Op-ed: Architects survived the Trump years by adopting critical, activist viewpoints; they shouldn’t abandon them now.

Silver Lining

Op-ed: Architects survived the Trump years by adopting critical, activist viewpoints; they shouldn’t abandon them now.

The Architecture Lobby, a pressure group aiming to change the working conditions of architects, emerged from the Trump years with a higher profile. (The Architecture Lobby)

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, I made my way, still massively hungover and dressed half in pajamas, from my apartment in the Copycat Building in North Baltimore to the Peabody Conservatory, where I went to graduate school. The administration wanted to talk about things, and so frightened, despondent students crowded into a small but high-ceilinged meeting room in a campus annex. I sat in the back among dozens of others who spoke in frightened voices about violence and deportation and all manner of horrible things that seemed, with the election of this one man, imminent. All the administrators at the front of the room could do was be there for us, assure us that everything would be all right. I felt instead like I was in some kind of bizarre movie where the suits to whom I was indebted to the tune of $40,000 promised to be stalwarts in the fight against nascent fascism. I left early and skipped class afterward.

Only after Joe Biden was finally granted office four years later, following a long, drawn-out process, did I recall how surreal those early days of Trump had been, how everyone suddenly and all at once decided that it was the time to do something because bad things were happening.

Architecture was no exception—except for, well, the AIA. On November 9, 2016, the American Institute of Architects released a now-infamous statement that effectively pledged its 89,000-strong membership “to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure.… This has been a hard-fought, contentious election process. It is now time for all of us to work together to advance policies that help our country move forward.”

The backlash was immediate, with #NotMyAIA leading the charge on architecture Twitter. The AIA’s statement wasn’t just tone-deaf but borderline insipid, considering the sheer frenzy and grief and gravitas of the moment, and the organization was quick to elaborate that it would “continue to be at the table and be a voice for the profession, especially when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” (This is very funny when one considers the statistics of exactly who is and is not an architect in America.)

However, Trump’s election and these subsequent AIA blunders made thousands of architects consider that, if their professional organization was willing to work with a despotic racist at what seemed like the end of the world, then perhaps they didn’t want to be associated with said professional organization—or even said profession itself. For the first time, many people in architecture awakened to the reality that their jobs were, in fact, highly political and, now, thanks to the AIA, had been explicitly politicized (albeit without their consent).

There were viral hashtags and Twitter threads about how this is NOT okay. Signs reading “WE WON’T BUILD YOUR WALL” appeared in the windows of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Yale School of Architecture. Everyone became an activist seemingly overnight. They decided to take a much more visible and outspoken stand against injustice. They went to their first-ever protests. This was a good thing.

In those heady months, universities declared themselves bastions against insidious xenophobic immigration policies, people poured into the streets in the hundreds of thousands, and every day, one got the sense that history was happening and that it involved ordinary people with boring jobs coming together to disavow political moves and attitudes rooted in hatred, violence, and cruelty. Organizations like the Sunrise Movement sprang up overnight, and within architecture itself, existing pressure groups like the Architecture Lobby ballooned into real forces of nature. The Lobby’s response to the AIA was, for me, one of the galvanizing texts of the early Trump days, linking the AIA’s (shocking to some) support of Trump to a broader set of issues that have plagued architecture for years—issues of labor and proletarianization and inequality.

The fear that things were getting very, very dark very, very quickly gave people a kind of permission to be outspoken, because if they didn’t do something—even if that something was just Tweeting About It—the very balance of the world would fall on the side of fascism. Like I said, this activism, armchair or otherwise, naive or experienced, was a good thing. It was a good thing that AIA members were rightly pissed at their organization’s open willingness to bend to despotic power; it was a good thing that many architects pledged not to build the border wall; it was a good thing that new discourses opened up surrounding ethics and the carceral state, architectural aesthetics with regard to federal buildings, Trump’s previous tenure as a developer, and his emoluments-clause violations. Trump’s presidency was inherently, explicitly spatial and easily invited debate on the role of architecture in his America, which, in reality, was an America that had been simmering beneath the surface for a very long time, if not from its very founding as a plantation state.

For the duration of Trump’s presidency, as awful as it was, there was great momentum for an activist turn in architecture, one that led people to ask questions about racism, sexism, ableism, climate change, labor, technology, form, and ethics, all in a way that was, in comparison with the Obama years, explicitly political and increasingly oriented around social and economic justice.

To take an issue particularly close to architecture’s heart as one example, the discourse about climate change shifted dramatically. I remember reading Kate Orff and Richard Misrach’s 2014 book Petrochemical America, one of the most visceral and lauded works about pollution and climate change published in the field of landscape architecture in recent years, and getting to the end and seeing the atomized, often individualized solutions for systemic environmental and climate issues ranging from bioremediation to co-ops and citizen science projects, with a few broader ideas like closed production and a civilian conservation corps thrown haphazardly into the mix. But by 2019, major architecture schools such as at the University of Pennsylvania were holding design studios themed around the Green New Deal, which is, on its face, a social democratic (if not outwardly socialist), massive, centralized program of total infrastructural and economic change managed by a responsible state. The state! Of all things!

Finally, capitalism and its attendant tentacle of technology were being called into question by greater and greater numbers of architectural workers. Technology wasn’t just about limitless innovation anymore—it encompassed surveillance and privatization and proletarianization. (What architect didn’t shudder at the prospect of being replaced by the likes of Fiverr?) For an architecture writer like myself, it became possible—perhaps for the first time since the 1970s—to publish pieces in a certain critical tradition (namely a socialist one) in a wide array of publications ranging from the mainstream (The Atlantic, for example) to the niche (this publication and others like it). This is a massive amount of political progress to make in such a short amount of time. And yet, it is not enough. It is not enough because the problems underlying American society, the ones that gave us Trump in the first place, are still there, lurking beneath the surface. Our project is not yet finished even though Trump himself seems to be.

Of course, Trump was and remains terrible, and there is no doubt that he’s done irreparable harm to the psyche and infrastructures of this country. However, months after he was tossed out of the Oval Office and exiled from social media, I can’t help but be struck by the lack of, well, doing things. Suddenly, all that was once threatening and menacing is now calm; the good guys are in power. But despite the passage of a stimulus bill (something, we must remember, Trump also did),  not much has changed, especially with regard to immigration and labor (the $15 minimum wage), issues to which the Biden administration has responded by sticking its head in the sand. Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about the change in administration is that at least construction on the border wall has been halted. That is a start but is certainly not enough.

I hate to break it to all of you who haven’t yet heard, but there are still kids in cages, climate change is still escalating, racism and sexism are still rampant, and insidious parts of American life—in particular, the working conditions in places like Amazon warehouses but also in all the universities and architecture firms around the country—are still deplorable. These things require political momentum and pressure for them to change, whether that be in protest or in organizing a union or in agitating for justice in one’s own workplace or city. They do not just go away because we elected the lesser of two evils, and it would be a terrible, terrible waste for architecture to abandon its new critical, activist tendencies in favor of what was a rather odious and uninspiring and unjust status quo to begin with. Things may have got worse with Trump, but in a way, they also got much better.

Kate Wagner is an architecture critic and the creator of the blog McMansion Hell. Her column, America By Design, can be found in The New Republic.