impatient with an architecture that
continues to scorn its own public

published (excerpt) in yale retrospecta 

...in an increasingly uneven and degrading world,
architecture cannot be considered as form alone:
it is people, labor, material, energy, and capital.

“ Does it not appear that [architecture] has reached a point where it is practiced virtually in isolation from the real needs of today? Even from our own genius of today? Indeed does not architecture actually seem, by its practice, to be complaining about or even denying these modern needs and this modern genius? Can the time be far off when the public, impatient with an architecture that continues to scorn its own public – a public that, after all, has its own preferences, which certainly do not include great concern for [maintaining classical traditions] – will come to classify the architect along with the [archaeologist] as someone capable of nothing beyond perhaps [enriching our museums and libraries with their scholarly lucubrations or diverting small coteries of initiates with sterile discussions]?”
-Viollet Le-Duc

In the mid 19th century, as it had many times before and would many times again, architecture faced a crisis of meaning. Persistent in a nostalgic attachment to revivalism, its historicized practice embodied a resistance to the changes of a new age. Scientific and structural advancement made possible new forms and types to which the making of architecture seemed to pay no mind. It preferred — or was told to produce — fancy forms of the past. Ignoring this modern genius, as Le-Duc calls it, and the modern needs to which it responded, architects perpetuated the old, satisfying increasingly irrelevant antiquarian ideals resented by the public at large. Architecture was for the ‘lucubratious’ elite, not the public. Le-Duc rightfully warned of its impending irrelevance, and even scorn.

Within a now rather anachronistic call for change, Le-Duc implies a reverberant proposition for architecture’s relationship to society. First, architecture must be practiced in direct relation to the “real needs of the day.” It must not only be true to the time, it must work tangibly in service of societal concerns. Second, it must do so by learning from and responding to what he calls the “modern genius” — for him, structural engineering and material science. Architecture will find influence through its conversation with other disciplines. Third, it must be in the interest of the public. Architecture must not exclusively satisfy the elite, but work to serve society at large. Lastly, it is the responsibility of architects to ensure that these questions are addressed substantively in the making of our cities, for very few will ask them, and maybe fewer will want to pay for them. Though he doesn’t include this point explicitly, I believe it is the most essential: without it, the other three risk remaining as “scholarly lucubrations.”

Today, in an increasingly dramatic time of economic unevenness, geographic segregation, and environmental degradation, these questions have never been more important. Furthermore, with the AIA’s recent statement in pandering support of Trump’s election[2], Le-Duc’s warning has never felt so imminent. In this paper, I will seek to use his call for change as framework to reconceptualize the modern impetus of architectural practice as beyond the material artifact of building. To substantiate my claim, I will present three narrative case studies that address labor, housing, and poverty, each conceived through a unyielding lens of material scarcity. I will conclude with a provocation for future implications.


While our climate is rapidly degrading, our cities are becoming more and more uneven, and our neighborhoods continue to segregate, we build as if we don’t notice. Indeed, some of our most respected colleagues silently contribute to the rampant spread of gentrification, ignoring its destructive symptom of displacement, while others blithely ignore slave-like labor conditions on their job-sites. Few truly address climate change as an agenda outside of perceived image, while (almost) all add value for the powerful. Even less address poverty and segregation.

Architecture operates primarily as a neutral tool of capitalism. Though it holds on to a continued ambition in form and scale (if only at face value), it rarely operates outside of its capacity to add economic value. Where Le-Duc’s architects perpetuated elitist forms of revivalism, ours empower the destructive impacts of capitalism. Operating within the restrictive and amoral bounds of unfettered capitalism, architecture is practiced in forewarned isolation. His words ring with painful resonance, and are worth repeating (with slight revision).

Does it not appear that [architecture] has reached a point where it is practiced virtually in isolation from the real needs of today? Even from our own genius of today? Indeed does not architecture actually seem, by its practice, to be complaining about or even denying these modern needs and this modern genius? Can it be far off when the public, impatient with an architecture that continues to scorn its own public — a public that is increasingly segregated, uneven, and threatened by climate change — will come to classify the architect along with the developer and financier as someone capable of nothing beyond perhaps further enriching our most wealthy with glass-clad towers or adding strange new forms to our skylines?

That time seems to have already come. And so we must ask: What are the fundamental needs of the day? What forms of modern genius are addressing those needs? And how might architecture universally address them in service of an equal public?

I propose that the answer is twofold: social and material – the two deeply intertwined. Our social impetus is the creation of equality, and with that, the active resistance of inequality. While our built environment continues to perpetuate systemic and structural unevenness, society continues to demonstrate an ever-increasing awareness of social realities, cultural landscapes, interpersonal politics, racial relations, gender norms, etc. that more and more redefine a collective consciousness of desired equality. In order for this social reality to manifest as built reality, architecture must not deny the expanding implications of contemporary sociology – a primary form of modern genius – with political and economic neutrality, but instead, engage it fundamentally. Buildings, and building processes, must be understood not as isolated objects, but as embedded players in an infinitely complex network of economic, social, cultural, political, etc. forces. Only in its dynamic engagement with these systems can architecture hope to precipitate a substantive physical manifestation of equality.

Alongside this is the material prerogative of scarcity. Beneath our material and methodological abundance in the making of the built environment, for which there exists almost no push back other than cost, is a deep and threatening shortage. Climate change is not only increasingly real, it is largely produced by the building industry. Moreover, its immediate and growing impacts disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. We cannot continue to falsely imagine a world in which newer and more sophisticated buildings are the most sustainable. Nobuilding is always more sustainable than new building. And yet we must inevitably build. As such, architecture must look to another form of modern genius – environmental science and management – in order to address, in everything it does, the dire condition of material scarcity with a sophisticated sense of environmental consciousness.

Together, these imperatives frame a conception of architecture that is distinctly outside the walls of its enclosure, and within the very real and implicative conditions of our time. Simply, understood as intervening in an uneven world that is rapidly degrading, architecture must consider not only its form, but the people who it will impact (the public), the people who physically make it (labor), the environmental impact of the materials that compose it (material), the energy used to build and eventually run it (embodied energy), the sources that pay for it (capital). Further, on an institutional scale, it must propositionally address those structural issues in our built environment that directly interface with this societal ambition: namely, the creation of public space, housing, public schooling, and infrastructure.

And it must do so with explicit consciousness of its limitations. Namely, architecture has to be paid for. In our current era of commercialized, capitalist-driven architecture, it is the writer-of-checks who determines the needs of the day, trusting itself as the modern genius, and chooses the public it intends to serve. Architecture rarely finds room to contribute to these essential questions in a substantive way unless it finds answers that make money. Herein lies the final implication of Le-Duc’s warning. Architecture must insist on its agenda, not passively accept its monetary irrelevance. In the same way that architects exhibit a persistent boldness in the proposition of structural and material innovation, demanding that engineers and financiers find ways to realize their designs, we must now demonstrate bravery in the proposition of social and environmental innovation. It is our responsibility as conscientious stewards of the built environment to synthesize our understanding of space and construction with that of the modern genius in sociology and environmental science in order to propose a new order. We must define new ways of building that systemically realize equality and environmental regeneration, and we must find ways to pay for them.


Of course, these ideas are not new, nor are they without discussion. Indeed, the 2015 Venice Biennale, curated by Alejandro Aravena, concerned itself exclusively with architecture’s role in responding to these increasingly urgent needs of the day. Its curatorial rationale well frames the endeavor:

“We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life. Given life ranges from very basic physical needs to the most intangible dimensions of the human condition, consequently, improving the quality of the built environment is an endeavor that has to tackle many fronts: from guaranteeing very concrete, down-to-earth living standards to interpreting and fulfilling human desires, from respecting the single individual to taking care of the common good, from efficiently hosting daily activities to expanding the frontiers of civilization.

Our curatorial proposal is twofold: on the one hand we would like to widen the range of issues to which architecture is expected to respond, adding explicitly to the cultural and artistic dimensions that already belong to our scope, those that are on the social, political, economical and environmental end of the spectrum. On the other hand, we would like to highlight the fact that architecture is called to respond to more than one dimension at the time, integrating a variety of fields instead of choosing one or another.

REPORTING FROM THE FRONT will be about sharing with a broader audience, the work of people that are scrutinizing the horizon looking for new fields of action, facing issues like segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities. And simultaneously will be about presenting examples where different dimensions are synthesized, integrating the pragmatic with the existential, pertinence and boldness, creativity and common sense.

Such expansion and synthesis are not easy to achieve; they are battles that need to be fought. The always menacing scarcity of means, the ruthless constraints, the lack of time and urgencies of all kinds are a constant threat that explain why we so often fall short in delivering quality. The forces that shape the built environment are not necessarily amicable either: the greed and impatience of capital or the single mindedness and conservatism of the bureaucracy tend to produce banal, mediocre and dull built environments. These are the frontlines from which we would like different practitioners to report from, sharing success stories and exemplary cases where architecture did, is and will make a difference.” [3]

While addressing these “new fields of action” on a global scale, for which the specific needs and limitations of a given place are wildly different, the exhibition positions each projects in their process of execution – its “battle.” Doing so illuminates not only the inherent embeddedness and necessary dynamism of unconventional architectural intervention, but maybe more importantly, specific methods for impactful engagement that span national borders. It is from precedents like these that I propose the discourse might pull in order to regularize a more responsible and impactful architecture. For it must be noted that most of these projects and architects exist in contrast to the industry at large. They are exceptions to the rule, acting outside the expectations of the discourse. Furthermore, and maybe even more pressingly, they are conspicuously absent in America (only two projects are from America, one in Alabama, the other a film).. If these are, indeed, true expressions of architecture’s essential responsibility in the 21st century, they must not exist on the periphery. We must not imagine the true purpose of architecture as its pro-bono work. Only through expansive and innovative methods can it find central, not peripheral, relevance.

Three projects, then, pose distinct possibility: one for housing, one in labor, and another in poverty.

ASSEMBLE studio, and their 10 Houses on Cairns for which they won the 2015 Turner Prize (the highest British award in the arts), asserts the power of working directly with people and their existing places in the rehabilitation of neighborhoods and the creation of affordable housing. In the Toxteth area of Liverpool blighted by 1981 riots and since abandoned by residents and governments alike, a small community held onto its hopes for the neighborhood. As only 70 residents trying to hold onto 200 homes, the area has been subject to countless proposals for “regeneration,” each planning to tear everything down to start anew. Seeking preservation, the community found funding from a social investor, which enabled them to form the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust and hire ASSEMBLE to refurbish ten derelict houses on Cairns Street as a catalyst for the regeneration of the entire neighborhood.[4]

ASSEMBLE undertook the project as a participatory practice that listenedto the community, seeking to “translate their resourceful and DIY attitude into the refurbishment of housing.” In other words, their architectural agenda was entirely in service and faith of these people and their ongoing efforts, not intellectually insistent on something outside of them. And the people love their neighborhood (as so many do!). So ASSEMBLE embraced the derelection of their houses not as blight, but as opportunity, celebrating the absence of floors for double height spaces or the empty shell of a building for a winter garden...abandonment as design opportunity, blight as inspiration. Similarly, they embraced the continued potential of community involvement in the stewardship of the neighborhood by establishing a construction process that would train people in the process of refurbishment. It is important to note that these decisions were only possible within a model of community ownership, for which there isn’t the pressure of development to extract the maximum possible profit of a site. Without the monetary restrictions of unyielding investment structures, they could put people before profit.

The houses on Cairns street are not unique, nor is their transformation inaccessible. Their success provides a model for replication that is antithetical to our current modes of redevelopment. Through an enthusiastic combination of energized community engagement, a boost of “social investment,” the legal structure of a community land trust, and architects genuinely interested in existing places and the people that live there, our forgotten places might find themselves again. And they must! This project demonstrates fundamentally the synergistic ambition of contemporary architecture: it repurposes abandoned buildings (embodied energy) with recycled materials (material) and in-training labor (labor) to create truly affordable housing (an equal public) owned by the community (capital). Why can’t we imagine projects like this for our inner cities, which are so defined by powerlessness, lack of ownership, housing derelection, and unemployment? How might architects, who understand this potential and its possible execution, be the catalyst of projects like this? The architect must not only design, she must activate.

