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Architecture as Activism | constructive change

My last thoughts focused on the role space plays in perpetuating power dynamics – its power to divide, conceal and exclude the ‘othered’. With these thoughts in mind, I am constantly looking for opportunities to dismantle divisive barriers, but also to find the creative potential of architecture in constructing alternatives. How can architecture be mobilised as a force of activism, as a tool to enable, encourage and cement change?

Aerial photo of Namibian sand dunes, replicating and fanning out

Creativity is fundamental to change – we need ‘out of the box’ thinking to break free from pre-existing constraints and to even imagine, let alone build, new ways to live. Architecture, as the creative force that constructs our environments, must be a foundation for us. However, enmeshed as it is within the neoliberal world of capitalist accumulation, expansion and wealth creation; it can be hard to extricate the power of architecture from the power of finance to recover its values as a social, political and environmental practice.

From the naturalised status quo, the unquestioned environments of the routine and the everyday, Henri Lefebvre argues for utopian thinking as a method to revive our social imaginary. By freeing our creativity from the blinkered acceptance of the normalised, we provide space for the emergence of seemingly impossible alternatives. Architecture as activism, as a tool to build change, must become an extension of our ethical ideologies, harnessing both its tangible power in the reality of practice and its visionary creativity .

The questions of my student work and now into practice look to uncover the ways I can use architecture as a positive force for change. How can architecture move us away from value embodied via commodification towards building value through care? How do we organise our space-making, or rather whose practices do we recognise and value? How do our places, our reactions and interactions with spaces of activism affect us over time?


New Spatial Structures | counter-spaces, counter-cultures, counter-narratives

In recognising our identities as socio-spatially constructed, fabricated and reinforced as they are by our built environments, any path towards a more just society must include the strife for spatial justice. The redistribution of wealth, power and safety relies upon equitable access to resource, both physically and mentally.

An architecture of activism employs its power as an agent for change. As spatial activists, we can engage with these agencies to design and realise creative counter-spaces that challenge our current spatial infrastructures of harm to extend safety, care and accessibility beyond the normalised centre of our society.

Diagram details three agencies of power in architecture: infrastructural, socio-spatial and cultural

Infrastructural/Constructional Agency

Architecture has the power to build the physical infrastructures we need to enable new patterns of living to emerge. We can design and create counter-systems that run alongside and/or against the status quo, building the food systems to offer meat alternatives and de-commodify other species, the renewable energy systems to provide an alternative to fossil fuels and the modern technology that lets us emancipate the housewife.

We need the physical infrastructures that provide spaces of and for care, from the familiar typologies of open public libraries, public transport networks that are accessible space for all, to the radical spaces of queer culture, ballroom, sex work that make safe spaces for those society designs out. Benches reserve space for tired bodies within the rush of the city, playgrounds reclaim space for play and community centres defend collectivity, rehabilitation, radical politics and group mobilisation. By designing alternatives we redistribute space and power from the already centred to the excluded.

Spatial justice, ‘the fair and equitable distribution in space of socially valued resources and opportunities to use them’ (Edward Soja), is an essential aspect of our social justice movements. We can challenge neoliberal hoarding and privatisation to overcome food deserts and redistribute access to healthcare, education, social mobility for each individual and we can activate our collective right to the city: to build, shape and change our own environments, regardless of capital, status and ownership legalities.


Our public spaces form the foundation of democracy and enable our right to protest. As our rights are threatened today, it is within our streets that Kill the Bill protests fight back. From Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, to the chanting streets of the masses, collective space enables and amplifies our political voice, our activism. It catalyses change and empowers our collective identity, helping us win the vote for women, shout back against wars, show solidarity with black lives, celebrate queer existence. Preventing access to these spaces for any or all of us is an unjust barrier to our fundamental rights.

For each individual, spatial justice must defend against the monopolisation of power, decolonising and redistributing space. From independence movements that reclaim territory from colonial rule, to squatter communities, to a seed of guerrilla gardening against anthropocentric domination, decolonisation needs spatial activists to reclaim our place and secure against domination at every scale.

