New Yorker magazine's post-election illustration
The New Yorker's post-election illustration of Donald Trump

"Design strategies robust enough to resist this new political climate have yet to emerge"

US architects disillusioned by the AIA's post-election sentiment should use critical speculation to help reimagine the country's built environment and remain hopeful, suggests Mimi Zeiger in this Opinion column.


It's hard to believe that it was only last month that Robert Ivy, executive vice president and CEO of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), pledged the national organisation and its membership to working with president-elect Donald Trump.

Issued just days after the election, the tone-deaf timing of the obsequious memo provoked reactions from The Architecture Lobby, critic Michael Sorkin and Equity in Architecture (among others), who rejected the AIA's stance as politically representative of professional architects.

While the shock of the presumptuous allegiance of a self-proclaimed "bi-partisan organisation with strong values" to a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, and anti-semitic administration still smarts, it's pretty much old news.

Weeks ago, Ivy and AIA president Russ Davidson walked back their position in a weak-kneed online video and statement to The Architect's Newspaper, and in late November, AIA media relations director Scott Frank resigned. But what is most relevant is what it represents as architects attempt to envision a future under the current political climate.

The AIA statement is a knee-jerk position that reflects a professional organisation desperately in need of self-preservation. How else to justify the quick grab for a piece of the approximately $500 billion in infrastructure spending (a figure committed by Trump during the campaign)?

The AIA statement reflects a professional organisation desperately in need of self-preservation

Only a group suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the financial meltdowns of 2001 and 2008 would leverage "design and construction sector's role as a major catalyst for job creation throughout the American economy", at the very moment that much of the country was furiously grieving the loss of a progressive agenda.

Yet if architects reject the AIA's cynically backwards-looking sentiment, how do we craft a way forward? While protests and petitions against frightening appointments (such as Ben Carson as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and probable policies of the incoming administration are effective tactics to galvanise a community, design strategies robust enough to resist this new political climate have yet to emerge.

Although optimism is wearing thin at the moment, could speculative design be an answer? Can we use the very tools of neoliberal and techno-utopian dreaming as an apparatus of resistance?

Consider the New Cities, Future Ruins conference, which convened the weekend after the election and gathered an international group of artists, designers, and thinkers in Dallas, Texas.

Curated by artistic director Gavin Kroeber and hosted by SMU Meadows School for the Arts, the event focused on both existing conditions and new visions as told through art, urbanism, and design in looking at the US's Sun Belt region – an area facing the impact of suburban sprawl, climate change, and border politics. The topics, although regional, were especially germane to a whole country struggling to come to terms with 2016's geographical and ideological divide.

Andrew Ross made the point clear in his keynote. As the Guardian contributor, activist, and educator sketched out a short eco-political history of the region, he noted (as others have) the lines drawn in the election between urban and non-urban life. But more importantly, as he built narrative that connected social justice to climate justice, he offered up a new vision for cities, one that skewered the self-satisfied green agenda often touted by mayors and policy makers.

Although optimism is wearing thin at the moment, could speculative design be an answer?

Ross took aim at the rise of urban sustainability plans that celebrate environmental accomplishments like multi-modal transportation, resiliency, and park space. He argued that people who are ecologically disenfranchised – in urban areas without access to safe water or clean air – are the unseen victims of the green American Dream. But rather than wallowing in dystopia, he suggested that urban sustainability plans need to be considered civil rights plans – a not-so-small speculative act.

As the title New Cities, Future Ruins might convey, a tension between utopian prophecies and dystopian scenarios ran through the conference. But what separated the tone from the "let's make the world a better place" platitudes of Silicon Valley futurists is the distinct inclusion of socially minded thinkers and community-based practitioners.

For instance, architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman, who position their work between top-down and bottom-up planning practices, challenged the audience to visualise inequality and pointedly asked, "Where is our public imagination?"

The question is an important provocation if architecture wants to be relevant moving forward. We are as familiar with mainstream imaginings of technofutures as we are of the coming ecoapocalypse: elevated bike lanes zipping through London versus starving polar bears.

While a radical generation of designers forged by 1968 enacted their politics through drawings, writings, and comic books, it is rare to see depiction in which a contemporary designer that allows herself the privilege – nee faith – to speculate a rectified equality. But why not dream it, draw it? There's power in representation.

New Cities, Future Ruins participants gathered in an auditorium on the SMU campus where curator Naima J Keith, deputy director of exhibits and programs at the California African American Museum, presented on afrofuturism. She began with a slide of actress Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek and recalled a story of how Martin Luther King Junior advised Nichols to stay on the television show, despite her desire to leave behind the 23rd century.

There's power in representation

As a black woman cast as a main character on a popular show, Nichols embodied a radical speculative future – her presence on the Enterprise demonstration of diversity of race and gender not otherwise seen on TV in the 1960s. Keith, after King, stressed the urgent need to start representing tomorrow, today.

The problem with speculation, however, is that it can be easily dismissed as seductive marketing or frivolous science fiction. In a performance at The MAC art space, held as part of the symposium, artist Autumn Knight defied such categorisations.

On stage she, and a trio of participants drawn from the audience, acted out a business-like meeting to assess new organisations to be established in her radical speculation – one set after an unnamed, but deeply fought, revolution. Knight and others read aloud the titles of these new institutions: Shakwon Center for Texas Architecture, NyRique Aquatics Center, Bruvondra Museum of American Art, and more.

With the reading off of the names, each a careful mash up of the polysyllabic rhythms of black culture and the conventions of institutional nomenclature, a palpable wakefulness came over the crowd. We were in the presence of a possible future. For a moment, the utopia was so real that it allowed for a breath of hope after the heartbreak that is 2016.

Reflecting on the election in the New Yorker, author Junot Díaz (after philosopher Jonathan Lear) called for the use of "radical hope" as a practice to fight off despair and a weapon of resistance. As architects, representation is a critical piece of our disciplinary and professional arsenal.

Unlike the AIA's retrograde position with its backward glance, critical speculation is a powerful way to put forward reimagined systems, infrastructures, and architectures. Design is not glib optimism. When taken up as a politicised, bottom-up practice, it is nothing less than an act of radical hope.