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Architecture schools send messages of solidarity to those protesting against police violence, racial injustice

Justice Now

Architecture schools send messages of solidarity to those protesting against police violence, racial injustice

Thousands of Los Angelenos join a protest against racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. (Alex Radelich/Unsplash)

Along with professional architecture associations and nonprofits, major academic institutions with schools and departments devoted to creating and better understanding the built environment have also joined the choir of voices in support of protests and demonstrations taking place across the country—and, now, the world—calling for an immediate end to racial injustice and the need for sweeping police reform. The historic ongoing protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other recent deaths of Black Americans, are now nearing the two-week mark.

Below is a sampling of official statements and letters to students and faculty, most of them issued by the deans of each respective school, that recognize and stand in solidarity with the most significant national protest movement for African American causes in generations. Most acknowledge that work needs to be done and call for conversation, transformation, and meaningful action. And while not all architecture schools/departments within larger colleges and universities have issued statements such as these, the institutions that they are a part of—for the most part—have. Some statements, while eloquent and well-meaning, have prompted pushback and calls from students and alumni alike to commit to immediate and concrete plans for change.

The Associate of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ASCA) has also spoken out, stating that: “We acknowledge the role of design in creating and perpetuating differential access to basic public services, including housing, green space, education, and health care, to name a few. We recognize the profession’s history of contributing to inequity through actions but also through inaction. We understand that architectural education has for too long accepted white privilege as the norm, limiting diverse voices and marginalizing the discipline’s impact on society.” The ASCA goes on to outline its current commitments to “making architectural education more accessible, inclusive, and equitable” and further actions it will take to “increase understanding and empower action.”

AN will add additional statements to this list accordingly.

Hearing the Call for Structural Change” by Mónica Ponce de León, dean and professor, Princeton University School of Architecture

“The loss of life to police violence is appalling. The murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and countless Black lives across our nation must stop. Black lives matter.

It is time to not only speak up, but take action.

We should all join Kimberly Dowdell, NOMA National President in her call to action: ‘We must all leverage our positions of privilege to help our most vulnerable citizens, neighbors and colleagues strive for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I urge you to consider what’s happening right now as an American problem that we must all face together.’ (See her full statement here).

While our individual actions may seem small within the enormity of widespread racism, in unity we have the potential to affect change. First, it is essential for us to acknowledge that the discipline of architecture and its institutions have always been complicit in social, economic, health and environmental discrimination. Without this acknowledgement, we will be powerless to impact the grotesque structural injustice that Black Americans and other groups have been subjected to for far too long.

We must—once and for all—end the inequities that plague our own discipline. For too many years, I have heard too many excuses about lack of diversity in the academy and the profession. Let’s be clear: while unconscious racial biases are never going to disappear overnight, we must work to ensure that our student body, our faculty and practitioners look like the rest of America. We must change admission policies as well as faculty recruitment and promotion practices. We need to correct the funding structures that for long have perpetuated the exclusion of Black Americans. We can do this, and we can do this now.

Ultimately academia and the profession will not change if we do not have access to precise information. Today the AIA, NCARB, and the NAAB provide fragmented, outdated or hard to decipher demographics. To address these issues, at Princeton we are developing an open database to bring together this disparate information, dig for more, and make it easily accessible. As we launch this project, we hope that other institutions will share their data with us and be willing to make it public. Data drives diversity.

These actions, however, will not be enough to address structural inequity in architecture. The system of licensure that has defined the architecture profession needs to be eliminated or radically transformed. We are one of the few professions that requires both a licensing exam and years of practical training. Both are structured to perpetuate discrimination and inequity. This exclusionary tactic is inexcusable, indefensible and must end.

The national crisis is bigger and more urgent than architecture. Architecture’s complicity in structural injustice cannot end without structural change of its own.”

