Architects and Agency in the 21st Century
In a viscerally changed political universe, architects consider their own agency and how they can act with relevant, effective strategies. As architectural discourse moves from autonomy to engagement, Professor Dana Cuff (UCLA) discusses both historical and projective practices, including her own work at the research and design centre, cityLAB.
Click the image above to play a recording of Professor Cuff’s presentation.
Welcome. My name is Shane Murray, I’m the Dean of MADA, Monash Design and Architecture. I acknowledge the people of the Kulin nations, the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered today. I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging and at MADA we acknowledge their connection to material and creative practice on these lands for more than 50,000 years.
It gives me really great pleasure to welcome Professor Dana Cuff to MADA this evening. I also want to acknowledge the support of our colleagues from the Melbourne School of Design in enabling Dana to visit Melbourne. As many of you know, Dana Cuff is professor, author and scholar in architecture and urbanism at UCLA where she is also the founding Director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovation in the emerging metropolis, a centre that we at MADA have followed with interest and admiration over a number of years. Dana has published and lectured widely about post-war Los Angeles, contemporary American urbanism, the architectural profession, affordable housing and spatially-embedded computing. Among her numerous publications two books have been particularly important: Architecture: The Story of Practice, which remains an influential text about the culture of the design profession, and The Provisional City, study of residential architecture’s role in transforming the city of Los Angeles over the last century. Her urban and architectural research now spans continents, Sweden, China, Japan, and Mexico. In 2013 and 2016 Dana received major multi-year awards from the Mellon Foundation for the Urban Humanities Initiative, bringing design and the humanities together at UCLA.
Dana’s lecture tonight in entitled Architects and Agency in a 21st Century. Please join me in welcoming Dana Cuff to the lectern.
Thank so much for coming tonight. I know the end of the school year, term, is already here so it’s particularly rewarding to see you. Thanks to Melbourne University and to Monash, and to [00:04:19.1] and Shane, especially. I’ve been trying to get to Australia for many years, and to Melbourne in particular, so it’s very gratifying to come at a time when I could meet so many of the faculty here and see all the student work and what great projects and work is going on here at Monash.
I have a kind of structured argument, so I’m going to read; I hope I do that in an animated enough way that it doesn’t bore you, but I want to make sure that I get through this argument carefully. I want to address what I think had been addressed in a number of the studio units that I’ve seen, and that’s what I would call our “agency”. Can you hear me fine? Our “agency” as architects. What it means really to “act” like an architect today and what’s our particular agency or effective capacity at this particular historical moment. It’s an important topic, now, here in Australia, with the vote that went the way we would all want it to today, which is very reassuring; I’m not sure in the United States how things would go in a similar fashion, which is part of what’s so troubling about our particular moment. We’re greeted each day with political turmoil of neo-nationalism, particularly in the US but also abroad in England, France, Japan, Spain, and Australia, and in the US the recent upshot has been some of the most violent intolerance any of us has seen in our lifetime, or maybe even the lifetime of our parents. It makes us feel impotent, there are few venues where we have civil discourse around opposing views outside of the sort of Christmas dinner table, actually. Really I find myself in a viscerally changed political universe, which really should give us maybe the opportunity to look at the various ways that architecture and architects can act with relevant effective strategies. I’ll just give the caveat that though I consider “architect” a designation that’s reserved for design practitioners, I’m in this talk also going to consider it in its broader sense as in architectural practices that include architecture professionals, scholars, journalists, academics, and even some policy makers.
To start with I’d like to share my own positionality in this discussion. Though I was trained in art and design, I hold a PhD in architecture and so am an architectural academic. Academics have practices that according to the social philosopher Pierre Bourdieu primarily consist of research, writing books, like this one, and articles and lecturing, like tonight. From the very start, however, as a woman in architecture who was not an architect per se, it was unsurprising that I had the inclination to muddy the water a bit further by deploying my scholarly practices to study the practices of architects and, to some extent, architectural educators.
