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Washington University in St. Louis (image courtesy Flickr, photo by Daniel X. O’Neil)

An important question to ask about any political statement is: “Who is it for?”

Following weeks of anti-racist statements issued by universities, art museums and foundations, the answer is pretty clear. Power doesn’t like to cede, but it can adapt long enough to survive an insurrection. As the old adage goes, power has a way of looking like change long enough to make things stay exactly the same. Art and design students are not fooled, but institutions are continuing to try to hold their ground while proclaiming allyship. They face a “crisis of symbolic efficiency,” to use the late Mark Fisher’s phrase.

I am a part-time senior lecturer who teaches architectural history and theory at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art, Washington University in St. Louis. In June, like many peer institutions, my school released a message, proclaiming allegiance to fighting systemic racism, and announcing the formation of a task force devoted to racial justice. In some ways this echoed statements that the university made after Michael Brown’s murder in nearby Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. This time around, the administrators want to listen to nonwhite students and alums about their experiences of discrimination and exclusion, which is laudable. Across the university, our chancellor wants to increase “support” for faculty who study race, as well as to hire 12 new tenure-track faculty members to study race in America — a potentially powerful move, but mitigated by unsettling institutional language, framed as part of a plan to “design a new racial future.”

Further, in the name of pandemic preparedness, our design school just laid off many part-time lecturers in architecture and art (though not me), while the broader university has frozen raises, new hires, and promotions. Our fall semester has been postponed, meaning support staff and surviving adjunct faculty won’t receive wages for almost three weeks longer than usual. All of this recalls the 2008 recession, which precipitated years of cuts — due to lost funding for public schools, a result of neoliberal doctrine favoring private schools.

In this moment, the contradictory positions of architecture schools like Sam Fox reflect a systemic inability of universities to honor the dignity of faculty, staff, and students, even as they issue statements of solidarity. For instance, Cornell University has initiated “voluntary” salary reductions, while Rice University has frozen hiring and cancelled all pay raises. To the public, the universities front solidarity and increased investigation of societal ills. Internally, they double down on protecting their tax-free hoarded wealth and deny wages and salaries in ways that disproportionately affect, non-white, non-male, and low-income workers.

Architecture schools long have fallen into the fissures of university politics. Practices of the imaginary have to operate within spaces crafted and maintained by wealth and power. The horizon continues to recede. As the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri wrote in Architecture and Utopia, designers realized that the “politics of things” (capital, buildings, endowments) limited the patronage of truly visionary work, and thus turned to practices that channeled political radicalism into safe works of art and architecture. Public housing is a great example, and especially in St. Louis, where the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe casts a long shadow. In that case and others, ideals and tenant needs succumbed to the demands of lucrative contracts, and when built works met controversy, many architects eagerly declared public housing — and not their own practices — unworkable.

The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis, Missouri (public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons; photo by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research)

The work of reproducing social structures is more comfortable than the work of agitating for new ones, yet every day we demand that our students make work that is original and impactful. Right now, the global pandemic and uprising is urging students to make the work that brings a new, just world into being. These designs require power to be reimagined and redistributed, not simply adding a new chair or two to existing tables. 

At Harvard, the African American Student Union and AfricaGSD have launched a campaign to urge the university and its Graduate School of Design to translate their stated values into material actions. As Diana Budds’ apt Curbed headline summed it up, the students are teaching Harvard how to be anti-racist — and that’s the problem. Students and faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and alums of Yale University’s School of Architecture have also demanded real actions from the schools to dissolve their cultures of white supremacy. Likewise, the Design as Protest Collective is coordinating a campaign across art and architecture schools against “violence and injustices” in the practices taught. The Instagram account Architecture is Too White is presenting data showing why students are speaking up, school by school (and firm by firm).

Yet architecture schools have been far slower to make commitments than they were to offer sweeping public statements. As universities use the pandemic to threaten cuts to pedagogical funding, some faculty feel that silence offers safety. The dearth of unionized schools also makes matters more difficult for those who want to organize. In this void, students are reclaiming the political, visionary legacy of design schools in years past. Contemporary schools like the SCI-Arc and The Conway School in the US hold fast to the ideals that that academic governance should be shared by students and faculty, and that curriculums should address social needs. Defunct institutions including Black Mountain College in the US, the Village School for the Philosophy of Architecture in Yugoslavia, and the legendary Bauhaus in Germany remain inspirational.

Student demands require fundamental reinventions of institutional governance and financial structures. Institutions also have to become accountable to a society that needs material resources for building true equity, which tax-free endowments and real estate do not provide. If we are going to replace police officers with well-trained social workers, we need to tax endowments. If we are going to equalize public education, universities have to start paying property taxes for non-educational real estate into urban school districts. These are modest steps.

For now, university statements aim to make the current uprising relevant to their own sources of power, instead of making universities relevant to the uprisings. Hopefully architecture students and faculty members keep pushing. In the words of WAI Think Tank’s Anti-Racist Architecture Manifesto: “If they are serious about demolishing their legacies of institutional racism, academic institutions must rethink their recruiting strategies to attract, stimulate, and create safe environments for both educators and students. Simultaneously, architecture schools must embrace the deconstruction of their curriculums to question not only the future of architecture, but to expose the racist past they helped construct.”

Design schools and fellow academics, now is the time to answer: Who are we for?

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Michael Allen

Michael R. Allen is Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis.