As seen in the recent #NotMyAIA shake-up, the election of Donald Trump provoked a heated response within the architecture community. Many architects felt that now, more than ever, they had to voice their concerns over the president-elect's policies that threatened their professional values—chief among them, the leveraging of architecture to perpetuate xenophobic rhetoric, through one of Trump's loudest campaign promises, the U.S./Mexico border wall.
Many in architecture schools also felt the responsibility to organize and speak out, perhaps especially because of their position to influence the next generation of architects. Since the election, we've been reaching out to academic leaders from across the U.S. to hear how they were handling Trump's presidency—and what they were telling their students. We've gathered their responses here.
We sent the following questions to architecture deans/directors at schools across the country: What does Trump's presidency mean for architecture/architects? What responsibility do you have to your students to respond to the views of the President-elect?
In their responses, some also directly referred to #NotMyAIA; some sent responses that had also been sent to their student body. Leaders at the following schools have not yet responded to our request: University of Notre Dame, University of Texas – Austin, and Syracuse University. We'll add to this piece as more responses come in.
Full disclosure, I'm not an AIA member. I'm the director of SCI-Arc and I cannot assume that everybody thinks in the same way in our school, so my comments are coming from my own points of view.Architecture is not just a business. It is also a way of representing in built form what we think is important.
I am disturbed that the leadership of the AIA decided to speak on behalf of its entire 89,000 member constituency, and by implication architects in general, without consultation and public debate. Beyond the process by which it was released, I thought the statement itself was insensitive and tone-deaf to the tensions of this moment in American history. It seemed overly focused on commercial opportunities and blind to other demands for service to the public (which incidentally is an entire section of the AIA's own code of ethics). Architecture is not just a business. It is also a way of representing in built form what we think is important. It is a platform for questioning what we thought was important in the past. It is a way of working that enables necessary conversations in the present. If the AIA becomes nothing more than a lobbyist for the commercial interests of the largest corporate architectural practices, architects should question what their membership in the AIA actually means.
If we've learned anything during this election, it's that words matter more than ever. Speaking to each other matters more than ever. Thinking about the world we build for ourselves and future generations matters more than ever. The discipline of architecture is thousands of years old, but architecture [in the U.S.] has been professionalized for less than two hundred (the AIA was founded in 1857). Because of the AIA's relative youth compared to the entire history of architecture, we can only assume that what it is and what it does is still very much up for debate.
At Columbia GSAPP, we feel that our responsibility is to continue to cherish the diversity of backgrounds, cultures and interests that our outstanding faculty and student body bring to the school. This creates a unique, exciting and challenging community where unwavering intellectual generosity and the desire to communicate and exchange across our differences are the foundations of how we learn and grow together.
Our engagement in shaping the disciplines of architecture and the built environment is predicated on a commitment to both continuity and change: bringing together disciplinary knowledge with the relentless interrogation of those disciplines’ foundations and boundaries, to produce new modes of scholarship, of practice and of action. Today, more than ever we need to empower our faculty and students to draw bridges, not walls.
This recasting is neither abstract, nor gratuitous but rather driven by the desire to broaden our responsibilities and abilities to engage with the realities of our interconnected planet — as we draw together across contexts, cultures and scales: the global and the local, the urban, the rural and the natural, architecture, cities and the environment, art and every day life.
Architects can draw lines that become walls that exclude and divide or they can draw lines as vectors that connect and render the invisible visible. We are the channels by which policy, law, economics, real estate, data science and public health (amongst others) become spatial and material, lived-in realities. Today, more than ever we need to empower our faculty and students to draw bridges, not walls.
[The following was also sent to the GSD Community]
The recent presidential election, if nothing else, has been a wakeup call not just for the nation but for the design profession at large. The debates have unraveled the extreme differences and disparities between communities and geographies — between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the global and the local.
Sadly, the prevalent and proto-nationalist posture of much of the propaganda has found a convenient way to blame the “other” for everything that is wrong with our society. This clever sleight of hand does disservice to the disenfranchised, who have the right to homes, schools, work places, public spaces, and livable communities. These are just some of the necessary elements of a good and honorable life that require the talents of designers. We must make sure that our creative efforts towards the making of a just and better world are more effective and consequential than ever before.
The GSD’s diverse and international community is and remains vigilant against all forms of injustice. We must make sure that our creative efforts towards the making of a just and better world are more effective and consequential than ever before.
Our belief in the transformative power of knowledge and learning is one of our defining characteristics. This is the time for positive and united action. We will not only be shaped by these actions but will be judged by them too.
