# THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 28 /// Briefly on Walking by Caroline Filice Smith

I Extend My Arms 1931 or 1932 by Claude Cahun 1894-1954

Claude Cahun- I Extend My Arms (1931)

Part of what I am interested in this guest writers essays series, is the difference of narrative style between my guests’ texts. Some of them are very academic and some others, like this one, are much more personal in the way they constitute a manifesto. In this regard, I will try to write my introduction in a similar personal approach than the one chosen by Caroline Filice Smith for her essay (the 28th of the series) Briefly on Walking.
I was recently invited to tale part in my friend Sofia’s end of the semester jury in an Eastern American school of architecture, and I got implicitly yet strongly caught for what I regret to call, latent chauvinism for a comment I made, you know one of these comments in which you think that you’re being daring to talk about eroticism. Although this comment was not addressed specifically to a gender or another, few minutes of reflection made me realize that my discourse was indeed ‘phalocentric’ (if you allow me this neologism !) as it included exclusively in itself the vision of a male who ‘has the ownership over his own body in the public space’ to use Caroline’s phrasing. In other words, one do not need to be actively antagonist to a gender, a race, a class to be fully part of a phalocratic, racist or socially oppressive system. Only a clear understanding of our characteristics (in the western world they would be: white, male, heterosexual, healthy…) which makes us part of a dominant cast can help us to actively refuse (the acceptance can be passive, but the refusal is necessarily active) to socially embody these same characteristics.

Caroline’s text asks the question of gender in the architectural practice, and to do so, she uses the resistive spirit of June Jordan, a black feminist poet and intellectual, friend of Buckminster Fuller with who she designed the project Skyrise for Harlem in 1964. The excellent article June Jordan and a Black Feminist Poetics of Architecture written by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and quoted by Caroline seems, in this regard, an excellent complement to this essay.

The Funambulist Papers 28 /// Briefly on Walking

by Caroline Smith

“Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
alone
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up
like this…..
[1]

As a practicing architect and a woman [a fairly genderqueer one at that], the realities of  how architecture manifests and reinforces dominant social and political power structures [on my body] is inescapable.  And while it is fairly easy to find communities of people who would like to talk about the relationships between capitalism/colonialism/imperialism and architecture, it becomes much more difficult when the subject of gender, class, and race are brought into the discussion.  Issues which are conveniently considered ‘special interest’ despite the fact that these issues affect a majority of the population… though because of the social/educational ‘cost’ of  becoming an architect, constitutes not much of the population actively designing buildings.  And so it is also inevitable that as a woman, ‘my issues’ will be regarded as secondary and more possibly, selfish to bring up, when compared to the ‘larger’ demons of things like unregulated capitalist development.  Which of course, is a topic which consistently comes up in all activist circles [see: any article on occupy and the issues of class,gender,race within the movement]

A few months ago I moved from Los Angeles, where I was involved in the occupy movement, to Shanghai. Obviously moving from a city where you have spent the last several months facing more and more visible political/physical oppression to a city where political dissidents are are kept fairly invisible involved not only a political shock to the system but also a good amount of political concession.   And then, on a particularly warm day in May, I wore a skirt; and I walked two blocks; and…. nothing.  It was at the moment I realized Shanghai had given me something I had never expected to have.  I, for the first time in 25 years of living, could walk down a street without [too much] fear of being: grabbed, followed, whistled at, hollered at, or attacked.  I, for the first time in my life had the opportunity, to potentially, have ownership over my own body while also existing in ‘public’.

And so we get statements like these:

“Architects are called upon to develop urban and architectural forms that are congenial to contemporary economic and political life. They are neither legitimized, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’ (as David Gloster suggests).”  [2]

This statement has already been thoroughly spoken about on this blog. Not only is it a highly privileged position, it is also a completely binary one.  The idea that changes in social/political policy alone can ‘fix’ the the deep rooted and systematic oppression of marginalized people that has rooted itself into all parts of social/political life, is a farce at best.  And attempting to pinpoint the cause or conversely the ‘fix’ to one thing denies entire histories of oppression.  As a woman working in a profession in which I am often reminded of how much my body does not belong to me; from the constant use of female models as props in renders, the idea that the ‘correct’ height for all objects is always the average euro-male height, to the development in countries where my ‘body’ is simply not welcome in most public places; this statement can be easily distilled to: ‘sit down, and shut up’ or ‘if you dont like it, then get out’.  Pretty much the same privileged bull’ that all marginalized people have been told forever.

“There are some areas where, in the nature of our society, personal experience is impossible for the male architect, and feedback from the public unlikely,”  “I have become convinced that the architect’s lack of personal experience and involvement in what he is planning constitutes a real problem here—the more so since I imagine he is unaware of it” [3]

The simple fact is that I am able to speak about the city, I am even ‘qualified’ to design cities, but I am not able to ‘be’ in a city [or really any place for that matter].  Navigating the city, much like navigating a building, for a non-normalized body [which is most], involves a constant negotiation of shifting boundaries, where the psychological becomes physical.  Where the leers, stares, hollers, and leans are so incessant that you can actually feel the space around you contract as you approach every new potential danger; and every trip involves constant weighing of the risks. The worth of running through ‘occupied territories’ rather than staying home or going miles out of your way.  As designers we often speak about the ‘grid’ or infrastructural patterns of the city; punctuated by architectural ‘moments’.  When in reality, the endless grid does not exist outside of google street view, or maybe a car.   For the streets which do exist in my mental map of available routes, every intersection, every alley, every stairway, entrance, wall, corner, stop-sign, elevator, plaza, stoop, park and bench becomes a moment of potential violence.  Every route I take is a careful equation of time-of-day, weather, clothing, shoes, weight of bag, hairstyle, time-of-year, and amount of harassment I feel I can manage through at that moment.  Always knowing, should anything ever happen to me, my ‘body’ will be to blame.  This sometimes means the path from point A to point B becomes 3 miles longer, or ceases to exist at all.

This is the disconnect, the realization that there is a vast difference between the way we think about architecture/city and the way architecture is lived. That the intersection is not JUST an intersection, that a glass staircase is not just a design detail [no skirts allowed!] and that a bathroom without hooks is a reminder that although I am expected to carry all this stuff with me, so that my body may continue to remain ‘appropriate’, no one cares if I have a place to put it while I…. And at that moment you are reminded of exactly where your body stands on the list of check boxes.

“What does an architect who is accountable to the bottom of the barrel, who can give an account of what that rock and hard place space of choosing feels like, what does that architect imagine and build?” [4]

And so I will end with a brief introduction and then some images of June Jordans project for Harlem [with Buckminster Fuller], entitled “Skyrise for Harlem” I have chosen this project, not because it is in any way a water-tight fix to the problems of “urban renewal” it was attempting to address, but because it addressed social and architectural issues from a place of action instead of projection, a place of personal experience rather than paternalistic hand-me-downs, and from a place of lived personal/social struggle; bottom-up in its truest sense.  This is not to say that an architect can not help a community which they are not a part of, but that no matter how many “monoliths for the people” we draw, they will always fail if designed from a place fundamentally lacking in understanding the extent of the cultural/political/and social issues/violence at hand.

“Imagine…how home is impossible when whether you have water depends not on whether you go pump some, but on whether you can convince an absentee landlord to imagine you as human.”[4]

June Jordan and Buckminster Fullers plan for Harlem, addressed three major issues: First: through the replacement of the existing grid with ‘psychologically generative’ curvilinear streets they addressed the pattern of the intersection as a pattern of inevitability: an inevitability of violence. When the rhythm of intersection after intersection, embeds within itself the knowledge that every ¼ mile will bring a new “psychological crucifixion” then there becomes no chance for life outside of struggle. Second: the project proposes highrises be built above, but connected to, existing housing. When the construction is completed, the old housing is removed, releasing ground to be used as community gardens, playgrounds, etc…thus addressing the problem that ‘urban renewal’ usually just means urban removal; and Third:  the emphasis on creating spaces of personal ‘production’ to address the lack of social and political control the residents of Harlem had over their own neighborhood.

“…As the plane tilted into the hills of Laconia, New hampshire, I could see no one, but there was no tangible obstacle to the imagining of how this land, these contours of growth and rise and seasonal definition could nurture and extend human life.  There was no obvious site that might be cleared for housing  No particular grove nor patch visually loomed as more habitable, more humanly yielding than another  And yet I surmised no menace of elements inimical to life in that topography.  It seemed that any stretch, that every slope, provided living possibilities….
By contrast, any view of Harlem will likely indicate the presence of human life – people whose surroundings suggest that survival is a mysterious and even pointless phenomenon.  On the streets of Harlem, sources of sustenance are difficult to discover and, indeed , sources of power for control and change are remote. ..Keeping warm is a matter of locating the absentee landlord rather than an independent expedition to gather wood for a fire.  This relates to our design for participation by Harlem residents in the birth of their new reality.  I would think that this new reality of Harlem should immediately reassure its residents that control of the quality of survival is possible and that every life is valuable… “ [5]

…but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
the F.B.I. To South Africa to Bedford-Stuy
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardon
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in cars
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life.
[1]

Bibliography:

[1]  – Jordan, June. “Poem About My Rights” from Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005

[2] – Schumacher, Patrik. “Schumacher Slams British Architectural Education”; The Architectural Review.  31, January, 2012.

[3] – Scott Brown, Denise. “Planning the Powder Room“ Having Words. Architectural Association. 2009.

[4] – Gumbs, Alexis P. “June Jordan and a Black Feminist Poetics of Architecture
” Plurale Tantum. 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 03 June 2012. <http://pluraletantum.com/2012/03/21/june-jordan-and-a-black-feminist-poetics-of-architecture-site-1/&gt;.

[5] – Jordan, June. “A Letter to R. Buckminster Fuller (1969)  Civil Wars. Touchstone; 1 Touchstone Ed edition (September 1, 1995)

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