The Urgency of Now” by J. Meejin Yoon, dean, College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University:

“Dear AAP Students, Faculty, and Staff:

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the tireless commitment and tremendous effort you have all made to reach the end of this particular academic year. Alone together, remote and connected—our community showed an incredible capacity for resilience in a time of uncertainty. Thank you, everyone, for the care and support you so willingly showed for each other, our community, and your work. While I am so deeply grateful and inspired by what we accomplished together this semester, the tragic loss of life to racial violence demands deep reflection on hope in the face of uncertainty—and, where we stand on equity, justice, and progress in America.

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis is a painful reminder that the roots of racism remain deeply embedded in our society and systems. Police brutality and mass incarceration; the disproportionate number of deaths due to COVID-19 among communities of color; and unequal access to services and opportunities, are among the smoldering conditions that ignite and perpetuate what Coretta Scott King has called the ‘cycle of anger, fear, and violence.’ The American history we know and share is haunted by racism, and it comes in many forms—from slavery to Reconstruction-era discrimination; lynching, terror, and white supremacist fear tactics; residual and new forms of segregation; implicit and explicit bias in our systems; and the ongoing perpetration of hate-fueled brutality. Over the past few days, we have seen both peaceful protests call for justice, and cities burn with a message that the cycle of anger, fear, and violence is still with us. The legacy of racial violence and discrimination in all its forms must be called out and come to an end. Here and now.

Many of us are still reeling—perhaps searching for our own words and reflecting on what we can do. Asking how we might break the cycle as we process unsettling waves of tension, divisiveness, and urgency. Earlier this year, as we returned to our classrooms and studios, hopeful for a new decade, I shared a reflection on both how far we have come, something that even today should be recognized, and how far we still have yet to go. And that, according to Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.’ The senseless death of Mr. Floyd and so many others confronts us, yet again, with what King called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ And it is clear that there is so much more work to be done—that the project of progress, equity, and justice is gravely incomplete.

At AAP, we teach that problems of such difficulty and magnitude require us to grapple with the social and physical, the political and territorial, and the cultural. And, that these problems are shared within the context of our time and have the potential to connect us if we act and address them together—across, and respectful of difference. Only a week ago, I shared activist Ai-jen Poo’s thoughts about ‘our time,’ and ‘stakes’—and already, the stakes have again been raised. Rather than ‘seeking’ a more just or fairer world—we need to work together to make a just and fair world (without any qualifiers).

This year alone has shown us that the urgency is now. What we need next are real conversations about race and racism in our spaces and systems, about public health and access, and about fundamental shifts in thought that are carried over into a series of tangible, meaningful actions that shape tomorrow today.” Read more here.

Minneapolis Affects Us” by Sarah M. Whiting, dean, Harvard Graduate School of Design:

“Congratulations to all, especially our Class of 2020, for finishing out the academic year with the flourish of a truly memorable Commencement yesterday. While this week has been filled with mirth for so many, it has been marred by violence and injustice for others across our country, pain of various forms that directly and indirectly affects countless among us. As we celebrate our GSD community, it is equally imperative that we pause to acknowledge the events of racial violence and degradation that were permitted to take place in this week.

The death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis has resurfaced a national conversation about race in America. His murder, coupled with other racially charged occurrences this week, has reminded us that race textures the American experience. As a community of shared values, the GSD strives to recognize diverse perspectives and experiences, and to create spaces for them and their stories; this is an integral part of our mission as a design school. I asked our graduates yesterday to go out and lead the conversations that unite us as global citizens. This conversation happening right now across the country is one that needs all of our voices, and needs it now.

The GSD teaches students how to shape our world, engaging not only buildings, technologies, infrastructures, landscapes, and spaces, but also what it means for us to live together in the world. The death of Mr. Floyd and the events of this week have been tragic, with implications for every corner of our community and for each of our disciplines. It is important that while we have been forced to reframe what community looks like spatially in the face of COVID-19, we never lose sight of what community should feel like. No element or facet of your design work is too small or too isolated to impact our broader world.

