The June issue of The Architect’s Newspaper is out now

Protest Architecture

The June issue of The Architect’s Newspaper is out now

AN’s June issue

As of press time, while talk of a permanent ceasefire continues, more than 35,000 people have been killed by Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. Just over half of the dead were women and children. Even more people are injured and/or grieving, and still larger numbers have been displaced. The violence, viewable in near real-time streaming and documentation, has polarized global discussions, even at the highest levels of international governance. What role does architecture play in this and other conflicts?

This spring, students across the country organized on their college campuses through encampments to bring attention to the conflict and advocate for local responses, like divestment. University presidents, under pressure, at times authorized the use of force to remove these pop-up tent cities and their residents. In New York, police cleared an occupied Hamilton Hall—renamed Hinds Hall—but not before firing a gun inside. In Los Angeles, an encampment at UCLA was attacked by counterprotesters for hours before the police intervened.

The deployment of architectural skill in service of progressive politics is nothing new. The built environment embodies the values of those who direct its construction, so to create more equitable places—or to repair past unjust actions—requires a reshaping of both architecture’s priorities and the demographics of architects themselves. Within the profession, this often takes the form of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and a reshaping of who architects take on as clients. This requires consistent support for diverse voices and an openness to the concerns and expressions that architects and designers bring to their work.

In this issue, our features similarly lean forward to hear from a range of practitioners from across the continent. Diana Budds speaks with Indigenous architects about their practices today, Vernon Mays catches up with recent initiatives at Rural Studio as the program turns 30, and Page Comeaux discusses modern architecture and abolition. Plus, I sit down with Pascale Sablan for her first interview as CEO of the New York studio of Adjaye Associates.

The theme continues across other contents, from News Editor Daniel Roche’s account of We Design Beirut to Doug Spencer’s review of a new volume of the writings of Sérgio Ferro. As the editors of that book wager in their introduction, “The silence about the amount of human labour invested in the production of built space is embarrassing.” I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, many other efforts also take up this cause. Protest Architecture: Barricades, Camps, Spatial Tactics 1830–2023, an ongoing exhibition at the MAK in Vienna with the Deutsches Architekturmuseum and an accompanying book published by Park Books, documents examples from Paris’s barricades to Tahrir Square and January 6. The catalog, organized like a dictionary, provides a deep dive into almost 200 years of activism.

archival pic of Resurrection City
In the summer of 1968, a diverse coalition of poor Americans assembled on the National Mall to demand racial equality and economic justice. The settlement was called Resurrection City. (Stephen M. Cooper/Karen-of-MN/Flickr/Public Domain)

The title of the book is written with “protest” as an adjective, but I like to think of the word as a verb. One should protest architecture! Meaning: We ought to be vigilant in recognizing how architecture is used as a tool of control and quick to criticize when it is deployed toward oppressive goals.

A personal favorite from Protest Architecture is Resurrection City, a settlement realized on the National Mall in the summer of 1968. As an expression of the Poor People’s Campaign, it was the culmination of organizing led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A coalition of organizers chose a prominent site to visibly demonstrate the plight of America’s poor, a concern that has only become more urgent as income inequality has continued to worsen in the U.S.

A committee of architects advised on how to “maximize the encampment’s design, construction, and use,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. John Wiebenson, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park, headed the committee and helped organizers, including test-building prototype shelters, which resulted in an A-frame module made from stick lumber and sheathed in plywood constructed en masse on the Mall by volunteers. A semi-functional small community quickly formed: At night under floodlights, workers ran electrical wiring and installed sewer lines.

Still, Resurrection City faced challenges. Beyond organizational jostling and security concerns, the encampment was soon turned into a muddy field after heavy rains. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s permit to occupy the lawn expired on June 23, 1968. The following day, police cleared the site.

The Poor People’s Campaign continues today. On June 29, the Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March will gather for an assembly in D.C. ahead of four months of outreach with millions of poor and low-wage infrequent voters prior to the presidential election in November. Its agenda of eradicating poverty and related social reforms—including “affordable, adequate housing”—seems more important now than ever.