A week after taking to the streets for the Women’s March in New York City and two weeks into the spring semester, I felt restless and helpless as the barrage of outrageous news took its toll. It’s difficult to sit still in studio when it seems as if the world is beginning to morph into a reality that is at once unrecognizable in its incredulousness and intensely familiar—the beginnings of history repeating itself.
But this reflection on figuring out how to take meaningful action began months ago. In the immediate aftermath of the election, architects were up in arms regarding their role in this new political regime. Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), said that its members “are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces.” On social media, responses from AIA members and non-members alike pointed out that the values that architects stand for are at odds with Trump’s politics. The hashtag #NotMyAIA became a way for architects to not only protest the system but also to find solidarity and support with likeminded colleagues.how can we, the next generation of stewards of the built environment, speak up for ourselves and take a stand for the values we believe in?
At the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University, where I am a third year Master of Architecture student, many of my classmates and I felt a sharp dip in productivity post-election. Design projects in studio felt meaningless; what was once an opportunity to be creative and inventive now felt like a hypothetical exercise that could not compete with the crushing weight of the reality outside the classroom. Time seemed to both slow to a crawl as we waited for Inauguration Day and fly out the window when we tried to get things done. GSAPP Political Action Projects was formed by leaders of various student organizations at GSAPP—including GSAPP-XX, an organization for women in architecture, and QSAPP, an organization for queer students—as a way for members of the GSAPP community to process their thoughts and feelings together through discussions and actions.
At the end of the first week of the spring semester, GSAPP students watched a livestream of the inauguration together in silence on the 6th floor of Avery Hall. Afterwards, faculty and students reflected on what they would focus on during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency in an open forum that covered topics from healthcare to housing, queer space to climate change. With graduation just a few months away for me, conversations with my cohort revealed a common theme: how can we, the next generation of stewards of the built environment, speak up for ourselves and take a stand for the values we believe in? In an effort to get students from all programs at GSAPP to participate, we set up an inflatable structure outside of the building in which people edited a first stab at an ‘Architects’ Oath’ and shared their post-inauguration thoughts and feelings on the walls of the inflatable.
As a first generation Asian-American, nonbinary person, my identities are inextricable from the work that I do in studio, the organizing I do at GSAPP, and the work that I hope to do post-graduation. While I’m in school, I am a soon-to-be-architect as well. With the help of friends who are as enraged as I am, I realized that training as a designer is a form of protest—the knowledge of history, processes, and collaboration that I gain now will be useful in the next few years. Even though architects often do not have the ability to directly affect change within the political system, our agency lies in the strength of our values and the specificity of our skills.our agency lies in the strength of our values and the specificity of our skills
So, two weeks into the semester and already feeling politically powerless, GSAPP Political Action Projects took a stand against the racist, anti-immigration actions that the Trump administration was taking in a notably architectural manner. The wall at the US-Mexico border and the Muslim ban hit close to home because architects take part in designing walls, and about half of GSAPP’s student body are not residents of the US. We took a cue from the Yale School of Architecture’s banner that had been put up the previous week and took advantage of the south-facing windows of Avery Hall.
On a Sunday night, several students and I designed the simple posters, printed them out, and taped a huge message to the windows: “WE WON’T BUILD YOUR WALL”. Students from GSAPP’s diverse student body translated “RESIST” into 14 different languages, which we also enlarged and displayed on the windows. It took hours of collective labor and cut into time that we could have been working on our studio projects (including some reprinting the next day because we needed permission from the University to keep the signs up) but it was worth it. We made our message loud and clear and expressed a sentiment shared by the GSAPP student body—that we have agency and that we are setting our boundaries.what is our responsibility as architects in this resistance?
It’s a relatively passive form of resistance while we work away in the studio around the clock. At night the protest sign glows bright, illuminating the way toward a more just and inclusive architecture. As students at GSAPP, we are asked to question the “traditional” role of architecture in society, so it comes as no surprise that we wonder: what actions students can take in the future, beyond building-scaled posters? How can our design skills and knowledge of architecture at different scales be leveraged in ways that empower us as citizens to affect political change? Can our design projects in studio resist the status quo? Ultimately: what is our responsibility as architects in this resistance?
A.L. is a 3rd year Master of Architecture student at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University who operates at the intersection of gender, race, activism, and architecture. They/them/theirs.