists must not only be willing to share expertise and tools, but also to defer to those who inhabit at-risk spaces.

An example would be the aftermath Hurricane Katrina, when designers and educators seeking to address the issue of flooding in New Orleans turned to the Netherlands and its strategies for water management. A more effective approach would have been to look to the ancestors of those impacted by the storm, a population that had once lived in the wetlands adjacent to the devastated city. This history represents a vast store of knowledge about adaptation to low-lying terrain; indeed, the Dutch once adopted technology developed in New Orleans, using a screw pump invented there in 1913. Such circles of knowledge-exchange should not be forgotten: often lessons and answers are best found by consulting people who belong to the place in need. Those of us who practice design activism must be willing not only to share expertise and tools, but to defer to those who inhabit at-risk spaces.

Bienvenue Wetland Triangle Platform, Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans, built by the local community in the years following Hurricane Katrina.
Bienvenue Wetland Triangle Platform, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, built by the local community in the years following Hurricane Katrina. [Austin Allen]

In dangerous conditions, especially during periods of disaster recovery, desperate populations may give over to others, submerging their own history, knowledge, and ways of doing things. This can lead to solutions that are neither sustainable nor stewardable. In “Climate Change, Culture and Cultural Rights,” a report prepared for the United Nations, the legal scholar Justine Marrion Massey reminds us: “culture has a critical role to play in humanity’s reaction to climate change. In this time of forced editing of cultural practices, individuals and their values will be put to the test. What will be preserved? What will be sacrificed? What people decide to prioritize individually, locally, regionally, and internationally will determine what change will look like.”

Community activism should lead with community narratives.

Those of us dedicated to community activism should foster processes that lead with community narratives. Do we want those who have suffered climate-based catastrophes to be the beneficiaries in adapted, mitigated, and economically viable environments? If so, acknowledgement and utilization of a community’s social and cultural wisdom are necessary. Participatory research, and community-driven decision-making and planning, are best positioned to yield solutions tied to the culture, history, and ecology of a place. This is the only way to truly build capacity, to foster empowered and independent communities, more equipped to be stewards of their own environments.

Diane Jones Allen


Slogans for Care-full Slowing Down

Amid the clamor of competing demands, it’s hard to hear oneself think in these pandemic times. Buffeted by concatenating environmental, social, and mental crises — traversing what Félix Guattari called the three ecologies — it’s difficult to forge a clear methodological (let alone transversal) path, whether as a student, a pedagogue, or a practitioner of architecture and design. What we must agree upon, though, is that the planet we bequeath to coming communities is damaged.

There are slogans I’ve been discussing with my students, calling on our collective capacity to cope. You may recognize them: Donna Haraway’s “Stay with the trouble!” and reminder to foster response-ability; the invitation from Anna Tsing and her collaborators to pay attention, to cultivate curiosity, to acknowledge our contaminated human and nonhuman relations; Isabelle Stengers’s demand that we slow down, respect the diversity in an “ecology of practices,” and be generously prepared to pass our concept-tools on, acknowledging all the while that Gaïa cares nothing for our plans. The work of these feminist thinkers can be situated in what my students have come to call “entanglement studies.” We are not detached, but entangled in environmental, social, subjective relations; we are necessarily situated at each moment.

In Australia, students are interested in retrofitting, repair, maintenance, the courage not to build.

Hope is too much to ask for, and in any case tempts us to put off action until tomorrow. It’s a question, instead, of getting by. In the Australian context, students have been demanding a radical shift in orientation toward decolonization, decarbonization, and democratization. They are interested in approaches to maintenance, repair, retrofitting, the courage not to build, and the ability to engage in Indigenous practices of care for “Country” — a cosmological concept connecting all life, human and nonhuman, as well as environmental and social relations.

