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Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

  • I Can't Breathe = You Can't Dance

    Thank you Archinect Sessions podcast for featuring me on the first podcast of 2015.  It looks like with everything happening in December I missed a chance to post here on Another Architecture.  Let's catch up.    

    Mimi Zeiger wrote a great opinion piece for Dezeen last month asking why architects have remained silent during Ferguson protests.  She quotes me toward the end of the piece saying: Architects and urban designers can take the #BlackLivesMatter campaign as an opportunity to look deeply into the ways that the tools of the discipline have been defined through attempts to erase black people from American cities.  I don't mean 'in conjunction with', but actually the tools of the discipline emerging through the very acts of controlling, erasing, and displacing black bodies.

    This is not work that black architects and urban designers can do alone, anymore than work on climate change can be left to only those living in threatened coastal areas.  I am looking forward to participating on a panel in a few weeks at Columbia titled We Can't Breathe that invites a cross-disciplinary conversation on the topic of space, violence, and race.   As much as I value cross-disciplinary work, I consider it even more crucial that we do this theorizing and researching and retooling within  the discipline, as well.  

    With this intent, and in honor of the MLK holiday today, I am reposting here a portion of an article that I wrote for the current issue of STUDIO magazine in Italy.  Titled Crime! Crime! Crime!: Black Leisure and American Cities, the article traces the illegality of Black leisure through late nineteenth century public health epidemics, dance in the jazz era, queer loitering, and urban parks.  When considered as processes of design, these patterns reveal that the illegality of black leisure has impacted not only the formation of American cities (in their segregation and hyper-segregation), but the very design tools of American urbanism, creating patterns and protocols that extend far past their phase of racialization.

    The text below is fairly academic, but the title of this post is meant to underscore the point.  Our understanding of American cities and our ability to critique the tools of urban design and planning desperately require some concerted investigation into the spatial protocols of race in America.  After all, do you know why nightclubs in New York City are near manufacturing buildings and not offices (both non-residential)?  If the retroactive manifesto of Manhattan is all about the freedom of the grid, then how can New York City repeatedly lend itself so easily to Disneyfication and zoning controls? Some speculations below....      

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    Excerpt from Crime! Crime! Crime!: Black Leisure and American Cities without footnotes:

    Theory of active form: switches, protocols, remote controls

    The theoretical work of Keller Easterling advocates the possibility of hacking or working in the failures of urbanism.  Her work reveals the great disparity between modes of value and exchange assessed in spatial variables compared to the abstract variables at play in finance, insurance, and other means of assessment.  This paper makes the case that the illegality of black leisure has operated as something like a remote control or a protocol unfolding in volumetric space, not only coded in the abstract laws or social mores that generate race as a fiction.  The volumetric space that this paper explores is the space of New York City.  In this analysis, the volumetric space of the city leads other modes of abstraction and intersects various bodies at leisure.  We find that the illegality of black leisure precedes even public health in urban policy, shaping the ways in which various leisurely acts might generate urban effects.  Protocols of black leisure and the possibility of coding such leisure as illegal produce effects as varied as the typology of the mega-nightclub that has defined American club culture, or standardization of the urban sidewalk as both a legal and physical territory.       

    Interracial dancing and use-based zoning

    In the summer of 2001 I visited New York City from San Francisco and dropped in on an East Village lesbian night at Starlight.  It was probably Sunday.  I know it was the spring or summer of 2001 because neither Bloomberg nor 9/11 had happened yet.

    The place had a lounge in the rear with a DJ and sometimes a flutist, a bar and coat-check in the front.  It got crowded.  I was dancing near the front bar, close to the coat-check when the coat-check woman looked at me, and said “Please don’t dance.”  I said “What?”  She pointed to a sign on the wall to her left.  It said “No dancing.”  I stared at her in disbelief.  “How does anyone even define dancing,” I asked?  “How does anyone know the difference between me dancing versus walking and gesturing rhythmically?”  She said, “It’s not up to us.  We’ll get fined.  It’s [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani.  Please, stop.”

