So you want to change the world? Start by changing the built environment. Buildings shape our experience and open up or close down possibilities for life. Hardly anyone gets to realize his or her visions for transforming society, but activism through architecture is a place to start. Here I offer a guide, idiosyncratic and partial, drawing on personal experience and American history, to how architecture can contribute to social reform.
Given the narrow range of choices on the ballot and the wide range of current concerns, going to the polling place and flipping levers, punching cards or tapping touch-screens can seem futile. But aggregated into majorities at the local, state and federal levels, these tiny gestures have big consequences — not least for architecture and urbanism. Government has direct impact on the built environment through the construction of roads and highways, seaports and airports, schools and universities, police and fire stations and utilities for power, water and sewage. These are constructed through state patronage and they are powerful instruments of policy. Who sits in office shapes our world.
There is no greater example of federal patronage than Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Throughout the 1930s this extraordinary set of programs — enacted to spur recovery from the (first) Great Depression — transformed the nation through huge public works such as the dams and power plants of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a raft of programs from Social Security to the incentives for homeownership that promoted postwar suburbia. The New Deal was based on the Keynesian principle that state intervention is sometimes necessary to support vitality — a perspective that has informed most large-scale urban development of the past eighty years, and is once again a familiar theme in political debates.
Every time I travel through Albany I marvel at Empire State Plaza, the modernist state capitol complex built in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York. Designed by a team of architects led by Wallace K. Harrison, the plaza replaced an early-20th-century mixed-use downtown neighborhood with a grand modernist mall of administrative offices set atop a podium several stories high and more than a quarter-mile long. Four towers flank its west side and opposite, along the eastern edge, is an even loftier skyscraper of 44 stories. A blocky “cultural education center” anchors one end of the podium, facing off against Leopold Eidlitz’s late 19th-century state capitol, while an egg-shaped theater rounds out the ensemble. Like its Latin American cousin, Brasilia, the Empire State Plaza combines a bold scale and modernist forms to convey the power of the assertive Keynesian state.
Impressive in its own right — a 98-acre marble-and-steel statement of the modernist ambition to remake the world — the Albany mall is just a small part of Rockefeller’s architectural legacy. Nelson Rockefeller’s administration built public housing throughout the state, new campuses for the growing state university system, and an expressway connecting Albany to the Interstate. A vote for Rockefeller in 1958, 1962, 1966 or 1970 was a vote for the State University of New York and the New York Thruway — and for large-scale social changes through housing, education, highways and other ambitious public works.
Less apparent but more pervasive are the countless laws that regulate private construction and investment. It’s easy to see how building and zoning codes shape construction; we’re usually less aware of the impact that tax codes have on our buildings, cities and suburbs. By assessing different types of expenditures at different rates, tax codes create a complex web of incentives for individuals and corporations, the consequences of which are diffuse yet extensive. The mortgage interest deduction, for instance, encourages people to buy rather than rent housing by lowering the cost of financing a large loan. Since 1976, tax credits for expenditures on historic preservation have encouraged the restoration and reuse of old buildings. More recently, brownfield credits have rewarded investors who redevelop former industrial sites rather than build on greenfield sites at the urban fringe. The Energy Star program offers homeowners tax credits to offset investments that increase the efficiency of insulation, windows, water heaters and solar and fuel cell energy systems.
Tax-credit programs live and die by legislative consensus, so your ballot filters through the checks and balances of representative government to help determine the choices you have in employment, housing and social life. The end of postwar urban renewal and the decline of modernist planning had many causes — but not least was the political shift from the Keynesian era of Roosevelt and Rockefeller to the privatizing age of Ronald Reagan. A vote for Reagan in the 1980s was a vote against the public-spirited state in favor of market-based policies. During Reagan’s presidency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development stopped funding federal projects in favor of giving tax incentives to private developers to build low-income housing. Today the Great Recession is reviving debate about public solutions, and the Empire State Plaza remains an ambiguous, somewhat forlorn monument to the once assertive liberal agenda.
Most of us vote only once a year (if that). Almost every day we express our preferences when we take out our wallets. When you decide whether to buy a car, a bike or a bus pass, you register a choice for particular land use patterns, architectural configurations and social orders. Buying and spending are a big part of our lives — especially middle-class American lives. And unlike the mechanisms of political action, shopping offers an easily available and extraordinarily nuanced vehicle of expression and selection. For every top-down utopia, there are a thousand bottom-up initiatives generated by the localized activity of entrepreneurs and consumers. Usually the result is junk, but once in a while something revolutionary crops up.
Consider the automats that flourished during the first half of the 20th century in European and North American cities. Self-service restaurants that merged the vending machine with the cafeteria, automats struck some American critics as harbingers of social decline, seedy eateries selling cheap calories to urban loners. Automats were in fact precursors of the drive-through and the fast-food franchise, and for decades they provided affordable fare in anonymous settings only minimally monitored by staff and managers. The outcome was a new kind of public space that suited the budgets and tastes of women and men living alone in U.S. cities. The mix of plain food, unsupervised setting and plate glass windows made automats as well as cafeterias key arenas for the emergent queer culture of capitalist modernity. Gay men and lesbians turned some of these places, like the Childs Restaurant on Broadway in Times Square, into late-night “fairy hangouts” where, for the price of coffee and a slice of pie, likeminded folks gathered, traded tips about the still largely underground gay world, and showed off pansy fashions that would get them canned at work.
Access to community and visibility made bars and restaurants formative sites for not only for queer social life but also for political activism. In 1966, members of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, staged a “sip-in” at a West Village bar to protest laws against serving obviously gay patrons. On a legendary night three years later, the trannies, drags, dykes and fags of the Stonewall Inn rebelled against police repression and then celebrated on Christopher Street stoops through the weekend. 1
In this gay experience is neither unique nor original. The Mattachine sip-in was inspired by the lunch-counter sit-ins staged by civil rights activists. Commercial spaces were key sites for African-American civil society. In Chicago’s Bronzeville district during the 1920s, black entrepreneurs ran businesses that doubled as transformative social spaces. The neighborhood boomed as the Great Migration brought African-Americans to Chicago from the countryside and the south. Bronzeville was home to the Chicago Defender, an influential black weekly, along with the churches, civic associations, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters and hair salons of one of the largest and fastest-growing black communities in America.
In 1922, Anthony Overton constructed a block-long four-story building to house his expanding business in cosmetics for the African-American market. The Overton Hygienic Building also accommodated the entrepreneur’s other businesses, notably the Victory Life Insurance Company and the Douglass National Bank, the first federally chartered black-owned bank. Overton rented ground-floor storefronts and second-floor office space to other businesses and to Bronzeville’s doctors, lawyers and architects. At its heyday, the Overton Building teemed with workers, professionals, customers and clients who were collectively creating a new and distinctly modern social world. Everyone who purchased Overton face cream, a Victory insurance policy or a certificate of deposit from the Douglass bank supported not only the rise of the black middle class but also the construction of African-American urban life and culture — much as, for gay New York, did those who dropped a dime at a Horn & Hardart automat or bellied up to the bar at the Stonewall.
Today shopping presents fresh challenges and opportunities. Who has not begun to assess every transaction for its impact on the fate of the earth? The ways we produce and consume energy, food, goods and the built environment have broad consequences for the future of society and the planet. By highlighting these consequences, advocates of sustainability have moralized consumption to the point where every purchase, from light bulbs and dish soap to the house itself, is now freighted with responsibility for saving or damning the planet. This is as it should be, and new ways of living are emerging from discussions in living rooms and workplaces around the country; a lot of these are then collected in websites and books like Worldchanging, the “user’s guide for the 21st century” in shelter, community and politics. 2
Yet sustainability is burdened with conflicting social and political agendas, and corporations seeking to capture more profit often manipulate the emotional investments that people bring to shopping decisions. So why not reduce your ecological footprint? Choose a smaller house or an apartment in walking and biking distance of work, food markets, bars and cafés. Fix up existing housing rather than moving to an exurban greenfield. Who wants a multicar garage and a home theater anyway?