 Emilie Evans, Infrastructural Remains: Caring for Anthropogenic Ruins, published in Hélène Frichot, Adrià Carbonell, Hannes Frykholm, Sepideh Karami, editors Infrastructural Love: Caring for Our Architectural Support Systems (Birkhauser 2022). Masters of Architecture thesis work supervised by Hélène Frichot, MSD, University of Melbourne.
Emilie Evans, “Infrastructural Remains: Caring for Anthropogenic Ruins,” published in Hélène Frichot, Adrià Carbonell, Hannes Frykholm, Sepideh Karami, editors, Infrastructural Love: Caring for Our Architectural Support Systems (Birkhauser 2022). Master of Architecture thesis work supervised by Hélène Frichot, MSD, University of Melbourne.

Dylan Newell, Master of Architecture thesis work.

Dylan Newell, Masters of Architecture thesis work supervised by Rochus Hinkel, MSD, University of Melbourne.
Dylan Newell, Master of Architecture thesis work supervised by Rochus Hinkel, MSD, University of Melbourne.

As a non-Indigenous teacher in Naarm (Melbourne), I have no right to teach Indigenous knowledges, but I can encourage students to remain culturally sensitive when working and living with Country. I recognize that it’s important to diversify my citational practices, for instance, and render available in my classes the voices of Indigenous scholars and practitioners. In this, I travel alongside my students, which means that we learn, and stumble as we learn, together. Considering construction habits, for example, we have been “following the materials,” understanding that each material choice travels backwards and forwards between sites of extraction and sites of waste disposal — or reuse. To follow the materials, which requires challenging the exceptionalism of the human subject, is an ethical engagement. It means understanding the impacts of market-based choices on environmental, social, and subjective milieus. Learning from what I’ve briefly outlined here, what we need to do is: Stay with the trouble, foster response-ability, pay attention, cultivate curiosity, acknowledge our sticky and contaminated relations, slow down, respect a diversity of practices, and share out our concept-tools, both material and conceptual.

Hélène Frichot


The most spectacular laundry room in New York

The most spectacular laundry room in New York might well be one I recently saw on the top floor of The Corden, a newly completed, affordable-and-supportive housing development in the Bronx designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning, or MAP. Opposite the washers and dryers is a glass wall overlooking a green roof and, beyond, the Manhattan skyline. Also on the top floor is a shared lounge and flexible program space — unthinkable in a market-rate building, where such precious square footage and views would be reserved for the most expensive apartments.

Disclosure: MAP is a client of mine. I was paid to make their work sound good — not here, but in their marketing materials. They in turn were paid to satisfy their client, a nonprofit developer and supportive-housing provider called New Destiny. The design world as we know it is organized around service and promotion. But sometimes it feels like people are working toward something other than money. Even when they also have to get paid.

The laundry room at The Corden, a new affordable housing development in The Bronx, designed by MAP.
Laundry room at The Corden, a new affordable housing development in the Bronx, designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning. [David Sundberg/Esto]

Guided by their clients’ vision, MAP and other skilled firms like Dattner Architects, Marvel, COOKFOX, and Bernheimer Architecture are cleverly leveraging resources made available by policymakers and donors to design shockingly nice affordable housing, a few hundred units at a time, mostly (disproportionately) in the Bronx. Shocking, because it’s so far removed from the norm.

The project shows that affordable housing can be livable and nurturing. It also reminds you how badly the system, driven by profit, fails people of modest means.

That’s why it’s inspiring but also a little frustrating to visit places like The Corden, which provides 62 new homes for low-income households, 37 reserved for households headed by domestic violence survivors. On one hand, it shows that affordable housing can be livable, safe, accessible, and nurturing. On the other, it reminds you how badly the housing system overall, driven by profit, fails people of modest means. Cynically, one could view The Corden as more token than substance in the fight for equitable housing. But it’s no token to those who live there. Constructed for a relatively thrifty $339 per square foot, its common areas and floor-to-ceiling windows resemble those in pricier buildings. Resourcefully, MAP and their collaborators tweaked the standard “block and plank” precast concrete structural system to support luxurious wraparound windows in the corner apartments. They brought daylight into corridors, common areas, and stairwells, balancing openness and privacy for a sensitive population.

To me, such work exemplifies design activism within the client system: pushing hard to expand, if only a little, the results of a standard commission, for the benefit of occupants, not just developers. But design skills alone can’t address the housing crisis. Other kinds of activism — social and political advocacy and agitation — are needed to change the system.

Architects are ready to design millions of units of affordable housing, perhaps as part of a Green New Deal that also conserves and restores millions of acres of biodiverse habitat. To help achieve the needed political breakthroughs, designers can lobby public officials, cajole their clients, march in the streets, write manifestoes, and draw pretty pictures. Perhaps, without waiting for a commission or a revolution, à la Keller Easterling, they can set transformative processes in motion by manipulating the “medium” — the matrix of material relationships, legal codes, and cultural signifiers — in which design operates. I don’t know which tactics are best. But standing in the light-filled laundry room of The Corden, I felt assumptions melt away. The most mundane thing can be a catalyst for change.

Gideon Fink Shapiro


My number one area of profound urgency is a call to privilege the public good over private and individual interests. Landscape architecture and other fields involved in the design and planning of the built environment are in a unique position to develop projects that serve the public by engaging the vulnerable and underserved, and by collaborating with policymakers, governments, and nonprofit organizations in democratic decision-making. Climate change is exacerbating environmental conditions that further enforce divisions within societies and between countries, inequities that had already become more pronounced in the last half-century. However, we all live on the same planet, and there is only one Earth. Design is political, and designers hold a lot of responsibility and power. Our work needs to be grounded in an ethic of care and attention to detail (words and material matter!), as well as in scrupulous regard for context on all scales.

To contribute to these ethics through landscape architectural education, I suggest:

• Students should be exposed to a variety of voices besides those of practitioners — for example, leaders in governmental agencies, nonprofits, foundations, and international organizations that deal with environmental and design concerns.

• Public scholarship should be supported. This includes engagement in local planning, community conversations, and extramural educational initiatives; intellectual work that produces a public good; and work in design, criticism, and history that contributes to public debates. Public scholarship can set the stage for response to pressing issues in social, environmental, and climate justice, including the loss of biodiversity, and development of future energy systems. This kind of writing therefore needs to be acknowledged as a relevant achievement in academic careers, and as a worthy contribution in serious news media including newspapers and magazines, both analogue and digital (like this journal).

From the Open Heart City architecture studio at University College Dublin.
Community garden at Tempelhof Field, former site of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, one of the uses requested by citizens in a participatory planning process organized by the city’s Department of Urban Development. [Sonja Dümpelmann]

Landscape history is social history; it is environmental history, labor history, cultural and material history.

• Syllabi should be revised to include multiple perspectives and diverse voices, with particular attention paid to curricula in history and theory. Students need to be made aware of transformations and revisions ongoing in the field itself; young practitioners who understand the ways in which both landscapes and their historiographies have been used to wield power, to exclude and to subject entire populations, are better prepared to design and build more equitable and sustainable landscapes. Landscape history is social history; it is environmental history, labor history, cultural and material histories all in one. When the contexts and entanglements that underpin designed landscapes are recognized, it becomes harder to overlook the power of the built environment to shape democratic spaces for the public good.

Sonja Dümpelmann


Architecture’s Relevancy

We do not design in a vacuum; therefore, we should not teach in a vacuum. Doing so further limits how architecture, and by extension our students, can imagine proactive engagement in design- responsive futures. A habit of bracketing out the complexities of our lived conditions — in regard to the environment, to economies of production, to politics and policies — fosters a profession that continues to detach itself from substantial engagement. This must change if we want architects to respond to cataclysmic projections by leveraging our expertise for collective action. Therefore, the most profound urgency for me is the relevancy of architecture itself — why architecture matters and for whom.

The most profound urgency for me is the relevancy of architecture itself — why architecture matters and for whom.

How I tackle this urgency is multi-faceted and multi-scalar. Firstly, I center real-world issues in the classroom, creating design problems and research seminars that require students to take a position, to realize how their actions have consequences. I fervently believe that the prosaic must become integral to what we teach. How do we design and build immigration and humanitarian-aid spaces, infrastructures for waste management, interstate transportation systems, healthcare facilities? In responding to these questions, my students have imagined cities with fantastical, integrative waste systems capable of simultaneously maintaining recycling hubs for collection and transfer and educating the public about their consumption habits; buildings that filter air for communities with high levels of pollution; and infrastructural projects that critique and creatively apply existing loopholes in zoning law — typically exploited by developers — to create community-centered programming.

Waste transfer station, Liverpool, New York, 2014. Compost Circuit: Urban Park and Garden in Futures of Urban Waste, New York City; third-year undergraduate design studio, 2014. Project by Jahaan Scipio and Maggie Huang.
Waste transfer station, Liverpool, New York, 2014. [Lori Brown] Compost Circuit: Urban Park and Garden in Futures of Urban Waste, New York City; third-year undergraduate design studio, Syracuse University School of Architecture, 2014. Project by Jahaan Scipio and Maggie Huang.

Secondly, I bring students into contact with a range of experts to illuminate the complexities and challenges inherent in what they are asked to examine and whom they are to design for. We have met with New York City planners and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, as well as large-scale real estate developers, doctors, epidemiologists, county health clinic directors, and civil and environmental engineers; we have toured a landfill, an industrial composting site, and a waste-to-energy plant. And thirdly, I center student experience. As our student demographics become more diverse geographically, racially, and economically, their varied perspectives and range of lived experiences provide expanded discursive opportunities in the classroom.

Given the exponential effects of climate change, future generations will face a world and a profession that faculty and currently practicing architects never will experience. Architectural education can prepare students with the critical thinking and analytic skills to visualize intersecting spatial relationships in the realm of housing or healthcare, for example; or to exercise the communication and listening skills necessary to broker cooperation between developers and housing rights activists; or to imagine a radical carbon-neutral future. Students need this support if they are to respond with intention to the world’s most pressing needs. We must rise to this challenge. Our world depends upon it.

Lori Brown


Public Intersections

The disciplinary silos have begun to crumble, no longer protecting the supposed integrity of an academy founded on masters, canons, and unspoken rituals. We may optimistically see this as a moment in which architectural pedagogy is opening to political struggles on the ground, to the quotidian violence of living in a world organized by advanced capitalism. Yet even in tumultuous times, architectural institutions tend to treat such messy realities as sites and objects for the application of canonical expertise. I want to encourage us, instead, to take up the double agenda of unlearning hegemonic forms of architectural knowledge, and relearning architecture as a field shaped substantially by nondisciplinary knowledge.

Architectural institutions tend to treat messy realities as sites and objects for the application of canonical expertise.

In some ways, students already occupy these two learning spaces. When afforded the opportunity, they will inevitably introduce nondisciplinary content into the classroom; for this reason, it is crucial to allow them to define the social and spatial concerns shaping a given course. For some time, I have tried to do just this by sharing the task of teaching. I lead one class, students take over the next; I ground present-day questions in brief and carefully situated genealogies; they follow up by researching related situations that they have personally experienced, heard about in the news or popular media, read about in literature, etc. I call their contribution “public intersections,” not only because they bring matters of public concerns into the classroom, but because their material allows us to entangle architecture knowledges with heterogenous objects and topics that are inseparable from the production of space — from labor to resources, from social movements to land struggles.

I encourage us to relearn architecture as a field shaped substantially by nondisciplinary knowledge.