    As of today, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs presents this Cabaret License Description: “Any room, place, or space in New York City in which patron dancing is permitted in connection with the restaurant business or a business that sells food and/or beverages to the public requires a Cabaret license.” This bizarre practice dates back to a law created in 1926 designed to control jazz cabarets in Harlem. This regulating and criminalization of dancing occurred at a moment of intense cultural transfer between New Orleans and New York.  Jazz lounges were popular not only for their music, but as racially integrated spaces of socializing.  

    1DANCING-web.jpg

    The Cabaret law emerged within two years of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act that instituted land use-based zoning.  Once regulated, dancing while drinking or eating could then be assigned to land use zones.  Cabaret licenses were limited to Use Group 12, which includes manufacturing zones. This would, later in the 20th century, eventually generate the protocols for urban phenomena such as the Meatpacking District, as only a huge dance floor tended to justify the additional cost of the cabaret license, and these could only locate legally near heavy manufacturing.   

    The Cabaret law has been challenged in the past 10 years on 1st amendment grounds of free speech, but failed.  The plaintiff's brief in that case articulated,

    “The City Planning Commission (CPC) oversees the Zoning Resolutions; the Department of Buildings (DOB) enforces the building and electrical codes; DCA [Department of consumer Affairs] enforces the cabaret law and issue summonses to eating and drinking establishments that permit social dancing without a cabaret license.”  

    It takes these various entities of urban planning and architectural authority to make collective dancing illegal. The ruling found that the body does not speak through dance, the body just dances.  There is no protection because this ‘social dancing’  is not speech - it is leisure.  

    Slave leisure becoming coded activities: Legal, illegal, and traded

    The criminalization of leisure precedes Black America or jazz, of course, in that it traces all the way back to roots in European serfdom and feudalism.  Vagrancy and disorderly conduct laws in the United States hearken back to English law from the mid 14th century.  As various iterations of the Enclosures Act spread throughout England from the 12th through the 14th century, the feudal system of agricultural serfdom transitioned to something closer to rent and wage labor.  Vagrancy laws appeared as this transition completed, and following the labor crisis of the Bubonic Plague (also called Black Death).

    The loitering laws of New York City, however, evolved from not only the English colonial law, but also the Dutch colony’s tight spatial management of the markets and quarters for the slave trade.  British colonial rule from 1674 continued the practices of the Dutch West India Company, in which the slave trade was the primary economy in New York City.  As Christopher P. Heuer writes, in criticism of Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, "What the Dutch, and more specifically [Simon] Stevin, bequeathed to Manhattan was, it seemed an idea instead of a form: the old idea that empty land could be transformed purely for trade."  While tobacco and gold were important to this early New York City economy, no commerce was more significant than the trade in slaves.  

    By 1703 more than 42% of New York City's households held slaves, making New York City the city with the most slave-holding households in North America, outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  While we think of slavery as a Southern phenomenon in the US, all Black New Yorkers were not free from slavery until 1827.

    It is from this era of New York City under British rule that the illegality of black public socializing emerges.  From 1681 through 1683, the Common Council of the City of New York produced a series of laws outlawing various forms of socializing and leisure amongst slaves. These included leaving the master’s house without the master’s permission, gathering in groups of four or more, and gambling.  Significantly, this time period also produces laws about black leisure that criminalize free blacks and whites for enabling certain social leisure amongst slaves. By 1683, whites and free blacks could not entertain slaves in their homes, sell them liquor, or take goods or money from them.  While the Dutch West India Company had previously facilitated  violent control over subsets of the population through private individual acts and social mores, the British era translated such control and its concern with black leisure into legal codes for movement and activities in the city.  


  • 90's Throwback: Rem + Mies

    Posting this much about Mies makes me feel like this blog is circling back to where it started two years ago, when I posted about Modernity and Ideology from my studio in Germany.  Somehow this recent time in the MidWest, transitioning from Brooklyn to Detroit, does remind me of settling into...


