Anthony Fontenot assesses Mike Davis’s impact on the world of architecture and shares a story of post-Katrina solidarity


Anthony Fontenot assesses Mike Davis’s impact on the world of architecture and shares a story of post-Katrina solidarity

(Courtesy Roisin Davis)

Reading City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) changed everything. In it two radically different worlds were brought together, each of which I had known only separately. When the book was published, I was living in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where a considerable number of my neighbors were squatters and anarchists. Marxist literature was common among the books we read and discussed. In a separate world I had been schooled in architecture and design, which had nothing to do with Marxism—or so we thought. In City of Quartz, these two worlds collided. It was exhilarating to read.

While critics in architecture were exploring deconstructivism and its exalted “shattering of form,” Mike was discussing the “deconstructed Pop architecture” of “Frank Gehry as Dirty Harry.” Few critics had studied contemporary architecture in its urban context and discussed it as “barricades of exclusion” as Mike did. If contemporary urban theory had been “strangely silent about the militarization of city life” and the “destruction of public space,” following City of Quartz we witnessed the rise of a new critique in architecture, most patently in Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (1992) along with a list of other books that followed.

When considering graduate studies, I visited architecture schools across the country and my last stop was the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). I was convinced by the program, and Mike Davis taught there. While I was enrolled in his class, which explored Los Angeles and its native ecosystems, he put forth a fascinating analysis of the city that engaged subjects ranging from the dispossessed, luxury urban developments, native cultures, and geology to wildlife. Driving home from school late one night on Interstate 10, I was mesmerized by the surreal scene of massive glowing flames dancing in the distance beyond the Santa Monica Mountains. A few days later, Mike walked into class and handed out photocopies of a draft manuscript titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” which left everyone in the class stunned.

In the mid-1990s I taught the “Oakwood Seminar,” which Mike and other SCI-Arc faculty had established, a multi-disciplinary program that involved working directly with minority youth ex–gang members, artists, architects, and community activists. The craft of breaking down barriers to connect with ordinary people, their common struggles and transformation, was at the heart of the project. This SCI-Arc and Venice Community Housing Corporation study-training-housing initiative gained national recognition as a model program.

In 1996 I left Los Angeles and moved to Rotterdam and lost contact with Mike. A few years later I moved back to Louisiana, my home state. While living in New Orleans I heard that Mike was scheduled to give a lecture at Tulane University on the topic of “Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City.” I attended the lecture and afterward I tried to greet him, but the line was so long that I gave up.

The next day, as I was standing in front of my house on Washington Avenue in the Irish Channel, I noticed someone jogging by in jogging shorts. It looked like Mike, but clearly, I thought, Marxists don’t wear such scanty jogging shorts—or do they? “Hey, Mike!” I yelled, and he turned around. Two hours later we were still standing in the middle of Washington Avenue talking about the history of the city, the neighborhood, and its people.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, followed by unprecedented destruction. I got a call from Mike, who asked simply, “What are we going to do?” He flew into Baton Rouge, and we began reporting from New Orleans. We interviewed everyone we encountered in the near-deserted streets, from displaced residents, relief workers, and community activists to the bartenders of one of the last standing bars in the city. Observing Mike, I learned what it means to listen carefully to ordinary people and to connect their stories to larger narratives. One of the first articles released was “25 Questions About the Murder of New Orleans,” published in The Nation, which opened with “New Orleans did not die an accidental death–it was murdered by deliberate design and planned neglect. Here are twenty-five urgent questions….” Moving seamlessly between analyses of the urban and political conditions, Mike had an astonishing ability to access the specifics of the situation, always informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of any subject he turned his attention to. It is almost impossible to describe what it meant to have such a warm and accomplished comrade, hailed as the “most fascinating interpreter of the American metropolis,” join me amid the mass devastation, and its ensuing trauma, as it unfolded in a city that I called home, 80 percent of which had been submerged. Mike’s thinking was always clear and sharp as we grappled with the extraordinary urban, social, and political disasters while trying to communicate their implications.

We traveled to Acadiana, to my hometown of Ville Platte, to interview local citizens who had taken their boats to New Orleans to rescue people stranded on rooftops. While we were there, Hurricane Rita made landfall on September 24, 2005, and we were trapped for days. Mike became part of the family as we all hunkered down to endure the first night of the howling winds of the ensuing storm. We woke up to no electricity and a house full of people, including cousins, friends, and neighbors, many of whom had nowhere else to go. We had generators while many others did not. As we examined the damage in the area, my mother began cooking seafood gumbo to comfort everyone. Mike was deeply touched by the experience of the place, which was chronicled in the article “Hurricane Gumbo,” featured in The Nation.

In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), Mike explored the relationship between politics and disasters—real and imagined. While some shortsightedly branded him the “Prophet of Doom,” others understood his critical project of “excavating the future” in an era of endemic calamity, including Adam Shatz in his insightful profile “The American Earthquake: Mike Davis and the Politics of Disaster” (1997). Amid the chaos and devastation following Katrina, Mike noted that a new kind of disaster was unfolding, one spearheaded by advocates of neoliberalism, resulting in the gutting of public institutions in New Orleans, including public schools and housing. In countless ways, he outlined the thesis of “disaster capitalism” as it unfolded in New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, which was fully explored later by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007).

Michael Sorkin, Carol McMichael Reese, and I edited New Orleans Under Reconstruction: The Crisis of Planning, published by Verso in 2014, and Mike graciously agreed to write the foreword, which he titled “Sittin’ on the Porch With a Shotgun.” In it he delivered a devastating blow aimed at the misguided reconstruction practices of the powerful real estate establishment of New Orleans, particularly Pres Kabacoff, whom he described as a “developer-gentrifier and local patron of the New Urbanism.” In little more than six pages, Mike’s “Gentrifying Disaster” manifesto was enough of a menace to incite Kabacoff to threaten Verso with a lawsuit unless it immediately recalled the book, which it did. The online version, the only edition now available, features an altered essay. Always tactical and precise, Mike used words in the way some might use car bombs.

Mike appeared most comfortable as an outsider, acting as a counterforce to received discourse. He remained committed, with astonishing rigor, to a method of analysis that allowed us to see emerging structures of the present, often establishing new connections along a dizzying spectrum of issues related to cities, geography, ecology, and politics while considering their relationship to past and present social movements. He made evident the arbitrariness of disciplinary boundaries, which, not unlike political boundaries, too often divide collective struggles. From Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (1986) to Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007), his method remained clear.

The world of architecture, it seems, is still struggling to grasp the vision of Mike Davis. His openness, generosity, and profound commitment to working-class people were unmistakable. To inspire one to fight for justice for all was at the heart of his endeavors. To miss this point is to lose sight of the fundamental message of his work. He believed that the path forward, beyond our bleak present, was to develop a greater capacity to care for one another. And finally, he understood that building a new kind of city based on progressive politics required us to “make design relevant to environmental and social justice issues,” which, he insisted, “needs to be done in a greater urgency than ever before.”

Anthony Fontenot, architectural historian, theorist, and curator, is a professor of architecture at Woodbury University School of Architecture in Los Angeles.