“Public intersections” gives us a method to follow throughout the term. It succeeds in part because I teach in a nonprofessional institution that embraces interdisciplinary pedagogies. Many of my students are not architecture students; they arrive with a wealth of other interests, discourses, and materials. In a pre-professional setting, however, “public intersections” might be emphasized by opening architecture classes to other disciplines. Regardless of the context, at the core, this simple assignment asks us not so much to see architecture from a broader perspective, but rather, to pose the question: for whom is architecture a matter of concern? How can architectural knowledge be equally urgent for an aspiring architect and for a future environmentalist, journalist, policy maker, curator, geographer, sociologist, or anyone else interested in using built space as a datum from which to consider the world? For such a pedagogy to invigorate the classroom, however, it must be accompanied by wider institutional reckoning. Real public intersection needs to involve a recognition that our classrooms are not always the diverse spaces we wish to find; to welcome students’ positionalities in the classroom is to reckon with the privilege of access to institutions of higher education.

The more I invite my students to define the content of their classes, the more architectural knowledge can be revealed to them as a fluid set of concerns, which not only challenge the architectural canon but resonate with their lives outside the academy. After all, it is not just students but professors who need to unlearn as we re-learn together.

Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco


Educators can change syllabi, invent assignments, link racial justice to climate justice, challenge the hegemony of the western canon, invite thoughtful studio critics, introduce a dizzying array of precedents, connect students with communities, provoke them to imagine new worlds, etc. These are all practices that can be pursued without addressing the underlying imbalances of power among administration, faculty, and students. When and how do faculty and, most significantly administrators, redistribute the power they hold over curricular design and the financial structures that shape and misshape students’ education?

The student-led process began to redraw the hierarchical lines of power that are inscribed into architectural education.

Attacking this question should prioritize education as a form of unlearning. It is not a coincidence that, in recent years, many extra-academic organizations have dedicated their collective labor to unlearning toxic histories and patterns. From the anti-capitalist stance of The Architecture Lobby’s Architecture Beyond Capitalism School to anti-racist education models put forward by Dark Matter University, such projects attempt to unravel the hierarchies and assumptions undergirding traditional education. Aligned with these visions of “new schools,” another tactic by which students and faculty can disinvest from traditional concentrations of power has to do with critical student representation.

On April 27, 2022, the Collegian featured a story about the DoArch Student Advisory Board's six-point letter asking university administrators to address architecture students.
On April 27, 2022, the Collegian at South Dakota State University reported on the architecture department’s Student Advisory Board’s six-point letter asking administrators to address students’ concerns. [Federico Garcia Lammers]

Collective review of the curriculum in the department of architecture at South Dakota State University, led by undergraduate and graduate students, April 2022.
Collective review of the curriculum in the department of architecture at South Dakota State University, led by undergraduate and graduate students, April 2022. [Federico Garcia Lammers]

During the second year of the pandemic, architecture faculty at South Dakota State University started inviting representatives from the Student Advisory Board to join weekly faculty meetings. The SAB is an elected body of undergraduate and graduate architecture students who meet regularly with faculty and administrators to reflect on curricula and other program matters. “Pop the hood — show us how things work” is a common request lodged by the SAB. At its inception in 2010 as the first professional architecture program in South Dakota, an ethos of transparency and inclusion of students in decision-making marked the undertaking.

In 2021, in order to reinvigorate this commitment, students who had gained the chance to “look under the hood” organized, discussed, and disseminated coursework evaluations, while demanding further clarity about the financial organization of the department. The students then began to leverage these financial structures — faculty salaries and departmental operations are funded by a $470 per-credit-hour discipline fee — to reinstate funding for materials in design studios and to upgrade fabrication facilities. Challenging the opaque, top-down character of typical course assessment in the discipline, this student-led process reshaped syllabi and began to redraw the hierarchical lines of power that are inscribed into architectural education.

Federico Garcia Lammers

Cite
WAI Architecture Think Tank, Hubert Murray, Hugh Campbell, Faiza Moatasim, Frederick Steiner, Sony Devabhaktuni, Diane Jones Allen, Hélène Frichot, Gideon Fink Shapiro, Sonja Dümpelmann, Lori Brown, Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco, Federico Garcia Lammers, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 4,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 01 Dec 2022. <>

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.