ARCHITECTURE: An anti-racist architecture manifesto

Unmaking to Remake
Un-making ARCHITECTURE: An anti-racist
architecture manifesto
By WAI Architecture Think Tank • June 15, 2020 • Letter to the Editor, National, Professional Practice
(Courtesy WAI Architecture Think Tank)
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The following text was republished with permission from the WAI Architecture Think Tank.
Text includes parts from Achille Mbembe (Critique of Black Reason, and Aesthetics of
Superfluity), Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), and Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang
(Decolonization is not a metaphor [2012]). The relationship between militarism and
environmental destruction was borrowed from Anne McClintock’s reading for TBA21.
Buildings are never just buildings. Buildings respond to the political foundations of the
institutions that fund, envision, and desire them. Buildings are physical manifestations of the
ideologies they serve. Although a naively detached or romantic position may be able to render
buildings as semi-autonomous artifacts capable of sheltering or enveloping space, this
depoliticized attitude overlooks their historical and material relationship to regimes of violence
and terror. Buildings can protect but they can also confine, instill fear, crush, oppress.
Buildings can school, and foment hospitality but can imprison and torture. Buildings can be
tools for ethnic segregation, cultural destruction, and historical erasure. Buildings can
reinforce the status quo and aide in the implementation of settler-colonial desires of
expansionism. An anti-racist democratization of access is only possible through the
decolonization of buildings and public spaces. Architects should be aware of the programs of
the buildings they design and be held accountable for doing so.
Like the Vertiginous Assembly that is Blackness and Race (and therefore the construction of a
concept of whiteness) the history of the architecture we are forced to learn and practice is
brought to us at the same moment and via the same ideological superstructure as the
“despoliation of the Atlantic slave trade” and continues today with the “globalization of
markets, the privatization of the world under the aegis of neoliberalism, and the increasing
imbrication of the financial markets, the postimperial military complex and digital
technologies.” The forced import of an idea of modernization and progress that could have
been executed only through the enslaving of black and indigenous bodies is as intrinsic to the
Un-making ARCHITECTURE: An anti-racist architecture manifesto ARCHITECTURE ART DESIGN URBANISM SUBSCRIBE
practice of architecture as the exploitation of a subaltern humanity linked to contemporary
neoliberal capitalism and its practice of capture, predation, extraction and asymmetrical
warfare. Just as architecture becomes ever more imbricated with neoliberalism, so does a
system of risk. What was initially experienced by Blacks during the transatlantic slave trade has
now become the “norm for, or at least the lot of, all subaltern humanity.” We cannot deal with a
contemporary state of risk, exploitation, policing, militarization, and warfare without dealing
first without challenging the physical manifestations of the status quo.
Architecture is too obsessed with making. Trained as yes men and women, the vocation of the
architect mostly exists and subsists as an appendix of hegemonic power. This power, always
overwhelming and undisputable hates to come voluntary to the table of negotiation. Ofen,
architects speak in platonic terms when defending architecture and its problematic
relationship to economies of exploitation and white supremacy. In their naive idealism,
architects ofen fantasize about the possibility of exorcising the evil out of buildings and
working within the parameters of the lesser evil. They dream about manufacturing consent,
simulating empathy. They talk about reforming prisons, creating sustainable concentration
camps, laying out pristine border walls, and outlining “community-oriented” buildings for
policing. In their obstinate naivete, they refuse to acknowledge the racist, colonial, and
oppressive legacies of these archetypes. The prisons that profit from black and brown men and
women, the detention centers that serve to separate and destroy families, the infrastructures of
the postimperial military apparatus that continuously terrorizes communities around the
world cannot be fixed by better, more efficient, and sustainable architectures. Racism is a
device whose aim is to create walls between people. These walls should not be made. We need
to learn to un-make these walls.
Capitalism is ofen sold as a utopian dream of free markets and unobstructed, post-ideological
competition. However, as corporations, powerful lobbyists, and dominant classes build their
power on the legacy of exploitation of black, brown, and indigenous bodies, all is lef is a trail
of environmental destruction, social violence, and neglect. The relationship between
Capitalism and Architecture as private property, gives way to the rise of policing dating back to
the plantations across the Americas and the Caribbean. On the footsteps of this legacy, the
need to subdivide, the “zoning practices” linked to networks of repression whose tools and
methods include the “imposition of ideological grids on populations”, is responsible for the
surveillance and policing state of many black and brown neighborhoods and communities.