It is an intricate, complex and enduring process that will need us all to engage with fully and consistently, exploring our respective roles, powers and privileges in different areas as part of our ongoing learning. My masters project in collaboration with Robby Stubbs in the post-independence new town of Tema, Ghana brought this discussion into my practice in particular. We employed architecture's infrastructural agency to provide a new spatial structure within the fabric of existing communities under threat of demolition by centralised power. Uncovering the social, environmental and local economic value of their spaces, our intervention overlays a network of structure and services to enable vertical expansion and decompression, hoping to secure the spatial agency of local residents against the colonising moves of development corporations.

Yet even as we engage with the power in our privilege at this level, the project exposed the questions we must still ask ourselves regarding the place we have as White students of architecture in an African community fighting for decolonisation. Employing our privilege, even in solidarity with residents over corporations, furthers Western design logic's colonisation of African space. Beyond how we use architecture's agency, we must ask ourselves who enjoys this power.

Cultural/Symbolic Agency

The quantitative provision of counter-space to physically enable must be matched with qualitative counter-cultures - spaces that enable psychological access, safety and care. Beyond removing the walls that segregate us, we must unlock the agency of architecture to invite, reflect and amplify each other beyond tolerating otherness; to embrace, celebrate, care and rehabilitate.

Our environments should look, feel and sound as varied as our different shapes, sizes and preferences are, reflecting our rich diversity of body-minds through a rich diversity of shapes, textures and finishes. Soft ground comforts bird’s feet, whilst resistant surfaces allow wheelchairs, buggies, mobility aids. Loud spaces echo confident revolt for some, whilst quiet nooks of introspection are safety for others. An architecture of activism expresses the broad spectrum of culture, providing spaces that fluctuate, adapt and cross-fertilise to counter the monocultured landscapes procured under the power of the the few.

By reclaiming space for otherness, we can embrace an aesthetic language other than that of status signalling, value beyond displays of wealth to revalue to social in architecture. What if architectural style embraced queerness and camp playfulness alongside the pillared marble porticos of Whiteness? If we designed to accommodate thet chaos of the domestic we try to hide behind polished facades? If untamed nature was alive in our gardens and parks?

New aesthetics of power invite new voices to the room. If we learned to trust business decisions made in soft, cluttered spaces with a baby on board and laws to be debated outside the cries of “order!” to houses of lords, we could redistribute power to the mothers, the victimised, to those of us most affected ourselves. Decisions agreed in neighbourly front gardens could have just as much value as laws dictated by MPs. The design eye of ‘the woman at his side’ could have just as much credit as the object signed off in the office. Justice could be restored within families and homes rather than externalised to the powers of judgement, sentencing in court.


I'm curious too, chicken or egg? Alongside reflecting existing counter-cultures, architecture can guide towards change and demonstrate alternatives. Instead of employing spatial psychology as a tool of capitalism, placing adverts in prime sightlines, flattering lighting in fitting rooms and temptation at supermarket checkouts; can an architecture of activism instead support us through behavioural change? My master's thesis explores this idea under the framework of Prochaska and DiClemente's cycle of change. Within a transitioning landscape of food production, architectural language was designed to inspire contemplation of the alternative, to guide visitors into active change and to bridge the comforting familiarity of the existing with the necessary new for a sustained, maintained change.

Architectural language can redesign the aesthetics that maintain the binary of centred vs alternative to bring the othered into the everyday and to unblinker the centred to see alternatives. The adoption of veganism by the high street has diversified vegan culture beyond the lentil eating hippy to invite Pret’s smoothie drinking gym buff, to enable Greggs’ budgeting mother of three. Social media has created a space that feels accessible for marginalised voices to share resources on anti-racism, to de-stigmatise mental illness and raise awareness of other genders and sexualities.

Whilst the co-option of the alternative by the mainstream certainly doesn’t come without its complications, I still see it as an important step within activism to break down the barriers erected between dominant discourse and ‘counter-cultures’ to ensure the sustainability of change for everyone. Architecture can create environments that invite, support and communicate our new social imaginary, build our psychological freedom.

Socio-spatial Agency

Architecture as a social science brings the agency to connect the physical with the cultural, the here with over there, the outside with the inside and everything in-between. An architecture that acts counter to binary division embraces the liminality of the spectrum. From gender neutral toilets that refuse to segregate along gender norms, to planning that reintegrates industrious production with cleansed consumption, we can design care into our spaces through desegregation.

Within architecture, the call to embrace the in-between is a familiar reaction to modernist design and its boom of segregated spaces, designed to advance capitalist industrialisation. Critiquing their tendency to create ‘inhuman spaces’, binary and divisive, post-modern architects from many different movements focus on the spaces that muddy the binary. From Van Eyck’s 'twin phenomena', celebrating the power of threshold as a space of meeting, to Kurokawa’s interpretation of buddhist ‘ma’, the intermediate gap; as space-makers we recognise the value within these interstitial spaces where polarities co-exist, extend and dissolve.

Shared space allows shared lives, a greater understanding and exchange with each other. We can’t acknowledge the fullness of personhood if we only know a pig as a piece of flesh, a Black woman in her cleaning uniform at 5am, a drag queen from a poster for entertainment. Regions with the lowest immigration levels are the most fearful, have the greatest tendency to defend the self by excluding the other. Rather than building a sense of safety via exclusion, we can design trust via confluence.

An architecture of activism can embrace the fertility of the estuary where fresh water meets salty to celebrate liminality. We can empower meeting points of connection and empathy. We can provide street corners as performance spots for buskers, spaces to tout the Big Issue that allow an unhomed body to unfurl and stand taller, make us think and interact differently with each other. What if these spaces were built to reverse power, to elevate the homeless busker to a performer, someone with information to share, a story to tell?

Visual as well as physical, architecture has the agency to reveal that which we would never normally encounter, or that has been designed to ensure we don’t. What structures of power sweep under the carpet in service to the status quo can be reintegrated and rendered visible, designing out ignorance. Just as we call for Disney to reflect Black and Brown narratives, write strong female leads and allow old women to be more than cackling stepmothers; we must also call for spaces that reflect multi-faceted life in our everyday experiences. What architecture can no longer conceal, we immediately design better, what once was shameful and oppressed can become our pride, celebrated and integrated.

Feminist projects such as Lissitsky’s Frankfurt Kitchen bring value to the feminised space, introducing the efficiency, care and attention previously reserved for the masculinised workspace to the domestic. Kitchens, the hidden housewife, are now rarely squirrelled away at the back of the Victorian home, but are the celebrated host spaces at the light-filled heart of the home. Blurring the public/private divide within the household has catalysed change throughout society. More men take paternity leave whilst women take to the workplace, some partners cooks whilst others entertain, the modern Western woman's 'place' is no longer described as the kitchen.


Spaces of connection do not mean spaces of assimilation, masculinising the working woman in order to succeed in the workplace or tone policing Black women into code-switching until we listen to them. We can’t simply put a Black body in the same seat around a board room and expect harmony, or give a young person a microphone and expect a commanding speech. Neither is it about relocating the centred to the periphery, simply moving the power to a new source and ‘cancelling’ the existing. That is not sustainable nor new.

An architecture of activism is the awning over the veranda, the threshold between inside and outside. It values and bridges both the old and the new, meeting tradition with modernity, reclaimed brick with steel support, new mothers with a place to breastfeed at work and trans teens tailored sexual healthcare within our own GPs.

To ensure these bridges work from both directions, there is no way we can design them from only one angle. New spatial structures need everyone’s expertise to serve us properly.

New Social Structures | who gets to build?

“Architecture has a duty to reflect the nature and make-up of those who produce it, and those it contains”

– Adam Nathaniel Furman

If we are to design for difference and variety, for in-betweenness, connection and sharing; it is clear that we need to fully embody our spectrum of experience as spatial activists. We must move beyond the idea of the master builder who dreams up a fixed and finite utopia on behalf of society to see change as a messy work in progress; utopias as multiple, flexible and indistinct, part of the collective social imaginary.

Overlay of oscillation diagram with diverse body-minds travelling. Background shows meandering, expanding river flow

Architecture as a profession is infamously elitist, the status and value that come with the profession evidenced in the (White, middle-aged Male) faces it employs. We clearly desperately need to fully engage and act upon the discussions we are finally having about representation and access. We need to make space for Black and Brown architects, columnists of all genders, queer thinkers and disabled designers if we can hope to harness the creative agency of architecture.

We cannot build spaces that serve us all from the blinkered view of those who already ‘fit’, who smoothly flow through our environments, our creativity unneccessary and untriggered. Counter to our assumed starting point of a sketch or visualisation, Jos Boys’s dis/ordinary project starts with the ‘misfits’, those non normal body-minds who are failed by their environments. She highlights how it is not only injust to exclude designers from their right to the city, but incredibly short-sighted. Creative, non-normative design processes improve our environments for us all - feeling how the wind would whistle through alleys, hearing the stress of doors slamming and ringing alarms, smelling sensory gardens or feeling the warmth of the sun. We experience space via all of our senses, through our emotive processing of sensation, the memories, interactions and social relations they provoke. Do we focus on the visual impact of moving materials and form because it is easier than shaping a new social system?

As we redesign spatial structures that hide and conceal to instead represent, reveal and amplify, it is vital that our social structures shift in tandem. Designing for others rather than working with others risks displacing the objectification that commodifies into an objectification that romanticises. Spaces of representation cannot be inclusive via women modelling in lingerie windows, animals 'conserved' in zoos or 'authentic' Indian restaurants serving pink Tikka Massala; we need to design from within to decommodify social space.


Beyond inclusive, we need non-normative forms of production. Our feminism, our anti-racism, our queering of practice means redesigning practice structures as well as redesigning space to embrace alternative pedagogies and relationships. Matrix design collective embraced feminism in the 80s as a springboard for a more collaborative process of co-design. Working directly with clients and users, they took the time to adapt conventional architectural drawings into dollhouse-like models that made design more accessible, empowering local women's groups to take control of their own environment.

These slower design and procurement methods make space for other values to emerge beyond the focus on speed, efficiency and cost. Walter Segal's approach to co-design and self-build structures show how collaborative design can trigger the formation of other new social structures, building resident associations and campaign groups who continue their activism in the fight for housing rights.

Reframing design from top-down architecture to mutual co-creation dismisses the binary between ‘construction’ and ‘design’ to value us all as spatial activists. Rather than intellectualising architecture into the heavy texts of theory, or agonising over intricate details for the eyes of other designers; we must recognise the value that comes from lived experience. I love Liz Ogbus description of her role as an 'expert citizen'. Reconsidering the designer-user binary as a broader team of expert citizens and citizen experts levels the power imbalance. The architect becomes a skilled translator, employing their expert experience to aid the whole collective to reveal their narrative and empower them to shape their environment.

As citizen experts, every time we move a chair into the sun, hang a curtain to keep a draught out or busk on a street corner we are shaping our environment to serve us. As spatial activists, we have the opportunity to adapt it for the needs of others too. We can provide a wheelchair space as priority when we set up for a talk, place flowers to mark a lost life, hand the stage to an unheard voice. We can object to planning applications to expand the prison estate, to build new factory farms or demolish council housing for private development. We can lobby MPs to follow through on their climate commitments, ask to pedestrianise our streets. We can support farmers to convert and rewild and we can shop to invest in local fruit and veg schemes, shaping our environment to sustain us all.

