The following text was republished with permission from the WAI Architecture Think Tank. Text includes parts from Achille Mbembe (Critique of Black Reason, and Aesthetics of Superfluity), Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), and Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang (Decolonization is not a metaphor ). The relationship between militarism and environmental destruction was borrowed from Anne McClintock’s reading for TBA21.
Buildings are never just buildings. Buildings respond to the political foundations of the institutions that fund, envision, and desire them. Buildings are physical manifestations of the ideologies they serve. Although a naively detached or romantic position may be able to render buildings as semi-autonomous artifacts capable of sheltering or enveloping space, this depoliticized attitude overlooks their historical and material relationship to regimes of violence and terror. Buildings can protect but they can also confine, instill fear, crush, oppress. Buildings can school, and foment hospitality but can imprison and torture. Buildings can be tools for ethnic segregation, cultural destruction, and historical erasure. Buildings can reinforce the status quo and aide in the implementation of settler-colonial desires of expansionism. An anti-racist democratization of access is only possible through the decolonization of buildings and public spaces. Architects should be aware of the programs of the buildings they design and be held accountable for doing so.
Like the Vertiginous Assembly that is Blackness and Race (and therefore the construction of a concept of whiteness) the history of the architecture we are forced to learn and practice is brought to us at the same moment and via the same ideological superstructure as the “despoliation of the Atlantic slave trade” and continues today with the “globalization of markets, the privatization of the world under the aegis of neoliberalism, and the increasing imbrication of the financial markets, the postimperial military complex and digital technologies.” The forced import of an idea of modernization and progress that could have been executed only through the enslaving of black and indigenous bodies is as intrinsic to the practice of architecture as the exploitation of a subaltern humanity linked to contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its practice of capture, predation, extraction and asymmetrical warfare. Just as architecture becomes ever more imbricated with neoliberalism, so does a system of risk. What was initially experienced by Blacks during the transatlantic slave trade has now become the “norm for, or at least the lot of, all subaltern humanity.” We cannot deal with a contemporary state of risk, exploitation, policing, militarization, and warfare without dealing first without challenging the physical manifestations of the status quo.
Architecture is too obsessed with making. Trained as yes men and women, the vocation of the architect mostly exists and subsists as an appendix of hegemonic power. This power, always overwhelming and undisputable hates to come voluntary to the table of negotiation. Often, architects speak in platonic terms when defending architecture and its problematic relationship to economies of exploitation and white supremacy. In their naive idealism, architects often fantasize about the possibility of exorcising the evil out of buildings and working within the parameters of the lesser evil. They dream about manufacturing consent, simulating empathy. They talk about reforming prisons, creating sustainable concentration camps, laying out pristine border walls, and outlining “community-oriented” buildings for policing. In their obstinate naivete, they refuse to acknowledge the racist, colonial, and oppressive legacies of these archetypes. The prisons that profit from black and brown men and women, the detention centers that serve to separate and destroy families, the infrastructures of the postimperial military apparatus that continuously terrorizes communities around the world cannot be fixed by better, more efficient, and sustainable architectures. Racism is a device whose aim is to create walls between people. These walls should not be made. We need to learn to un-make these walls.
Capitalism is often sold as a utopian dream of free markets and unobstructed, post-ideological competition. However, as corporations, powerful lobbyists, and dominant classes build their power on the legacy of exploitation of black, brown, and indigenous bodies, all is left is a trail of environmental destruction, social violence, and neglect. The relationship between Capitalism and Architecture as private property, gives way to the rise of policing dating back to the plantations across the Americas and the Caribbean. On the footsteps of this legacy, the need to subdivide, the “zoning practices” linked to networks of repression whose tools and methods include the “imposition of ideological grids on populations”, is responsible for the surveillance and policing state of many black and brown neighborhoods and communities. These subdivisions of the soil foment and maintain the status quo via the accumulation of wealth having enormous repercussions in the opportunities (education, health, safety) of disenfranchised communities. Archaic property tax laws that bond education to the possession of land and architectural commodities are just an example of these racist zoning laws. The policing and zoning practices that go together with the invention of private property are settler-colonial strategies that must be abolished. We must dismantle the concept of capitalism as a free market built on the accumulation of wealth, dehumanization, policing, zoning, and mass incarceration. New anti-capitalist and anti-racist zoning strategies must be created, not to subdivide groups by class or ethnic affiliation, but in order to demolish the mechanisms of exploitation, accumulation of wealth, and allow truly equitable, fair, and dignifying spaces to flourish.