My first body of research which made productive use of my own marginalisation resulted in a book about the architectural profession. It’s the one that I think a lot of people know, even though it’s a little out of date in my mind now. For a year of anthropological field work in architectural offices I examined the interpersonal politics between architects and clients. I concluded that design was a form of negotiation expressed in drawings, in models, and in conversation and occasionally, but only occasionally, in decisions. An architectural and a client group, for example, would meet to discuss their shared project over long periods of time and these meetings guided the design’s evolution but not through direction decision-making, as I initially assumed. Power relations, persuasive skills, resistance, control of the purse strings, these political machinations and more were always at play. Since I was academically based it struck me that we could do more to train students in these forms of politics that we find in architectural offices and that play a role in form making.
That led to a second body of work which also produced a book. Expanding from interpersonal negotiations around design I looked at the interaction between architects and the public moving to a larger scale politics of housing, communities, city agencies and elected officials, all the while searching for moments within the process where design occurred. It seemed like a kind of “Where’s Waldo” project to see where was the design actually happening. And by inference then the points of leverage where architecture is effective in political context. LA’s public housing for example, some of which you see on the cover of this book, was deeply politicised and yet the city housing authority hired some of the most talented and politically-committed architects to work on those projects through astute design and political intermediaries, kind of [0:10:04.3] clients, to create strong projects, even with tight budgets, strict regulations and great controversy.
The third body of work which, each of these is like a 10-year project for me, so I don’t know how many more projects I’m going to have, produced a research and design centre called “cityLAB”, one I’ve been talking about just this afternoon with some of the faculty here, and it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, which I founded with my colleague Roger Sherman. If the first body of work was an academic study, looking IN on the politics of the architectural office, the second was an architectural academic study looking in on the politics of the profession and its urban projects, then this third effort, cityLAB is, for an academic like myself, a more radical restructuring of research into a kind of design practice. Now rather than an etic study, or a study from the outside looking in, cityLAB represents an experiential body of research, an emic study from within. Given my own hybrid architectural status it took a couple of decades to develop an infrastructure that would support such unconventional research. As well as producing a set of research and design projects, say into densifying suburban single-family residential fabric, which I’ll show you an example of at the end of this talk, cityLAB is, importantly, a means of testing ideas about the politics of architecture through projects. For example, neighbourhood resistance to big-box retail might be overcome through landscaped urbanist approaches without changing the standard commercial branding or, after much research, the area around the university campus is deployed like a Trojan horse for a car-free Los Angeles, making people’s hair catch on fire in LA, since various advocacy constituencies can be found there and nowhere else in the city. So we make these kind of prototypical models out of site-specific projects that actually are intended as lessons that have much broader implications.
cityLAB, therefore, is contaminated, from a scholarly perspective. It draws conclusions not just about what IS but about how things ought to be. It depends on advocates, supporters, detractors, loopholes, little hanging fruit and design tactics, yet it still produces rigorous studies. In essence, cityLAB redefines academic research, particularly on behalf of spatial justice.
So the fourth and most recent undertaking, which Shane referred to in the introduction, pushes back into academic structures themselves to see if more conventional arenas of academic practices, like the humanities, and our more projective processes in architecture could create demands for the university to be more socially and politically engaged. The evolving result of this work is the Urban Humanities Initiative, a new type of academic program and, in other words, an experiment into the universities’ practices. Our starting point, and I guess I would say this has got to be one of the most difficult things to do, given how bureaucratically restrained the university is at UCLA, I’m sure not so different than the universities here, [0:13:48.1] administrators ... Our starting point for collective restructuring of the university is the city, because it’s not only inherently a need of multiple forms of scholarship but because it is intrinsically political. The Urban Humanities hold commitments not only to historical understanding and contemporary cultural analysis but to a speculative agenda that the architectural determination to project a better future. So with my own positionality sketched out I have just one caveat: my lines of inquiry hold implications about whether we can open new possible paths for architectural research, architectural practice, and architectural education. These are not intended to be the only means or the only paths, existing forms of practice, education and research say into architectural materials, history and theory or technology are not being challenged but instead I intend to augment them.