As designers and as citizens of the world, I urge you to recognize and acknowledge the injustices that remain so persistent and so ingrained across our globe, and I ask you always to take the time to consider how the work we do as designers impacts how we live together.” Read more here.

We Demand Justice Now” by Iñaki Alday, dean, Tulane School of Architecture:

“We have just ended our academic year in a historic and tragic time, with the worst pandemic in a hundred years. Some of you have lost loved ones, or endured illness and fear. Our graduating students will have to wait to celebrate their commencement ceremony in the fall and face an uncertain job market. Everyone has a sense of loss, while hopefully learning about oneself and the world in a way that our previous daily life did not offer. But even more tragic events have taken place in the past several days. We witnessed the murder of George Floyd and, understandably, the outrage of the black community–and of many others equally and rightfully indignant. We are witnessing hate-inciting rhetoric that add insult and threat to those grieving and protesting George Floyd’s assassination. We are seeing honest demonstrations being overtaken by spurious purposes and violence.

As you know, I am Spanish, and I am still learning the history and the complexity of American society. But also my wife, partner and Tulane Professor Margarita Jover, is black. My daughter is dark skinned with beautiful curly hair. She graduated from high school last year and has shared with me a message from one of her classmates to the world: ‘Do you remember me? I am that black, smiley and kind guy, always in the back. But now I cannot stand your silence.’

We cannot stand the silence. As Dean of Tulane School of Architecture, I am fully confident that my words are aligned with the values of each and every one of us. We value the diversity and the unique value of every one of our members. Our school is deeply embedded in the New Orleans community, and most especially in black underserved communities where we build URBANbuild houses and support community partners with the public interest design work of the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design. For us, architecture is more than the physical environments where we live, learn, work, pray, and gather. It is our duty to train the next generation of architects, designers, real estate professionals, and preservationists to have a deep understanding and sense of responsibility to also address the social, economic, and ecological environments that influence the health and safety of communities. We are absolutely committed to supporting communities in need, and it breaks our hearts that black communities are systematically underserved and in recent days, like in so many shameful past days, abused and assassinated.

We, at Tulane School of Architecture, demand justice and accountability, urgently now. And we demand long-term justice and equal opportunities for black and other underserved communities. We demand healthcare and do not accept that black Americans bear double the mortality rate from COVID-19 than their white neighbors. We demand the end to racially assigned poverty and unfair incarceration. Systems rooted in racism and oppression are the source of these injustices, and each one of us has the power—in both large and small ways—to rectify these systems through our words and actions.” Read more here.

From Milton S. F. Curry, dean and professor, USC School of Architecture:

“We at the USC School of Architecture mourn the tragic, unnecessary, and avoidable loss of another life, that of George Floyd, in the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis last week. We also affirm the power and meaning of thoughtful protest and civil disobedience in service of structural change for the betterment of all of our fellow Americans. We also reflect on the many lives of Black Americans that have been taken by the ravages of slavery and colonialism, abject violence in the form of beatings and lynchings, racial capitalism and exploitation, the overt and calculated criminalization of Black bodies in public and private spaces, and the many forms of racism that pervade virtually every facet of our society.

The Fourteenth Amendment—one of the so-called ‘Reconstruction Amendments’—outlawed slavery in 1868. Yet, as historian Eric Foner states in The Second Founding, ‘a state action interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment can be debilitating. It has been used, for example, in rulings that do not allow race to be taken into account in voluntary school desegregation programs, on the grounds that segregation today results not from laws, as in the past, but from ‘private choices’ that produced racially homogenous housing patterns’ (The Second Founding, 173). While the Fourteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, through subsequent Supreme Court rulings and established precedent, the Amendment has been rendered irrelevant as a deterrent to racially injurious discrimination from the actions that have come to replace the overt physicality and brutality of chattel slavery, namely other forms of racism that become entrenched in our society’s infrastructures.

