The 2016 election has sparked political engagement in the architecture community like I’ve never seen. The wall along the U.S.–Mexico border, in particular, has emerged as a flashpoint. On March 10, the first deadline in the Department of Homeland Security’s request for proposals for the wall, the Architecture Lobby organized a job walkout. Critic Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, tweeted, “Any architect who responds to this [RFP] has sacrificed his/her professional integrity on the altar of Trump.” And students at Barnard, Columbia, Cornell, Ohio State, Rice, Texas Tech, and Yale posted signs in their windows proclaiming, “We won’t build your wall.”
What won’t you build?
Government is a perennial target for protest, and the border wall, if realized, could have devastating socio-spatial effects. But why stop there? Tribalism, inequality, corruption, climate change, and other iniquities continue to bedevil society, and populations worldwide are frustrated by their leaders’ unwillingness or inability to foster solutions. As if to confirm that the mood of disquiet has fully permeated architecture, last year an activist-practitioner from Chile, Alejandro Aravena, received the Pritzker Prize and was chosen to direct the Venice Biennale (which he organized as a critique on “the social, political, economic, and environmental end of the spectrum”). And this month, Aravena’s keynoting
Architectural commissions that once might have seemed benign look more and more like matters of conscience. We know, for instance, that greenfield development destroys wildlife habitats even as species extinctions are occurring at a catastrophic rate. We know that projects in the United Arab Emirates are being built with slave labor. We know that luxury housing in New York and other cities has become a vehicle for international money laundering.
Many firms maintain a list of specialties on their website. New York–based Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, of PAU has one titled “What We Do,” and it encompasses pretty much what you’d expect of an ambitious firm: cultural, institutional, and so forth. But Chakrabarti includes another, less typical list right below the first: “What We Don’t Do,” which names “Single-Family Suburban Homes; Suburban Subdivisions, Malls, and Office Parks; Work for Autocratic/Dictatorial Nations; Work for Nations or Corporations with Unacceptable Labor or Environmental Practices; Correctional Facilities; Casinos/Facilities for Slot-Machine Gambling; Facilities that Manufacture Arms.”
It’s a brave, some might say antagonistic, move to call out specific markets and clients as personally unacceptable, especially since lots of architects take on those very kinds of jobs. Not everyone can grab a bullhorn and start marching—and of course not everyone feels the need. Saintliness isn’t a requirement of licensure, and every project, no matter how well-intentioned, entails compromise. Still, who doesn’t ask themselves, now and again, “Where should I draw the line?” Maybe we should ask ourselves that question more often, as individuals, as firms, and as a profession. Protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public encompasses far more than preventing buildings from falling down. The social contract invests architects with responsibility for civilization itself.