Our empowerment as a spatial citizen expands the neoliberal narrative of owned space as power. We need to reclaim and steward the commons as a force of activism and a space of care. Narratives of individualism sell us the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ that, ultimately, we are all selfish beings. Instead our social structures must support effective stewardship of shared resources as part of a new infrastructure of care. Precious spaces such as community kitchens and DIY bike workshops - the expanding digital commons of open source design, 3D printing and free reading - they all pool resources to multiply access and benefits with less extraction and exhaustion.


Despite plentiful discussion about the changing role of the architect and the move away from ‘the master builder’, design collectives are still massively outnumbered by standard hierarchical structures of directors, lead designers and ‘partial architects’. Practices work in competition, relying upon long hours of labour at lower rates and in unpaid overtime to make projects profitable. Those of us who are still in the long process of qualification - the Part 1 and 2 Architectural Assistants, the un(der)paid interns - contribute hours of drawing work, design decisions, research and development; yet it is still the name of ‘the visionary’, the director, that gets credited with creation.

Though we no longer finish our facades with an inscribed nameplate as the portico’s headstone, we continue to imagine works as finished objects, dreamed up by ‘starchitects’, by one disproportionately talented individual. An individualistic framework of creation can only ever distort value creation to the top of the hierarchy, meaning other aspects of co-creation, along with the creators themselves, are left devalued and overlooked. By moving away from top-down hierarchies towards more horizontal practice structures, we could empower a much fuller spectrum of creation to bring agency to the 'CAD monkeys', the client, the neighbour, the fire engineer and the electrician’s apprentice, each of us active and important in the shaping of space.

From employee-owned practices, to cross-disciplinary collectives, to radical structures that seek value creation outside the competitive rent model; alternative social structures can redistribute value to other parts of the profession and society. Al Borde is a collective based in Ecuador who sustain their work by exchanging design expertise and site improvement for the rent of office space. Their exchange-based model frees them from the pressure of profit driven creation to value other riches - a work-life balance via a four day working week, horizontal relations in the office through shared lunches and knowledge creation through skills shares and residency programs rather than knowledge extraction for profit.

It blurs the division between work and and home life, becoming "less of a job for us and more of a way of living", bringing values of activism consistently throughout their active lives. The pandemic has triggered this same question for so many of us over the past year – where the new line between work and home lies, where our home self becomes our work self, our private self our public self. I hope we remember what alternatives we can live, what we can define as working and who we define as workers to build new, caring relationships between the polarised life and work.

Architects can also lead the way to rebuilding work structures, deconstructing the divisions we place between ‘the well’ who work and are credited with creation versus the sick, disabled or even ‘lazy’ who we cast aside as unproductive, benefit frauds, sponges of society. We can redesign our perceptions to see us all as contributors and users of our environment throughout our roles, our weeks and throughout our lives.




New Temporal Structures | from created object, to work of creation


"to (re)build communities of care, we will need to operate with the patience and longevity of healing"

- The Care Collective

My framing of ethics, its idealised utopia and the iterative practices we take towards it, compares social justice movements to the movement of infinity. Yet infinity isn't an exponential curve of impossible progress, leading to an unreachable endpoint, but is in fact an oscillating, cyclical system. To make places of care over commodity we must release our grip from the idea of constant, linear growth that our current economic system fosters and embrace the adaptive process of social, environmental and political care. We'll need to release architecture from its linear design process, the bounded time frame of the finished object and embrace it as a constant, adaptive, co-created work in progress.

Infinity symbol overlaid onto image of swirling, transient ice

As we adopt new social structures and value a broader spectrum of input and output, our grip over style and function will become less controlled, less elite. What we value will need to shift beyond status signals of wealth, monocultured ideas of cleanliness and Western tastes and typologies to make time to destigmatise the spaces constructed by 'others'; whether they are spaces shaped by other classes, other cultures or by our unfashionable forefathers.