I’m taking this up with you now because we need political relevance more than ever. If there are paths that architectural education, research and practice can chart we should find them sooner rather than later. Within the university we academics have been rather silent about architecture’s direct contemporary relationship with national politics. By contract, museums and exhibitions have played a role in current issues and have blended practices of academics and practitioners. Here you see Reinhold Martin’s investigations into the 2008 housing collapse which were deeply interested in politics and especially political economy, as well as design experimentation. The “Foreclosed Exhibition” was itself a theory practice undertaking with primary emphasis on the projective practices sponsored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A somewhat strange [0:15:46.4] is one called The Buell Hypothesis set the exhibition in motion, one that employs an imagined conversation with Socrates, intended to spark thinking about our contemporary notion of the public’s entitlement and the housing economy. Since books and journal articles are the production of architectural scholars, their fine historical examinations of the relationship between architecture, architectural education, and politics, here’s just two of the more recent. There are analytic, theoretically robust, interpretive texts that are neither contemporary, they look back, not at the present, nor do they pretend to be speculative. They don’t ask what we should do as a result of this research. They’re excellent works of academically-construed history. But what we if we need and want to understand our administrations or the political climate NOW, not to wait the required 20 years for hindsight. Can we grasp the implications of the present political moment, of movements like global neo-nationalism, Reclaim Australia, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s so-called ‘baits”? Indeed, just one week into his presidency our first international warning that Donald Trump might be even more problematic than imagined was the highly-publicised phone call with your prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, over immigration. Trump decided Turnbull must be hiding the fact that those 1250 immigrants were truly criminals and were going to be pushed onto American soil, Turnbull obviously trying to get them there, and Trump hung up. This image, following that one, is interesting to me, not in terms of Trump’s ego, or, like, “How did that dress get stuck like that?” Trump’s ego, neuroses, or megalomaniacal tendencies, so these are all legible, instead the tableau vivant of develop King and his dominions in a material culture, a book-free universe of glittering simulacra, isolated above the rest of the world. This is a builders’ arena, that we architects should understand better than others. The critic Michael [0:18:14.4] agrees when he wrote, earlier this year that architects, and I quote, “ ... have special insight into both the mentality and the behaviour of Donald Trump who has gained his fortune as a builder, developer and brander of architecture. Trump’s well-documented history of racial discrimination, tenant harassment, stiffing creditors, including architects, evasive bankruptcies, predilection for projects of low social value, like casinos, and his calculated evasion of the taxes that might support our common realm, are of a piece with his larger nativist, sexist, and racist political project. Don’t mince words, that’s what I say.
As we shall see, even our architectural critics today, at least those in the popular media, are struggling to find avenues into the slippery developer-defined presidency. If we in architecture are particularly well-informed, then are we also particularly well-equipped to engage through our specific agency, not to wait this out, to later offer historical analysis, but to find effective avenues via design , the build environment and the public sphere so that we can act like architects. This is a question about potential agency, both to understand and to act according to values that might not be part of the current reigning government. How can we claim the particular agency that architecture affords?
