Volume 1, Issue 20
February 25, 2016


“I think segregation is the predominant feature of spatial organization in the American landscape, and I also think it has a profound effect on democracy,” bellowed J. Phillip Thompson in the 4th floor pit, loosening a few dull rocks in Rudolph’s corduroy walls. At first Equality in Design Brown Bag lunch on February 10th, Thompson, MIT Political Scientist and Professor of Planning, expounded upon the ills of discriminatory and segregational planning practices and their deep roots in our nation’s history. Thompson began with the simple and striking fact that America is more segregated now than it was in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education. This regression manifests itself through an insidious process: the universally accepted (and often celebrated) practices of capitalistic real estate development driven by the voracious appetite of gentrification. In its wake, Thompson describes, the territory for those displaced by gentrification develop as American bantustans, analogs to their South African namesakes. Once thriving black and Latino communities find themselves distant and isolated with fewer and fewer resources.

The immense and profoundly problematic result of this spatial segregation is, Thompson argued, that people of different races and incomes do not know each other. Further, there are few public spaces that resist these divisions by encouraging mixing, interaction, or connection in a shared public realm. This is so utterly significant, Thompson made clear, that in working with major black and Latino political leaders to establish an agenda for the upcoming election, they prioritized the dislocation of local communities over income inequality. The growing divide between communities of different races and incomes deeply impacts the ability for political coordination between them, despite shared aspirations. And so Thompson makes a call to arms: divest from real estate institutions that facilitate the dislocation of communities through the capitalistic processes of gentrification.

As a student at YSoA, Thompson’s talk and its conclusion left me both truly inspired and terribly disappointed. Inspired to think of the profound political power of the built environment and my capacity to empower change as an architect; disappointed in the way our school has failed to address this subject. How is it that the primary agenda of black and Latino political leaders, which is inherently spatial, is largely absent from our academic discourse? Introduction to Planning and Development, the only required class about urban planning, is solely concerned with profit-driven real estate development and is deliberately blind to its social and political impact. In fact, the class frames gentrification not as the systemic mechanism of segregation that we know it to be, but instead as an urban act of increasing real estate value and generating profit. Thus, we learn development through the eyes of the powerful and the rich, understanding only processes of one-­way profit, and nothing in the way of innovative, community­-driven development. “The idea that architects and planners just learn about real estate deals and not even critically, just learn how to fit into existing real estate deals come up with by developers, is atrocious. Is atrocious,” laments Thompson pointedly. “We need to be blowing that stuff up.”

For Thompson, architects fall into three categories: workadays, the overworked and disempowered staff of city governments and developers; high priests, the designers of beautiful buildings for the rich; and insurgents, the “besieged minority…who are trying to use design to improve the lives of people.” In her course, Launch, Keller Easterling also identifies these “roles” as do gooders, for whom low budgets and bad taste are a necessary evil, and the developer-architect, whose role is defined primarily by an ability to increase value. Why can’t there exist between them a hybrid role that celebrates both architectural sophistication and beauty, and an ethical imperative to improve the lives of people? Certainly, these priorities are not at odds, but in fact invigorate one another. I, for one, aspire to be both high priest and insurgent…an insurgent priest, maybe.

The planning class, and the general apolitical camber of the school, is thus that much harder to swallow. Yale is the last architecture school in the country that stands in isolation from its academic siblings, a celebrated fact that encourages the unhindered and monastic study of (capital A) Architecture as a discipline and a practice. This is a unique privilege and an extremely valuable endeavor, and one that I certainly cherish. Furthermore, Architecture is not easy, and its impact relies heavily on a deep and sophisticated understanding of space, tectonics, light, construction, etc. However, these topics don’t, by nature, preclude learning about the ways in which architecture embodies, and is conceived through, political systems, cultural conceptions, construction processes, and existing and projected urban fabrics. Using a narrow definition of architecture leaves its participation in systems of power and oppression to chance.

Just as architectural beauty cannot come at the expense of exploitation, architectural education should not come at the expense of a political conversation. As Thompson points out, rather surprisingly, the implications of our increasingly segregated built environment are largely un-theorized. It is not hard to imagine why: we don’t talk about it — we are often too busy learning about Architecture. The first year M.Arch I class is currently facing this dilemma in the Building Project where pedagogy and social responsibility coexist in an uneasy tension. What better circumstance to discuss the problem of housing in America and the role of architects than a Yale architecture studio dedicated to the topic with the resources to carry out its finding in the world? In fact, though it may not seem like it now, the Building Project was born of student activism in the 1960s and focused primarily on agendas of social responsibility. Back then, the school was fiercely political and played a pivotal role in civil rights activism on campus. Architecture was inseparable from politics and brought with it a deep moral imperative. So significant was this imperative that the students created a document pledging their ethical responsibility as architects:

All people must have the right and power to control their own lives. Like any other profession, architecture is not an end in itself, but part of a political process. Because we believe human values are more important than material values:

  • We will only use our skills as tools for liberating oppressed peoples

  • The architects only responsibility is to the people who use the environment

  • We will work for the equal distribution of economic power

  • Work against such U.S. activities as the war in Southeast Asia, or any imperialist and racist exploitation at home and abroad

  • Work against those who exploit people and land for their own power and profit

What happened? Fifty years later, while the nation continues to suffer many of the same ills it did in the 60s, our study of architecture drifts into to the political shadows of monastic study and intellectual isolation. And so I find myself in search of an absent discourse: what is the position of architecture in today’s society? What are its aspirations, its responsibilities, its boundaries, its ethics? And what is our role as architects in facilitating them?

What is our pledge?

I think they had it right in the 60s. I will add, in light of Thompson’s lecture, that it is to employ architecture as a vehicle for democracy. If in the 60s, that meant working against imperialism in Southeast Asia, today it is working against the racial and economic segregation of the American landscape, and the exploitative processes that create it. Further, it is putting our architectural energies towards the integration of the built environment, in which we might create diverse spaces of love. “That’s at the core of it. If we don’t care about one another, there is no democracy. And that’s the problem we have in America. […] Design needs to be how we build integrated spaces so that people can really get to know and ultimately love one another. That is the mission. If design is not about that, design is a technocratic tool, damn near useless.”

Let’s make it useful.

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Volume 1, Issue 20
February 25, 2016