Two months ago, already deep into lockdown life, I conceived this editor’s note as a paean to the opportunities of time for reflection, which Coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions and work-from-home orders had afforded me. I had sketched out a cabinet of slowdown curiosities that exhibited, I thought, how profitable not-for-profit work can be. It included the philosophical dreamtime of Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” intertwined with hallucinatory speculative architectures from Étienne-Louis Boullée to Bureau Spectacular and juxtaposed these feats of imagination and originality against the banality and spiritual emptiness of Austin’s 21st-century skyline, itself the product of 20 years of capitalist boomtown development. Here, at last, I thought feverishly, is the chance, in the shadow of the looming economic apocalypse, to free ourselves from the death grip of the spreadsheet!
Then, three Minneapolis police officers, applying a death grip of their own, murdered Houston native George Floyd, on camera, and the world, which was already smoldering, exploded. As I watched the outpouring of anger and grief that galvanized protests against police brutality and white supremacy in America and around the globe, I was reminded that not everyone in this great nation is afforded the pleasures and profits of reflection and speculation that I, skipping along blithely beneath the umbrella of white male privilege, take for granted.
The protests, and the inequality and violence that instigated them, are nothing new. As Ralph Ellison wrote in the 1981 introduction to his 1952 absurdist masterpiece, “Invisible Man”: “What is commonly assumed to be past history is actually as much a part of the living present as William Faulkner insisted. Furtive, implacable, and tricky, it inspirits both the observer and the scene observed, artifacts, manners, and atmosphere, and it speaks even when no one wills to listen.” Before Floyd, there were Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tony McDade, and countless others. Turn on the news today, and you might as well be watching the civil rights protests, riots, and aggressive police tactics of the 1960s. The protesters are not just angry because the police keep killing unarmed black people, they’re angry because the project of Reconstruction following the Civil War was never completed. African Americans, whose enslaved labor enabled the amassing of enormous wealth, were excluded from the benefits of that wealth and brutally subjugated, even as their “freedom” was granted them. Jim Crow never left the party; he just changed his clothes, as Michelle Alexander powerfully illustrates in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Architecture, of course, isn’t solely to blame for the terrible ways of the world, but it is complicit in them. Ever visited a Southern plantation and seen the difference in housing for master and slave? Ever been to a modern prison or looked at the racial makeup of its inmates? The fact that the 2019 Chicago Biennial, “…And Other Such Stories,” featured heaps of research into systems of inequality and yet offered very few architectural proposals that adequately address them, should tell you that the profession, along with the society it serves, has a long way to go in designing an equitable world.
Part of the problem is demographic. Architecture in the U.S. remains an overwhelmingly white occupation and thus is increasingly out of synch with the world it designs for, which is becoming more diverse, also poorer by population as wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Hopefully, the pledges of change made by the AIA and most of its state-level components, including TxA, will actually lead to a more representative group of professionals, who may then design proposals that are accessible and affordable to more people. It may be the only thing that will save architecture from the moribund track, running beneath the raised scythe of technological automation, down which it currently appears to be trundling.
It’s worth noting that the protests and the pandemic are related. Coronavirus and police brutality disproportionally impact African Americans and other peoples of color. It’s also worth noting that the protests have shown the importance of cities, public spaces, and streets as loci of assembly and group action. And yet some architects are openly embracing working from home as the future of the workplace. Such a future would surely deal a blow to the city, and an unnecessary one, as we’ve seen several large, dense metropolises handle the pandemic with only a brief period of interruption. Architecture is at its best when called on to create places in which people can gather, share, get to know each other, and build community. Isolation, on the other hand, will only increase the misunderstanding and fear that fractures our nation.