Kinship may be a poetic aim to find alliances, but the empty hope rendered by milquetoast liberalism won’t be enough to eliminate anti-black racism. The role of complicity played by institutions in the construction and perpetuation of the status quo is a real problem with material ramifications. It is not enough for academic and professional organizations to conveniently pen announcements that support black and decolonizing struggles if they do nothing to stop the design and construction of machines of oppression. Just like decolonization is not a metaphor, nor is anti-racism. The abstract call for making kin with one another is not a substitute for real actions in their psychological and spatial manifestations. It is not enough to fill the ranks of a managerial class with exceptional representational cases of marginalized groups if the institutions will keep sponsoring the architectures of anti-blackness and racial oppression.
Legal systems and the institutions that enforce them, have historically obstructed true fairness, justice, and equality. The bloody and racist history of the judicial mechanisms and codes that brought the world that existed in the West Indies to the United States with the plantation as its core structure, plants its rotten roots in a legacy of racist architecture and planning. In the same way that Jim Crow laws in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa were legally sanctioned systems of anti-black oppression, today we are still battling with a legacy of legal and institutional racism. As settler-colonial revolutions transform, destroy, and alter environments, regimes of racism and oppression are extremely efficient as they write laws, orders, and directives that allow for the control and oppression of black, brown, and indigenous populations. We must challenge the perverse use of public space as a militarized territory for surveillance and violence against black, brown, indigenous, queer, and trans people. We must demolish both, the material and immaterial legacies of colonization, the plantation, Jim Crow, and Apartheid. It is not enough to abide by the law when the law is part of a racist apparatus. We must challenge the architectures of racist occupation, of gentrification, of environmental destruction.
Institutional racism is the wizard behind the curtain of Oz. Institutional racism operates in the governing boards, hiring committees, and admissions evaluations. Institutional racism is responsible for fabricating and maintaining hegemonic discourses while punishing and obstructing the construction and free flow of alternative, ancestral, and anti-racist forms of knowledge. It is not enough for Universities, schools, studios, and professional organizations to post solidary messages in their Instagram platforms when they create invisible walls around their ivory towers. It is not enough to hashtag BLM when they are designing buildings for policing, detaining, and incarcerating, when they maintain the status quo through biased processes of evaluation and biased demands. It is not enough for institutions to pen beautiful #heartfelt letters in solidarity of activists struggling against police and paramilitary forces while they continue building their endowments with the money of their settler-colonial legacies. If they are serious about demolishing their legacies of institutional racism, Academic institutions must rethink their recruiting strategies to attract, stimulate, and create safe environments for both, educators and students. Simultaneously, Architecture schools must embrace the deconstruction of their curriculums to question not only the future of architecture, but to expose the racist past they helped construct.
Value in contemporary societies is often confused with the illusion of a wealth that can be measured either through the accumulation of commodities or through the speculative ether of financial capital. In these scenarios, commodities, including architecture or architectural elements, could acquire a mystical status. The question that remains is, what is the value of architecture as a commodity in comparison to the value of a black life? Can a broken window, a graffitied wall, or a burned police precinct be the equivalent or more valuable than black life? In this white-supremacist system of values are black, brown, and indigenous lives mere commodities that can be compared to disposable and replaceable objects and artifacts? After all, what is the value of your architecture? And, what is the value of black life?
European colonization and the extension of its spatial horizon was fueled by genocide and environmental destruction. It is not a coincidence that the environmental effects of this expansion resurface in the form of an ecological threat that is imminent for impoverished communities and has clear racist overtones. The postimperial military complex that maintains the chain of material, environmental, and human exploitation is directly linked to the destruction of ecosystems. “Militarism is the largest single cause of environmental destruction in the world. The US Military is the largest single pollutant in the planet and the largest single consumer of oil in the world. The Pentagon is BP’s largest client.” There’s no racial justice without the protection of the environment. It is not enough to use LEED-certified materials or photovoltaic panels in buildings if they contribute to the postimperial military complex. We cannot argue for environmental justice while condoning and participating in processes of militarization, deforestation, and the desecration, occupation, and destruction of indigenous territories. There’s no sustainable architecture to the service of the military. There’s no ecological justice if architecture contributes to environmental racism.
