In Conversation: Esther da Costa Meyer


Just Architecture

Volume 6, Issue 11
April 3, 2021

Esther da Costa Meyer is a visiting professor at YSoA teaching ARCH 3297: From Shigeru Ban to IKEA: Designing Refugee Camps this Spring.

From the point of view of the Anthropocene, architecture cannot be an independent discipline. In rich nations, high-carbon lifestyles, which include the building sector, are one of the drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. Long after a building has been destroyed, the emissions released to build, maintain, and demolish it, will remain in the atmosphere and affect the earth system as a whole. Carbon knows no national boundaries. Wealthy nations produce the greatest amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and while the effects are felt everywhere, poor nations with a minimal carbon footprint and fewer resources are having to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the consequences. Which is to say that climate change reenacts forms of colonialism by engendering major inequalities across the globe.

There is also a causal relationship between the Anthropocene and refugee camps, the other topic I work on. As the planet continues to warm, the growing number of migrants now includes a rapidly escalating group of climate refugees, a term that has yet to be acknowledged by international law. The forms of globalization taken by late capitalism, or neoliberalism, are producing new peripheries. Wealthy nations of the world refuse to absorb vast populations displaced by war, hunger, or drought, preferring to keep them at arms’ length in camps, detention centers, prisons. Excluded from the social compact, migrants do not have access to the social goods we take for granted nor to human rights in general. They exemplify the biopolitical power over life wielded by rich nations which manage them from a distance.

Nor can architectural History/Theory be said to be independent when in most places the discipline is still largely dominated by Western paradigms, Western examples, and Western scholarship. Several institutions, our own included, have made commendable efforts to add to the curriculum so that it reflects this broader geocultural reach. Furthermore, History/Theory need not be only retrospective. It can and should also deal with those contemporary issues in which architecture is deeply involved such as the Anthropocene, refugee camps, detention camps, slums, and all enclaves of exception. A pluralist History/Theory should also aim at greater activism. We need to face the challenge posed by neocolonial forms of climate injustice imposed around the world including disadvantaged sectors of the Global North. Focusing on contemporary worldwide problems allows us to harness the experience of our diverse student body and their concern for social and environmental equality.

In every country there are architects who try to help alleviate the situation, and we have examples in our own School. But in every country there are also architects who are complicit: not only the small numbers who design detention centers for migrants or for-profit prisons aimed at mass incarceration, but those far larger contingents that prefer to close their eyes to the discipline’s collusion and implication in what Derek Gregory calls “the colonial present.”

Editors: How might our professional/technical classes engage the similar issues of activism? Should the curriculum be more integrated?

Esther: That would be ideal: building more bridges across different tracks. However transdisciplinary we may be in our individual approaches, we will still be stuck in silos if we don’t reach out beyond our fiefs, never bursting out of history/theory or studio. That is why this year I made a special effort to branch out and ask colleagues from different tracks and disciplines to come speak to my seminar [From Shigeru Ban to IKEA: Designing with Refugees]. I wanted a stronger connection to studio, that is, with practice.

Editors: How can the architect establish accountability as we advance in our careers?

Esther: I’ve always admired the way MAarch students collaborate with one another in studio. In the Humanities, the work mode is more individualistic. But even in my field, I realize that old friendships dating back to my university days only grow in importance. I hope you can remain in touch with your close peers from YSOA. You will, of course, find other voices to trust, make a wider web of connections. But the ideas and ideals that you shared with your peers at YSOA, the trust you built up among yourselves will make these groups a crucial critical mass with whom to discuss difficult issues as the years pass, including accountability.

Editors: When we get into the professional world and our work/practice could potentially be problematic and we have to make compromises, what do we do?

Esther: Very few people can avoid compromise or attain zero-level complicity when it comes to injustice. If we just look at the labels of the clothes we are wearing, our cell phones and computers, we realize the extent to which they are premised on unjust, underpaid labor practices. I think that a compromise is admissible when it will permit you to achieve at least some of your goals. You haven’t lost your moral compass if it will benefit others, even if not to the extent you would have liked. You try to win at least a part of the fight.

It is easy to lose hope. But we have to remember that while neoliberalism colonizes much of our daily life it doesn’t colonize everything. The goal of our readings is to find out how to design projects and spaces that cannot be colonized. Forensic architecture is doing just that, using the toolkits and knowhow gleaned from architecture’s engagement with advanced technology. They can’t win every fight, but they have blazed an incredibly important path for the rest of us to follow.

If I can add one more thing, I do hope that many of you will keep a foot in the academy. It is inspiring to see your enthusiasm and your quest for social justice. We need our best voices in the university, teaching others to realize their goals and how to avoid the usual pitfalls faced by all professions. Teaching is a form of hope. We want our students to be better than us, that is the only justification for teaching.

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Volume 6, Issue 11
April 3, 2021