Field Notes on Design Activism: 5

This is the fifth 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: McGill University architecture students Florence Grace-Castonguay and Léa Papillon explore environments focused on care of the elderly; slave quarters on a plantation, Port Royal, South Carolina, ca. 1862 [Library of Congress]; AN.ONYMOUS, Productivity Office Rover; aggregate pit in North Dumfries, Ontario. [Zannah Mae Matson]

Death to Design Activism. Let it rest.

In the fall of 1918, during the outbreak of the influenza pandemic and the waning of the First World War, so-called Negro women were being pressed into labor. “Negro women to be put to work” was the headline of a brief, pointed column run in South Carolina’s Greenville Daily News on October 2. “Regardless of whether they want to or have to, able bodied negro women in Greenville who are not regularly employed are to be put to work, put in jail, or fined heavily.” A city ordinance was soon passed enforcing this requirement.

The call to work, to perform vigorous action, has always been fraught.

The practice and pedagogy of architecture has been steeped in capitalist urgings toward unyielding productivity.

With the modern emergence of the professionalized architect, the practice, pedagogy, and disciplining of this figure has been steeped in capitalist urgings toward unyielding productivity. The questions posed, then, need not be about (to quote the Places‘ prompt for this survey) “this moment” or “what can we do now, on the ground?” (In my view, it is important to ask who the we is who is called to get busy?) Instead of considering “this moment,” how might we regard the interminable and reimagine time? And, in fact, there is no ground. In a state of groundlessness, how might we all refuse to give our bodies to the engines that world the world, as Dr. Bayo Akomolafe puts it? Most urgent, perhaps, may be meeting, assembly in and through the break, the broken, and breaking in the ways that Fred Moten lays out, finding and enabling the political project of making sanctuary in the ruptures endured. As always, recognition, thoughtful and generous consideration of what others — the strange others, the “non-human others of Man” — have been up to and down with since before and after the end of the time, must be extended; we need an ongoing commune with ways, bodies, and beings beyond the human. (Thinking, here, with the work of Sylvia Wynter, Alexander G. Weheliye, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs.)

Doing is no longer it. Perhaps this is “an invitation to the postactivism of rest” (a formulation offered by Akomolafe, coupled with his generous reflections on the recent publication and ongoing ministry of and by poet Tricia Hersey). Let’s get at a “rude stillness,” at the quiet which has always been, recognizing its sovereignty in the way that poet Kevin Quashie has.

Nikki Giovanni offers the following (in part) in the poem “The Great Pax Whitie,” from her 1968 Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment:

In the beginning was the word
And the word was
Death
And the word was nigger
And the word was death to all niggers
And the word was death to all life
And the word was death to all
peace be still …

In this work, death is the word and also the genesis. Death begets. Death is both the before and the beyond, such that I wonder not about after activism, but about how some values, ways, get laid to rest; how folks get at the simple and find ways to speak plainly.

In a summer 1975 issue of Negro American Literature Forum, the three main figures (characters, types) in Imamu Amiri Baraka’s 1969 play Experimental Death Unit #1: Plan for (R)Evolution are described as exemplary of Baraka’s characterization of all Americans as the “last people of a spent cycle.” Revolution in this zone is not a call to advancement or progress, but is rather a return to a state before before, and perhaps also a call to a “wild ass beyond” (in the way American Artist, Caitlyn Cherry, Nora N. Khan, and Sondra Perry got at it) — to a world that recalls its histories of contaminations; recognizes differences, excesses, and submerged wisdoms; and rests.

Ife Vanable


The prompt for this short essay asks about our #1 area of profound urgency for design activists and our #1 practical suggestion for grappling with that urgency. I am a justice-driven scholar directing a graduate program in landscape architecture and urban design, so I approach the questions from this privileged position. I run the Landscape Justice Initiative at the University of Southern California, and the most urgent challenge to which we contribute is, simply phrased, seeking environmental justice.

Environmental justice is, briefly, the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, plus reparative actions to address damage done — all while acknowledging that even an extended commitment to repair cannot reverse deep legacies of trauma and environmental violence. As is widely acknowledged, low-income people of color are most likely to experience the toxic accumulation of industrial pollutants and hazardous wastes, or to live near facilities for waste disposal, energy production, and other infrastructures incompatible with human (and more-than-human) wellbeing. These landscapes of cumulative risk lead to illnesses both chronic and acute that are rarely traced to the source, and the polluters have long avoided accountability.

Our students learn how to work outside the market, to develop as designers and environmental decision-makers.

Seeking environmental justice entails not only the redistribution of such burdens, but also the development of alternatives to these harmful practices and, most importantly, the pursuit of repair through sustained work and commitment. Climate change only exacerbates risks of exposure to toxic and otherwise dangerous environments, and so environmental justice and climate justice are converging. Living in California, with much of my current work focused on the lower Central Valley, I have seen how the megadrought is exacerbating the chronic and often fatal Valley Fever, which is caused by fungus living in soils that industrial agriculture has turned to fugitive dust. Valley Fever is thus most devastating to those who work the fields.

Landscape Justice Initiative, Test Plot at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, 2021, part of "an ongoing, hands-on experiment in community-based ecological restoration."
Landscape Justice Initiative, Test Plot at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, 2021, part of “an ongoing, hands-on experiment in community-based ecological restoration.” (Jen Toy, Principal Investigator.)

Landscape Justice Initiative, scenes from an ongoing project, Food and Climate Justice in the San Joaquin Valley.
Landscape Justice Initiative, scenes from an ongoing project, Food and Climate Justice in the San Joaquin Valley. (Alison Hirsch, Principal Investigator.)

Restructuring the tenure system would ensure better focus on the truly existential urgencies we face.

I formed the Landscape Justice Initiative to stitch up the gap between academic inquiry and meaningful change on the ground. Through applied research, service learning, and other forms of ongoing engagement that do not always fit comfortably into the increments of semesters and summers off (we find workarounds), we have discovered ways to contribute to community-led efforts. Our projects offer students opportunities to access local knowledge and expertise derived from lived experience, to learn from community leaders, the majority of whom are women, and to imagine how design can be a form of co-creation. Our students learn how to work outside the structures of the market, to discover their own agency and to develop as future leaders in design and environmental decision-making.

One more thing to note: As a tenured associate professor, I have the privilege of doing such action research, which requires elongated timescales and produces outcomes that would not necessarily “count” for those seeking tenure. Restructuring the tenure system to recognize this kind of work would ensure better focus on the truly existential urgencies we face.

Alison B. Hirsch


The Place of Pedagogy and Activism

… it is architecture’s ability to alter how we see the world that is its most precious and powerful gift … simultaneously narrowing and expanding one’s gaze … in order to bring both [pedagogy] and knowledge into the world.
— Lesley Lokko

Questions regarding the place of activism in architectural education have for some time now prompted an intractable debate among academics and other cognoscenti. As struggles regarding race and equity continue to foment political contention, educators must resist the legacies of racism in the university design studio, in professional practice, in programs aimed at achieving gender equity, and in discussions regarding the pedagogical value of architectural history.

Such confrontations are necessary because the hegemonic understanding of architecture (in history, theory, and practice) advocates a Eurocentric vision of the world. That vision neglects the trauma wrought in slave dungeons on the West African coast; in the slave ship’s three-square-feet of human space; across the servile estate; in internment camps; and in the prison-industrial complex.

All these inhumane forms of confinement are manifestations of the system that is White supremacy.

Cutaway sectional views of a slave ship, showing the space occupied by prone slaves, ca. 1808.
Cutaway sectional views of a slave ship, showing the space occupied by prone slaves, ca. 1808. [Library of Congress]

Slave quarters on a plantation, Port Royal, South Carolina. Photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1862.
Slave quarters on a plantation, Port Royal, South Carolina. Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1862. [Library of Congress]

Likewise, a wealth of discursive knowledge comes alive in the desperate S.O.S: “I can’t breathe,” a call for protection of the sanctity of life, a demand for the liberty that has been so severely compromised by those who choose to exercise absolute indifference to that demand. Activist pedagogy is a form of resistance to White supremacy and to the inhumane conditions propagated by the sycophants of White supremacy in America and around the world today. First, then, we must confront these banal abuses of power and the modes of architecture and placemaking that have been contrived to discipline and punish. Second, we must provide a philosophical counterattack — to acknowledge the complete sanctity of human life rather than simply working to prevent certain deviant actions in the absence of empathy.

In this regard, recall Kwame Nkrumah’s words in his  1964 essay “Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization”:

The critical study of the philosophies of the past should lead to the study of modern theories, for these latter, born of the fire of contemporary struggles, are militant and alive. It is not only the study of philosophy which can become perverted. The study of history too can become warped. The colonized African student, whose roots in [her] own society are systematically starved of sustenance, is introduced to Greek and Roman history, the cradle history of modern Europe, and [she] is encouraged to treat this portion of the story of [humanity] together with the subsequent history of Europe as the only worthwhile portion. This history is anointed with a universalist flavoring …

Nkrumah’s philosophy of Consciencism offers an intellectual framework for activism, for new ways of worldmaking.

Nkrumah’s philosophy of Consciencism presents an intellectual framework for activism, allowing us to demonstrate new ways of worldmaking. Consciencism educates us not only about “the colonized African student,” but about many disenfranchised cultures and peoples — those cited (for example) in the writings of Morrison, Du Bois, Diop, Fanon, and Said. These authors’ works invite resistance to received values, and support a better understanding of architectural legacies. In other words, firmitas, utilitas, and venustas are not enough: history matters. As Nietzsche reminds us in his “Untimely Meditations on the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” from 1876, “History belongs above all to the [woman] of deeds and power, to [she] who fights a great fight, who needs models, teachers, comforters, and cannot find them among [her] contemporaries.” If we are unanimous about this proposition that history matters, we must also resist the dysnomic conditions that have affected the value of architectural pedagogy.

Akel Ismail Kahera


Much of architecture’s self-description as a discipline has been founded on a search for origins — whether in antiquity or modernity, within the western intellectual tradition or via alternative contemporary theories. As scholars around the globe consider links between historically overlooked practices and seek to reinterpret archives, canons, and identities, it is time for a rupture with dominant narratives.

One of the most urgent yet exciting possibilities in today’s architectural education is to establish open discussions regarding the critical role played by history in the complex relationship between “theory” and “practice.”

As scholars around the globe reinterpret archives, canons, and identities, it is time for a rupture with dominant narratives.

Historians in the 20th century traced what they understood as the modern “style” using a variety of narratives, to assert a version of origins and to establish their own agendas; as Anthony Vidler has argued, in his 2008 Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism, “histories of modernism themselves were constructed as more or less overt programs for the theory and practice of design in their contemporary context.” We seem to have forgotten, in our contemporary curricular categorizations of history, theory, and design, that (as Vidler notes) from the Renaissance to the mid-19th century, “history had supplied the ‘very stuff’ for architecture. The historian was the architect: from Alberti to Schinkel, it was the architect’s responsibility to write the history that would authorize both precedent and innovation.” If our sense of the “modern” and its associated precedents are based on a prejudiced formation of references and roots, then there’s a need to open up an entire world that lies outside this dominant intellectual inheritance. Can we formulate an alternative trajectory? Can we establish a different genealogy for an unorthodox modernity?

Consider, as an example, current theoretical constructs in Chinese scholarly circles — among them critical regionalism; discussions of tectonics, phenomenology, and autonomy; and study of traditional garden design or Yuan Lin. Across these modes of thought, we find an inadequacy of theoretical production relevant to histories of the “other” vis-à-vis contemporary practice, causing an unfortunate disconnect between design curricula and rich intellectual traditions outside the western canon. The argument is not to promote isolationism, nor to set East and West against one another, but to assert that diversity and inclusion can give rise to creative hybrids.

A rupture is needed to open up theoretical and stylistic constructs in our education, so as to collectively construct other lineages connecting history to theory to practice. Alternative versions of intellectual formation within our milieu are waiting for us, so that we can prefigure an alternative contemporaneity.

Rossana Hu


Upstreaming

To ensure that the past is not willfully reduced to a single, dominating history, there are design and research habits — mental reflexes — that may help us to restore multifaceted histories (plural) continuing to flow around and through us. In my experience, such methods are not merely complementary. They are interdependent, and at times almost indistinguishable. I’ll focus here on what I’ve called upstreaming and the chain of influences exercise.

Upstreaming is a mindset and method that examines the forces at play in any context, helping us think systemically about the impacts of design.

Upstreaming is a mindset and methodology that examines the forces and factors at play in any product and any context, tracing the sources of downstream conditions. Over the past 30 years, in my practice and teaching, the notion of upstreaming has informed a family of design-and-research methods that include the chain of influences exercise, an object lesson based on watershed hydrodynamics that can help us think systemically about the extended impacts of design proposals. The chain of influences exercise integrates mapping techniques (including cost analysis, life-cycle analysis, the process tree, and the triple bottom line) to identify the many users of any product, and better inform iterative prototyping and user testing.