To look at a work or architectural scholarship about its cotemporaneous administration we could turn to Mary McLeod’s seminal essay called Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era (here you see Reagan, Ronald and Nancy). It was written in 1989, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidencies, so still she had seven years more perspective than we have. Published in assemblage and subsequently featured in a number of theory collections. In terms of scholarship at the same time about political economy and the arts, one of the strongest voices was that of Fredrick Jameson, with The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson described this work as “the effort to take the temperature of the age without instruments and in a situation in which we are not even sure there is so coherent a thing as an age or a zeitgeist, or a current situation any longer.” We too are without instruments and identifiable situations but we can look to the relatively recent past to see how post-modernism set a larger context for late capitalism and Ronald Reagan, as well as the roots of the current neo-liberal economy. Michael Graves’ Portland Building is sometimes called the first major post-modern work of architecture. It could be a demonstration for McLeod’s argument, that under post-modernist circumstances that include the rejection of modernism’s failed social agenda, architecture remains stubbornly tied to politics in two ways. First, in its role in the economy and, second, in its role as a cultural object. In the first case, architecture because of its extreme cost, is more deeply affected than other arts by market pressures and is dependent on the sources of finance and power in every aspect of its production and in every step of design process, whether that be the choice of site, program, budget, materials or production schedules. These limit what McLeod calls “architecture’s transgressive and transformative power”. Graves’ design, I think we would agree, was marketable, somewhat transformative, and Portland bought it. McLeod marked a widely accepted view about architecture’s cultural transformative limits.
Modernism had failed, both in its social agenda, most obviously in public housing failures, and its formal agenda, through the destruction of city centres through urban renewal. Charles Jenks argued that post-modern architecture, like Philip Johnson’s AT & T building, could instead embody a kind of double coding. Lay people could enjoy it while the architectural intelligentsia could ascribe critical acclaim and strengthen the discipline’s autonomy. But the A T & T building seems less double-coded than thumbing its nose while its architect, once an admirer of Hitler and an acolyte of Albert Speer, is apparently less interested in the discipline than in celebrity. Reading this rendering of the architect’s holding his tower suggests not only the celebrity designer but that the building belongs to him, a privatisation of the cultural role of architecture that was previously seen as a public good and as belonging to the city.
The economic downturn at this time exaggerated this privatisation, pushing developers into the limelight, giving them new control of city building. City building that didn’t even require real capital, but global investments of fictional capital. Here, one Trump leans on Johnson’s A T & T, calmly advancing his own tower, what we might now view as his private competition to dominate or own New York’s urban stage as well as our art. So much for architecture’s autonomy.
The privatisation of the public sphere, which began in earnest under Reagan, only gained steam in the following decade. By the 1990s Trump did more than lean on Johnson’s tower, he hired Johnson himself to reclad his new international hotel and tower at Columbus Circle. The New York Times architecture critic, the late Herbert Muschamp, wrote a negative review of the building in 1995 but readers complained it wasn’t scathing enough, so he wrote a second review in which he ropes in the public, saying, “This building is us, in the process of commercial transformation. It shows what the Midas touch can do to a city’s soul.” And this process didn’t stop in New York, as we know now. Trump would go on to make more private monuments to the power of fictional capital, kitschy gilt towers, like this one in Las Vegas, that eschew any notion that architecture might build a public sphere.
In 1999, Muschamp, wanting to know more about this Midas, staged a meeting between himself, Johnson and Trump at the Museum of Modern Art, in front of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn painting which, in some kind of cosmic capability, Philip Johnson himself had donated this painting to the museum. After that meeting, in a long, inciteful, and yet still ambivalent essay, Muschamp wrote, “Trump has obtained the status of a popular icon, set against the gold of celebrity. He’s a work of art himself as well as a piece of work, a living self-portrait with a trademark signature, sought by foreign banks, condo dwellers, autograph hounds, advertisers and publishers. Warhol's dream was to live off putting his signature on soup cans. Mr. Trump has more or less fulfilled it.” What has changed since Muschamp’s article though, even then, in 1999, people were calling out for him to run for President, what’s changed is the potent cocktail of celebrity, populism, brand identity and, well, just add an immense shot of state power. All concentrated in the current American administration.
It’s too frightening, and probably too easy, to see the same mixture of celebrity, wealth and populism in Nazi Germany, but if we focus on the arts and architecture of 1930s Fascism, under Hitler, we see a clear deployment of monumental architecture as propaganda in architect [0:27:12.8] German art, including a Midas gold model, made for Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. The art it displayed was state-sanctioned, traditional, ideal art, in contract to what was then called the “generate” art of the modernists. Architects, as we know first-hand from the architectural emigrés, who fled Germany to the US and elsewhere, did not escape government attack, not did architectural education, in spite of the fact that when Mies took over as director of the Bauhaus he tried to distance himself, the work, and the school from all ideology as if a pure architecture might slip under the political radar. Instead, Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, a recognition of the potency of art and architecture’s agency.
