George Floyd wasn't the first or last Black person to be killed by the hands of police or vigilantes, but his documented murder helped spark a rise in discourse on systemic racism. In this 15-part series, members of the design community share how their conversations and view of and place in the profession have changed in a year that also saw an increase in attacks—many fatal—against people of color as well as the lives of millions more gone due to COVID-19.

Here, Cruz Garcia, designer, educator, author, artist, and co-founder of WAI Architecture Think Tank with French designer, educator, author, artist, and poet Nathalie Frankowski, shares why he has little hope for change to come from established institutions and the design profession—and much hope because of his students.

Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia
Cat Piper and WAI Think Tank Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia

In their article “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang reference “settler moves to innocence,” in which people will do gestures to make them feel better about themselves without actually giving any power in exchange. When you see how things are still operating, I don’t think much has changed. There need to be real, fundamental, and structural changes to the economy and education. That’s not going to happen in one year.

Talking about settler colonialism puts universities in an uncomfortable spot because they are built by slave labor on stolen land. As long as we can start from that premise, we can have an argument. [With the denial of tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] and Cornel West by Harvard, it seems that universities are right-wing spaces, especially the higher up you get into the institution.

And we’re not only talking about race and gender, but also class. That often gets overlooked in architecture when we use very few examples of racialized and gender subjects that come from a privileged economic background. That’s why we have to look at this from the intersectional point of view. And we don’t see much change because when we look at the lecture series at universities, they are still heavily reliant on people that have been approved by the same elite institutions.

Some of us have the privilege—or the risk—of being visible and able to articulate the problems that are happening. If you’re an adjunct somewhere, you have no luxury to start burning bridges because it may cost your future.

At the moment, we need solidarity and anti-hegemonic, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist discourses and practices. Marginalized groups are in the most precarious state because of employment issues and lack of accessibility. People that are running the institutions are not going to give power away voluntarily. That has never happened in history. Who of us are allowed to fight? In this country, with this situation, we have seen little improvement other than sugarcoating the grim reality and the usual declaration: “Yes, we are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion”—three abstract terms that could mean anything and address nothing in particular.

"Workshops for Other Worlds," a student installation organized by WAI Think Tank at Moss Arts Center, Virginia Tech (2021)
WAI Think Tank "Workshops for Other Worlds," a student installation organized by WAI Think Tank at Moss Arts Center, Virginia Tech (2021)

Laying the Groundwork
On one hand, there need to be an institutional reflection and a true commitment to change, where we say this doesn’t work and we have to change the way that we operate. That’s fundamental. We’re talking about tuition fees, licensure processes, who gets to be called what, who is allowed to dream of a better future, who can afford it?

On the other hand, there needs to be self-criticism. What’s most dangerous are people who think that they’re doing good, but they’re not. People who see no problem taking a commission from a Black designer for something that they shouldn’t be doing because, 99% of the time, they don’t even need those projects—they already have other projects and it’s just out of complete greed, stupidity, or selfishness. They are central to these systems of exclusion.

If you’re openly racist, it is quite easy to know that we completely disagree. But the problem comes when we are allies trying to dismantle this together and then find we are actually perpetuating these systems through “moves to innocence” that reconcile the security of the settler, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy without acknowledging our role in it.

Recently we read about this studio that is doing a building-monument for the Tulsa Race Massacre. And this extremely white studio said, “Oh, we’re committed to diversity.” First of all, they shouldn’t even be in this conversation. Then the people who are commissioning them are as irresponsible. And then you read the lack of criticism in the media and it’s like nothing happened. Everybody’s complicit in this move to innocence. We should be able to talk about that. We should be able to call them out without being censored. Otherwise, we’re not making any progress.

[T]he problem comes when we are allies trying to dismantle this together and then find we are actually perpetuating these systems ... without acknowledging our role in it.

In I Am Not Your Negro (Vintage Books, 2017), James Baldwin argues that as long as we cannot address what people talk about inside the privacy of their homes, we’re not going to change anything that happens in the public sphere. In the public discourse, everybody says, “I’d like to move forward.” But when you see how they act and operate in architecture studio or in school—there’s no space for Blackness or Indigeneity or anything that doesn’t fit the white-heteropatriarchal and capitalist gaze. It’s just pure white supremacy. And then it’s up to us to figure out how we change it. There’s no power being conceded. That’s our current situation: Everybody wants to be a savior, but nobody wants to give power away.

And that’s why it cannot come up from them. We have to have an infrastructure that doesn’t allow for the accumulation of wealth and power to happen in the first place. Within the United States, the capitalist system is based on extraction and oppression of people. [Political activist and scholar] Angela Davis talks about this. We cannot operate as a democracy with capitalism when the whole point is to accumulate, extract, and oppress.

We don’t have much hope within architecture as it is right now, to be honest. We tell our students, “It’s not for you to hoard the resources and the knowledge, but to share it and dismantle it however you can.” Toni Morrison and other decolonial scholars talked about this. Whenever you’re given the opportunity and if you can do it, we feel that’s the ultimate goal: to dismantle this white supremacist, settler-colonial, heteropatriarchal state.

Even for us, working for institutions can be counterproductive. But we are also within a system that makes it almost impossible to operate in any other way. Now legislation is being passed against critical race theory. At the same time, a bunch of anti-abortion laws are happening too. We cannot look at them as separate issues. They are part of the same beast.
WAI Think Tank

On Global Awareness and Context
We’ve been based in many different places. Nathalie and I met in Belgium, we practiced in the Netherlands and France, and we were based in China for seven years. We are aware of our historical context—and of my condition as a colonial subject in an empire, like living in the U.S. as a Black Puerto Rican. What does that imply? How do people see me, how do they see our work?

Our work engages with power on many different levels, not only with the American version of white supremacy, but with the hegemonic infrastructures and epistemologies of architecture and urbanism. We also look for ways through [our multichannel knowledge exchange platform] Loudreaders, for example, where we can engage with other forms of critical discourse in other parts of the world. Our practice is changing every day, all the time.

Last year, we published Narrative Architecture: A Kynical Manifesto (NAI010 Publishers, 2020) about questioning the ideological framework of architecture and urbanism. After writing about the construction of a Eurocentric and hegemonic discourse of modernism and the possibilities to subvert it through provocation and critique, we close the book with post-colonial prose suggesting other forms of architectural practice through the post-colonial imagination. But then we had to change our style of writing because we couldn’t work through allegory and irony in the summer of 2020.

After the public lynching of George Floyd we wrote Un-Making Architecture: An Anti-Racist Architecture Manifesto, and then we had to write A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education to address the institutions in a straightforward way because allegories—or “utopian works” as some people refer to them—can be played and ignored. But if we’re telling you with data that your institution is white supremacist, founded as such, and has never changed, then it takes a different type of approach. Writing this type of straightforward, anti-racist texts is tricky and dangerous because some people would personally attack us and because institutions would all of a sudden try to reduce us and our work into simplistic categories—something American institutions love to do.

Narrative Architecture: A Kynical Manifesto by WAI Think Tank (NAI010 Publishers, 2020)
WAI Think Tank and NAI010 Publishers Narrative Architecture: A Kynical Manifesto by WAI Think Tank (NAI010 Publishers, 2020)
Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education by WAI Think Tank (Loudreaders Publishers, 2021)
WAI Think Tank Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education by WAI Think Tank (Loudreaders Publishers, 2021)

On Willful Ignorance
We can talk about form, representation, humor, and theory too—ideas central to our work—but institutions sometimes just want us to be those transparent, at-risk, or asterisk* people (to cite Tuck and Yang again). They’re continuously asking us about oppression and marginalization without recognizing the additional emotional labor that goes into this. I’m in a position, maybe because of luck, or privilege, and other different things that happened, where I can articulate something that many people wish they could articulate, but don’t have the chance to.

In a way, it forces us to do a certain type of work at the expense of being free, which is what white men can mostly do. Nobody’s asking them, “What are you doing today to dismantle white supremacy?” They can just go about their lives. If they want to be an ally, good for them. If not, then everything goes business as usual. So how can we navigate that? How can we be opaque—to quote Édouard Glissant—and not be read as these fetishized, objectified, tropical, or colonial subjects, and, on the other hand, be solidary and fight, if we can fight?

It’s difficult, complicated, and exhausting. You reflect on what you’re doing all the time. How do you talk? How do you address urgent issues? How accessible are your work and arguments? What language are you using? Are you using the tools of the master to dismantle the house, trying to build something new (a commune), or both?

When people don’t have to deal with pressing issues, they have a luxury of ignorance and a luxury of irresponsibility. That’s where the power dynamics are really reflected: Even if you don’t care, everything you do affects somebody else. And sometimes if you care a lot, everything you do doesn’t affect anybody.

It works both ways—like absolute power with complete irresponsibility or a complete lack of power with full responsibility.

Even if you don’t care, everything you do affects somebody else. And sometimes if you care a lot, everything you do doesn’t affect anybody.

Seeking Hope
Our teaching, in all the many different ways, probably has the biggest impact since it connects many facets of our work. Through education, you have the potential to reach a critical mass, where people can change their lives—or your life—and can make more change around them. That’s why teaching is important for us.

Students are articulating their discomfort with the current situation, more than the practice and the institutions. Younger generation students in particular hold the key to change. Students who have been told for four, five, or six years that architecture is like this and to keep politics away from architecture—which is not possible because architecture is politics always—might miss a great opportunity to be critical participants in the construction of history. Students and the people around the world who voluntarily surround us have been vocal against or within supremacist institutions. We try to provide channels so they can address those issues. We believe in the ethos “All the students are the teacher.”

These students have lived through history, this last year, so nobody can tell them falsified ideas about how to think about the world. They have an experience none of us had before. There has never been something so global and connected to which you can be informed about what’s happening today in Palestine, Bolivia, Puerto Rico, South Africa, India, or Brazil. Students are aware about how all these struggles are connected.

We are working with students around the world. We’re teaching at Virginia Tech and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. We’re heading to Columbia University this summer, then Iowa State University later on. We’ve had amazing workshops recently with students at the University of Arkansas and the University of California, Berkeley, and in Sweden, Switzerland, Mexico, China, and Colombia. We have our first book in Chinese coming this year. We’re looking forward to the discussions they’re going to generate in China with our collaborators and friends. Loudreaders is fundamental to all of this.

Reaching people in general—and not in a commercial way, but in a truly meaningful anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist way—that’s the ultimate goal. Whatever we can do to generate or participate in social change—it’s rewarding for us and fulfilling. We strive to help dismantle the systems by being part of the networks of solidarity and not doing it just by ourselves. The pedagogical exchange—the exchange of knowledge—is fundamental. And that’s the most rewarding thing we could be doing.

As told to Wanda Lau. The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

An excerpt of this article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of ARCHITECT under the headline "Everyone Wants to Be a Savior."