Success cannot be measured in empty data charts and dubious demographic indicators. Stop-and-frisk. Heavy Policing. Random checks. The war against drugs. The war against crime. The war against terror. These miscalculated policy moves have been justified by the misinterpretation of contextless numbers. Numbers that quantify the specificities of effects without looking at the causes. Numbers that without context are manipulated to justify the mass incarceration and mass homicide of black and brown people. The same can be said about the cartesian ideal of progress and its settler-colonial legacy and the unquenchable thirst for growth. We must learn to create new parameters for architecture to operate without responding to empty statistics, and without serving to its racist and ideological technologies and agendas.
Military, confederate, philanthro-capitalist, and colonizer monuments are part of an apparatus that rewrites, white-washes, legitimizes, standardizes, and erases a history of genocide, destruction, and racism while maintaining the status quo. Monuments refer us back in time, as they concretize in marble, granite, bronze, glass, steel, objects that carry a dead weight of a murderous history. Together with these avatars shaped after leaders of regimes of death, racism, and colonial exploitation, other architectures recreate the effect of the monument, albeit at a different scale: train stations, palaces of colonial administrators, bridges, camps, fortresses, stadiums, and also buildings for schooling, endowments, and museums. An anti-racist architecture must dismantle the construction of these monuments and question their role in the construction of a “style of power and domination. The remains of the potentate are the signs of the physical and symbolic struggle directed against the colonized.”
Architecture suffers from agnosia similar to what Jose Saramago described in his essay about Blindness. In Saramago’s text, a pandemic makes all the characters lose their sight, awash in a blinding whiteness. Thick like milk, this white blindness expands creating havoc and a system of exploitation and cruelty. Architecture suffers from a similar white agnosia. Unable to see its complicity with a legacy of oppression, Architecture relies on guiding itself through the sensations of its white, masculine, geriatric hands. We must find ways to recover sight, to perceive the diversity in front of us.
The potential fusion of capitalism and racism carries with it a number of architectural and urban implications. Systematic risk, impoverishment, and debt, the emergence of new imperial practices that borrow from both, the enslaving logic of capture and predation, and from the colonial logic of occupation and extraction. Under the rubric of capitalism and racism, architecture remains on the one hand a discipline that filters and distills the possibility of other worlds into a canonical European, white ideological construction. On the other hand, it continuously reproduces itself by means of more settler-colonial strategies that tirelessly destroy the environment for the creation of new settlements while endlessly gentrifying the already existing ones. New theories and practices must be developed and implemented in order to question, subvert, and oppose architecture as a tool for control, domination, and oppression. New forms of knowledge must abolish Architecture as an extension of capitalism and racism.
Trickle-down justice doesn’t work, just like trickle-down economics proved to be a hoax, magic that didn’t work. Trickle-down architecture suffers from the same problem. If utopias can only be conceived by those privilege enough to make it to the schools of a white, elitist discipline, these ideal conditions will only reflect those who envision them. Instead of a trickle-down culture of architecture, the one that serves and maintains the status quo, we must find ways to build networks of solidarity. Black, indigenous, brown utopias must occupy the space previously reserved by white imaginaries. We need new itopias. Utopias from below. We need trickle-up utopias by means of anti-racist architectures.
Encountering these dreary scenarios, it is not enough to be apolitical or to ‘not be a racist’. Due to the rise of populism and increasing levels of risk, the fabrication of racial subjects has been reinvigorated nearly everywhere. We need to acknowledge our role in this reinvigoration and oppose vehemently its destructive intentions. We must employ our ways of reimagining the world to question the one we have created. It is imperative that we use our critical faculties to deconstruct our ways of imagining the world. Other worlds are possible, urgent, and necessary.
Radical means to go into the roots. For architecture to be radical it has to dig deep into its past, present, and potential future role into perpetuating the origins of social fragmentation, oppression, colonization, and racism. We must undo the damage created by the complicity of architecture with these systems of oppression. We must un-make detention centers. We must un-make prisons. We must un-make the military. We need to un-narrate the history of architecture, and construct new narratives that expose the racist, settler-colonial roots of its capitalist development, of its modernism and desperate afterbirths. In order to make new forms of radical architecture, we must learn to un-make Architecture.