The work of Milinda Pathiraja with Robust Architecture Workshop, and their Post-War Collective project, also employs architecture as an agent of labor by actively engaging the changing political composition of a nation for productive growth beyond the artifact of a building. Having reached peace after over twenty six years of civil war, Sri Lanka has an immense surplus of soldiers that no longer need to fight. Pathiraja, in partnership with the government, proposed replacing their guns with tools. Asserting that their skills could be deployed in the building industry, they established a program in which soldiers are trained in construction by partaking in, and eventually, carrying out the building of community libraries. Further, they do so with natural and recycled materials like rammed earth, thus positioning the new labor force as integral to the imperative demands of environmental consciousness.[5]

In the same way ASSEMBLE embraced the dereliction of the neighborhood as design opportunity, the Post-War Collective celebrates the national need for military reintegration as a catalyst for public works, deploying architecture as its vehicle. Indeed, the soldiers need jobs and must be trained in those jobs, so why not build things in the process? Further, training  a new labor force creates opportunity to define new specialties and regularities in construction – in this case, and hopefully in all cases, environmentally conscious ones. Thus, the project utilizes necessary government spending (capital) to repurpose a labor force (labor) in the construction of community libraries (an equal public) with locally sourced, natural materials (material/embodied energy). How might we consider a process like this, which is not so dissimilar from our own New Deal legislation, for the impending labor shifts in industries like coal, or even more broadly, the difficulties of American unemployment? How could the bipartisan demands of job creation catalyze the construction of new, environmentally conscious public works? Certainly, there is no place in America that wouldn’t benefit from a community library.   

Lastly, the Parque Biblioteca Espana, designed by El Equipo Mazzetti, exemplifies another possibility for the creation of public works, namely the architectural confrontation with unevenness. Built in the northwest barrio of Santo Domingo in Medillin, which was only recently freed from control by Pablo Escobar’s sicarios, the site is still subject to regular violence. As late as 2003, there was a 5pm curfew on all streets as they were patrolled by urban militias. Conceived then in 2005 as a part of the Northeast Integral Urban Project, an initiative instituted by Sergio Fajardo to improve infrastructure in the city’s poorest zones as a primary method for their empowerment, the library and its adjacent cablecar were essential in the transformation of the area from war-zone to safe, lively neighborhood.[6]

By introducing through joint investment (capital) the truly public resource of a library in the form of an architectural icon and egalitarian infrastructural access with the cable car, the project injected renewed life into a place of neglect and impoverishment (an equal public). The project did not seek to change the fabric of the neighborhood, nor did it displace anyone in its construction. It helped to revive the place and people as they were, embracing the existing condition as potential, not blight (embodied energy). Its delicate intervention rejuvenated not only the people, dramatically improving the character of their neighborhood, it also changed the perception of the area citywide. No longer imagined as a place to be avoided at all costs, the northwest Barrio is now a destination for people seeking exploration or learning, bringing with them activity and investment, in turn promoting the regeneration of the building fabric.

Our nation is rife with neighborhoods not so different from Medellin’s barrios, and yet we so almost no examples of this kind of investment. How can we imagine architectural interventions akin to the Parque Biblioteca that might catalyze new life, safety, and investment in our most impoverished areas? Wouldn’t the south side of Chicago, or the south Bronx, or east LA benefit dramatically from just this type of physical investment? How might architects convincingly propose these types of projects, be it to city officials, federal programs, or benevolent benefactors? Might there be another Andrew Carnegie?


These projects propose a different way of doing things – a way that operates distinctly outside the realm of capitalist, profit-driven development. They demonstrate an unyielding pursuit of civic good without concern for money making. Their contributions are not justified to a board of investors, nor are they expected to make returns.