  • Affording Mies

    One of the principles that guides my approach to architecture and urban design is the sense that architecture has much more to offer than luxury.  Whether you consider our field professionally in comparison to doctors and lawyers, or as a discipline comparable to art, we have a lot of room to be...


  • Interview with Keller Easterling about Subtraction

    Keller Easterling is an internationally-recognized architect and theorist working on issues of urbanism, architecture, and organization in relation to the phenomena commonly defined as globalization. Her latest book, Subtraction, is published by Sternberg Press.  Easterling is a Professor of...


  • When an emerging design firm gets an office in downtown Manhattan for $1

    My collaborators and I have recently secured an office space in downtown Manhattan to lease for $1.  That's one dollar.  It's a pristine storefront, ideal location between the Lower East Side and Chinatown (easy biking from Brooklyn and 1 block from the Grand St subway).  Wifi and utilities...


  • DS+R Scanning Beyond Fashion #NOTinVenice

    Perhaps we are so accustomed to hearing architect's present their designs as inspired by clothing -- whether the drape of a veil in Abu Dhabi or the flair of a skirt in Prague -- that we do not consider the intersection of architectural output and costuming to be newsworthy. The two modes of...


  • Interviewing a French Literature Scholar about Style, Sexiness, Politeness, and Power

    Mahalia C. Gayle is from Seattle, WA. She completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University and her graduate work at Harvard University, both in Romance Languages and Literatures with a specialization in French. She has taught at Harvard University, Boston University, Emmanuel College...


  • Her analogous city

    In honor of Her winning best original screenplay in the Oscars last weekend, I am going to finally post this.Spike Jonze's Her is a masterpiece of a movie that lends itself to comparison to Brazil.  At least, architecturally and urbanistically, it does. One could also develop a comparison in...


  • How do architects fail?

    What is it about failure that is so seductive in art and such anathema in architecture?  Perhaps there is something about the relationship between client and architect that makes failure so…. taboo, so unthinkable, and un-seductive.For the past few months I have been part of an...


  • Detroit House Opera

    Inspired by the flexibility of uses for houses in Detroit, in proximity to the major cultural institutions for opera and diverse forms of performance, this project stages an opera as a house, the house and its dramas of occupancy and vacancy, demolition, and re-purposing, as an...


  • Mumbai Anthropocene

    This "Another Architecture" blog started as an intermittent chronicle of my architecture fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude.  I was back in New York for the summer, preparing for the next phase of my fellowship in Zagreb Croatia, when I got a call from U. of Michigan to teach the Fall...


  • Columbia GSAPP Shocker

    I can't believe Wigley is stepping down from the Dean position at Columbia GSAPP.  The Studio X infrastructure seemed to be still ramping up and ready to take over another continent.  Like Antarctica, for example. This makes me feel like I must have reached mid-career already, since I...


  • James Turrell and Robert Irwin

    This summer in New York we are having a rare dose of major works from the West coast's "Light and Space" movement.  That phrase Light and Space always makes me think first of Light and Air, that penultimate duo of Depression-era tenement reform and the 1916 New York City zoning.  The...


  • Primate is doubly digital

    This is a brief summary of Primate, the plugin that I created to integrate Leap Motion with parametric design in Grasshopper.    For me there are 3) big break-throughs that Leap enables.  1) bringing to digital processes an intuitive access to 3 dimensions.  That is very...

    Primate demo



  • Mobile office

    My residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude has ended for the moment.  I am back in New York for the summer, will be in Europe again in the fall. Here in NY my office is mobile.  I am mostly at either the main library at Bryant Park in Manhattan or at one of the Goethe Institute...


  • Istanbul, the Bosphorous, Corbusier's sketches, Rex

    How much of the history of urban design as a discipline can be traced back to Corbusier's reading of foreground and background in Istanbul? He took his first research trip abroad to Istanbul in 1911 and wrote of the relationship between the massive forms of the mosques and the repeated typology...

