How can architects move beyond traditional practice toward protection and restoration?
Utopias. Futurism. Eyes on the street.
Green stormwater infrastructure. Green roofs. Oyster reef restoration.
David Wallace Wells. Jo Handelsman.
Research on our profession’s past work has taught us a lot in the last 40 years, giving rise to concerns like building performance, resilience, and inclusion — and, oh, the Native Americans were probably right. Our work often intersects with several subjects and impacts large groups of people. We are privy to high-level conversations and have the ability to change lives for the better and for the worse. In truth, we have a lot to clean up. This is presumably why we read so much theory — to be mindful of the power in our pencils, in our imaginations. But is the way we envision how our profession impacts society still a bit myopic?
Architects as Advocates for a More Healthful Built Environment
In 2018, the EPA reported that construction contributes 600 million tons of debris per year, a quantity that stands to almost double by 2025. In Texas alone, construction and demolition produce over 7.7 million tons of waste each year, with only 370 thousand of those tons diverted to recycling. Could people with an architectural education create change that increases the latter number? With the heat island effect on cities’ agendas, could urban planning also come to include climate policy lobbying?
When energy efficiency specialist Amory Lovins showed that our industry’s work was responsible for 75 percent of the nation’s energy use, engineers, architects, and businesses collaborated to reduce that number to around 45 percent. Clearly, problems can be solved when effort is expended. It stands to reason, then, that an assemblage of architects, engineers, scientists, possibly economists, and others could work together to find solutions to such lingering problems as our lack of lower-income residences, our aging infrastructure, our deficiencies in multimodal transit, our sidewalks that are inaccessible to people with disabilities, and our lack of balance when it comes to green space. Plainly put, now would be a good time for our industry to develop a placekeeping arm — or at least a lobbying arm focused on placekeeping policies. And probably both.
“Decolonizing the way we think about design and architecture and the processes by which we create the built environment begins with taking humans off the top of the pyramid and placing them as an equal part of a circle,” says Matthew Hickey of Two Row Architect, who is Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. His work seeks to protect space for flora and fauna, and all manner of life and activities. “Bees, for example, have a significant sphere of influence,” he adds. In his presentation “Design through an Indigenous Lens: Decolonizing our Approach to Architecture,” he pointed to his reimagining of Biindigen community establishments, combined into a campus of multilevel earth shelters. He also called for more flexibility in our infrastructure: multimodal pathways that can adapt easily over time, be easily manipulated, and be freely transformable (and cost effectively so).
The tabula rasa approach that we are used to, which we see in suburban developments and gentrification, is a holdover from the colonizer mindset and the “Father Knows Best” days of architecture that got us into these pickles.
“Only when the interests of a dominant group converge with the interests of a weaker group can the dominant group guarantee the rights of the weaker group,” said lawyer and civil rights activist Derrick A. Bell Jr.
Bell was referring to the fight of Indigenous people for their right to maintain culture independently — in the spaces where they’ve been for centuries — and for outside endeavors to not endanger the well-being of their spaces. While cultures and practices differ by group, there exists the common thread of a holistic human and non-human coexistence. It is this view that drives the spirit of protecting lakes and forests, or creating rules against exploiting certain species. That’s not to say that Indigenous people don’t alter habitats or drive down animal populations — nor carry the sole responsibility for protecting our environment. But in general, conservation has been embedded more in Indigenous traditions than in Western cultures. Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the world population yet protect 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Indigenous People Trying to Keep Texas Healthy
According to the 2019 Coastal Erosion Planning & Response Act Report, Texas loses four feet of coastline every year. Restoring it by importing sand and other technical maneuvers costs the state multiple millions annually. A proposed (now halted) oil refinery expansion plan in Corpus Christi would have taken more of that shoreline and trampled on unceded Indigenous Territory. The Karankawa Kadlas have fought this expansion to maintain their prayer space and access to their ancestral archaeology, as well as to reduce the harm that oil plants cause to the surrounding environment. The “Kadla,” a word meaning “mixed,” are descendants of a semi-migratory tribe called Karankawa who are Indigenous to a wide swath of the Texas coast, ranging from Corpus Christi to the Bolivar Peninsula and inland as far as San Antonio, Austin, and Galveston. They often run into barriers because people assume that no Indigenous Texans remain in Texas.
The tribes recognized by Texas are not actually from these areas (Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, and Tigua). It is a legacy of Mirabeau Lamar who, in 1838, declared it illegal for any “Indians” to live in Texas. (Though Congress had made laws protecting some tribes during this time, state laws and the Supreme Court often ignored these protections when there were capital interests. See: Johnson v M’Intosh, Cherokee v Georgia, and “The Marshall Trilogy.”) Many moved or began passing as Mexican to avoid death or harassment. Because of this history, proving Native American bloodlines, affiliation, or heritage makes meeting federal guidelines to become a recognized tribe very difficult — and that’s before getting into the hairy discussions around blood quantum laws.
The Incentive for Architects To Become Placekeepers
Historically, most designers haven’t entangled themselves with the social issues “around” the work. In fact, we have quite a terrible track record outside of the office. The Venice Architecture Biennale has been called out multiple times for using interns for unpaid work, and when Zaha Hadid was confronted about undocumented workers who died while working on one of her projects, she responded, “I have nothing to do with the workers.” Issues like that, they’re personal. They’re politics. As architects, we are used to making places; it’s someone else’s job to keep them — to maintain them, to manage them, to deal with the people. Major firms changed part of this dynamic by implementing post-occupancy evaluations. Despite the nonstandard questionnaires and implementation, this shift did a lot to repair the build-it-and-walk-away reputation set by our starchitect culture.
The AIA developed the 2030 challenge to improve weatherization of the envelope and increase overall energy efficiency, which decreases strain on the grid. But this goal only targets new construction. On the upside, the federal government has provided funding to weatherize homes since 1977. Only seven million homes have been serviced by the Weatherization Assistance Program though. There are more than 35 million homes eligible within the guidelines of the program, and 140 million new and older homes in the nation. Neither of those figures include office buildings, such as mid-rise commercial offices from the ’60s that would surely need updating. This is an opportunity for architects to help improve existing building stock and infrastructure.
In fact, there are millions of structures across the country that are
sometimes visibly out of code, yet cities do not fine their owners or temporarily close them until they are updated, even when the buildings are currently occupied by paying customers. It seems that city officials are more concerned with regulating restaurants than ensuring the health of their buildings and occupant safety. Think about the New York apartment fire last January that killed 19, or the 2011 Dallas apartment fire that claimed firefighter Todd Krodle’s life. As “doctors of buildings,” we should be at the forefront of demanding an end to such instances of municipal negligence.
This is one of the insults lurking behind gentrification: Even though buildings are being updated, cities have intentionally disinvested in whole sections of their territories, where low-income but tax-paying citizens live. Cities neglect inspections and trash collection, have gone lax in mowing park and right-of-way vegetation; then, without cause, they raise property taxes on residents and create tax allocation districts for outsiders in the name of “renewal.” If a business did that, it would be called predatory — and possibly even be accused of racketeering. (Or could the goal of these cities actually be removal rather than renewal?) But if renewal is the goal, could a politically motivated architect advocate for a TIRZ or a schedule of grants that allow homeowners and businesses to renovate up to code standards? Here is an opportunity for community-minded architects who don’t mind navigating the nonprofit landscape.
Are We Against Tabula Rasa Thinking, or Aren’t We?
Every so often we hear about an alligator or woodland animal that randomly shows up on someone’s porch. The reporters chuckle with confusion. “What must they be thinking?!” It is too seldom reported that that porch could have been built in an area where the animal used to mate, or that the area is where it nested before the developer bulldozed trees from the site. There is no acknowledgement of the life present before our banal (probably khaki) suburban projects were erected there. Research has shown that animals have memories though. They have emotions. A simple Google search will take you to long articles discussing how chimpanzees have politics and how similar dolphin communication is to human communication. Do we care that animals have a right to land and habitats?
We continue to sprawl further into wild territories with reckless abandon, in the name of perpetual growth. We’ve all read the papers about urbanism. The writings about balance with nature. The parks movement. But we won’t save the animals. We won’t even save ourselves. We need air. We know that trees make air, yet Texas logging nearly clearcut the entire state of its trees, following a policy of “cut and get out” that didn’t end until the 1920s or ’30s. Trees are not only our biological HVAC system; in cities they reduce heat islands. Today, human activity cuts down about 5 million hectares of forest every year globally, which is approximately half the size of Portugal.
In Houston, unbridled development has resulted in massive structural failures from Hurricane Harvey, repeated flooding in some neighborhoods, coyotes in Cinco Ranch. What are the Sugar Land wild pigs but a protest against suburban sprawl?
In California, the “world’s largest” wildlife crossing finally went into construction last year to bridge over an eight-lane highway in Los Angeles. The crossing adds to a broader plan among conservationists to connect miles and miles of wildlife refuges and preserves in support of wild animal health and safety. It won’t be the first in the world, but it may be the first of this scale for a metropolis of that size. The National Wildlife Refuge Service would like to connect many more. This is an opportunity for landscape architects. And if anyone knows any attorneys, Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood wrote what looks like an early version of a legal case for protecting nonhuman nature against expanding our built environment in her 2006 article, “The Concept of a Cultural Landscape.”
Meaningful Change Requires Us to Change
Striking a balance with our environment is both a common theme among Indigenous tribes and the one practice our national culture truly needs to appropriate — Ahem — adopt. To mitigate wildfires, the Forest Service is now adopting the wisdom of Indigenous practitioners of Cultural Burning. That practice, when it was used in Central Texas by the Tonkawas and Caddos, created a mosaic ecosystem that increased the biodiversity of the region. On the coast, we adopted their stilt home typology to avoid flooding but not the round forms that are now scientifically proven to decrease wind damage in hurricanes and tornadoes. Domes are also more energy efficient. For clients that have the money, solar chimneys — the hole at the top of a tipi — can help reduce cooling costs. There’s opportunity here to change our system and normalize typologies away from the movements we’ve been taught.
There are currently 70 thousand registered architects in the U.S., more who are not yet registered, and still more with an education comparable to the others. All are brimming with arcane knowledge that can help resolve many of the issues discussed here. But it requires change from the mindset of nonstop production and standardization that has our nation and economy in a headlock. If that dynamic can change, we might be able to find a better balance with our planetary host, our animal neighbors, and our human neighbors. However, some of us need to shift from a point-of-service firm life into logistics, or nonprofit work, or politics because traditional firm life just does not provide the free time to shake hands and explain urban planning dilemmas to “civilians” every day. And we have a lot of work to do.
Andrea Texada is changing careers from journalism to architecture. She is in her third year of graduate school at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston.