original photo: Lorie Shaull
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, Quilian Riano, the assistant dean of Pratt School of Architecture, shares the aims of Dark Matter University, a network he helped start to create and explore new models of design pedagogy, practice, and culture. Riano was previously the associate director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.

Quilian Riano
courtesy Quilian Riano Quilian Riano

Dark Matter University went from an idea and organizing platform to an organization that‘s actively producing and doing work in the world. Many institutions want to understand what anti-racist design is—including ourselves, to be honest. We are constantly seeking an anti-racist design pedagogy and a model of building and producing urban space, especially in communities of color that have been redlined and disinvested over time.

While working on our vision and mission, we started talking about the implied subjectivity in architecture. This was a larger democratic project, reimagining subjectivities to accommodate a more pluralistic model, with the understanding that African Americans, Latinx, and Asian Americans are not the subjects typically that people think of as being architects, or that these communities are not places where real architecture can be produced. We’ve been conscious of challenging that. Much of my practice has been about using games, negotiation, and conflict as a way of creating a robust democratic model that appreciates, understands, and thrives on multiple subjectivities.

On Power Dynamics
One thing that has changed is the question of whom institutions were built to serve and how conscious they are of those facts. As demographics have changed, have institutions responded? Over the last four years, we saw a democratic crisis, where there was a backlash and then a wanting to recenter one or a few subjectivities very simplistically: These are the people in charge. These are the people in the places that the government responds to.

DMU aims to challenge those subjectivities, with the understanding that some people have been purposefully kept from that public sphere. It was important for institutions to clarify their values at the beginning of the last administration, and to think about how to deal with the backlash when the people that have been centered consistently in culture have to give up power for other people to enter that public sphere as well.

If you have always had power and that power has gone unquestioned, giving up some of it will be difficult because you were promised a world. Realistically, the new pluralistic democratic system is not going to be any worse for you. But it’s also not the thing you were promised: that for just being you, you are going to get stuff. The backlash to this moment is here. We see it where the concept of critical race theory is now applied to anything that talks about people of color. Clearly, CRT should not be demonized to begin with, but then putting every conversation [about race] within that box is to devalue it, to dismiss it.

If you have always had power and that power has gone unquestioned, giving up some of it will be difficult because you were promised a world.

Educational institutions have expressed an interest to change. Many need to think about how to recenter themselves and to reimagine the work they are producing. Is the lack of diversity in architecture schools due to a lack of interest? I hear from students who enter architecture school, see the work that gets produced, [realize] it doesn’t reflect their communities, and then leave. Many go on to have big impacts in the building environment through other mediums.

In the current professional structure, the design community primarily serves people with power. What is our role then within that? Asking these larger political questions is part of critical practice and critical architectural discourse. How can institutions and processes be changed so that more people are a part of it?

Entering Dark Matter University
Dark Matter University is its own entity. Universities can contract with DMU, which comprises approximately 140 people in 24 states and has taught at a number of institutions, including SUNY Buffalo, University of Michigan, Florida A&M University, Yale University, Howard University, and Tuskegee University. DMU also has one community organization partnership, with the Van Alen Institute, with which we‘ll be teaching a course in the Gowanus neighborhood, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

DMU is moving [architectural practice] from doing work that communities may or may not want, to amplifying the voices of the people doing the work. The former presupposes that the skills and tools architects have are a benign technocratic good. The latter recognizes that spaces aren’t blank slates, but actively have projects and people working on them at different levels in different ways. It forces us to understand more about how we can facilitate as a beginning point, rather than how we can design.

We’ve taken on this idea of amplification more seriously. This past year, Jenn Low, a landscape architect in Washington, D.C., and I taught a grounded studio at Kent State called Cooperative Futures, in relationship with one of the first modules that DMU produced at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Ontario. We taught in two institutions at the same time. We also tapped into the entire network of DMU as well as a network of folks in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood: Adam Drue King, a technologist; Lexy Lattimore, a performer who is doing a lot of community engagement work; and Daniel Gray-Kontar, a writer who runs Twelve Literary Arts and is creating youth groups that are reimagining and replanning the city.

Having conversations between two institutions and two sets of students, as well as the young people from Twelve Literary, was incredibly helpful. All this together created a new way of looking at design.

The students would not have been able to talk to each other—and I would not have been able to teach the content—had it not been for the pandemic. The tools of the pandemic made Dark Matter University and its extensive national reach possible. It allowed DMU’s fundamental design justice courses to happen across the country.

The pandemic has been hard for so many people, but it has also created something that might be hard to do away with—the ability to have a national reach, made possible with tools that have become commonplace: Figma, Mural, Slack, and even Google Slides.

We‘re actively trying to think of models by which to reimagine education, the way we teach, the subjects we teach, and the formats of studios, seminars, and courses. It is a model that can benefit students and institutions in the long term by not being an insular model, but rather a radical cooperative collective model. We don’t have all the answers, but we are asking the questions actively with others.

We want to disseminate the courses and work within and without institutions, but we also believe in labor rights and want to make sure that everyone gets paid for their work. We’re releasing an RFQ, asking the universities to apply [for a DMU course and] let us know what we could teach or work with them on, while we refine what it is that we do and what we want to do with that.

There is a lot of joy within DMU. We do this work with joy.

On Individual Growth
More and more, I try to be quiet and to learn from young people—from people who have gone to school in an atmosphere in which The Architecture Lobby existed and where questions that weren’t being asked I was in school are beginning to be asked.

Though I can share my experiences with The Architecture Lobby and Occupy Wall Street, I find that recent graduates have clarity in issues about collectivity and cooperativeness. My role is to make sure we learn from a diversity of voices and explore different and new modes of working. It can be easy for some people to say, “This is the way.”

What I have learned and keep learning is how to give up more space, put things into practice, and make sure that voices are heard. We don’t dismiss one strategy or tool; rather we discuss them all. We can all work in multiple ways toward our overall goal of creating anti-racist, decolonializing models of pedagogy.

Whoever can link the struggles of a place like the Mahoning Valley, in eastern Ohio, to the struggles of the immigrant communities in Sunset Park and Corona [in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., respectively] is going to be a politician. Those communities have similar struggles and questions about their futures, yet they see themselves as different from the other. I’m not a politician, but perhaps I can whisper in their ear someday.

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.

This article has been updated since first publication.