An Anti-Racist Architecture Manifesto

“There’s no ecological justice if architecture contributes to environmental racism,” this manifesto by the international architecture, art, and critical urbanist studio WAI Think Tank argues. And the case these practitioners make is that conventional architecture indeed consolidates environmental racism:

“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.”

“Other worlds are possible, urgent, and necessary,” the manifesto says. What does an anti-racist architectural practice look like, in concrete terms? “Buildings respond to the political foundations of the institutions that fund, envision, and desire them.” The text makes me think about buildings founded on more radical terms. What could such structures look and feel like, what would they do differently?

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Overall, I got the impression this article was a collection of discontents the authors wanted to express, although not tied into a central thesis. From the reader’s perspective the ideas are disjointed. I believe the “Theory” paragraph is what should be developed as the thesis of the article. The points the authors make could be more convincing if they were explicitly tied into a call to action, the vision of what a new architecture would look like, or, in concrete terms, what is to be done about the current state of architecture. I was left wondering what the authors have in mind for what a new architecture would actually look like.

I think that what the authors are getting at in regards to zoning laws, for example, is a “political architecture”. The authors could distinguish ideas about physical architecture-- for example: constructed spaces, built environment-- and an ideological architecture-- for example: societal attitudes, legal systems, cultural priorities. The latter would include zoning laws, while the physical architecture resulting from an ideological architecture includes blocks of abandoned buildings, cheap unsustainable residential housing, landscaping and parks or lack thereof. What the authors consider capitalist could also be considered necessary, including shops and grocery stores. While these places are associated with products, they are also products that can be essential for life and lacking in poor areas.

Another point that seems relevant but not emphasized in the article is how schools of architecture and architecture curricula need to shift as much as attitudes in the general public and government leadership. The desirable aesthetic and literally the formation of spaces need to change. I think proposing concrete changes to schools of thought could help the authors’ arguments as a call to action. The historical styles that architecture draws on are also rooted in a colonial past. Western tradition dictated much of how spaces and buildings were created. The styles also draw on the value of the individual over the value of community. Therefore there are fewer spaces and means to interact with others outside, places where people mix from different backgrounds and walks of life. Plazas and parks, and public transportation, for example, can create this kind of opportunity. More than just racial segregation, we need to also pay attention to segregation by age, country of origin, income and background. Calling for change at the top, from institutions and government, could facilitate the shifts the authors would like to see.

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I was surprised and excited to see the overtly radical (really “to the roots”) tone of this week’s readings. That said, this one really stands out. Truthfully, it fired me up, a response I doubt unintentional based on the tone and direct language.

The manifesto’s organization lends itself to illustrating the backdrop: racism pervades many/most/all of our social systems and the physical manifestations they assume, regardless of our (speaking white folks’) awareness of or personal confrontation with the reality. From my perspective, it seems easier for people like me - environmentally sympathetic, educated, white progressive/leftist/whatever-word-suits-you people (men in particular) - to intuitively accept the fact that capitalism, closely knit with pseudo-democratic oligarchy, inevitably leads to environmental devastation (on varying temporal and spatial scales) as described pointedly throughout the manifesto.

However, the harder-to-swallow pill is what this manifesto takes the step further to state: negative environmental impacts disproportionately fall on communities of color - normally with an eye for Black people - and this is not by mistake but by design. The authors drive this point home in the “Agnosia” section: “Thick like milk, this white blindness expands creating havoc and a system of exploitation and cruelty.” Given the politically divisive and taboo nature of discussing race relations, let alone the general lack of direct experience, this typically unsettles people who look like me (not abstracting myself from said “people”).

The authors really do great to bring this - I’ll borrow a phrase here - inconvenient truth front and center, where it cannot be evaded or left with lesser priority than the recognition of environmental harm to the general “humanity.” In a way, this reads as a literary manifestation of (if not a complement to) the nation-wide/global protests this summer; the confluence of disappointments, aggravations, and violence has mobilized people to shine a light on the intersection of racial injustice with our human/human and human/extra-human relations. A recognition of and persistent desire to learn about and correct our history of oppression cannot be abstracted from the motion to redesign/rebuild our habitat. By extension, any worthwhile effort must look beyond innovating within our historical and contemporary bounds and challenge them head-on.

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Author Kimberly Jones offers a powerful historical critique of structural racism in this video, worth watching in its entirety. “They are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”

While the WAI Architecture Think Tank doesn’t offer concrete solutions to designing a just world, they call on the creative powers of architects, designers, and others with justice-driven visions for a better world to rethink how we might build, make, and do. “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.”

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