A symbolic slaying of the arts in America, and I’m not as sure about the Australian condition, but there’s certainly a lot of political brouhaha about it here as well, is being proposed in the United States as this chart from the Washington Post shows. A tiny and, actually, invisible sliver of the federal budget represents all spending on the arts, humanities and public broadcasting together. I think in your national budget arts is paired with sports, which gives it a slightly higher ranking. We put it with the humanities which keeps it repressed. If you put it differently, America made $50,000 a year, cutting the arts would save us two bucks. Something akin to this is happening in Australia, where arts funding was raided and then not fully replenished. Arts funding here, according to the reports I read, fall at the bottom of national spending.
In the totalising ideology that spending, or maybe better put, “investing”, denotes value and no matter how emaciated the arts might be they’re worth illuminating under the argument that public funding of the arts is not necessary, particularly because private speculators can supply what’s needed. Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York again argues the opposite by saying, “Eliminating the national endowment for the arts would in essence eliminate investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its citizens.”
Besides the control of artistic production, repressive state power commonly deploys architecture in one further manner, through the production of infrastructure, hence the vociferous backlash against the American Institute of Architects’ leadership against their eagerness earlier this year to partner with the Trump administration on infrastructure projects like the Border Wall. Our antenna should be tuned in to all infrastructure proposals since infrastructure contains potential power in its network-like reach and its intrinsically public nature as well as in the concomitant “creative destruction”, as Schumpeter calls it. Immense infrastructure projects were undertaken in pre- and post-war America, starting with the new deal in the 30s through the federal highway program, a national defence infrastructure in the 40s and 50s that could be compared to the US-Mexican border wall. Sold as a security network, high construction did untold damage to poor neighbourhoods of colour in the American cities, a form of domestic colonialism, highways met what was called “equivalent elimination requirements” so that when the government constructed new housing, as in the public housing program, regulation required the removal of a unit of existing housing for every new unit built. This rule came from the lobbying by the building industry who wanted no competition in the supply of housing, and it effectively tore apart neighbourhoods and cities across the US, hastening the deterioration of the remaining housing in the marketplace of creative destruction.
In Los Angeles, as elsewhere, freeway construction accomplished several goals at the same time: displaced an unwanted population, set the stage to modernise the city, created construction jobs, and provided public funds for privatising “downtown” in the form of investment potential, like you see here.
Under a progressive leadership, not fascist, the US began its public housing program in the late 1930s. It was a form of architectural infrastructure insofar as it was post-Depression housing for a destabilised working class, thousands of families whose homes were demolished to provide the sites for public housing, that is federally funded and constructed affordable housing, were to be rehoused in the new modern apartments. But, as the country entered World War II, those displaced households were displaced a second time, this time by defence workers, who took priority. Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Neutra, amongst other noted architects, designed projects for the public housing authority that laid out progressive ideals for everyday life. The developments embodied remarkable site design and liveable unit plan, even if they were so massive in scale and so uniform. The backlash against public housing from the far right was extreme in the early 50s and was part, an essential part, of one right-wing national senator, Joseph McCarthy’s, red-baiting propaganda. Lately comparisons have made likening McCarthy to Trump. Builders, especially residential developers like those shown on the left, testified against government housing as being socialist communist poison. They argued successfully to rid cities of any further subsidised housing so that private developers could control the market. While no Los Angeles architects were gaoled, some of their clients, in particular public housing supporters, were tried and imprisoned. We shouldn’t forget that at this time private builders were commanding federal subsidies and, as a result, Levittown was blanketing Long Island without any political backlash.
The American public housing program, relatively speaking, was tiny. We built a million units, the same number as Sweden, a country whose entire population is smaller than that of Los Angeles, but as I said earlier even now public housing is lumped together with urban renewal as representing, or to some causing, the failure of modern architecture. Instead history suggests that public housing was a victim of right-wing propaganda marshalled by private developers, a political force that’s grown in strength until this day.
It’s an understatement to say that the development industry has morphed considerably since residential builders fought government construction of housing, commanding global flows of investment capital, multifarious and nefarious organisations provide the material artefacts of a contemporary future. A worldwide proliferation of Trump Towers like those pictured here, that are corporate shell-owned brand licenced fuelled by questionable multi-bank lending deals and capable of shedding both their financing and their identity at any moment. Architecture here is a carrier of the logo, a skin of gold, a slippery extrusion of real estate. Still, as Muschamp realised, in the 1990s, architecture matters and, perhaps even more so, architectural criticism matters. In 2014 Blair Kamin, the Chicago newspaper’s architectural critic, commended Trump for his Chicago Skidmore, Owings and Merrill skyscraper that you see here, but slammed him for the gigantic sign he put on top, calling it “humungous and hideous”. Trump tweeted back, “I loved the day Paul Goldberger got fired (or left) as N.Y.Times architecture critic and has since faded into irrelevance. Kamin next!” So perhaps the first direct form of agency goes to the architectural journalist whose criticism strikes a Twitter nerve, a nerve that now regulates the pulse of our news each morning, and possibly US foreign relations. The journalist’s agency is the ability to speak our values and that act places architecture in the public conversation. It’s important to recognise that the agency remains, even if it doesn’t alter the Trump organisation’s branding strategy; in other words, the sign didn’t come down.
Another kind of agency comes in the form of architectural and urban regulation. Research about that’s going on here. A range of architectural possibilities are unleashed through policy, which we architects could engage more fully. Trump Tower in Manhattan, shown here, exploits New York’s 1961 law about privately-owned public space. A six-storey shopping atrium was created, yes, gold again, in order to receive a massive density bonus that added 20 storeys more of luxury condominiums. That allowed almost 50% more FAR to what would become a 66-storey building. We could act like architects by reviewing such bargains. Is a six-storey shopping mall the kind of public space we WANT in the city? And enforcing them, just a year after the building opened in 1983, Trump’s company illegally denied access and removed public amenities. They were fined, they built this little Trump store, where there were supposed to be public benches, they were fined but that case remains open, three decades later. Illegally taking over public space to build more shops, without any building permits besides. So all of us in architecture know that minute regulatory infractions can be soul-crushing and can operate like a thousand small cuts. The public and the city can and should hold developers accountable on minor as well as major transgressions. Regulatory powers also worked in reverse. Since political activity must be permitted in privately owned public spaces, think Zuccotti Park and the occupying movement, such an atrium provides a good backdrop for raising our rights to an open and accessible public [0:38:48.3].
Protest is a form of agency and one architects share with the public at large. Only rarely are our professional talents deployed, like these Berkeley architectural students who floated Occupy’s tents over public spaces when they were not permitted to pitch them on the ground. Architects have an illustrious history with inflatables, after all. But I argue that just as commercial development towers are not only investments but political acts, so too architects today can act in ways specific to their own trade. Is there space for architectural experimentation that produces better and alternative futures? And isn’t this exactly what it means to act like an architect? This would be our particular agency.
Since we have no hindsight on present political issues, we must get our broad, if inadequate, lessons from the past. If we want to have agency on the civic stage there’s architectural and urban lessons from history. First, don’t make anything gold. Second, carefully evaluate infrastructure’s impacts and the destruction that precedes construction. We should be aware that architects can’t step outside of politics and there’s no neutral territory. Likewise, schools are not exempt, and here again being a-political doesn’t save us, there is no absolute neutrality in the arts or in architecture.
Unlike the eras of modernism, or the years when post-modernism predominated, presently there’s no unifying school of thought or dominant architectural discourse that might serve as a measure of political and economic pressure. In those prior periods, architecture itself had some baseline from which compliance or transgression could deviate. In light of the current expansive notion of our discipline, it seems incumbent upon us to risk crafting a tentative baseline, and so I’m gonna risk outlining five principles for our agency. These are historically specific guidelines and that is they’re for and of this moment; they’re not timeless like Ruskin’s Seven Lamps or [0:41:17.5]’s Five Points of Modern Architecture. Given the present circumstances, these are inherently inadequate, which is no reason not to offer them, or no reason not to act upon them.
And so the first principle in acting like an architect is, within an architectural project the program privileges a public sphere. The key terms here are “public” and “program” and architecture, we talked about this a little bit in the [0:41:48.7] as we walked from studio to studio yesterday. An architecture that resists repressive political programs is intrinsically public in the sense of accessible, inviting of difference, shared and common, and free. So many populations are excluded and loudly demeaned in current politics so that plenty of projects will quality as standing in opposition, from mosques and embassies to public bathrooms. Some of our work on such projects will be pro bono, some will be slipped in discreetly with more mainstream, some will be built, some will be conceptual, and some may require actual defiance. Both privately- and publicly-commissioned projects stress efficiency and security so it remains the architect’s responsibility to find creative means to incorporate a public sphere and the architect critic’s task to evaluate it and elevate it.
Second. In cities today our building type is affordable housing, our broadest goals are environmental. I think affordable housing is almost as important here in Melbourne as it is in Los Angeles. Working broadly for a shared public good, the broadest of which is global environmental sustainability, and with under-represented populations and those explicitly excluded is an important kind of agency in architecture. It may seem unduly prescriptive to single out housing and environmentalism, but these are presently the most obvious and direct grounds for architects to act according to principles of our discipline. As architects, affordable housing is more than a building type or a commission. It’s an activists’ tactic to achieve a more liveable future.
Third. In the face of disinformation, data-driven design makes it clear that facts matter. In a world threatened by alternative facts, that undermine the very substrates of our universities, we architects can retrieve our respect for metrics and empirical data, which isn’t always easy. We can continue to develop evidentiary tools and methods, we can find better ways to communicate and explain the relationship between research and design. This is more incumbent upon those of us who are part of public universities, where blended strategies of research, practice, and education respond to and communicate a public agenda. Even though the public university has itself bowed to pressures of neo-liberalism, it may be that public architecture programs hold particular insight into the ways that research and practice can productively align, so that fact matter.
Fourth. Individual projects are linked into long-term pursuits. Architectural practices are generally a sequence of loosely linked projects, the goals of which are set in relation to particular clients, sites and regulatory contexts. If our own principles are to hold agency, it will be by virtue of the connections we make among projects, and the trajectories we set for the work. For practitioners, projects range from standard commissions to consultations, exhibition installations and conceptual projects. Such long-term projects are far less vulnerable to co-optation, and more likely to exceed political frameworks that surround any individual commission. Moreover, multiple projects and sites, the co-ordinated works of many architects on which can cohere forming a stronger base of action.
Lastly, the city, not the nation, or private property, is our site. Here again, this may seem too prescriptive, but from fascist régimes of the early twentieth century to the McCarthy era in the 50s, to our present administration in America, nationalist systems have come to bad end. The city, on the other hand, tends to be, or is more likely to be, run by people who have and must have connections to their constituents. Mayors and city council members can, and often do, restore faith in democratic processes and in the fact that elected officials can accomplish objectives in the public interest. In this cosmopolitan moment, as the social philosopher Ulrich Beck has termed it, architects, educators, and critics, as well as students, can find the means to extend their attention to a particular building beyond its property boundaries and into the city it lives within, and we will find ourselves there in a terrain where we have agency.
I want to conclude with a series of images to describe one series of linked projects we’ve undertaken at cityLAB, in part to test my own measure against these very principles. This is perhaps the longest-running project we’ve had in the studio, and its both a source of these principles for me and a demonstration of my own attempts to act like an architect. I’m proud of this work but it’s by no means sufficient or some kind of end-game. I propose this work is part of the path we can clear for architectural action, by scholars, students, and practitioners.
This you will see is a map of Los Angeles and we’re thinking about a project called “Backyard Homes”. We’ve been working on it in terms of both research and design that we’ve transformed the post-war suburban fabric into a post-suburban condition by doubling the density of the single-family zone. The project’s called “Backyard Homes”, that is, to find ways to legalise secondary or accessory dwellings on lots where currently the zoning permits only one house. I think this is a Australian condition, and I know there’s a project here going on on the same topic. This is the goal for several reasons. To create double the density. To create more affordable housing by capitalising on the free land in backyards. To address environmental issues, by reducing our carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. To create a more flexible housing stock, for evolving families. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met has a “Backyard Homes” story for increasing household income, providing a space for a care-giver, downsizing, some kind of new revenue generation, and related to this is a kind of neighbourhood stabilisation program, so that households can adapt rather than move when their circumstances change. Lastly, and most importantly, this contributes to the revitalisation of architecture by producing work for young designers, using projects that are easy to do on your own, as a home-owner but you need somebody to help you complete the process through the regulatory framework.
At cityLAB we’ve studied nearly every aspect of this idea, with conclusions about the most viable types of lots, the most plausible kinds of structures, the ways to address no-growth opposition, how neighbourhoods might evolve, how to overcome prohibitive parking requirements, and the range of related policy initiatives across the country, which we’ve done comparative analyses of. In terms of architectural innovation, or [0:49:54.6] architects, we studied ways we could deliver a building that could fit down a five-foot-wide side yard set back, be carried by two people, use low-skill labour, and make it entirely recyclable. Was that even possible? Could we deliver a backyard home more like a car, where the buyer dials in a few options like these you see on the right, gets a loan on the spot, and in a relatively short period of time a backyard home is delivered. We talked to neighbourhoods councils and surveyed the elaborate landscape of illegal secondary units to see what residents were not only asking for, or opposed to, but what they built in spite of legal restrictions. All of this research culminated in cityLAB’s authoring new legislation at the request of our state Congressman, to encourage secondary units. This you see the state bill that I also, with my colleague Jane Blumenfeld, and signed into law by the Governor just this past January.
The potential impacts are so great because this changes the very DNA of the post-war landscape, what Albert Pope has called “the city of space”. Cities across California now are generating individual adaptations and architects are inventing new business models to provide services. In the city of LA nearly a half million lots are eligible. In California overall over eight million households could have a second unit without a single change in zoning, by rights. Because the legislation is so inherently arcane, and not accessible to the public, cityLAB just produced this handbook for property owners. It’s distributed widely, especially by the city.
And lastly, we also built a demonstration of the project, a prototype backyard home, you can see there we’ve called it the “BiHome”, that would capture the imagination and media attention to the cause. With a dozen architectural graduate students, the unskilled labour you see here, from UCLA Kevin Daly and I built this house, the size of the standard garage, to demonstrate that with a little magic we could house ourselves instead of our cars.
So to conclude. To design and plan our way through cultural and political upheaval is not new in the history of architecture. Buckminster Fuller’s domes were a calculated way to use fewer of the earth’s resources to do more. And farms, inflatable structures, were anti-consumerism critiques, and the case study house program built liveable modernism for middle class suburbanites. We have contemporary proponents of affordable housing, environmental sustainability, everyday architecture, homeless shelters, and so on. But perhaps our practices tend to be governed by individual commissions and because of that we relegate activism in architecture to participatory community designers and the like. There’s also a cohort of young small firms now dedicating themselves to public works, and often through non-profit firm structures.
My point, this evening, is that all of us, from our studio projects in school to our commissions for private clients, to our writing about architecture and the shows we organise in galleries, can take the opportunity to act with conviction, politically, toward creating the world we want to live in and that’s exactly what it means to stand up and act like an architect.