Private actions, state actions, and intentionally racially harmful policies. While it is true that unconscious racial bias cannot be made to disappear overnight, an intersectional approach to address the root causes of racism (and other forms of discrimination) will yield the most productive results. The level of entrenched poverty, environmental and health precarity, underinvestment in public education and housing, dearth of public space, and the disconnection from viable sources of fresh food and water—in many urban and inner-city areas with high concentrations of Black Americans—represent a failure of our collective will and a failure of our collective imagination. The university must be an ally of those who seek to imagine new forms of justice, new forms of egalitarian conditions within our cities and metropolitan regions, and new forms of sociality that enable us to build social bonds with complete strangers within a commonly held set of values. The intellectual project of the university is simultaneously a deeply democratic project based on a core intention and determinate aspiration that accessibility for all yields opportunity and upward social mobility.

At the USC School of Architecture, we see architects as citizens with a unique set of skills to enable the co-creation of new knowledge and action, amongst and between students, faculty and communities. Collectively, we too are the guardians of the democratic space and civic imaginations that breathe life into the consciousness of persons of all races, ethnicities, and identities. To the greatest extent possible, we are collectively called upon to develop, curate, enact and learn from the desperately needed structural changes in our society that will banish structural racism to the annals of history—not at some point in the distant future, but within our lifetime.” Read more here.

From IIa Berman, dean and professor, University of Virginia School of Architecture

“I, like so many within our community at the A-School, am horrified and deeply saddened by the senseless killing of George Floyd last week, by those that were meant to serve and protect us. The protests that have ensued signify the depth of pain that has engulfed a nation, stemming not just from this tragedy, but from centuries of racism—another form of pandemic that is embedded deeply within, not only our history, but also our current culture, and something that this event has underscored. George Floyd’s death stands in for the deaths of a multitude and the injustices that we witness daily. It is a touchstone and reminder of the deep rifts that have been widened over the last few years through the polarizing of this country, and the recent retraction of civil rights and assaults that all minorities have been experiencing—conditions that have only been exacerbated in the wake of COVID-19. The protests are an indicator of our breaking point, when we are all screaming “enough.”

The last many months have been extremely difficult for all of us. Yet we know that the larger impacts have been very uneven, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable within our communities—those whose livelihoods have depended on being on the front lines of health and service industries, those who struggle to make ends meet every day and do not have the luxuries of space, technology, food and health care to support them in a time of joblessness and social distancing, and those who are most at risk because of age, health, economic status and other vulnerabilities. We also know that of the more than 100,000 deaths in this country, and 40 million jobs that were lost, a disproportionate percentage of these tragedies and losses have been within our underserved African American and Latinx communities. This is not a result of the virus, but rather of the structural inequities that are part of the fabric of this nation and all of its institutions. We should therefore not expect to be able to heal our wounds, or quiet these protests, until we deal with the most fundamental issues that are plaguing our society and culture.

This will not be an easy process. It will require us to commit to change and question all of our assumptions and habits, where we put our emphasis, resources and energy and why. It will require us to increase rather than diminish dialog, and to empathize with and learn from, rather than polarize others—no matter how different they are from us and no matter how easy it is for us to label them. It will require us to use the resources and privileges that we have as an educational institution and direct them toward the betterment of the world around us—to truly make Design that Matters, that will make a positive difference in the world. This will be a long process in order to heal the rifts that exist within our nation and our own communities. Yet what gives me hope is that I know that this is something that we, at the A-School, are fully committed to, guided by our respect and compassion for one another as individuals, and our collective belief in the imperative of being able to move toward a more just society and healthy environment.”

