Radical Praxis: Activism Within and Beyond Architecture

I started writing this before the election. But, given everything that has happened in the last few days the question of what architects can do to build a more progressive society has taken on a new urgency. Many people I went to architecture school with participated in their first protests yesterday and have started using the word resistance in a serious way. It’s great that people are getting more involved in activism and are talking about organizing even if it took such a grave turn of events to light a fire under everyone’s collective ass. Perhaps if there had been similar mobilizations over the last eight years, we could have pushed the Democratic Party toward a left-wing populism that addressed the issues of precarity and economic inequity at the core of the Trump phenomenon. Nevertheless, here we are now, facing a president whose government will be judged by history on a scale of Bush to Hitler. In that context, I think it is worth reopening some of the dogmas of radical architecture and reflecting on the failure of architects to produce meaningful change over the last decades. My aim is not to browbeat. Rather, I want to delve into the failed thinking about the ways in which architecture creates change in order to unpack some of the lessons valuable to architects who are becoming activists and wondering what to do now.

1. Cultural criticism is no substitute for activism.

Architecture school is, at least by appearance, a radical place. Much of the standard curriculum would be blank without covering the politically radical avant-gardes from decades past (think Constructivism) or theory that is not somehow shaped by Marxist thought (think Henri Lefebvre or David Harvey). And even though it’s less explicitly political, most conversations in schools take social and ecological conscientiousness as a given. Nevertheless, you’d be forgiven for wondering where all the radical architects are. If architecture school proves the perennial Republican suspicion that the Academy is a den of left-wing indoctrination, propaganda and machination, then the conservatism of the profession ultimately shows that they have nothing to worry about.

A central reason for this is that our mode of radicalism has for decades been shaped by the defeat of the populist left in the 70’s. The consequences of this loss were real and frightening — Reagans and Thatchers came to power and instituted conservative economic and social policies that reverberate to the present. Without the infrastructure or popularity to push for progressive policies, the mainstream left absorbed the neoliberal program (a major reason for Clinton’s defeat), and in its subsequent isolation the radical left had to make itself content to theorize the rise and horrors of neoliberalism from the sidelines. Over the decades that followed, the radical left internalized this condition, developing a cynicism around the plausibility of broad system change.

Architecture’s contemporary theory shibboleths were all written in this context of this cynicism; Delirious New York was penned in 1978. The current generation of architecture professors lived through the radical moment of the late 60’s and its decline. As a result, students have been taught that a revolutionary praxis means a dialectical relationship between cultural criticism and speculative projects, rather than a relationship between critique and acting in the broader social, economic, and political world. Cynicism about the possibilities for political action outside of the architectural academy has reduced the history of radical architecture movements to aesthetics and largely divorced them from the much larger political contexts the in which the groups operated. In vulgar Marxist parlance, our understanding of the system is all superstructure and no base. This condition also pushed the radical segment of architects to stop taking professional practice courses and the “business” side of architecture seriously. The vacuum this created was filled by the needs of economy — resulting in professional practice courses that emphasize workplace skills over deeper understandings of the financial underpinnings of architecture. In this way the potential of a serious critique of architecture’s political economy was abdicated to a system that prioritized training students to enter the world of work acritically.

The cynicism undergirding all of this is on its way out. Clinton lost the election in part because her politics of “realism” and incrementalism failed to adequately mobilize an electorate that believes sweeping systemic change is possible in the face of rampant inequity. Donald Trump tapped into a version of this sentiment to win, but so did Bernie Sanders, whose social justice brand of economic populism was immensely popular. Moving forward, architects should take heed. Cultural criticism (and theory more broadly) shapes our interpretation of the world — but our modes of action in the world must go beyond the space of cynicism. Speculative projects should be understood as a mode of criticism and not a mode of action. The architectural imaginary should no longer be considered progressive on its own terms. If we believe that architects have something to contribute to the vision of a progressive society, then we must insert ourselves into the real space of politics and let that recursively reflect on our theory.

2. Participatory and community focused design are not equivalent to system change.

We must not, however, confuse acting in the political sphere with the fetishization of community-centered and participatory design, which have been the dominant mode of architectural activism over the last decade. I want to tread carefully here because such projects have without a doubt the potential to enrich lives and create genuinely safe spaces for the disenfranchised. In the best cases, they leverage architecture’s ability to create a place of comfort in a world that is hostile to the emotion, financial, and physical well-being of so many. These projects use architecture as a salve to soothe the wounds created by a society premised on systemic inequality.

However, we should be clear-minded about the utility of community-focused and participatory projects to a larger emancipatory project. For every project that plays an important part in aiding the disenfranchised, there are a dozen that are wrapped up in marketing exercises for developers and a web of NGO’s that make up the non-profit industrial complex. As the activist group INCITE! notes, the non-profit industrial complex serves to divert public monies into private hands through foundations, manage and control dissent, redirect activist energies away from mass movements, allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work, and encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them. The same critiques can be leveled at pushes for sustainable architecture.

The bottom line is that architects looking to get active in the shadow of a Donald Trump presidency should tread cautiously and retain criticality in the existing network of architecture non-profits. Altruism is right and necessary in a society predicated on fear, but we must go beyond asking ourselves “what can we do as architects to improve people’s lives?” to also ask “what can we do as architects to end the systemic inequality that ruins live in the first place?”

3. There is no such thing as an activist architecture, only activist architects.

The answer to the question of what we can do as architects to end systemic inequality is by necessity bigger than any one project, person, or firm, and even architecture itself. This statement should be obvious, but the insularity of the discipline has created an echo-chamber that vastly overplays the capabilities of “good design.” We cannot design our way out of a system of global capital that perpetuates inequality. Only mass movements from below can threaten that system and fight for reforms. Hopefully Trump’s election will precipitate such resistance. A politics based on cynicism (as in point 1) or localism (as in point 2) is not enough. Architects must reach beyond the profession and locate their activism in the context of mass-movements.

In some ways, architects can be left off the hook for failing to engage in mass-movement activism given the scarcity of such movements over the last few decades. Architects tend to see themselves as part of a cultural elite slowly shaping behavior and opinion and imagine the change they effect as incremental. These attitudes pose evident psychological barriers to meaningful participation in mass-movement activism and are largely self-imposed ideological constructions. Architects cling to the self-image of the “gentlemanly professional” in spite of the fact that the standardization of our tools has created work processes more akin to a factory than a studio. The reality is that this proletarianization of immaterial labor has made most architects workers. Relatively privileged workers to be sure, but workers nonetheless. It is on that basis that we can understand ourselves less as architects and more as global citizens fighting for justice. In short, we should focus less on the limited agency of buildings to make change and more on the agency we have as people. Go to a protest, act in solidarity with the marginalized, find a local grassroots activist formation (there are many) and join it.

A genuinely progressive spatial practice will follow from those activities. We often forget that our radical idols — groups like the Constructivists, Superstudio, Archizoom, and even the Situationists — were following what was happening on the streets and not leading it. In each case, these groups found a different way to mobilize architecture in support of a mass movement. In the case of Constructivists it was the forging of a new aesthetic to match a newly ordered society, for Superstudio and Archizoom it was using paper architecture to estrange and elucidate the spatial conditions of the capitalist city. The Situationists theorized the way that aesthetics have been operationalized for systems of control, — particularly apropos given that the all of the above movements and many more have been aestheticized into impotence. The continued regurgitation of images from more radical times has helped create generations of designers who are unwitting experts at translating radical ideas into something salable.

4. The site of political agency is not the product of our labor, buildings, but rather in the conditions of their production.

This kind of co-option of radical architecture underwrites the importance of operationalizing spatial expertise beyond building. For instance, as part of non-architectural activist formations we can use our knowledge of the legal dimension of the construction process to fight gentrification. Likewise, we can use our understanding of space to maximize the effectiveness of civil disobedience actions.

I do not, however, mean to imply that we must unilaterally abandon architecture altogether in favor of hitting the streets. The time pressures of architecture and architecture school often stand in the way of doing so, and most of us are not privileged enough to be full-time activists. Struggles within architecture can be linked to activism outside of architecture. For instance, a key demand of our program should be fair compensation for all architects as well as the reduction of working hours so that we can actually engage in the ways described above.

The biggest lesson we can take away from labor struggles outside of architecture is that work is great inequalizer. Those entering the profession after years of architecture school have learned first-hand that our universal subservience to the forces of economic development obviate the cultural agency we were trained to leverage. The technology-fueled proletarianization of our work means that we will not find an agency in the buildings that we design — our agency is no longer located in the sphere of culture but the field of production.

We only go to work because we need to sell our labor to survive. While many of us would still opt to be architects in a world without work it would be on vastly different terms. Still, the very fact that we are laborers gives us power in the space of production for the simple reason that the system falls apart without our work. Our largest and best point of leverage is in the collective denial of our labor power — or at least the threat thereof. Imagine the interns walking out of an office building a prison. Imagine the production staff of an architecture office en masse refusing to work for the GSA under a Trump administration. Imagine a strike for equal pay. Imagine a strike for more pay.

To be sure, we are very far away from achieving that kind of collectivization in the architecture industry, but consciousness changes fast in moments of upheaval. What we do know now is that our existing institutions, namely the AIA, are not equipped to be the force behind that collectivization. They represent a managerial class that, although at times sympathetic to the needs of architectural workers, still is not their natural allies, as it often stands to benefit from neoliberal development. Never was this clearer than in the AIA’s positive response to Donald Trump’s election. As the Architecture Lobby, a group in which I proudly count myself as a member, wrote in response to that statement: “The AIA’s rhetoric has always emphasized the importance of women and people of color to the architectural profession, but only as a product of their economic utility. Now that the business proposition has changed, disenfranchised communities are left in the cold.”

To their credit, the AIA has slowly begun to realize that there is a crisis in architectural work. In their conferences and workshops, they often discuss “the live-work equation” and “finding the right fit” of values between employees and employers. Their solutions, however, are colored by their privilege. They emphasize attitudinal shifts and making the right personal choices as an employee. While it would certainly be nice if architectural work were a consensual relationship, the immediate power dynamic of the employee-manager relationship, and the need to have a job in the first place (especially given massive student loans) limit and obviate the ability of most of us to make a choice at all.

We can fight for an architecture where we do have an ability to make those choices, but it means rethinking and reordering the innate economic structures of the profession and of capital itself. This fight against the brutality, banality, and inequity of work is precisely where our demands as activist-architects will intersect most with the burgeoning anti-Trump progressive resistance. Architecture is but one front amongst many in the larger movement against precarity, sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. It’s a fight that will be carried out on the streets as well in young and old institutions and activist formations. The structures of systemic oppression can be upended if we organize and collectivize. It’s been amazing to see so many rising for the first time. Now we have to keep it up.

Thanks to Marianela D’Aprile whose notes on this piece were invaluable.

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