In a place like New York, we leave the creation of civic good to private developers. Affordable housing is created solely through a percentage in new development e.g. W57 actually claims to have affordable units. Public spaces are justified with luxury developments that supposedly pay for them e.g. DSR’s culture shed attached to a humongous tower. Even philanthropic investment demands corporate returns e.g. Harlem Children’s Zone funded by a hedge fund. The public depends on the private, and we just elected a president who believes nothing less.

In this way, as Keller Easterling shows us, the world is changing – being changed – without the conception of architects. We aren’t a part of the conversation. Worse, we (the industry) are the silent, neutral mechanisms by which institutions of power facilitate this change. While we see what this has and continues to do (from segregated American cities to international free trade zones), architects hold a unique position to influence it. It is our realm, after all.

And so I seek an architecture that does not scorn its own public – producing spaces of exclusion, oppression, difference, unevenness, degradation. I seek instead an architecture that is fundamentally, not peripherally, in service of an equal public; one that embraces all people as rightful users of the built environment; one that seeks to empower those people whose right has not always been honored; one that asserts unyieldingly that the making of buildings must at the very least voraciously resist environmental degradation, and at its best actively contribute to its healing; one that celebrates the imperfect world we have already built as potent for activation, not erasable in its dereliction; one that engages building at all scales, from money to material to space to labor to legislation; one that holds higher than anything else the healing of a divided and degrading world. In a world that often disagrees, I seek an architecture that insists, not in passive response, but through active proposition.

It is proposition that poses the potential to resist, exploit, or even co-opt the existing forces of economic and political systems towards new ends. Without proposition, architecture perpetuates that which is out of its control. We cannot entrust its fate to the whimsy of capital. We must architect it. And we must do so in the built world.

If we do, in the interest of equality and material consciousness, we may just be able to do more than enrich our museums and libraries with scholarly lucubrations.



Aureli, Pier Vittorio. “The Dom-Ino Problem: Questioning the Architecture of Domestic Space.” Log, no. 30, 2014, pp. 153–168. www.jstor.org/stable/43631744.

Aureli, Pier Vittorio. “Do You Remember Counterrevolution?: The Politics of Filippo Brunelleschi's Syntactic Architecture.” AA Files, no. 71, 2015, pp. 147–165. www.jstor.org/stable/43687078.

Aureli, Pier Vittorio. “The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism.” New York: Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, 2008.

Aravena, Alejandro. “Elemental: Incremental Housing and Participatory Design Manual”. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012.

Aravena, Alejandro Mori. “Reporting from the Front: Biennale Architettura 2016, 28.05-27.11 Venice.” Venezia: Marsilio, 2016.

Colapinto, John. "The Real-Estate Artist." The New Yorker, 12 Jan. 2014. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/20/the-real-estate-artist>.

Conrads, Ulrich: editor. “Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964), 34-38, 78-80, 121-122.
    1914 “Futurist Architecture” – Antonio Sant’Elia and F. T. Marinetti
    1924 “Towards Plastic Architecture” – Theo van Doesburg
    1929 “Ideological Superstructure” – El Lissitzky

Fourier, Charles. “Selections Describing the Phalanstery,” in The Utopia Reader, ed. by Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 192-99.

Kimmelman, Michael. "In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is." The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/arts/design/17kimm.html>.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Paying for It." The New Yorker. N.p., 02 Dec. 2012. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/12/10/paying-for-it>.

Ruskin, John. "The Nature of the Gothic," in The Stones of Venice (New York: Da Capo Press, 1985)

Wainwright, Oliver. "The Street That Might Win the Turner Prize: How Assemble Are Transforming Toxteth." Architecture and Design Blog. Guardian News and Media, 15 May 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2015/may/12/assemble-turner-prize-2015-wildcard-how-the-young-architecture-crew-assemble-rocked-the-art-world>.

E.E. Viollet-le-Duc, selections from "Construction" [1855], The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the Dictionnaire raisonné (New York: 1990), 158-165; 178-185, 190.

[1] Le-Duc, Viollet.

[2] AIA...

[3] Aravena 23.

[4] Waynewright.

[5] Aravena 112-115.

[6] Aravena 108-111.