From Amale Andraos, dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation:

“Dear GSAPP Community,

“I write to express my commitment to addressing how racial injustice, bias, and violence course through and underpin our own discipline in visible and invisible ways. The deep pain, anger, and suffering that we have experienced and witnessed this past week is the pain, anger, and suffering of a long history of violent discrimination, disinvestment, and harm toward Black people in this country. To everyone grieving and calling for action in our community—our admired and beloved faculty, students, alumni, and staff—GSAPP stands with you in solidarity.

The recent tragic killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police, of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and far too many others, come on the heels of a pandemic that has devastated communities of color in disproportionate numbers—laying bare the enduring inequities that shape the built world, and life and death in it. Both crises have revealed how the right to breathe is determined unevenly according to race, and how cities, across the US and the world, are at the front lines of these struggles—for justice and accessible housing, for climate action and clean water, for mobility and resilient infrastructures. As architects, planners, preservationists, designers, developers, and educators—dedicated to imagining more livable, more supportive, more equal, more sustainable environments—this is a reminder that we must be persistent in eradicating the prejudice and intolerance that cuts across access to these environments in cities around the world.

We must ask ourselves: Have we done enough to undo the systemic racism that is at the foundation of our disciplines and practices? Have we done enough to register the biases we all carry? While we have strived to be better and to do better, we must persist and be resolute in doing more.

We must stay present in this moment to recognize its specificity, to resist the urge to reduce it to yet another episode of repeated history, and to speak not empty words of change but take in what is being asked of us in this moment of intense racial trauma.

We must listen to what is being demanded in the loudest of gestures and spoken in the softest of silences—for this act of listening is and must be at the foundation of our ongoing work as architects and educators.”

From John J. Casbarian, interim dean, Rice University School of Architecture: 

“At Rice Architecture, we have been following with great anguish the appalling racial injustice manifested not only by the incomprehensible murder of George Floyd, our fellow black Houstonian, but in the absurdity of racial inequality and the pain and anger it continues to inflict on our diverse communities. While words may seem hollow at this grave moment in our nation’s history, we must speak out forcefully, each in our own way, to make a difference. Now more than ever, our collective efforts are needed to overcome the scourge of racial injustice. We hear the voices of despair and must use our architectural and political agency to work for an end to racism. Our hearts go out to the victims and all who are grieving, those we know, faculty, staff, and students, friends and neighbors, and those bravely demonstrating all over the world against this injustice and the many others. Rice Architecture stands solidly behind the worldwide demonstrations demanding change for all people of color. We are committed to act decisively, and to initiate long-term change in the ways in which we recruit, educate, and foster future generations of architects.”

From Frederick Steiner, dean and professor, Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania

“Dear Weitzman Community,

Life under quarantine has challenged all of us to look beyond ourselves to prevent the suffering of others, yet today we confront such widespread pain that I am struggling to say anything that will make a meaningful difference. But words are important as we gather our strength to move forward with purpose.

I am appalled by the senseless death of George Floyd, who last week joined the far-too-long list of other African Americans killed by the very people charged to protect us, and I know many of you are hurting.

In George Floyd’s death, we’re witnesses, yet again, to the destructive bias, unequal treatment, and unchecked violence that have taken root in our society, and the deep wounds created by systemic racism. Every day, Black men, women and children are unfairly targeted and treated unequally because of their race—an experience, I am saddened to say, that is not foreign to many members of our community, who have themselves been victims of bias and racism. To the Black members of the Weitzman community, I offer my profound condolences. I want to acknowledge your experiences, your frustration, and your anger, and to express my heartfelt support.

Moving forward, let us redouble our commitment to building a more just and healthy world. Let us recognize that we rise and fall together, and that we all have a responsibility to eradicate hatred, bigotry, and racism in our communities. Let us protect each other and the planet that sustains us. Let us design and plan more equitable places. Let us preserve Civil Rights sites and other places significant to African American heritage. Let us make art that reveals the truth about our weaknesses and our possibilities. Let us ask each day: what good may we do?”

From Hernán Díaz Alonso, director, Southern California Institute of Architecture: