Design activism for whom?

I have tried my whole career to make “hidden” injustices visible, to use their spatial geometries as agents of change.

This article is inspired by Ari Goldstein ‘04 and Matt Murray ’04 whom I had the pleasure of teaching in ED1 and LA 242 and who now challenge me by their creative courage to make the world better through design activism.

Jingletown Homes, Oakland, Peter Waller/Pyatok Architects Inc Often the most disenfranchised want a symbol of the "American dream" demonstrating how "Conservative [traditional] form frequently serves socially transformative purposes,"
Jingletown Homes, Oakland, Peter Waller/Pyatok Architects Inc Often the most disenfranchised want a symbol of the “American dream” demonstrating
how “Conservative [traditional] form frequently serves socially transformative purposes,”
Let me get several things straight at the outset. Although I’ve been asked to write about a subset of activity that is labeled design activism, it is obvious that all design is design activism. No architectural design is ever implemented through inactivity. Building anything requires considerable force. There is no such thing as passive design. Even passive solar design is assertive. Preservation requires action. The ‘no build’ alternative is an act of aggression. And certainly architecture to serve status quo powers is seldom submissive and often brutal.

Every act of city making, landscape architecture, environmental planning and architecture is a creative act, a direct action to achieve an end, the very definition of activism. For some, this activism serves to push the boundaries of self expression. For others it pushes or constricts the boundaries of society. In all cases design creates an order, however temporary and deconstructed, that elevates some political will. Every design action is a political act that concretizes power and authority.

Form makers follow political function and order it whether the designer leads social transformations or celebrates corporate and military authority. But the form may be deceiving. Radical form most often advances the agenda of the elite within the dominant society seeking to conserve its power. Conservative form frequently serves socially transformative purposes, particularly for the oppressed and poor. But beyond aesthetics is there substantive difference in the various political approaches designers employ? Yes, it is a question of design activism for whom.

 Types of Design Activism

Small moves of green infrastructure nuanced in local conditions connect across the landscape attracting birds, providing wildlife habitat and neighborhood amenities while reducing stormwater runoff and improving water quality. Conceptual study, Los Angeles River.
Small moves of green infrastructure nuanced in
local conditions connect across the landscape
attracting birds, providing wildlife habitat and
neighborhood amenities while reducing stormwater
runoff and improving water quality. Conceptual
study, Los Angeles River.

As with most matters architectural, typologies explicate. Five types of design postures illustrate political activism as follows:

  1. The Blissfully Naïve
  2. The Savvy Naïve
  3. Servants
  4. Contextualists
  5. Catalysts

The Blissfully Naïve are typically spatially talented and contextually ignorant. They simply do not see the connectedness of systems beyond their architecture. This allows them to design an airport in Chigu Lagoon, Taiwan causing the extinction of the endangered black-faced spoonbill and the loss of 24,000 jobs in fishing, or to design Orange County subdivisions in China undermining local culture and creating unattainable objects of status. Can the design of the building really be separated from the decision about its location? For the blissfully naïve it can. They are so focused on the form-making of objects that they are blind to the political impacts of their actions. They have unusual tunnel and no peripheral vision. Because they can draw and create space, they have been rewarded in school where design is frequently separated from its political consequences to focus on the development of form-making skills. Later, sheltered in the best corporate firms, they work without having to confront the political or environmental consequences of their action. I believe the blissfully naïve truly don’t know whose values they concretize and whose politics they advance. They misspeak with sincerity that there is no relationship between architecture and politics.

Second, are the Savvy Naïve who are usually less talented spatially and more aware of connectedness. They feign naiveté to cover political shrewdness. They know power when they see it and cast their lot with the powerful to get commissions. They are so pleased to get to design something big that they pretend not to know better. They understand the political implications of their design work but claim ignorance. The Savvy Naïve can develop, as the architect Thomas Leitersdorf did, the Israeli strategy to control the Palestinians by capturing the most ground with the fewest settlements possible. His is a brilliant, architecturally inspired, military action to take over hilltops and dominate the entire West Bank while occupying only two per cent of the land. This same architect, apparently with a straight face, claims, “I’m weak on politics.” And further, “architecture doesn’t influence politics.” The Savvy Naïve designer is well aware of the politics he advances and is an active accomplice to political power, but he pleads to be just an architect.

The third type are Servants, which includes most designers They describe their role as serving clients, and, when questioned, they too plead that they are only giving form to their clients’ needs. Indeed an individual design act, a single building or park, may seem inconsequential in the broader political context, but this excuse is a convenient disconnect. These designers understand and often support the normative political agendas of their clients. Although the servant role might be viewed as demeaning, these designers argue that it is fundamental to a service profession; while not acknowledging their complicit role in giving artistic expression to powerful interests, be they private, corporate or state.In fact, the very power of these clients is attractive due to the ease with it enables the designer’s art. It is this subservient political role and the artistic license it allows that Phillip Johnson referenced when he said that all architects are “whores” to those with power. It is here that we often see radical form serving regressive social and aggressive military ends.

The fourth type Contextualists. Our college explores contextualism and produces good contextual designers. They take into account history, culture, and environment, especially at the site scale. They may play servant roles but in most cases will try to address broader social issues within the bounds of polite politics. This frequently pays off with an unusual, almost accidental coup de main for a cause like environmental justice or sustainability. Contextualists support more radical activists although they may not be themselves.

Agents for Change

Viewing Tower, LA 96C (former) Nike Missile Site, Los Angeles.
Viewing Tower, LA 96C
(former) Nike Missile Site, Los Angeles.

The fifth type are Catalysts. These are architectural agents of change, the group usually considered activist designers, but remember all the types are political activists. Other designers call this group radical designers, largely to marginalize them and stigmatize their design. Admittedly some aren’t skilled or savvy form makers. Others like Sam Mockbee and Walter Hood are. Catalysts see design not only as a symbolic and utilitarian end but also a stimulus to bring about political transformations.

Environmental Justice

Issues of justice have long been a central focus of our Department of City and Regional Planning. Unequal distribution of basic resources like housing and open space, inaccessibility and exclusion motivate many planners and a few designers who work as advocates for the poor and dispossessed. Long before Paul Davidoff gave such efforts a name, advocate planners, people like Catherine Bauer Wurster worked to provide suitable housing for all Americans. Mike Teitz, among others, carried the effort forward in policy, especially related to affordable and rental housing. Graduates of the college were involved in creating Bridge Housing, a non-profit leader in building affordable housing. Some architects, most notably, Sam Davis, Mike Pyatok and Peter Waller, have dedicated personal and professional lives to creating housing that is not just affordable but also beautiful and livable. Others have been aggressive advocates for place-appropriate economic development and equal access to nature. In almost every city open space is disproportionately available to wealthier neighborhoods. Our recent projects for Union Point Park in Fruitvale and the Natural Park in South Central Los Angeles only came to fruition after embarrassing authorities with maps clearly showing a pattern of discrimination against the poor in providing parkland in Oakland and Los Angeles respectively. Such maps of environmental injustices are a powerful tool for some designers.

Participation, Empowerment, and Deep Democracy

Other Catalyst Designers focus on participation, empowerment of the less powerful, and deep democracy. Our college is one of the few professional design schools to systematically teach participatory design. Marcia McNally has taught the course since 1988. Many of our graduates have significantly advanced democratic design. Through proactive practice, a term coined by Mark Francis, their design process consciously attends not just to building the environment but also to cultivating civic skills. The work of CED graduate Scott McCreary demonstrates how the most contentious land use and environmental issues can be resolved more intelligently when all powers share equal authority and knowledge. Techniques like joint fact finding and the single text distinguish his work. Daniel Iacofano attends more directly to the involvement of diverse groups often excluded from democratic decision making; he has created new participatory methods that allow disenfranchised publics their own voices. His inventions include phenomenological techniques like scored walking tours, city views, and stewardship workdays. In Tokyo, Asanoumi Yoshihara builds a sense of community with techniques like drawing on his feet, neighborhood treasure hunts and mockups that have led to extraordinary new stream ecologies and civic places; all of these designers demonstrate that good cities today depend upon an empowered, well educated, and responsible citizenry willing and able to practice direct democracy and complex stewardship. The group we founded in our college in 1998, Democratic Designers in the Pacific Rim, has become a primary mechanism for younger, creative practitioners throughout the region to advance empowering planning processes of city making.

Cultural and Biological Diversity

Many catalysts design primarily to maintain diversity in the face of global homogenization. Through what is labeled as “post modern resistance”, these designers create alternative economies and habitation that enhance cultural and biological diversity. Our work with John Liu and Chu Joe Hsia at National Taiwan University illustrates how the two are intertwined. For several years we have worked collaboratively to save the black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor) from extinction. It is the rarest spoonbill bird in the world and on the brink of extinction, largely because of loss of wetland habitat throughout coastal Asia from Russia, China and Korea to Taiwan and the Philippines. The single most important winter habitat at the Tsen wen Estuary and Chigu Lagoon in Tainan County, Taiwan is comprised of natural waterways, aquaculture ponds, and abandoned government-owned salt lands. This habitat was originally scheduled as the location for one of the largest petrochemical and industrial complexes in the world, the Binnan project. In spite of government scientist disclaimers, the project would have led to the extinction of the spoonbill. After extensive research, we founded a non-governmental organization, SAVE International, to fight the Binnan project, preserve spoonbill habitat, and develop an alternative plan with local people.

Ignored in the earlier process were important local facts. Chigu Lagoon and Coastal Tainan County directly supports 16,000 jobs in oystering and fishing, and a total of 24,000 jobs in fishing-related industries. This centuries-old fishing culture was also threatened with extinction if Binnan were built, but local fisherman felt powerless. To work with them we designed upside down with few words. They explained to us the local ecosystems upon which they depended. We made maps using John Radke’s latest GIS technology combining native wisdom with professional knowledge of conservation biology. We integrated highly specialized science with local common sense. Government scientists claimed spoonbills occupied only a small area. Fishermen thought the birds foraged over a much larger area in their ponds at night.   Malcolm Coulter, the IUCN co-chair of the specialist group on storks, ibis and spoonbills, put the conflicting pieces together. Spoonbills, he concluded, roost during the day when the government scientists studied them (apparently government scientists don’t work much at night), but forage at dawn, dusk and night as far as 30 kilometers from the roosting site.

The government had ignored the fact that spoonbills had to eat as well as sleep. They were providing a bed with no breakfast. No one can believe Chinese scientists would forget eating. This simple piece of interconnected thinking changed everything. It detonated the basis of the government’s environmental impact assessment that Binnan would have no impact on the spoonbill. The oversight (or lie) outraged over one hundred international groups who demanded Binnan be stopped. The local fishermen were increasingly emboldened partly by our international support but more by the realization that their local wisdom of ecosystems and bird behavior was fundamental to the scientific knowledge that would underlie any future plan for their area.

A power map we constructed during a strategy session in Taipei revealed points where we should concentrate our efforts. Power maps are essential fare for change agents. Equally important in making a plan that challenged dominant powers was the geometries of local people’s daily patterns and projected patterns of new economies. Over the last seven years, the Building and Planning Institute at NTU has mapped the existing and projected spatial ecologies of local people. We have mapped the spatial requirements of spoonbills and projected their habitat expansion. We have concluded, for example, that spoonbills will only roost in shallow open waters with an unobstructed view of approximately 500 meters in every direction. Where there exists such kilometer-square open waters, near estuaries, spoonbills can safely roost, sleeping during the day undisturbed by domestic and natural predators. But they only roost there if adequate aquaculture is in close proximity because they forage primarily in adjacent fish ponds, usually within nine kilometers and only when ponds have been emptied of marketable fish and water levels remain at five to 20 centimeters. With such precise attention to spatial geometry and proportion, spoonbills would likely make good designers.

Armed with these geometries, two years ago Shay Boutillier predicted the areas spoonbills were likely to colonize next. Her map of stepping stone habitats projected precisely the lands where spoonbills have begun roosting in large numbers. One new colony is on the site the government proposes for an international airport and free trade industrial zone.

To protect biological and cultural diversity and to implement a plan based on ecotourism, habitat preservation and green industries such as orchid and organic food products, we proposed to the local governments of three coastal counties and have since created a detailed regional plan. This was the product of joint work between National Taiwan University and our college. Although hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have contributed, Pan Pacific leaders in this effort were Jeff Hou and Wenling Tu. This resulted in a National Scenic Area being established to carry out the plan.

Most recently NTU and we have developed detailed urban design plans for several villages to enhance habitat for tourism focusing on wild bird watching and local history. These grassroots plans are at odds with standard global solutions to destroy wetlands for large scale industrial complexes and corporate destinations resorts. Our designs in Chigu are modest interventions, controlled by local people and reflective of particularities of the local place: a viewing station snuggled into a rare mangrove ecology, a community center renovated by local craftsmen with waste products from the fishing industry, and a restaurant ecology center among others. Although each project is small, it is conceived within a big vision of the regional plan that resists authorities that would eliminate biological and cultural diversity. Although our plan represents a vastly different view of the future than that pushed by the global corporate states, it is hardly radical. It is grounded in the everyday life of the local culture and carefully accommodates their desires.

Radical Sustainability

Other agents of change advocate more radical development strategies for sustainability. These visionary futures require significant alterations in lifestyleRichard Register’s plan for calls for consolidating land uses within a century converting the city into self sustaining neighborhoods, eliminating dependence on the car. Anne Riley’s vision would restructure the city and region along streams and watersheds, creating a natural framework which manages storm water ecologically, provides new habitat and recreation space ew urbanists, most notably by Peter Calthorpe, advance a more comprehensive set of strategies for the next American Metropolis hen applied rigorously, they are truly transformative. The strategies entice people to live more sustainably by providing a whole package of benefits through substitutions. They offer access to transit, more community facilities, more mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, and with more access to nature and traditional house types. In exchange, the strategies require modestly higher densities.While characterized as a form of romantic resistanceis a highly sophisticated design alternative to unsustainable suburban sprawl.

Radical sustainability relies on many of its strategies have their beginnings in Wurster Hall, where early concepts have been explored in studios and research projects. It also relies on design advocates push green innovations into the mainstream. In the process the strategies become refined and the designers more sophisticated in their advocacy. Clark Wilson’s strategies for “green streets” are gaining wide support and Anni Tilt, David Arkin, Bruce Brubaker, Larry Strain and many others are the next generation of leading voices in the green building movement which is now being formalized by LEEDS.

Radical sustainability’s success relies on confronting entrenched development patterns and centers of vast power directly, but in the public and private arena. But the power of political and economic interests should not be underestimated. When we were taking the first actions to create a containing greenbelt around Los Angeles, Marcia McNally proposed the designation of core wildlife habitats and urban wilderness recreation centers. Marcia called one such core Big Wild; it was broadly supported throughout Los Angeles, but not in the City Council. To create Big Wild required abandoning a long planned, cross mountain freeway, Reseda-to-the-Sea. Multiple studies indicated the cross mountain route would dump traffic onto an already gridlocked 405 freeway where 10,000 trip desires per rush hour overran capacity of only 7,000, and the cross mountain road would sever a critical wildlife corridor leading to local extinctions. It would not meet transportation objectives and it would do considerable ecological damage.

Why then was the cross mountain freeway strongly supported by the City Council and even Councilmen Marvin Braude an environmentalist Westsider? We found out only after legislation that we supported to terminate the proposed freeway, A.B. 1152, was being debated in the California Legislature. A state senator (who later went to jail) and had real estate partnerships with key staff and/or supporters of Braude and a lawyer for key land speculators in the area near Big Wild was married to one of Braude’s staff members. In any case, an unusually well funded lobby against A.B. 1152 was waged. Where the funds for this effort came from was impossible to determine precisely, but part of the trail led to a powerful coalition of government agents, elected officials, and real estate speculators. It is such shadow coalitions with long accepted conflicts of interest and unfathomable authority that must be confronted for radical sustainability to be advanced.

Likewise our private lives must be transformed. It is too easy to ignore our own roles in unsustainability by rightfully blaming external forces. The external and internal forces must be confronted. Agents for radical sustainability must live more sustainably ourselves. The same can be said for those who advocate justice, deep democracy and diversity.

A Few Modest Suggestions for Wurster

The problems I describe have roots in our present design education and I’d like to conclude with a few suggestions.

First, we must continuously examine the extent to which our design curriculum inculcates the idea that design is separate from politics. Segmented thinking is dangerous and a hindrance to our efficacy. There should be core courses in the politics of design that provide methods for empowerment of our students to operate in the face of power. The courses could address openly issues of the aesthetics, of a social architecture, how divergent cultures can be celebrated in design and bold collective action be garnered. The courses might examine how formal architecture and institutionalized injustices can be analysed as matters of proportion, geometry and form. It might debate the statement of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that our concern for order (social and architectural) renders justice secondary.

Second, and to further address the issue of segmented thinking, specialization can never be an excuse for ignorance. With all our specialization, I would plea for more integration and complex systemic thinking with competing world views. I think the best way to do this is with joint, simultaneous degrees. While our college promotes joint degrees and graduates more students with joint degrees than any other in the country, more students should be encouraged to take advantage of this within our college and around campus. It should be made even easier, not onerous.

Third, we need to teach skills of politically intervening design. Every student should know how to draw on their feet, not just in private. Everyone should be able to design upside down, even planners. Everyone should know how to make justice maps, power maps, and to map social ecologies. Everyone should know how to employ phenomenological techniques to capture cultural inspiration about place. These skills should be practiced in service learning studios.

Fourth and finally we should cultivate optimism not cynicism. Cynicism allows designers to retreat into the seemingly safe world of elitism that directly serves the authorities that would stifle true self expression. Optimism coupled with complex integrated thinking, political skill and design ability allows us to be effective design activists; and then to know whom our design serves.