The impact of any single purchase may be small. Yet, as with votes, individual expenditures aggregate to create large outcomes. Investment banks track spending patterns; once a trend is established, the banks are more likely to underwrite ventures linked to that trend. A feedback cycle ensues as entrepreneurs take advantage of favorable financing. This is how fast food franchises came to rule the earth, or at least the suburbs. But because they rarely play the socially transformative roles automats once played, I don’t see why anyone should patronize them. Join a community-supported agricultural cooperative or shop at a greenmarket. You’ll help lower the cost of the financing these ventures, and have a better meal while you’re at it.
Build a House
Houses can be pivots of social transformation. They provide the context for many consumption decisions; they shape the patterns of daily life and intimate relationships. Buckminster Fuller recognized the centrality of the house to social change when, in 1928, he set out to transform how we produce and consume housing, with the goal of improving family life. Inspired by Henry Ford’s Model T, which made automobiles affordable through assembly-line production, Fuller designed a lightweight, super-efficient aluminum dwelling intended for mass production in single- and multi-family versions. A standardized hexagonal floor plan would have provided occupants of the Dymaxion House with a suite of well-lit, well-ventilated rooms furnished with modern kitchen, bathroom and media equipment. The structure was designed to hang from a central mast by cables akin to nautical rigging, allowing one or more floors to be stacked up and suspended above the ground. Dymaxion housing was to transform human society by systematically reducing the waste of resources from energy and materials to labor and time.
Unlike the automobiles that inspired them, Fuller’s house never went into production. If it had, and had it worked as Fuller planned, the Dymaxion would have liberated families from dependence on electrical and gas networks, water supplies, sewer systems and roads as well as the social and financial systems — above all mortgages — that bond us to what Fuller considered a form of serfdom. Airlifted by dirigible from factory to building site, its mast anchored in a crater excavated by a bomb, his “autonomous dwelling unit” would have been installed wherever its owner found the best opportunities for work and leisure. In Fuller’s vision, these mobile dwellings would have created a self-regulating labor market as workers were freed to follow jobs. The state would have dissolved into a self-optimizing industrial economy in which consumers dealt directly with transnational corporations. Rather than maintaining large houses and working to meet mortgage payments, families would have been free to dedicate themselves to creative pursuits and domestic pleasures. 3
Much as I admire the ambition of Fuller’s utopian propositions, I’ve come to realize that it takes a lot of grit to live even a little bit differently from others. Commissions for individual houses have perennially afforded architects and clients opportunities to experiment with new modes of living. In Women and the Making of the Modern House, Alice T. Friedman examines instances in which architects and female clients produced unusual houses that shifted the rhythms and rules of daily life. My favorite among her case studies is the house in Utrecht, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1924 for the widow Truus Schröder, who was seeking a flexible, egalitarian environment for herself and her children. The intersecting floor plates, beams, walls and windows of this modernist landmark are best known as compelling applications of De Stijl principles to architectural design. More importantly, though, the house’s multipurpose furniture and sliding wall panels enabled family members to define the degrees of intimacy or withdrawal they wanted. By granting occupants the freedom to reshape the house through moment-by-moment choices about how to live separately and together, the Schröder House demonstrated the capacity of architecture to open up alternative possibilities for everyday home life. 4
The equally innovative King’s Road House in West Hollywood, California, also shows how architecture can foster new modes of living. Vienna-born architect R. M. Schindler designed this double house to accommodate himself and his wife Sophia as well as another couple, Clyde and Marian Chace, and two newborns. Four large rooms, built of concrete and redwood, have sliding walls that open onto partially enclosed patios and gardens. A single kitchen, garage and guest suite adjoin these rooms. Envisioned as studios for living and creative work for the four adults in this cooperative household, they provided each person with a discrete space that could be opened to or separated from the others. Narrow glass strips between concrete wall-slabs ensured that even with all the partitions closed, no one was completely sealed off from the household, and the shared kitchen encouraged collaboration in the rituals of daily life. Built in 1921, the house reflected traditional gender roles: the women’s studios adjoined the kitchen because, as Schindler noted, “the wives take alternate weekly responsibility for dinner menus.” Nonetheless, the King’s Road House established an unconventional model of domesticity at a scale somewhere between that of the nuclear family and the community. 6
Should you ever be fortunate enough to build your own house, keep in mind how domestic architecture orders daily life and try changing the game.
Raise a Barn
Cooperative or communal building, epitomized by barn raising, is yet another way architecture can promote social transformation. In most places barn raising is a lost tradition, but throughout the 18th and 19th centuries it was common for community members to gather voluntarily to help a family build a barn. Cooperative practice has been extended to many forms of construction, especially churches, houses and schools, and even to the development of larger settlements. Take the example of Drop City. Inspired by Fuller’s teachings, a group of artists created a commune in the southern Colorado desert during the Vietnam War as a place where they could drop out of the consumer economy to experiment with low-tech “natural” living. They constructed a village of geodesic dome homes, jerry-built of material like scavenged car hoods, salvaged lumber and recycled insulation. With its crazy-quilt folk aesthetic, quasi-sustainable design, and free lifestyle, Drop City has come to symbolize the dream of living outside the mainstream. Collaborating on a building project can be a step toward re-founding society.
At the other extreme of scale and sensibility is Co-op City, a mega-development of apartment towers in the Bronx that houses some 60,000 residents in 15,000 apartments. Built in the late 1960s, Co-op City is the largest cooperative housing project in the United States, and it exemplifies both the promise and the pitfalls of such big-scale endeavors. The United Housing Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, developed the project with funding from the New York State Housing Finance Agency, which lent the UHF millions of dollars through the Mitchell-Lama program. A typical Rockefeller initiative, the program aimed to subsidize housing for middle-class New York City residents who might otherwise move to the suburbs. The product of a rare convergence between labor-union idealism and the mechanisms of the Keynesian state, Co-op City was promoted as an outer-borough Shangri-La of spacious apartments at low cost for its cooperators, mostly Jewish workers who were moving out of dilapidated 19th-century housing throughout the city.
But poor planning, incomplete land reclamation, shoddy construction and outright theft by some construction companies jeopardized the project from the start. Enraged by rapid escalation in monthly maintenance fees, the cooperators staged a payment strike. Their stand-off with city and state was resolved only through the infusion of hundreds of millions more in state funding. Today, Co-op City is a functional if not especially vibrant neighborhood of African-American, Latino and white households. It inspires awe for the scale of its ambition and disappointment for the gap between that ambition and eventual realities. Like Empire State Plaza, it memorializes the ambiguous legacy of modernist social, urban and architectural innovation. 7
Cooperative initiatives of recent years are typically modest in scale and fully or partially self-built. These include the barn raising-like work of Habitat for Humanity, Design Corps and Architecture for Humanity. These nonprofit organizations build houses and community facilities, one at a time, through volunteer labor and sweat equity from beneficiaries. Belief in the value of community also anchors the growing sector of small- and medium-scale ventures often called co-housing. In co-housing, private units are clustered together and share communal facilities. Typically developed by middle-class residents, these intentional communities can evoke the utopian tradition of places like Brook Farm, Fourierist phalansteries, the Oneida Community, Shaker settlements and Drop City. But more often they reflect simply the desire for strong social bonds and a broad family circle — the same desire that animated the Schindlers and Chaces eighty-five years ago.
A thousand-acre ranch in California’s Napa Valley, owned and inhabited by seventeen shareholders and their partners, gave me the opportunity to test a co-op project. Initiated in the late 1980s by a wealthy San Franciscan, Green Valley Ranch has been placed in a land trust that limits development to preserve open space for grazing and viniculture. The shareholders have built three communal houses that center on large, shared kitchens, dining rooms and patios but offer different combinations of private suites and shared facilities. The houses provide members (a mix of full- and part-time residents) a choice among different degrees of interaction and seclusion. To participate in one of their collective dinners — or in their famed New Year’s Eve party — is to experience a compelling alternative to conventional modes of domesticity.
Another model of communitarian life is offered by Crossroads Community, a feminist endeavor started in the 1970s by artist Bonnie Ora Sherk. One in a series of art projects that explored the relationship between ecology and social life, Crossroads combined intelligence, ambition and pragmatism. Working with city agencies and arts organizations, Sherk and a team of volunteers transformed a barren seven-acre site adjacent to a San Francisco freeway interchange into The Farm, a community center that functioned as both an alternative art space and a demonstration of urban agriculture. Gardens, livestock pens, classrooms, a theater and a preschool formed what Sherk called “a life-scale environmental and social artwork that brought many people from different disciplines and cultures together with each other and with other species — plants and animals.” Now a city park with community gardens, The Farm revealed how a marginal site can become a catalyst in urban development and social life. 8
The barn raisings of nonprofit housing groups, co-housers and similar partnerships usually matter less for their formal qualities than for their social impact. Sherk’s Farm reminds us that architecture’s transformative capacities are activated through social elaboration. Plan, space, form and materiality: all are just potential until a building is occupied and really used.
Throw a Party
Maybe you don’t have the money to build the house of your dreams, or the doggedness to found a commune? Throw a party! Ephemeral events can project possibilities beyond reach in daily reality.
A century ago, progressive reformers used pageants, processions and festivals to portray ideal social orders. Few events were as grandiose as the history pageant staged by the city of St. Louis in 1914 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding. Contingents from the city’s ethnic and social groups performed an allegorical masque narrating their diverse histories and envisioning a glorious future unity. Such spectacles intensified civic pride even as they helped to link disparate groups so they could work together to govern the city and plan its future.
One year earlier, the National American Woman Suffrage Association held a pageant in Washington, D.C., that used the colossal Doric colonnade of the Treasury Building as the setting for dance and theater performances representing advances in women’s liberation. Appropriating the neoclassical architecture of a government building, the organizers identified their modern cause with the democracy of ancient Greece. That same year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People employed a similar strategy in honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. With sets that evoked ancient Egyptian architecture, “The Star of Ethiopia” mobilized an alternative tradition to legitimize African-American history, culture and political claims. Another influential pageant of 1913, the Paterson Strike Pageant, used public drama to promote the cause of striking silk workers in New Jersey. Through architecture, art, drama, singing and dance, all these events engaged spectators and participants alike in reimagining history and redefining the social order.
Maybe this progressive era pageantry is a bit earnest for your taste. What about disco? Discos and other throbbing dance parties create immersive, affective environments that excite the full spectrum of human senses — and most of our body parts. In a lively account of disco culture, Peter Shapiro contended that gay scenes of the 1970s embraced a Deleuzian mode of political resistance that creates alternative order through the multiplication of desires and pleasures. “The group grope of the disco dance floor, the anonymous antics of the back room, and the heedless hedonism of the bathhouses,” Shapiro wrote, “were probably as close to such a polymorphously perverse paradise as humans will ever get.” 9
Ecstasy takes many forms. It is commercialized and commodified in theme parks and vacation resorts. It is ritualized as carnival in São Paulo, New Orleans and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man Festival convenes an alternative art community every August. And it is institutionalized by art organizations, as is the case with the Summer Warm-Up parties hosted by P.S.1, the contemporary art center in Queens, New York, since 1999. At their best, the P.S.1 parties draw festive crowds that gather energy from innovative installations in the center’s courtyard. My favorite so far has been the first, for which the Austrian art collective Gelatin turned the courtyard into a ludic landscape imaginatively constructed from salvaged artifacts and animated by music from a changing roster of DJs. Participants danced in a fog-filled, plastic bubble, climbed a tower built of old office furniture to survey the crowd, and chilled in an igloo-like pavilion created by stacked rings of air conditioners and door-less refrigerators turned to face one another. Aided by architecture, music and alcohol, the crowd turned the grounds into a distinctively sociable pleasure-ground.
The Flux events staged by artists at desolate sites in and around Pittsburgh offer edgier experiences of festival mixed with industrial salvage. At a recent event in the distressed steel town of Braddock, my friends and I wandered through art installations in an empty Carnegie library. Bands played in an old church across the street; adjacent buildings filled with festival-goers drinking beer, watching film art or dancing to mad beats. Projected images animated building facades while fires burned in oil drums in the street. I will forever remember the abandoned center of this depressed town as the vital heart of western Pennsylvania.
By convening a particular alternative public for a communal ritual, such events can remap the city in perception and memory. They create topographies of feeling that resonate long after the music has stopped. So dive in. Party on. You could do more to change the world, but also less.