Léopold Lambert – Paris on November 19, 2016
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Dear American Institute of Architects,
I did not think that you’d be the one to make me write down his name for the first time. Like Teju Cole, in his “Fable” (The New Inquiry, 2016), I thought that never pronouncing his name — that he elevated to the rank of brand — was the best way to fight him, but we are where we are now, and there’s no way around it.
It took only a few hours after the definitive results of the elections for your CEO, Robert Ivy, to issue a statement affirming that the AIA “stand ready to work with him,” and that American architects “should work together to advance policies that help our country move forward.” Retrospectively, I suppose that only the speed with which you issued this statement was the truly surprising thing. After all, you represent a profession that embodies the dominant forms of power to many extents. It is one of the whitest in the United States (91.3% of American architects are white) and, despite the (too) slow takeover of women in architectural schools, white men still make up 74.9% of licensed architects. We cannot necessarily assume that a majority of architects voted for him during these last elections; after all, an large majority of them live in big cities where he was mostly defeated. However, what we know for sure is that the overwhelming majority of bodies that compose this profession are not the ones who are put in great peril by the radicalization of the US administration — not that it was ever easy for them since this country was founded as a massive settler colonialist and slavery project.
But the overwhelming whiteness of the architects whom you represent is only one aspect of the problem; another one (perhaps much bigger) is the actual product of your profession: architecture. Only a few demagogues might still declare that architecture is not the materialization of politics; nevertheless, few architects would admit their discipline is fundamentally violent and remains one the most effective weapons of control and incarceration available for police and military states. Many of your members are already busy displacing Black and Latinx populations from entire neighborhoods by constructing buildings whose foundations are as much the product of bulldozers as they are of the police. Others dedicate their efforts to host as comfortably as possible the banks and corporations of the 1% like the ones owned by the US President-Elect in shiny inaccessible and secured towers. Some others even participate in the elaboration of the carceral-industrial complex, building jails, prisons, solitary chambers, detention centers and other incarcerating political programs that could never exist without architecture to enforce them. What is simpler for architecture than to materialize four walls around a body?
And that’s where I’m heading. You want to “work with him”? Well, you will. Architectural programs and their violence such as the ones cited above will indubitably increase, a few of your members will also be consulted in the (re)construction of a heavily militarized wall on the southern border, some others might work in close collaboration with the US army to reinforce its current occupations on foreign lands and start new ones; hell, you might even want to create an exchange program with the architects of the Israeli Apartheid in the name of knowledge exchange for common interests. Finally, some other of your members may be asked to design the carceral architectural typology of the “regrouping camps” (or whatever euphemistic terminology that will be designed to conceal the overwhelming violence of their agenda) for Muslim citizens/residents of the US. This tragically constitutes nothing less than a credible scenario of the politics promised and soon-to-be-engaged by the President-Elect as one of his prominent backer implied two days ago, providing the example of Japanese internment camps (see photo above) between 1942 and 1946 as a legitimate precedent (see also this fictitious description of what follows). What will you do then dear AIA? Is there a moment when “too much will be too much?” It does not take a diploma in history or psychology to know that when too much is not too much from the beginning, it will never be. Concentration camps might appear as a far-fetched scenario in this moment, an alarmist hypothesis that might make us forget about the actual current issues that need to be addressed… but no camp of that kind is ever built without making their implementation appear as unavoidable and logical. The hypothesis of an explicitly-white-supremacist US administration certainly appeared to many of us as a similarly improbable far-fetched scenario not too long ago, and look where we are now. The events of the present are always judged with the relativity of worse past events and worse hypothetical futures, rendering them acceptable in a twisted negotiation of the mind.
I know your discourse, dear AIA. You’re the good guys “changing the system from the inside.” You take part in gentrification to make it less violent, and you only accept bids to design police stations or prisons to make them a bit more humane. Similarly, you “stand ready to work with him” to change a political program with which you partially disagree “from the inside.” No political programs like the one designed by the new administration can ever be implemented without the active participation of “good guys” like you, AIA, and that makes you just as responsible for them.
Don’t worry AIA, you still have good days coming; the writings of Adolph Loos, Le Corbusier, and Robert Venturi will continued to be taught in architecture schools for a while. They might even soon be joined by those of Michel Écochard, Oscar Newman, and Patrik Schumacher to add precision to the colonial architectures of the future. But, many students and young graduates already understood that they did not want to learn architecture from architects but, rather to learn it through the works of Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis and Judith Butler. Those won’t be the architects you’ll want to represent dear AIA and many may even decide to be architects through other ways than design, but ultimately they are the ones who will take you down. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of true revolutionary architecture is an illusion, and architecture will always remain an instrument of power. New institutions like yours, representing updated dominant norms and political agendas, will not take long to emerge, and new smart, talented, bold and young architects will take their turn in organizing the resistance against it. You are doomed dear AIA; the question is whether you will disappear peacefully or, as your statement suggests, will you fully contribute to the United States’ last historical spasm of imperial violence?