The Subversive Architect: Toward a Design Jurisprudence for Revolutionaries

Publication Date
January 24, 2018


Marcel Breuer, Armstrong Rubber Company, 1965-70. (Robert Perron)

A stack of concrete, weatherworn and gray, alternating with inlaid glass, towers above the Long Wharf with its miles of rail track, light industry, and parking lots. The building is a two-tiered, Brutalist epitaph of stripped out interiors and walls of exposed, aging insulation. Designed by Marcel Breuer, its structure articulates its own historicity; a long-flattened warehouse, once teeming with industry, topped by an elevated superstructure, a nerve center, which housed the executives and managers of the Armstrong Rubber Company. The Armstrong Building was built in 1968. The Vietnam War raged. Americans watched as first Martin Luther King Jr., and then Robert Kennedy, were assassinated. When Chicago burned during the Democratic National Convention, “The whole world is watching!” became the rallying cry of a generation. The class antagonisms of capitalist society seemed all but poised to sweep aside the institutions of the ancien regime with their revolutionary potential. The movements of the day promised a new order built on reason and beyond dogma, but they failed, their fate not unlike that of the Armstrong Building, its walls slowly cleaved away by new arrangements of capital.

De architectura, written in the 1st Century B.C. by Marcus Vitruvius, is often thought to have set the foundation for architectural theory with its proscription: “The ideal building has three elements; it is sturdy, useful, and beautiful.” Two millennia of architecture have established a canon of works vaunted for their aesthetic beauty and replicated for their physical stability, but to what extent has the field of architecture engaged in a critical discussion about its own practitioners? Here, I speak not of houses, but, like Aristotle, of house-builders, and suggest repositioning the architect within the spaces inhabited by political movements. Departures from traditional conceptions of architecture, of building as object and commodity, and architect as beholden to her neoliberal patronage, may be possible where based upon a model of “Subversive Architect.” This theory defines space as a construction of its autonomous uses by a special class of occupants: those who live at the margins of, and resist, capitalist society. The Subversive Architect deploys a multi-disciplinary approach and is rooted in the spontaneous political constellations of marginalized people. This altered modality shifts the levels of strategy, and theories of New Urbanism and of Regenerative Commons become tactical rather than strategic considerations, begging the question: can the Subversive Architect act as agent provocateur, as organizer, as visionary of a new emancipatory ethos?

As the Armstrong Building sits idle, now long empty, and increasingly imposed upon by IKEA, a multinational retail outlet selling disposable, low-cost goods, one asks: to whom does the failure of the Armstrong Building belong? Is the building’s continued vacancy a result of poor design on Breuer’s part, who crafted a building which has not been, or perhaps cannot be, repurposed as an occupiable, functioning architecture?[1] Does the failure belong to the Armstrong Rubber Company, who funded its construction, only to abandon it less than half a century later? Or is its failure utterly systemic? Deference to market forces, as may be suggested by libertarian thinkers, does not justify its failure as a structure; the building is not mere ephemera replaced in the market by some better product. The Armstrong Building remains, occupying finite space. Its desertion comes at the expense of the materials and labor expended in its construction. No—the failure of the Armstrong Building is complete, in all of its use, exchange, and labor value; both a failure of design, which has rendered it unsalvageable, and of capitalist forces, which have littered the landscape with hundreds of empty factories. Vitruvius wrote: “Consistency is found in that work whose whole and detail are suitable to the occasion. It arises from circumstance, custom, and nature.” The collapse of the Armstrong Building’s usefulness can then be understood as a collapse into inconsistency with its socio-physical environment, and its descent into blight is at every level aesthetic, economic, political, and cultural.

As a law student, I refer back to my own discipline, which is often racked with similar failures, which can be organizational, in the case of progressive institutions incapable of resisting the attacks of conservative forces, or individual, in the case of advocates who fail to ward off attacks on vulnerable clients from a racist and classist legal system. These failures are nothing short of spiritual crises, generating trauma for clients, and vicarious trauma for their advocates. Progressive legal scholars have painstakingly attempted to trace the causes of our present political crisis, borne by the entrenchment of nationalist and misogynistic institutions, and regularly examine the roles of lawyers in social movements stretching back over the past century, movements which set out to radically alter and reform American society but which, in the end, failed.[2] As the conservative movement slowly rolls back enfranchisement, civil rights, and public assistance, lawyers are forced to question the role of bourgeois institutions in securing those rights in the first place. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, liberal lawyers used sophisticated legal strategies to win new rights in courts of law for oppressed minorities and women, exemplified by cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Goldberg v. Kelly, and Roe v. Wade.[3] These victories were not in and of themselves the result of litigation, but rather, the result of long fought political struggles that reshaped the courts and made them more amenable to liberal demands.

Conservative activists have been waging a quiet war on these rights since the 70s, beginning with the Nixon Administration. As a result of these reactionary movements, and thanks in no small part to the Supreme Court’s own decision in Citizens United v. FEC, inaugurating an era of unfettered corporate dominance in liberal democracy, the courts have all but been reshaped by conservative forces. With the rise of Donald Trump, a rank chauvinist and vulgar capitalist, progressive lawyers must now face the reality that they will be prevented from using the courts to produce positive social change for a generation or possibly more. Since the 90s, in an attempt to circumvent these systemic failures, progressive legal scholars have made their own attempts to recast lawyers from their role as sophisticated litigators, to “rebellious”, “integrated”, or “movement”-based advocates, who work primarily on the local level and in the grassroots, embedded with community organizations and promoting the organic solutions of vulnerable populations, as well as their stories.[4]

As one leading scholar writes, however, “the political thrust” of these new intellectual movements among the progressive legal field are toward “advancing projects associated with mainstream political liberalism, rather than representing a radical break from it.”[5] Public interest lawyers, much like architects, find themselves ever indebted to their wealthy supporters, whether through a system of liberal patronage, or through foundations funded by the corporations which must be resisted in the first place. Progressive lawyers are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle, advocating for the victims of extreme inequality under late capitalism in a profession inextricably tied to the legal needs of the corporate class. As Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote nearly a century ago: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Progressive lawyers now face the inextricable task of making a radical break from legal liberalism, and must strive for legal reforms and institutions rooted in pre-figurative visions of a new society. Where the struggles of oppressed minorities and working class people are estopped from seeking equity in the courts of law, advocates should enter into the socio-political and create the cultural conditions necessary for giving way to justice. Progressive lawyers must seek new modalities within liberatory struggles, both ethically accountable as political agitators, but also financially accountable, finding new ways of funding and supporting their work. Subversive Lawyers, like their Architect counterparts, must step outside their roles as mere litigators, and learn to think like organizers, businessmen, innovators, and revolutionaries.

How will the Subversive Architect bring radical design principles to oppressed communities? What challenges does such a project entail? It is no longer enough to design the world’s most egalitarian luxury condominium. As communities work to reclaim spaces in post-industrial America and the abandoned corners of urban environments, architects can embed themselves within these movements to provide not only design expertise, helping community stakeholders develop new visions for their communities, but also to provide organizational assistance, helping them raise funds to support their projects, and working to develop local visibility and buy-in from other community members. This would entail a polymathic effort reimagining the architect as Architect-Planner, Architect-Advocate, and Architect-Activist. It would not be a departure from the architect’s traditional role, but a return. Vitruvius writes: “From astronomy we find the east, west, south, and north, as well as the theory of the heavens, the equinox, and of the stars…If the Architect has no knowledge of these matters, she will not be able to have any comprehension of the theory of sundials.” Through a multi-disciplinary and radically progressive approach to architecture, Subversive Architects may begin to apply revolutionary design principles in revolutionary new ways, by stepping away from the drafting board and into the streets.

[1] Mark Byrnes, A Complicated Second Life for a Brutalist Icon, CityLab (Oct. 5, 2017) (Editor’s Note: This summer, the building became the site of artist Tom Burr’s Body/Building, an installation that supposedly explored the history of the building as well as New Haven’s ties to modernism, but mostly exhibited how the building had been brought to code since its abandonment).

[2] Francis Fox Piven & Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1979); Gerald P. López, Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision Of Progressive Law Practice; see generally Scott L. Cummings, Movement Lawyering, 2017 U. Ill. L. Rev. 1645 (2017); Sheila R. Foster and Brian Glick, Integrative Lawyering: Navigating the Political Economy of Urban Redevelopment, 95 Calif. L. Rev. 1999 (2007); see also Jennifer Gordon, Law, Lawyers, and Labor: The United Farm Workers’ Legal Strategy in the 1960s and 1970s and the Role of Law in Union Organizing Today, 8 U. Pa. J. Lab. & Emp. L. 1, 72 (2005) (for a detailed account of lawyers embedded within organizing campaigns).

[3] See Cummings, supra note 2, 1663-1675.

[4] See generally López, supra note 2; also Cummings, supra note 2; also Foster and Glick, supra note 2.

[5] Cummings, supra note 3 at 1726.

Publication Date
January 24, 2018
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