That Is Not Architecture, This Is Not Urban Planning: Designing Disciplinary Obsolescence
by Malcolm Rio & Aaron Tobey
May 31, 2018
Photo above: Death Squad Review: Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, oversees a Yale School of Architecture (YSOA) critique where at least 13 white professionals and scholars evaluate a sole student’s ability to recapitulate canonical knowledge. Original image from Yale School of Architecture.
Sea level rise (SLR)!
The urban poor!
Indigenous land rights!
Black mass incarceration!These are topics that have recently been used as studio thematics at the American architecture schools we attend. See 1104a course at Yale University, https://www.architecture.yale.edu/courses; 4.154 subjects at MIT, https://architecture.mit.edu/subjects; 131X and 160X courses at Harvard University, https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/courses; A4001, A4005, A4006, A4106, A4104, and other Advance Studio courses at Columbia University, https://www.arch.columbia.edu/courses
These are the exclamations, among similar others, we often hear in the hallways, studios, critiques, history and theory surveys, lectures, and conference discussions, as students of architecture and urbanism, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University. Despite the reputation of these institutions as being vanguards of architectural ingenuity in the face of intractable problems, we have encountered a series of disappointments as our own desires to engage with such problems sincerely and critically have met with the limits of what these institutions, with their disciplinary obligations, are willing and capable of tolerating.
From instructors who only demonstrate a superficial concern in humanitarian work for the optics of it, to instructors who do engage in humanitarian work but in overly fatalist, theoretical, or else perfunctory ways that validate and expand the discipline, to others with a sincere interest in social justice and critical reflection but have been marginalized because their voices are seen as too radical, or not immediately relevant to the discipline and therefore not worth substantially funding,
the inability of students within the disciplines of architecture and urban planning to receive effective mentorship in addressing complex issues is clear.
What is less clear is the manner in which pedagogy and practice, as they are structured by these disciplines, foster self-actualization, liberation, critical self-reflection, and practices of resistance—what bell hooks refers to as “engaged pedagogy”—within the everyday lives of their pupils,
especially for students like us who are together queer, low-income, and Black.bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994) 13-22.
Instead of support, what we often feel is an exhausting and demoralizing lack of interest on the part of our respective institutions as well as architecture and urban planning at large, in our everyday experience, our connection with the humanity of ourselves and others, and our perpetual explanations for why issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. matter for the envisioning of different possible futures.
By appearing to provide solutions to such problems, the disciplinary silos of architecture and urban planning are rendered as relevant, valid, and legitimate even while they ignore their complicity in creating the structural conditions through which these problems are perpetuated.
This ignorance is not so much willful innocence as a habitual inability to understand and appreciate approaches from outside the limitations prescribed as architectural and urbanistic. Rather than think of these flavorful topics as problems to which the disciplines of architecture and urban planning have the solution, perhaps the institutionalization of knowledge within disciplines should be understood as framing problems in such ways that their resolution is made less important than perpetuating and extending control over a certain field of action.The term discipline is used throughout to refer to architecture as a collection of actors, practices, and concepts that institutionalize and exercise power the thought and behavior of actors through the everyday mechanism by which it organizes their interrelation, of which discourse is the most prominent. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995); 227-228; Brooks Rainwater. "Why This Is the Year of the Architect" 08 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2018. <https://www.archdaily.com/435095/why-this-is-the-year-of-the-architect/> ISSN 0719-8884
This is the discussion between disciplines and disciplinarity. While disciplines define their own specific forms of knowledge production and application in practice,
disciplinarity refers to the systems of rules and regulations for both categorizing and controlling knowledge as well as policing action in which all disciplines, by definition, participate.
Importantly, modern disciplines like architecture and urban planning are organized around a dialectic between institutionalized pedagogy, characterized by accredited degrees and external quality assurance bodies, and professional practice, characterized by state licensure and membership body-defined codes of conduct."Accreditation," National Architectural Accrediting Board, Accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.naab.org/accreditation; "What is Accreditation," Planning Accreditation Board, Accessed May 30, 2018, www.planningaccreditationboard.org; "Getting Licensed," The American Institute of Architects, Accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.aia.org/pages/2651-getting-licensed; "Get Certified!" American Planning Association, May 30, 2018, https://www.planning.org/certification/ These two reciprocally influence one another: pedagogy is designed to prepare individuals to be adequate practitioners while trends in practice are influenced by the explorations made within pedagogy. Collectively, pedagogy, practice, and their dialectic interrelationship define what can be done, by whom, and how. In other words, the boundaries of disciplines such as architecture and urban planning.
Limited by what kinds of stories can be told and by whom, the responses of architecture and urban planning to many contemporary issues are inevitably prescribed and rote, failing to question the fundamental premises of what matters and how it is present that they take for granted.
Thus, what is often heard in studios, on juries, and in conferences/symposia, is not "what can humans do," but instead, "what can architects do," or "what can urban planners do?"Patrick Shumacher, "Architecture in a post-Fordist network society," Stylepark Magazine, May 18, 2017, https://www.stylepark.com/en/news/parametric-architecture-thesis-patrik-schumacher-zaha-hadid-architects
Critical practice studios and practicums as seen at “top-tier” American architecture and planning schools, such as Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and Yale, that are all the more likely to “spice up” their curricula to compete for publicity, novelty, and investment, use intractable problems that “matter” within the popular cultural imaginary in order to make themselves matter. By structuring the terms and conditions in which these problems are presented and addressed, these studios and practicums reinforce a broader structure of what can matter, in what ways it can be understood and addressed, and by whom. Resiliency, the term on the tip of every urban planners’ tongue today, provides the clearest example.Misha Hussain, "Resilience: meaningless jargon or development solution?" The Guardian, March 5, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/mar/05/resilience-development-buzzwords
Constructed by the framing of the ecological crisis as a moral and ethical imperative for architects and planners to solve,
resiliency is often presented as an unassailable design and policy approach because it offers itself as the only “solution” to ensuring the continued flows of capitalist accumulation as the urban environment goes through radical transformation due to this accumulation.
In other words the question of “whose resilience”—what people and assets are worth protecting and who benefits from these forms of protection—is fundamentally excluded by an institutionalized group-think that renders resiliency as the only serious and viable problem-solving tactic, and alternative approaches as impractical, conceited, cynical, or conspiratorial.Lawrence J. Vale, "The Politics of Resilient Cities: Whose Resilience and Whose City?" Building Research & Information 42, no. 2, (2013): 191-201; Lawrence J. Vale, interview by frank news, "Lawrence J. Vale on Design-Politics," frank news, May 14, 2018, www.franknews.us/interviews/103/lawrence-j-vale-on-design-politics
Even critiques that call the self-evidence of resiliency into question through appeals to what it excludes, or that call out the militarized paranoia it engenders are treated as imprudently not comprehending the dire nature of the situation.Megan Bang, Lawrence Curley, Adam Kessel, Ananda Marin, Eli S. Suzukovich III, and George Strack, “Muskrat Theories, Tobacco in the Streets, and Living Chicago as Indigenous Land,” Environmental Education Research 20, no. 1 (2014): 37-55.
What results is a circumscription of autonomous thought—that which does not fit these disciplines’ operational paradigms is excluded if not unintelligible.
That effective actions could arise from outside their areas of expertise is seemingly unimaginable.
This arrogance prevents architecture and urban planning, as disciplines, from engaging in diverse epistemological frameworks. It requires them to manufacture crises within their own epistemological frameworks to produce seemingly new approaches by either (re)packaging and intensifying existing practices or co-opting knowledge from other disciplines as if it was their own.Examples of these (re)packaging and co-opting can respectively be seen in the uncritical proliferation of standards through building information modeling (BIM) systems or the “paranoid-critical” roleplaying seen in speculative studios taught at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Columbia, and RISD. This latter way of working has entered the discipline through Koolhaas’ reading of Dali’s paranoiac-critical method and involves the adopting of paranoid personae in order to generate concrete evidence on which to build speculative action. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) 32; Carol E. Heim, "Accumulation in Advanced Economies: Spatial, Technological, and Social Frontiers," Cambridge Journal of Economics 20, no. 6 (1996): 687–714; . Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994), 238. Ideas that cannot be co-opted, even if they are treated as intelligible, are perceived as so far beyond the disciplines’ horizon that they are not worth engaging or must flat out be rejected with phrases like, “that is not architecture” or “this is not urban planning.”
Mark Foster Gage and Patrik Schumacher’s flippant and acerbic devaluation of Alejandro Aravena winning the 2016 Pritzker Prize, complaining "that you can now win the Pritzker Prize for doing a small project and just saying you're socially engaged in some capacity that really has nothing to do with the architecture itself,” and that they do not think humanitarianism and activism “could be used in place of architecture functioning in terms of architecture," is telling.Yale University, “The Aesthetics of Activism: Afro-Futurism, Xenofeminism, and Disobedient Objects,” YouTube video, 02:23:46, ,December 6, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0lxJQ_FsbA If someone widely-regarded as a preeminent architect, like Aravena, is ridiculed and delegitimized by other architects because he critiques the status quo, how can it be expected that the voices of non-architects and non-urban planners will be heard?
Such securing of these disciplines’ borders is indicative of the qualities of relations which characterize who can and cannot participate in defining architecture and urban planning and in what ways.
Ironically, the motivation behind the Pritzker Prize committee’s recent recognition of women, people of color, and practitioners from the Global South and to what degree the select group of people who comprise the committee are consciously responding to the prize’s history of being awarded to white European men in order to make the discipline appear relevant and progressive, remains unclear.
The prize’s string of firsts since 2004—Zaha Hadid, first woman, and less acknowledged, first Middle Eastern architect; Wang Shu, first Chinese architect (2012); Alejandro Aravena, first South American architect to not share the prize (2016); Balkrishna Doshi, first Indian architect (2018)—is in many ways a tokenization of these individuals in order to celebrate their biological and national differences, despite the fact that they, through their education and notable commissions, were able to achieve a certain level of relations within the discipline based primarily on their successful advancement of disciplinary norms.Katie Okamoto, "Opinion: It's Time to Reconsider the Architecture Prize," Metropolis, May 17, 2018, www.metropolismag.com/architecture/opinion-time-reconsider-architecture-prize/ Seen alongside the unsuccessful attempt to retroactively co-award the Pritzker Prize given in 1991 to Robert Venturi to his wife and professional partner, urban planner Denise Scott Brown, such tokenization underscores the role of disciplinary canons in policing who and what matters to even the most elite set of actors.[Denise Scott Brown, interview by The Architectural Review, "Denise Scott Brown: The Petition Is My Prize - and It's Better Than the Pritzker," The Architectural Review, March 8, 2017, https://www.architectural-review.com/films/denise-scott-brown-the-petition-is-my-prize-and-its-better-than-the-pritzker/10018050.article; Catriona Davies, "Denise Scott Brown: Architecture Favors 'Lone Male Genius' Over Women," CNN, May 29, 2013, https://www.cnn.com/2013/05/01/business/denise-scott-brown-pritzker-prize/index.html]
The critical voices that are heard have often already been successful within the fields of architecture and urban planning. This includes us too. We recognize that being given space to speak critically on the disciplinarity of disciplines is afforded to us because of the schools we attend and the kinds of engagement that they privilege. As Jonathan Massey, Dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, points out,
rarely does architectural and urban planning education start with the question of “what matters” to a diverse group of people.
These pedagogies thereby operate as a “filtering mechanism of who is going to enlist into [these] academic program[s].”Yale University, “The Aesthetics of Activism: Afro-Futurism, Xenofeminism, and Disobedient Objects.”
The filtration Massey calls out inhibits the amassment of critical voices within these disciplines as discrete fields of knowledge and engenders a more general disciplinarity—the compartmentalization and segregation of people and knowledge more generally. Though top-tier schools have attempted to counter this filtration through the inclusion of non-Western architectural history and theory into their curricula, in the vast majority of cases these are introduced as electives—footnotes or necessary appendices to the more substantial and significant history of the West and divorced from practice.
By segregating knowledge and people through jargon, curricular structures, proprietary methodologies, and membership organizations, disciplines manage risk—absolving their practitioners of the need to address the potentially harmful consequences of their work. Instead of examining root causes of intractable problems and the disciplines’ role in engendering/perpetuating them, institutions representing disciplines place a limit on the agency of their practitioners by defining them more by their professional actions than their humanity in order to preserve these disciplines’ overall reputations. Zaha Hadid’s infamous 2014 shirking of responsibility for the death of migrant workers at the construction site of her al-Wakrah stadium in Qatar provides a paradigmatic example of this discipline-induced limitation. Hadid even went so far as to deflect from the exploitative situation over which she has a degree of influence to another situation, equally deserving of moral outrage, but not germane to the discussion, ultimately saying: “I'm not taking it lightly but I think it's for the government to look to take care of. It's not my duty as an architect to look at it…I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.”James Riach, "Zaha Hadid defends Qatar World Cup role following migrant worker deaths," The Guardian, February 25, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/25/zaha-hadid-qatar-world-cup-migrant-worker-deaths
Claiming to benefit society at large, architecture and urban planning, as disciplines, ensure the regular and orderly maintenance of the status quo as contextual conditions change by controlling which ideas and people are able to interact, in what manner, and on what terms. This control limits who can access the knowledge architecture and urban planning accumulate and who can apply the practices they validate.
However, because everyone has to live in built environments but not everyone can be an architect or an urban planner, these disciplines thus socialize the risks inherent to their actions across the vast number of people they impact while individualizing the financial rewards and recognition on a select few practitioners.
No less than Jane Jacobs, a paragon of community-oriented urban planning, in this light can be seen as having been canonized at the expense of both a meaningful incorporation of the methodology she proposed and a recognition of the black urban poor, whose oral narratives and personal experiences Jacobs ethnographically transcribed into written theory–the privileged form of disciplinary discourse. The importance of local knowledge and personal narratives as valid influences for urban planning that Jacobs championed is thus ironically minimized in the attention given to Jacobs herself as a one of the few female voices within the discipline of urban planning.bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 62-64.
While Jacobs, Hadid, and many other architects and urban planners speak of the emancipatory power of design for both author and audience, their respective absorption into canon and statements of impotence in the face of institutionalized fatalism—Capitalism forever, Yes is More, competition as the best driver for innovation, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, and the “American Dream” based on individual ownership gone global, Infinite Suburbia—suggest an unwillingness on the part of disciplines to engage in soulcraft;Bjarke Ingels, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution (Cologne: Taschen, 2009); Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume I: A New Framework for Architecture (Wiley: Hoboken, 2011); Ed. Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin, with Celina Balderas Guzman, Infinite Suburbia (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016).
what Black intellectuals Du Bois, Baldwin, and Hansberry collectively construct as a necessary combination of critical self-reflection (paideia), fearless speech (parrhesia), and the sincere strife for systematic transformation and betterment (aretè) only made possible through encounters with physical, spiritual, cultural, and historical forms of death.James Baldwin, Baldwin—Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998); W. E. B. Du Bois, Du Bois’ Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1986); Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Lorraine Hansberry, To be Young, Gifted, and Black (New York: Signet Classics, 1969).
While for these authors encounters with forms of death emerged from such catastrophic experiences as the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow-era laws, lynching, cultural extraction and appropriation, ethnographic delinking from Indigenous histories, mass incarceration, and dehumanization through “niggerization,” architecture and urban planning are unable to even comprehend the comparatively minor contradictions inherent in their rhetorical use of resilience and sustainability to justify continual, carbon-intensive construction, or the belief that more and better architecture or planning can solve “wicked problems” without systemic change.Buildings, in particular their construction and maintenance, account for 39% of CO2 emissions in the United States, higher than any other source, according to research from the U.S. Green Building Council Cornel West, "Niggerization," The Atlantic, November 2007, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/niggerization/306285/; United States Green Building Council, "Buildings and Climate Change," accessed May 31, 2018, www.eesi.org/files/climate.pdf;Ed. Edward P. Weber, Denise Lach, and Brent S. Steel, New Strategies for Wicked Problems: Science and Solutions in the 21st Century (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017).
Yet it is precisely these wicked problems that are being called-out within the disciplines of architecture and urban planning as new frontiers of action, often merely as self-serving spices–flavors of the year that attempt to make the banal Whiteness—
a mode of hierarchical thinking and valuing stemming from European Enlightenment ideas of Truth, universalisms, and liberalism, which have racial dimensions but are not explicitly about race—
that these disciplines suffer from, more palatable at a time of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #ClimateAction and other #HashtagActivism.“Whiteness, Fanon asserts, has become a symbol of purity, of Justice, Truth, Virginity. It defines what it means to be civilized, modern and human. That is why ‘the Negro knows nothing of the cost of freedom; when he has fought for Liberty and Justice … these were always white liberty and white justice; that is, values secreted by his masters.’ Blackness represents the diametrical opposite: in the collective unconsciousness, it stands for ‘ugliness, sin, darkness, immorality’” Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (London: Pluto Press, 1986) xiii; See also, Ruth Frankenberg,White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (London: Verso, 2012) 1-24. Appearing "woke" is now not only the necessary means for these disciplines to stay inoculated to critiques of their proximities to Whiteness that previous disciplinary crises have historically provided, but also a beneficial tool for marketing architecture and urban planning as the shepherds of society as they face intractable problems that are the legacy of Whiteness–its ongoing historical and contemporary effects.
While Whiteness is inescapable and therefore no one can be fully absolved of it, the control of knowledge exerted by disciplines hinders the ability of individuals within them to sincerely understand and mitigate the legacy of Whiteness and circumscribes their capacity to fully comprehend, or sympathize and empathize with these problems.
Without calling into question their received canons, forms of practice (studios, firms, subcontracting, etc.), control of language, relationship to institutions and their capital, architecture, urban planning, and disciplines in general, cannot critically engage their proximities to Whiteness in ways that make their actions meaningful and more humane. In order for disciplines and the actors within them to take contemporary issues of social, environmental, and economic injustice seriously, disciplinary structures need to beseparated from the practices in which they are actualized.
That is to say that, many of the practices of architecture and urban planning can be valuable in building coalitions and creating change when practiced by those not interested in institutionalizing power.
Architects and urban planners have valuable skillsets that might be put to better use by others. However, this would require the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries and their claim to expertise through a suffocating hold on what counts as knowledge. The unexpected changes and systematic crashes that disrupt the status quo, and therefore might provide opportunities for (re)imagining architecture and urbanism, are framed by the disciplines of architecture and urban planning, as they exist today, as inherently fatal.
Resiliency, with its focus on mitigating the effects of catastrophe and enabling a speedy recovery, undermines the ability of social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the People’s Climate Movement, the Women’s March, and the Baltimore Uprising, to build coalitions by visibly, vocally, and physically obstructing the “smooth” flow of labor, products, and capital on which the everyday functions of the resilient city are predicated.Jasper Bernes, "Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect," Endnotes, Accessed May 24, 2018, https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/jasper-bernes-logistics-counterlogistics-and-the-communist-prospect
Ultimately, if disciplinarity is to be salvageable at all as a valid means of collectively organizing knowledge and action, disciplines must no longer assume that their priorities match those of whom they purport to represent or serve, and instead take the radical step of opening themselves up to the question of
“what does not matter to the discipline and why?”
As an example, students saying “fuck the prompt” in pursuit of their own forms of engagement challenges these disciplines’ suppression of student interests and demonstrates a much needed vitality in the face of conformity enforced by disciplinary boundaries.
The possible result of this questioning is nothing short of the dissolution of disciplines as we know them. This may trigger an existential panic—”what are we if not architects and urban planners?” (humans?)—around the loss of stability and an unknown interim future. That such a panic is predictable and uncannily modeled by the audible gasps and eye-rolls which met Jessica Disu’s call to “abolish the police” on Fox News (of all places), reflects the ways in which disciplines have deployed, and their members have benefited from, Whiteness.Underscoring Disu’s point about the structural problem presented by police shootings of unarmed Black individuals is the perceived increase in White confidence in the police subsequent to such shootings, despite inculpatory evidence. "Chicago BLM Activist: 'We Need to Abolish the Police,'" Fox News, July 12, 2016, www.insider.foxnews.com/2016/07/12/chicago-blm-activist-we-need-abolish-police; Hannah Fingerhut, "Deep Racial, Partisan Divisions in Americans' Views of Police Officers," Pew Research Center, September 15, 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/15/deep-racial-partisan-divisions-in-americans-views-of-police-officers/
What we learn from Disu is that overcoming structures of Power/knowledge that are embedded in disciplinarity, and therefore comfortable for some, is necessary if we want to engage issues of injustice as more than just spices sprinkled on top of the same banal bullshit.Power/Knowledge is defined by Foucault as a co-constitutive coupling that create their own fields of action through the ways in which each deploys the other. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, (New York: Penguin, 1981), 92–102.