Act Like An Architect

Dana cuff

 
Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and practitioner in architecture. Her work focuses on affordable housing, modernism, suburban studies, the politics of place, and the spatial implications of new computer technologies.
citylab.ucla.edu

 

1. WITHIN AN ARCHITECTURAL PROJECT, THE PROGRAM PRIVILEGES A PUBLIC SPHERE.

 

The key terms here are public and program. An architecture that resists repressive political programs is intrinsically public in the sense of accessible, shared in common, and free.

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 architectural critic’s task to evaluate it, and elevate it.

Infrastructure is one of the most public types of work we can undertake, but its program is often fraught by political and potentially violent outcomes like displacement, demolition, and segregation. The destruction that comes with making a border wall or a new dam spillway, will make determinations about what is not worth saving, and these are political determinations. Infrastructure as well as community rebuilding cannot be advocated in an offhand manner. Because these are significant types of works, we approach with critical attention, starting by examining what falls under the euphemism of “creative destruction.”

 

2. IN AMERICAN CITIES TODAY, OUR BUILDING TYPE IS AFFORDABLE HOUSING, OUR BROADEST GOALS ARE ENVIRONMENTAL.

 

Working broadly for shared public goods (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 realms for architects to act according to principles of the discipline.

So many populations are excluded or demeaned by the current administration in Washington, that plenty of projects will qualify 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 discretely with more mainstream work; some will be built, some will be conceptual, some may require actual defiance.

 

 

3. IN THE FACE OF PROPAGANDA, DATA-DRIVEN DESIGN MAKES IT CLEAR THAT FACTS MATTER.

 

In a world threatened by “alternative facts” which undermines the very substrates of education and of the university, we architects can retrieve our respect for metrics and empirical data; 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 incumbent upon us here at UCLA, at the public university, where blended strategies of research, practice, and education can link the academy to the exigencies of professional practice. Even though the public university has itself bowed to pressures of neoliberalism, it may be that public architecture programs hold particular insight into the ways that research and practice can productively align so that facts matter.

 

4. INDIVIDUAL PROJECTS ARE LINKED INTO LONG-TERM PURSUITS.

 

Architectural practices are generally a series 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 works.

Such long-term projects are far less vulnerable to co-optation, and more likely to exceed political frameworks that surround any individual commission.

Moreover, over multiple projects and sites, the coordinated works of a number of individuals can cohere, forming a stronger political base.

 

5. THE CITY, NOT THE NATION OR PRIVATE PROPERTY, IS OUR SITE.

 

Here again, this may seem prescriptive, but from fascist regimes of the early 20th century to the McCarthy era in the 50’s, to our present administration, nationalist systems have come to bad ends. The city, on the other hand, is run by people who have and must have connections to their constituents. Mayors and city councilmembers 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, architects, educators, critics, and students who find the means to extend their attention to a particular building beyond its property boundaries and into the city it lives within, will find themselves in terrain where they have agency

 

There are multiple ways for us to act with principle, to have agency, today. The work of UCLA's urban design and research center, cityLAB is both a source of these principles for me, and a demonstration of our agency in the crisis of this moment. It is by no means sufficient, but it IS part of a path we can clear for architectural action by scholars, students, and practitioners.

Published on 14 October 2017

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