These subdivisions of the soil foment and maintain the status quo via the accumulation of
wealth having enormous repercussions in the opportunities (education, health, safety) of
disenfranchised communities. Archaic property tax laws that bond education to the possession
of land and architectural commodities are just an example of these racist zoning laws. The
policing and zoning practices that go together with the invention of private property are settlercolonial strategies that must be abolished. We must dismantle the concept of capitalism as a
free market built on the accumulation of wealth, dehumanization, policing, zoning, and mass
incarceration. New anti-capitalist and anti-racist zoning strategies must be created, not to
subdivide groups by class or ethnic affiliation, but in order to demolish the mechanisms of
exploitation, accumulation of wealth, and allow truly equitable, fair, and dignifying spaces to
Kinship may be a poetic aim to find alliances, but the empty hope rendered by milquetoast
liberalism won’t be enough to eliminate anti-black racism. The role of complicity played by
institutions in the construction and perpetuation of the status quo is a real problem with
material ramifications. It is not enough for academic and professional organizations to
conveniently pen announcements that support black and decolonizing struggles if they do
nothing to stop the design and construction of machines of oppression. Just like
decolonization is not a metaphor, nor is anti-racism. The abstract call for making kin with one
another is not a substitute for real actions in their psychological and spatial manifestations. It
is not enough to fill the ranks of a managerial class with exceptional representational cases of
marginalized groups if the institutions will keep sponsoring the architectures of anti-blackness
and racial oppression.
Legal systems and the institutions that enforce them, have historically obstructed true fairness,
justice, and equality. The bloody and racist history of the judicial mechanisms and codes that
brought the world that existed in the West Indies to the United States with the plantation as its
core structure, plants its rotten roots in a legacy of racist architecture and planning. In the
same way that Jim Crow laws in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa were legally
sanctioned systems of anti-black oppression, today we are still battling with a legacy of legal
and institutional racism. As settler-colonial revolutions transform, destroy, and alter
environments, regimes of racism and oppression are extremely efficient as they write laws,
orders, and directives that allow for the control and oppression of black, brown, and
indigenous populations. We must challenge the perverse use of public space as a militarized
territory for surveillance and violence against black, brown, indigenous, queer, and trans
people. We must demolish both, the material and immaterial legacies of colonization, the
plantation, Jim Crow, and Apartheid. It is not enough to abide by the law when the law is part of
a racist apparatus. We must challenge the architectures of racist occupation, of gentrification,
of environmental destruction.
Institutional racism is the wizard behind the curtain of Oz. Institutional racism operates in the
governing boards, hiring committees, and admissions evaluations. Institutional racism is
responsible for fabricating and maintaining hegemonic discourses while punishing and
obstructing the construction and free flow of alternative, ancestral, and anti-racist forms of
knowledge. It is not enough for Universities, schools, studios, and professional organizations to
post solidary messages in their Instagram platforms when they create invisible walls around
their ivory towers. It is not enough to hashtag BLM when they are designing buildings for
policing, detaining, and incarcerating, when they maintain the status quo through biased
processes of evaluation and biased demands. It is not enough for institutions to pen beautiful
#heartfelt letters in solidarity of activists struggling against police and paramilitary forces while
they continue building their endowments with the money of their settler-colonial legacies. If
they are serious about demolishing their legacies of institutional racism, Academic institutions
must rethink their recruiting strategies to attract, stimulate, and create safe environments for
both, educators and students. Simultaneously, Architecture schools must embrace the
deconstruction of their curriculums to question not only the future of architecture, but to
expose the racist past they helped construct.
Value in contemporary societies is ofen confused with the illusion of a wealth that can be
measured either through the accumulation of commodities or through the speculative ether of
financial capital. In these scenarios, commodities, including architecture or architectural
elements, could acquire a mystical status. The question that remains is, what is the value of
architecture as a commodity in comparison to the value of a black life? Can a broken window, a
graffitied wall, or a burned police precinct be the equivalent or more valuable than black life? In
this white-supremacist system of values are black, brown, and indigenous lives mere
commodities that can be compared to disposable and replaceable objects and artifacts? Afer
all, what is the value of your architecture? And, what is the value of black life?
European colonization and the extension of its spatial horizon was fueled by genocide and
environmental destruction. It is not a coincidence that the environmental effects of this
expansion resurface in the form of an ecological threat that is imminent for impoverished
communities and has clear racist overtones. The postimperial military complex that maintains
the chain of material, environmental, and human exploitation is directly linked to the
destruction of ecosystems. “Militarism is the largest single cause of environmental destruction
in the world. The US Military is the largest single pollutant in the planet and the largest single
consumer of oil in the world. The Pentagon is BP’s largest client.” There’s no racial justice
without the protection of the environment. It is not enough to use LEED-certified materials or
photovoltaic panels in buildings if they contribute to the postimperial military complex. We
cannot argue for environmental justice while condoning and participating in processes of
militarization, deforestation, and the desecration, occupation, and destruction of indigenous
territories. There’s no sustainable architecture to the service of the military. There’s no
ecological justice if architecture contributes to environmental racism.
Success cannot be measured in empty data charts and dubious demographic indicators. Stopand-frisk. Heavy Policing. Random checks. The war against drugs. The war against crime. The
war against terror. These miscalculated policy moves have been justified by the
misinterpretation of contextless numbers. Numbers that quantify the specificities of effects
without looking at the causes. Numbers that without context are manipulated to justify the
mass incarceration and mass homicide of black and brown people. The same can be said about
the cartesian ideal of progress and its settler-colonial legacy and the unquenchable thirst for
growth. We must learn to create new parameters for architecture to operate without responding
to empty statistics, and without serving to its racist and ideological technologies and agendas.
Military, confederate, philanthro-capitalist, and colonizer monuments are part of an apparatus
that rewrites, white-washes, legitimizes, standardizes, and erases a history of genocide,
destruction, and racism while maintaining the status quo. Monuments refer us back in time, as
they concretize in marble, granite, bronze, glass, steel, objects that carry a dead weight of a
murderous history. Together with these avatars shaped afer leaders of regimes of death,
racism, and colonial exploitation, other architectures recreate the effect of the monument,
albeit at a different scale: train stations, palaces of colonial administrators, bridges, camps,
fortresses, stadiums, and also buildings for schooling, endowments, and museums. An antiracist architecture must dismantle the construction of these monuments and question their
role in the construction of a “style of power and domination. The remains of the potentate are
the signs of the physical and symbolic struggle directed against the colonized.”
Architecture suffers from agnosia similar to what Jose Saramago described in his essay about
Blindness. In Saramago’s text, a pandemic makes all the characters lose their sight, awash in a
blinding whiteness. Thick like milk, this white blindness expands creating havoc and a system
of exploitation and cruelty. Architecture suffers from a similar white agnosia. Unable to see its
complicity with a legacy of oppression, Architecture relies on guiding itself through the
sensations of its white, masculine, geriatric hands. We must find ways to recover sight, to
perceive the diversity in front of us.
The potential fusion of capitalism and racism carries with it a number of architectural and
urban implications. Systematic risk, impoverishment, and debt, the emergence of new imperial
practices that borrow from both, the enslaving logic of capture and predation, and from the
colonial logic of occupation and extraction. Under the rubric of capitalism and racism,
architecture remains on the one hand a discipline that filters and distills the possibility of
other worlds into a canonical European, white ideological construction. On the other hand, it
continuously reproduces itself by means of more settler-colonial strategies that tirelessly
destroy the environment for the creation of new settlements while endlessly gentrifying the
already existing ones. New theories and practices must be developed and implemented in order
to question, subvert, and oppose architecture as a tool for control, domination, and oppression.
New forms of knowledge must abolish Architecture as an extension of capitalism and racism.
Trickle-down justice doesn’t work, just like trickle-down economics proved to be a hoax, magic
that didn’t work. Trickle-down architecture suffers from the same problem. If utopias can only
be conceived by those privilege enough to make it to the schools of a white, elitist discipline,
these ideal conditions will only reflect those who envision them. Instead of a trickle-down
culture of architecture, the one that serves and maintains the status quo, we must find ways to
build networks of solidarity. Black, indigenous, brown utopias must occupy the space
previously reserved by white imaginaries. We need new itopias. Utopias from below. We need
trickle-up utopias by means of anti-racist architectures.
Encountering these dreary scenarios, it is not enough to be apolitical or to ‘not be a racist’. Due
to the rise of populism and increasing levels of risk, the fabrication of racial subjects has been
reinvigorated nearly everywhere. We need to acknowledge our role in this reinvigoration and
oppose vehemently its destructive intentions. We must employ our ways of reimagining the
world to question the one we have created. It is imperative that we use our critical faculties to
deconstruct our ways of imagining the world. Other worlds are possible, urgent, and necessary.
Radical means to go into the roots. For architecture to be radical it has to dig deep into its past,
present, and potential future role into perpetuating the origins of social fragmentation,
oppression, colonization, and racism. We must undo the damage created by the complicity of
architecture with these systems of oppression. We must un-make detention centers. We must
un-make prisons. We must un-make the military. We need to un-narrate the history of
architecture, and construct new narratives that expose the racist, settler-colonial roots of its
capitalist development, of its modernism and desperate aferbirths. In order to make new
forms of radical architecture, we must learn to un-make Architecture.
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