Long live kindness and the powers of the imagination.
Infrastructure Worth Building
The aim of rebuilding infrastructure might not seem particularly partisan. It was a priority for President Obama and should properly be a goal of the next administration, too. But infrastructure of what kind? When American Institute of Architects leadership promised to work with President-elect Trump on “schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure” and urged Congress to enhance “the design and construction sector’s role as a major catalyst for job creation throughout the American economy,” the statement put economic interest above ethics. It also aligned AIA with whitelash, since infrastructure for Trump begins with a border wall supposed to secure white prosperity through racial exclusion.
Upholding human rights and pursuing justice in Trump’s America requires us to build other infrastructures: schools and hospitals for sure, facilities for childcare and affordable housing, frameworks for solidarity and mutual care. Federal policies and purse strings give the President broad impact on our lives, so building infrastructures of inclusion requires national activism. It also calls for work at other scales. [Recently] legislators vowed that California would “defend its people and our progress,” stepping up to become a keeper of the future, while my city of San Francisco voted for school bonds, affordable housing, and police oversight. Withholding our labor is architectural agency in one of its strongest forms. A profession that serves justice is an infrastructure worth building.
Society — civil and, when necessary, uncivil — is another field for action. We can start by hearing “America” and “American” in their broader, hemispheric meanings... or discarding these frames to form affiliations that are cosmopolitan, subnational, and translocal. As with the Occupy movement a few years ago, such work can be at once practical and projective, small scale and big impact. Imagination is infrastructure. Another world is possible.
By housing, feeding, training, and treating our population, architecture transmits biopolitical imperatives that often transcend party politics. The new Jim Crow began with Clinton-era drug policies that spurred judicial construction and turned even some schools into prison pipelines. Understanding these modes of power can help architects better promote equity and autonomy via dwellings, farms, schools, and clinics.
Some work an architect must refuse. Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility has called on AIA to recognize human rights by barring members from making spaces for killing, torture, and abuse, and it has urged everyone to boycott prison design in the context of mass incarceration. Would you design Trump’s wall? How about a border station for his Homeland Security Department? A conversion therapy clinic? Withholding our labor is architectural agency in one of its strongest forms. A profession that serves justice is an infrastructure worth building.
I have spoken more extensively about these issues in the AN interview, so I am already on record with respect to the AIA statement. However, speaking more directly to your questions, I have the following reflections:
When I joined Cooper Union as the Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, it came at a time when my practice, NADAAA, had established an important series of projects with some stability. As such, I saw the academic commitment as a way of giving back to the academy in substantive ways after over 25 years of teaching. This was a way of contributing my time, my thoughts and my finances to a project in which I am wholly dedicated. To do this, I think it important to define a space for learning, not just teaching. Within that space, the students' voices are important in establishing a discussion and helping them to drive a set of debates that will become their life projects.
The results of these elections have been catalytic to say the least. Just one week [before the election], we may have been speaking about the agency of formal, spatial and material strategies that drive architectural positions. With this incoming administration, and the words that define them, there is an urgency to establish a deeper understanding between what we do as designers and the ideological implications they harbor. While much of what is developed in design schools relies of the technical development of students — through drawings, fabrications, and engagement with software — how these media can come to dialogue with the state of discourse today becomes ever more important.Our responsibilities are to expose intellectual projects, to reveal positions and to enable the space of disagreement.
Thus, my responsibilities to the students, in great part, revolves around the possibility of creating a space of debate, where critical positions are revealed across the wide spectrum of ideological views. A couple of weeks ago, before the elections, we had the pleasure of hosting Patrik Schumacher, whose views on the entrepreneurial imperatives of formal research have been paired up with a political perspective of deregulation and freedom from policy that can be characterized as the extreme right of the political spectrum. What was interesting about that roundtable discussion was the way in which Schumacher tapped into the architect's desire to research, explore and experiment with a medium that has so much agency in forming our environment, on the one hand, and how he had paired up this necessity with political forces that have historically sidestepped, or marginalized questions of the environment, social equity, public space, and a range of other debates that can be attributed to a link to policy in poignant ways, on the other. The tension in his argument is palpable, and effectively a good index of our fraught historical moment... and of course, its contradictions did not go unnoticed by the students. Our responsibilities are to expose intellectual projects, to reveal positions and to enable the space of disagreement.
To this end, while there are many things in the professional realm for which the students may need to be prepare, our responsibilities to the students are to enable them to form critical opinions. The balance of an inter-disciplinary environment is to offer them varied lenses through which they may the same questions. In many ways, we are committed to preparing the students for the uncertainties that lie ahead, to think strategically, critically and speculatively, knowing fully well that they will be transforming practice as we know it, and not just necessarily fitting into a well defined path.
Responding to the views of the President-elect will require an immediate call to intellectual arms, but also the patience to oversee the process for years to come. If anything, Trump has given purpose to much of what we need to do in transforming the academic setting to educate a wider spectrum of the population and to create spaces of learning that enable tolerance, freedom of speech, and dissonance. If the roadblocks in the halls of Congress are a good index of what has come of public debate in the last decade, then this is also the time for us to imagine a very different way of building discourse moving forward. The oppositional binaries of good and evil that prepared such radical and transformational political decisions such as the road to war in Iraq will not suffice any more; in response we will need to build in some of the more difficult predicaments of political choices that produce the complexity of discursive gradients.
One of the extraordinary aspects of a university is that it is a condensed society: we live, study, and work in tight quarters. Universities concentrate together an especially diverse population — diverse in our backgrounds, diverse in our opinions, diverse in our ambitions.
Universities are also condensed versions of modern life, which is defined by social change – by a persistent “future always in the making,” as Louis Menand has put it. Every class asks you to think forward: to help articulate, design, construct the future that is always in the making.
To these multiple condensations, the RSA adds the factor of time: we spend more time together in one building than most other disciplines do on campus. We also spend much of that time together on too little sleep, which often limits our ability to take the time to think carefully, to talk thoroughly, and to work productively (how many times do we need to underscore the message that sleep is a necessary ingredient to intelligence?).We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity.
Whatever your political beliefs, we can all agree that the election has further exacerbated these conditions. It can be hard to take the time to think through your individual reactions to the election process and the election results. I encourage all of you to take the time to formulate your own, reasoned opinions on these issues and more: on all of the current and historical issues that you believe most influence your “future in the making.” Being a student is exactly that: while I realize you can sometimes be overwhelmed by assignments and deadlines, if you step back for a moment, you’ll realize that these years are when you have the most time to formulate, test out, and advance your opinions.
Opinions are also always in the making – they cannot be fixed but must constantly advance, as your context changes. To that point, let me return to Louis Menand (and let me recommend his excellent book, The Metaphysical Club, which recounts the lives and thoughts of four powerful American thinkers who helped to define modern thought around the turn of the last century: William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey): We do not (on Holmes’s reasoning) permit the free expression of ideas because some individual may have the right one. No individual alone can have the right one. We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity. I tolerate your thought because it is part of my thought – even when my thought defines itself in opposition to yours (Menand, 431).
You’ve often heard me say that the foundation of the school is engaging in conversation. It’s why our extra small size lends us such an oversized advantage. The differences among individuals in the school are what hone those conversations. We advance those conversations – our projects – by engaging questions and issues that are critical to our collective future in the making. Please pause, consider your own opinions, remember that others are considering theirs, and take the time to talk together so as to further our future. These conversations might be spontaneous, spirited, longwinded, or concise. The school is not going to schedule one single conversation – that would be artificial. Each conversation you undertake is part of the ongoing conversation that is your education.
At the heart of a talk given by architect, Manuel Aires Mateus in 2013 was the idea of the idea. As he spoke about the ephemeral nature of the built world and the recovery of ruins, he was asking, in the end, what do we leave behind?
Ideas are the only thing that may survive us. So, we must be careful what we build because the ruin is often our mark. The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the long history of medieval city walls…these are ideas of exclusion that are built into the landscape and survive. Are there city walls in the United States, a country wall? One could argue that we are formed by an idea that is precisely opposite. Ideas are the only thing that may survive us.
As for universities, it is our mission to offer unhindered passage (academic freedom) for students and teachers in the quest for ideas. We are fortunate at the University of Kentucky to have a president, Eli Capilouto, who is an unparalleled and formidable champion of inclusiveness. As the author, Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, “libraries, museums and schools are fragile institutions.” We might do well to re-read the history of Alexandria, Rome and the survival of an idea – Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.
In our digital era the infrastructure of our ideas is captured by the binary system of 1s and 0s, indelibly it seems. We must be careful of this infrastructure as well. What we say is also what we leave behind.
While these comments have not been shared prior with my constituents in the College of Design, I hope that I have not unfairly represented my colleagues and those that I serve.
Update 12/8/2016: The following schools were also contacted for response: Yale University, The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Tulane University, Florida A&M University, Virginia Tech, California Polytechnic University Pomona, Howard University.
Former Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Currently freelancing. Be in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org