Architecture as a profession is overwhelmingly wasteful, producing along a linear model of extraction and waste. We waste material, energy and labour to the point where construction is responsible for around 40% of the UK's total carbon footprint. Yet we continue to design waste 'away', sending garbage mountains to distant pacific island nations and bin collection to the back of house service yard, all to maintain the cleansed facade of the centred.

Instead, we desperately need to rediscover circular design, embracing new temporal structures that recognise value beyond the selling price of a ‘finished object’. As architects in activism we can provide infrastructures that manage materials, energy and resource within the commons – skills shares and swap shops in the community, rentable lighting, component-based design and material banks across the profession. We can harness our aesthetic skills to celebrate reuse, bringing beauty to the unpredictable aging of pre-loved materials over pristine white corners, to the regenerative energy of biodiversity and wildness over topiaried hedges and manicured lawns, to the lived-in comfort of existing fabrics over an untouched kitchen suite.

As a socio-spatial discipline, architecture can bring cyclical care into all of our daily lives, moving the out of sight, out of mind back into our blinkered realities. The hidden 5am cleaners and back of house trash collection can become front garden swap shops, moments of social exchange we engage in ourselves. The segregated mental health centres can diminish as we care for illness earlier, where there is still space for it in our support networks, in the workplace, within real life. The concealed work behind prison walls can become restorative justice, part of the home and the community.

To create environments that mitigate harm and encourage care, we need to question what it is that is truly harmful in our environments. Are the stigmatised environments of council estates and Black neighbourhoods really unsuccessful each time we tear them down to ‘regenerate’? Or are we clouded by racist and classist ideas of value, of crime? Crime is a construct, a different concept to harm - not all crimes are harmful and not all harms have been criminalised. Is it not just as harmful to demolish entire estates, displacing the already marginalised and wasting valuable construction material as the harm in drug use, anti-social behaviour or pickpocketing that we are trying to demolish? We must be aware of whose safety, whose harm we are truly concerned about.

We all have different body-minds with different identities, needs and preferences; but, importantly, we are not set into these bodies of difference. Our identities need space to fluctuate throughout our lives, year to year, moment to moment and context to situation. The need to declare our camp definitively so that others can identify and box us is constraining and unrealistic. As social structures change, as we recognise our fluctuating sense of self, that what and who makes us feel good is relative and as old definitions of gender and heteronormative sexualities fade; perhaps we will all learn to see what the ‘misfits’ have no choice to avoid. Whether we flow smoothly through the current status quo, or whether we are forced to fight for each step, we all need adaptive environments that flow along with us - the fits and the ‘misfits’.

Rethinking architecture as a process, space intersected with time, is imperative to an architecture of care. We must acknowledge the time it takes to heal, the evolution our spaces go through as we decolonise together. An activist architecture cannot continue to divide, to cancel those born with privilege and recentre on those we oppress, but should recognise the power privilege holds, architects hold, and work together to empower our environments. As citizen experts, the power of bottom-up activism already shines through via our soup kitchens, our 'senior lunches', our guerrilla gardening. As expert citizens, we can work to cement time's healing, securing safe spaces long-term.

As we work together, with a greater input from those bolstered by privilege, we can steadily uncover the areas where our environments fail to provide and reshape them to support us over time through change. We can hear the lack of space for exhausted Black activists, for queer sexual health, trans-athletes at work and liberated ex-farm animals and translate them into safe spaces and sanctuaries; reserve specialist rooms and make space for research, discussion. Our spaces of activism will evolve through time, from spaces that reveal the hidden, to spaces of protest that demand change, to spaces of regeneration, healing and adaptation.



Conclusions

Utopia and architecture easily combine to conjure images of the Modernist, top-down visions of individual creators, such as Le Corbusier’s dramatic Plan Voisin. Instead, my utopia of ethics is a collaborative project, one akin to Lefebvre's utopia that is "partial, constructive and gradual rather than totalising, destructive and hasty".