    Crossing Bosphorous by taxi



  • Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus Bregenz

    It's sort of 2 and a half buildings in one.  A functional envelope that might remind one of the Eames' house, if the Eame's house were 4 stories and all glazed.  Outside of that are the overlapped panels of glass that come all the way down to the sidewalk. Inside is concrete - interior...


  • Messe Basel - when big architecture knows its neighborhood

    There is not much I could add to Herzog + de Meuron's own description of their Messeplatz Basel project, which is quoted in length here on Dezeen, along with photos.  Often in our field a project description can sound a bit like an artist statement, heavy on intent and concept, but maybe...


  • [Not Luxury] concept furniture

    [Not Luxury] concept furniture line, on view with exhibition design for chessmaster Vera Nebolsina's performance next Saturday for Lange Nacht der Museen 2013 (Long Night of the Museums) at Römerstasse 2 gallery space, Stuttgart.  The furniture is based not only on affordable recyclable...


  • Chess master visits architecture workshop

    A month ago already in this blog I mentioned a collaboration I had started with a chessmaster.  Here's a video of her visit to the workshop I led at Stuttgart's Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste.  Presented in the context of a workshop that I directed at ABK Stuttgart...



  • Write your manifesto in 60 - 80 words

    A friend of mine, a colleague who also manages a practice in Brooklyn, asked me to contribute to his collection of manifestos and influences for a presentation.  Here are the instructions, followed by my own manifesto below.  What would yours be?     (1) Write a theory...


  • Parameters of chess

    Tagged chess, grasshopper

    Photo by Vera Nebolsina, Grandmaster As I've alluded to before (Brunelleschi = BIM), I tend not to see digital design methods - such as Building Information Modeling or parametric design - as paradigmatic ruptures within architecture and its history.  The capacity of parametric modeling as a...


  • Sweating Tanks at Tate

    The Tanks at Tate Modern opened this past summer.  They are spaces dedicated to performance that also launch the next phase of the Herzog & de Meuron expansion.  As Herzog & de Meuron explain one aspect of this connection to the expansion " A row of new and inclined...


  • Ceci n'est pas un BMW

    Am I the only person who mistakenly thought Coop Himmelb(l)au had designed both the BMW Museum and the Porsche Museum?  I saw Wolf Prix present the BMW Museum project 7 or 8 years ago.  Maybe it's because some of the structural feats are similar that I got them mixed up.  (UN...


  • Brunelleschi = BIM

    Last week I had the great fortune to go to Pisa, Italy, for the first time and Florence for the second time.  I am struck by many parallels between the era of the early 14th century and our own time, more than I can go into in this brief post. I am not talking about the...


  • GIS across borders

    Is there any more concise record of globalization and its various militaristic and managerial operations than the Coordinate Reference System options in your standard GIS software?  For a project sited in Detroit, I have started building a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) map focused...


  • Learning from stinkbugs

    On November 23rd, a biologist, an economist, a media theorist, a composer and a few other academics came here to Akademie Schloss Solitude to make a symposium on RhythmAnalysis.  The title references Henri Lefebvre's Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, but the presenters talked...


  • How to Live

    Before coming to Stuttgart I didn't know anything about the Weißenhofsiedlung (residential development curated by Mies van der Rohe in a collaboration between Deutscher Werkbund and the state).   It's a fascinating predecessor to the Case Study Houses, as well...


  • Le Corbusier or Hans Scharoun?

    1927 in Stuttgart, Germany.  I'll give the answer in my next real post.


  • Modernity and ideology

    For the past few weeks I have been thinking mostly about modernity and ideology.  We talk often in architecture about the relationship between theory and practice.  Like the opposition of public/private or political/autonomous, the duality of theory and practice feels both important and...


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About this Blog

Ongoing theory, travels, exhibitions, research, software. This blog started with research, theory topics, travel and architecture discoveries during my fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany.

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