In his capstone project at Parsons School of Design, Jaeseong Yi applied the principles of “upstreaming” to document the wasteful product flows involved in the production of chopsticks in China. Here he maps the transglobal flow of hardwood from rainforests in South America, Africa, and Indonesia to China, where the wood is bleached in toxic factory conditions.
In his 2016 capstone project at Parsons School of Design, Jaeseong Yi applied the principles of “upstreaming” to document the wasteful product flows involved in the production of chopsticks in China. Here he maps the transglobal flow of hardwood from rainforests in South America, Africa, and Indonesia to China, where the wood is bleached in toxic factory conditions. [Courtesy Robert Kirkbride]

In this diagram, Jaeseong Yi documents a more “decentralized” approach to the production of chopsticks, with production happening regionally and using indigenous and local materials.
In this diagram, Jaeseong Yi documents a more “decentralized” approach to the production of chopsticks, with production happening regionally and using indigenous and local materials. [Courtesy Robert Kirkbride]

While it may be altruistically ideal to reduce one’s own waste and downstream impacts — as a single person, commercial entity, village, or city — this monadic approach is simply inadequate to counteract the violences committed on those upstream of our own position(s). In planning of any sort, then, it is critical to develop the reflex of looking upstream and attending to communities “above” us in the watershed, whose byproducts and waste flow to us. By pitching in to support such communities — in our watersheds, foodsheds, and global supply networks — we can improve the wellbeing of unknown others at the headwaters of any given channel, integrating local, civic, and regional governance while improving our downstream lot.

Pedagogically speaking, upstreaming is both temporal and spatial, revealing striking differences and haunting similarities with others, say, 500 years in the past, and promoting empathy with, say, others 500 miles away in the present. Upstreaming clarifies one’s own position in the legacies of human endeavor: Who has tackled this problem before? With what beneficial or problematic results and byproducts? Whose solutions have not yet been tried?

It is pivotal, in other words, to recognize how and where our work connects to that of others. Although this is true for everyone in all disciplines, it is especially pertinent in arts and design, where students often fear that awareness of precedents might stifle their individuality. On the contrary, knowing whose shoulders we stand on reveals the relevance of our own work and how it might offer footing for those who follow. It evokes humility, too, since others will use and interpret our achievements in ways we cannot foresee.

Robert Kirkbride


The Price of History: Listing and Unlisting in Zürich

In the current fall semester 2022, all students at the Department of Architecture of ETH Zürich who are completing their studies with a master’s thesis are working on a common theme: durability and the ecological footprint of buildings. Together with my colleague An Fonteyne, Chair of Affective Architectures at ETH Zürich, I am proposing a theme which does not conceive durability in isolation, nor from a merely technological perspective. Rather, it puts durability in relation to historical context. The ecological crisis and the political crisis cannot be separated. And architects do not stand outside history. This is our program:

Dear Students,

You can choose: preserve either energy or history. When you list buildings, you waste energy because they cannot be adapted to new energy standards. On the other hand, when you adapt buildings to new energy standards, you waste their history, because the material traces are transformed and their memories fades away. Will history become unaffordable with rising energy prices?

For the Master’s Thesis, you are invited to list or unlist a building in Zürich. You might find a building worth protecting because you have a personal affinity to its story. Or you might unlist a monument because it mummifies the past and stands for exclusion and control and for values that you don’t share.

You will reflect on the amount of energy embedded in the building of your choice. You will also reflect on the amount of history embedded in the building of your choice.

Both listing and unlisting are about the future. Will the next generation agree with your choice or regret your blindness?

Philip Ursprung


Same old, same old

The problem is the aging population. Fortunately, this is a problem that activist designers can address. The time to act is now, because of the shameful conditions at residential long-term care institutions revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The problem is the aging population. The time to act is now.

The situation is only going to get worse. According to the World Health Organization, the number of persons aged 80 years or older will triple between 2020 and 2050, to reach 426 million. Sadly, there is no cure for many of the neurocognitive disorders that appear in older adults. Many of us in that cohort will experience complex, simultaneous, and overlapping health problems. Dementia, hearing and vision loss, and mobility issues change our perceptions and experiences of architecture. Designers need to address the discomfort and anxiety linked to these conditions.

McGill University architecture students explore integration in long term care. Image by Florence Grace-Castonguay and Léa Papillon, Winter 2022; instructor Boris Morin-Defoy.
McGill University architecture students explore integration in long term care for the elderly. Image by Florence Grace-Castonguay and Léa Papillon, Winter 2022; instructor Boris Morin-Defoy.

A central architectural question concerns the ideal location for delivery of care. Activists have focused on aging at home as the best solution, often promoting massive investment in retrofitting private homes for accessibility and assisted living. Aging at home is problematic from a feminist perspective, though, since the work typically falls to wives and daughters or underpaid caregivers, most of whom are women. The concept also complicates contagion control and exacerbates housing shortages. What, then, is architecture for aging? Palliative care and end-of-life care are often accommodated in purposefully invisible architectures. Both traditional long-term care and the dementia village, a more recent and popular solution, separate dementia patients from society.

From the series “Aunties,” by photographer Nadia Sablin, the 2021 Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibition A Section of Now: Social Norms and Rituals as Sites for Architectural Intervention.

From the series “Aunties,” by photographer Nadia Sablin, the 2021 Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibition A Section of Now: Social Norms and Rituals as Sites for Architectural Intervention.
From the series “Aunties,” by photographer Nadia Sablin, shown at the 2021 Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibition A Section of Now: Social Norms and Rituals as Sites for Architectural Intervention. [© Nadia Sablin]

Integration, visibility, and innovation are potential design responses to the aging population. Recent activist research has argued for the co-production of care architecture, linking architects with allied professionals — a process that can begin at school. We need to teach medical and architectural students about relationships between health and the built environment as shared responsibilities. In architecture schools, design for aging needs to be part of the core curriculum, as opposed to being relegated to elective status. Moreover, across the curriculum, we could de-emphasize visual studies, making room for the study of all our sensory experiences. We need to investigate solutions that integrate care into actual neighborhoods and places. All this calls for new types of expertise and a shift in mindset.

Finally, we need to up the ante. Architecture for aging needs to become cool. One idea is to offer a prestigious award for innovation in long-term-care design. Some museums are already bolstering the cool factor by showcasing alternative housing projects that focus on design for aging. Generalist architectural firms need to take up these challenges too, as specialists tend to iterate the same old solutions. And journals like this one might continue to invite researchers and critics to write about design for healthy aging, heightening its panache.

Annmarie Adams


An Architecture Variant

We are caught between two concurrent mutations: One at microscopic scale, in the realm of microbes, with bacteria and viruses producing new species, variants, and diseases at a rate we can hardly match; and the other at planetary scale, as the rapidly changing climate dismantles our biosphere with regular disasters. In response, we too have begun to adapt and mutate: We regularly measure the temperature of our bodies and our environments, obsessively track the behavior of the virus and the weather, mask and barricade against intrusions, vaccinate and insulate, distance and disinfect, quarantine and shelter in place. The world has turned, as it were, into an enormous hospital, with all of us on some form of life support.

The world has turned, as it were, into an enormous hospital, with all of us on some form of life support.

We now know that these mutations are not distinct historical events, but intertwined strands of a larger evolutionary process that ties all of us — humans, nonhumans, and the very sphere we inhabit — into a single vast, self-regulating organism. We also know that this is not a momentary crisis. There is no return to the life before. This new norm not only necessitates a new way of living, with different standards and protocols, but a new form of architecture that can sustain those relations. After all, architecture is the sociotechnical framework that organizes the pattern of relations between objects, bodies, and particles in space, and as such, it is the only discipline well-equipped to grapple with this new reality.

AN.ONYMOUS, Productivity Office Rover, developed in collaboration with UCLA CityLab for NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, 2016.
AN.ONYMOUS, Productivity Office Rover, developed in collaboration with UCLA CityLab for NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, 2016.

This is why architecture, as a discipline and a profession, needs to re-evaluate the epistemological and ideological premises on which it operates. Simply put, it needs to come down to earth. If modern architecture in the previous century positioned itself around the idea of health in relation to a medical body, architectural discourse today has to realign itself towards the notion of health on a medicalized planet. We need new theoretical and pedagogical models that allow us to move beyond existing binary approaches, which present the world in terms of conflicts and contradictions: nature versus culture, organism versus mechanism, biology versus technology, physical versus virtual, etc. We must instead move towards radical and holistic propositions that consider the environment as an extrasomatic extension of the self, a reflexive domain that is at once natural and artificial, social and technological, local and global.

A possible way to achieve this symbiosis is to begin at human scale, and to take a closer look at the small and seemingly insignificant objects and devices that surround us, from the basic elements of architecture, building technologies, and systems of environmental control, to furniture and fixtures: office chairs and wheelchairs, toilets and fire escapes, doorknobs and handrails. Beyond artifacts of material culture, each of these standardized objects prescribes an operational sequence and user behavior that, while singular and local, are also universal and global. To reimagine these sociotechnical objects is not only to redefine the basic ingredients of architecture, but also to reconfigure the way we move within and interact with the environment, the way we live and thrive on earth. It is for architecture to evolve and mutate.

Iman Ansari


Five Principles

I use my design research practice FLOAT as an activist platform, to advance ideas in social, environmental, and multi-species justice. Sometimes this is work of resistance — pushing back against something like fossil fuel development. Sometimes it is work of cultivation — tending to reciprocal relationships and making space for ecological thriving. In all cases, this work manifests new ways of being in physical, living space.

From the Pipeline Portals project, by Erin Moore, in which pavilions were "installed along proposed routes of the Pacific Connector Pipeline, a major natural gas pipeline planned across the Pacific Northwest.
From the Pipeline Portals project, by Erin Moore, in which pavilions were “installed along proposed routes of the Pacific Connector Pipeline, a major natural gas pipeline planned across the Pacific Northwest.

Here are five principles (adapted from the lecture “Pandemic as Portal,” delivered for the Spring Creek Project, January 19, 2021) that shape my work:

1. Design to recognize interconnection at all scales. Design relationships that are reciprocal. Design to recognize the indivisible, messy ecological whole.

2. Find the pinch points. Where can you apply a little bit of pressure for a lot of consequence? This principle is rooted in strategies of direct action and civil disobedience, such as tree sitting and blockades.

3. Amplify and give agency to things of sustaining, renewing value. Emphasize cycles, reproduction, and the more-than-human whole. Disempower, through exclusion, the superficial, the short-term, and the single-use.

4. Start with care. Care for a future, for a place, is more powerful when it is rooted in love than when it is rooted in utility, or reason.

5. Bring wrongness into the light. Use courage — especially the sort built on social, institutional, and financial privilege — to speak truths. Believe in survivance as a form of resistance.

Erin Moore


The Future Perfect

During my first year of graduate school, someone introduced me to Vladimir Nabokov’s 1972 novella Transparent Things. I had come to architecture with a bachelor’s degree in art history, but I made the fateful decision that, instead of studying what everyone before me had done, I would try to do it myself, in a discipline demanding that I look straight into the unwritten future. Nabokov illuminated my path:

Perhaps if the future existed, concretely and individually, as something that could be discerned by a better brain, the past would not be so seductive. … But the future has no such reality (as the pictured past and the perceived present possess); the future is but a figure of speech, a specter of thought.

In fall 2006, interviewing the visionary architect Paolo Soleri, I discovered that, at age 87, he still spoke in the future tense, even as it became clear that he would not live to see completion of Arcosanti, his life’s work. I asked what advice he might have for architecture students. With a bit of impatience, he told me, “We only create the past; we never create the future because the future is nonsense. It doesn’t exist, period.” How Nabokovian.

Perhaps the only way to envision the future, then, is to look back from it to a past we will have made. I take my students outside the classroom as often as possible, walking, talking, asking questions: Who made this, and for whom? By what technological and political means? Topics evolve, but the core issues are remarkably consistent: equity, environment, agency, technology, communications. Have these always been the issues? Yes, though we may not have named them as such. Will they always be the issues? Don’t we ever solve anything? We will know these answers only in the future, if ever.

We are still asking 20th-century questions about design and public health, the right to be housed, and our Faustian bargain with fossil fuels.

So, for their final assignment, I ask students to go there and look back. Imagine yourself 50 years hence. What did you accomplish? What are you most satisfied to see? What do you regret? Whom did you serve? Some write letters to young architects, as Louis Sullivan did; others write as if they are being interviewed after having won a lifetime achievement award; others in the terse manner of news updates. One student of landscape architecture — surely the most optimistic of design disciplines — movingly described taking his grandson to visit one of his projects, which would have taken half a century to reach its designed fulfillment. They write from a future marked by rising seas, climate disruption, advanced mobility technologies — so many hyperloops and driverless cars! — and the persistence of community amid technologically induced isolation. It is mostly a better future from which they report, and they are gratified by having worked to make it so.

Jeyaseelan_Christina, final paper in Susan Piedmont-Palladino's class at Virginia Tech.
Jeyaseelan_Christina, final paper in Susan Piedmont-Palladino’s class at Virginia Tech.

The apparent stability of the made world shouldn’t be construed as permanent; it was not always this way, nor will it always be this way. These are surprisingly difficult facts to accept, however: inertia, fear, nostalgia, all work against the recognition that change is constant in any environment, built or natural. “The 21st century” used to sound futuristic, yet we are still asking ourselves 19th- and 20th-century questions about design and public health, the benefits and costs of new technologies, the right to be housed, and our Faustian bargain with fossil fuels. Nabokov’s and Soleri’s dismissals notwithstanding, seeing the future is our job as designers.

At the same time, seeing isn’t sufficient. We must be able to describe what we imagine in words and images, to share our “figures of speech and specters of thought” so that others can join in converting an uncertain future into an irrefutable past. It’s the strangely named future perfect tense — “this will have been” — that lets us do so. The present-tense statement “but that isn’t how things are” can prompt a subjunctive wish: “but if they were …”

Susan Piedmont-Palladino


We’re drowning in stuff.

It’s piled up around us in landfills, donation centers, and scrap heaps. Fast fashion takes much of the blame for our crisis of consumerism and its devastating impacts on environments and labor conditions worldwide, but architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design also participate in economies of planned obsolescence. As Jane Hutton and others have shown in detail (see Hutton’s 2020 book Reciprocal Landscapes: Stories of Material Movements), the mountains of waste we produce are an inverse of the extractive depredations that dig, drill, and cut the materials from the earth with which we make our cities, parks, and homes.

I’m writing from the gravel belt of Ontario, perhaps a banal example of such landscapes. But what has been marketed by pit operators and aggregate producers as a vast resource that supports development is, in fact, Anishinaabe, Hodinöhsö:ni’ and Wendat land. More than 5,000 pits and quarries are licensed to operate today in Ontario, and each is digging up and transporting Indigenous land to stabilize foundations at construction sites across the region, all the while scraping natural water filtration systems right down to the water table.

Aggregate pit in North Dumfries, Ontario, for years a top producer of sand and stone for construction.
Aggregate pit in North Dumfries, Ontario, for years a top producer of sand and stone for construction across the province and beyond. [Zannah Mae Matson]

Our problems of material consumption extend well beyond aggregate, of course, and are perhaps most pronounced in our attempts to design more environmentally friendly buildings and patterns of energy use. Many of the minerals used in smart buildings and “green” energy rely on processes of extraction even more harmful than the gravel pits surrounding me. At the same time, a recent study suggests that, to support the green energy transition globally, we would need to mine three billion tons of metals, increasing mineral output sixfold by 2040. The mining industry, long a flagrant violator of human rights and environmental protection statutes, sees the transition to green energy and green building as a boon for business. The fact that extractive industries champion “clean” energy should give designers pause. We cannot let our efforts to transition away from the carbon economy entangle us further in such exploitation.

The mining industry, a flagrant violator of environmental laws, sees green energy and green building as a boon for business.

Addressing these threats will rely on shifting away from using new stuff towards supply chains that are founded on material reuse, as well as on more equitable distributions of goods already in circulation. In much the same way that we haven’t been able to recycle our way out of our single-use-plastic habit, we won’t be able to solve the problems of mineral extraction and overconsumption by designing investment properties that use 80 percent recycled architectural glass. Instead of jumping to the next technological solution that claims to relieve us of our guilt, I am inspired by building deconstruction work that carefully considers material reuse as buildings and landscapes are being taken apart. Rethinking material flows is more than a switch to large-scale production of products from recycled materials. It is a form of material activism that supports circular economies while vigilantly resisting extractive processes and practices.

Zannah Mae Matson

Cite
Ife Salema Vanable, Alison HIrsch, Akel Ismail Kahera, Robert Kirkbride, Ana María León, Philip Ursprung, Annmarie Adams, Iman Ansari, Erin Moore,, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 5,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 01 Dec 2022. <>

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