The process of change is always a dual process. We must critique the status quo, digging deep beneath the mundane acceptance of our naturalised everyday to acknowledge and name the power structures that shape us. As spatial activists, we should be fully aware of the pulls of competition, the power of wealth and privilege; we should name the colonisation, the patriarchy, the heteronormativity and the anthropocentric forces we all embue and practice under. Constructing a counter-culture cannot jump straight ahead and ignore the divisions that cross our bodies, minds, spaces and societies.

But we must also remember our creative agency, our excitement and our power to change. As Lola Olufemi outlines, "if we do not see this world, someone else will. So imagine, and rise to the challenge". As a discipline that operates across such scales, endures over such a time, crossing the sciences, the arts and the social sciences; architecture has great power to reconstruct, we have great agency to reimagine.

It is key to acknowledge the limits of architecture, particularly when practiced under as part of a dominant system. We mustn't relocate responsibility from underfunding and unjust policy onto 'poor design', blaming council estate architecture and their resident populations for crime, harm and inequality. We cannot solve poverty and social injustice purely through architecture, but we cannot conceive of social justice without spatial justice.


Activist counter-cultures include the radical, the unknown and the new, but they are also already within us and our everyday. Whether we have the power to (re)shape whole neighbourhoods through acts of spatial planning, to bring light and warmth to the unhomed beneath a bridge in an activist installation piece, or to offer a chair to a tired body in an act of mutual aid, we all shape our spaces and our spaces shape us all.

We are all architects of our own worlds.





My next steps?

As with so many things, it has always come far more easily to endlessly critique the existing, still feeling overwhelmed by the idea of creating alternatives. Whilst that is not unexpected – it is incredibly hard to imagine what we haven’t experienced, especially through the fog of normalising power structures - it is this power of creativity that I now want to channel my thoughts and activism into.

This thought has helped me return to some ideas from my student work together with continued thoughts from practice to keep thrashing out what architecture means to me, how I want to practice it and how it fits with my activism. If my confidence and feeling of power as an activist waxes and wanes, that is nothing compared to the fluctuating relationship I have with architecture! I've had many a crisis over what the 'right path' is for me, whether it can do what I want it to do, and whether I can do what I want it to do! But reframing activism as simply 'us being active' and recognising the counter-cultures, counter-spaces we all already make, as citizen experts and/or as expert citizens, makes architecture as activism far more tangible and realistic for me.


My agency as a Part 2 feels even harder to grasp than my power as an architectural student did. It is too easy to be swept along by the established status quo of practice, working within a hierarchy of power, in a White-washed team and with the 'least to contribute' as the youngest, the least experienced. Navigating the built reality of power structures, legal constraints, funding constraints, competitive practice and business models reliant on profit clouds a lot of my work with the urge to work overtime, to please directors, to do the coolest design for the client and to forget the wider implications.

I think that working out my most effective activism in architecture needs me to combine the discipline's agencies with my own strengths, personality and approach. Whilst I don't feel like the kind of activist who can loudly take control, demand radical changes and lead new structures, I am learning to see and appreciate a more introverted activism of multiple small nudges, conversation guiding, suggestions, lobbying and leading by example.

At the moment, I am conscious of my contribution to the culture of working hours and my own work-life balance, my knowledge and consideration of others through veganism, my ongoing work in anti-racism and queering my thinking. I try to introduce ideas of environmental care to each project – through increasing biodiversity and homes for other species, conscious material choice and early consideration of energy. I am increasingly aware of how I can work collaboratively with clients and communities to fully value their inputs and prioritise their voice over my desire to please! This is also my reminder to make time to lobby, to research and push institutional change through groups such as ACAN, ASF and Architects Declare.

Outside of the office, I am trying to retrain myself to be less judgemental of spaces designed and used differently than I would! I am questioning the ideas I have normalised of quality, tied up in cleanliness, wealth, class, Whiteness and patriarchy, to embrace other people’s ‘clutter’ as part of them, part of us collectively and part of variety.

I am actively conscious of the micro ways I shape space – how I pass others in the street, the space I afford them, how I position myself in space in my interactions. Do I talk to cats and dogs from a position of spatial authority or do I ensure I get their consent? Do I walk past and ignore unhomed people on the street, or do I give them the space they are needing, the time we can afford to engage as I would like to? I like to subvert the power structures I hate by placing vegan products in meat sections, by leaving protest placards on street corners the street and by reclaiming wasted materials to shape my living spaces rather than buying new, contributing to the commodification of more (this one benefits me too!).

Architecture is so enmeshed with so many complex powers, both societal and personal that it feels infinitely complex to process. These will be thoughts I continue to return to, revise and evolve, but isn’t that what utopia is?

Stacked tiles, bricks and slate in a merge between reclaimed and new construction

a stable infrastructure laps our interdependencies into our (id)entities

Actions that motivate me!

Spatial Activists

- Henri Lefebvre - particularly his framing of architecture under neoliberalism, his thoughts on the value of utopia and the power of the everyday

- David Harvey - The Right to the City

- Aph and Syl Ko - Aphro-ism includes a powerful chapter on creativity as activism, plus the (spatial) impacts of the human-animal divide

- Lola Olufemi - her book 'Feminism Interrupted' has a great chapter on spatial activism and creativity as activism. I also learnt a lot from her work about intersectional power structures and their impact upon identity

- Leslie Kern - on the feminist city

- Lesley Lokko - on racial constructs and our built environment

- Jos Boys - The Dis/ordinary project in particular is a great reframing of shaping space through a disability informed framework - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqowuGx3mNQ&t=6s

- Matrix - Feminist design collective working since 70s

- MUF - Feminist design collective established in the 70s

- Resolve Collective - great work both in community engagement, alternative ways to shape space and many great panel talks and zoom lectures about many aspects of spatial equality and alternative design

- Al Borde - https://www.albordearq.com/


Resources

- The Architecture Foundation - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAaQgfEkcQQ0vxM0dIZLnFg - so many great lectures and discussions all available on YouTube

- Spatial Infrastructures of Harm - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgrIh0ZWJ3M - this discussion really framed how I currently think about the impacts and agencies of space and systems of power

- The Care Manifesto: Politics of Interdependence by The Care Collective - a manifesto to move us from commodity to care

- Race, Space and Architecture by the London School of Economics - really concise formulation of the intersections between racial identity and space

- White Papers, Black Marks: Race, Culture, Architecture by Lesley Lokko - exploring the way racial constructs shape our spaces, and vice versa

- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0MnGZ1gB4k - a fantastic TED talk by Liz Ogbu on her framing of the role of an architect

Movements to get active with

- Kill the Bill

- ACAN

- Architects Declare

- ASF

- Local planning


To follow

- @partwcollective

- @migrantsbureau

- @sound_x_advice

- @afterpartizine

- @blackfemsarc

- @poor_collective

- @_designcan__ Activism in my projects

- Cultivating Culture - was the project that guided my thinking into these 3 aspects of architectural agency. I aimed to introduce alternative food production systems to transition from animal-based fishing industries, damaging, unjust and segregated, to plant-based infrastructures that are culturally and spatially integrated across species

- The Unseen Labour Force - explores the spatial role and implications of division within the dairy industry, from the global divisions that reinforce the North/South or East/West inequities, to the divisions that allow normalisation and power to advertising, consumerism, to the segregation within the slaughterhouse floorplan that maintains desensitisation and oppression of humans and non-humans

- Intersections - a dutch housing project aiming to create co-living environments that provide space for a wide spectrum of ages, nationalities, classes, human and non-humans within shared spaces.

- Accommodating Growth - a housing project in Ghana in collaboration with Robby Stubbs, which uses architecture as activism to uncover and demonstrate existing values within threatened neighbourhoods. We provide a new structure and services that enables further construction by residents themselves to continue

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