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Geography of justice: how to create inclusive spaces of the future?

14 of August '23

The review is from A&B issue 6|23

Reviews of books by Dana Cuff and Don Norman

The energy and climate crisis is a humanistic crisis. Its origins lie in the fragmented optics of society. Architecture and design, as two disciplines anchored between creation and hard data, have the best chance of developing new methods to sustainably organize spaces, cities and goods. Two American authors write about these pressing needs, hopes and concrete examples: Dana Cuff and Don Norman in their books, which premiered in spring 2023. Although they deal with the same topics, their perspectives could not be more different.

Movements like Black Lives Matter and Housing First are based on the premise that systemic racism and the housing crisis affect us all. Opening architecture to the possibility of spatial justice requires a critical examination of the discipline in relation to audience and capital, as well as privilege, power, aesthetics and community—that is, a reassessment of the foundations of architecture itself. A historic breakthrough toward this thinking began in the United States with the Occupy movement in September 2011. Prominent intellectuals such as architecture critic Michael Sorkin and sociologist Richard Sennett posed open questions at the time about how design could significantly advance political and economic critique. The summation of these ponderings comes more than a decade later in the form of research and concrete realizations, which Dana Cuff describes in his latest book, "Architectures of Spatial Justice."

Dana Cuff, „Architectures of Spatial Justice”, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2023

Dana Cuff, „Architectures of Spatial Justice,” The MIT Press, Cambridge 2023

© The MIT Press

The biggest advantage of this publication is that it is written by a practitioner. Dana Cuff has been involved in spatial justice and cultural studies of architecture as a lecturer, researcher and activist for almost thirty years. The quality of her work in urban innovation is recognized both in the United States and around the world. In 2006, Cuff founded cityLAB, a research center that initiates experimental projects on the border of architecture and design. „Los Angeles is an ideal Petri dish for urban and architectural experimentation because its form resists codification and its population is a microcosm of the world's cities,” the book's author argues. In 2019, cityLAB expanded its social and political engagement by establishing coLAB in the Westlake/MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a long-term partnership with community organizations. Finally, cityLAB also represented the United States at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.
„Architectures of Spatial Justice” is a kind of very long (and well-written!) report on the activities and many examples of initiatives at universities, public institutions and non-profit organizations stimulating spatial justice around the world. Each chapter begins with a case study. The journey through descriptions of activities that have led and are leading to the integration of the issue of „justice” into architectural practice teaches humility in terms of expectations of the profession and its prowess in initiating social change. Yes, design and construction are powerful, but their quality is years of precise field research, community interviews, months of analysis of the data collected, hundreds of hours spent with municipal decision-makers to convince them of proposed initiatives, legislative triathlons in search of the best solutions within the framework of existing law. These efforts also come at a cost—sometimes comparable to what a traditional developer would spend to build another „ordinary” apartment building with prohibitive prices per square meter. „Architectures of Spatial Justice” thus shows—in an indirect way—how the „justice” of the title begins by mapping „injustices” in the distribution of funds or knowledge of urban social tolerance. „Justice,” or as we would say in Polish—"solidarity"—begins with a reformulation of thinking about architecture.

The author of the book proposes that it is a kind of laboratory practice, like the field of medicine. It is a natural expectation that medicine will respond quickly in the face of future pandemics, but in practice this means that cures for new diseases still require research. The effectiveness of vaccines depends on larger systems, such as good management, adequate health insurance, reliable information dissemination and variant monitoring. Even if these systems do not work effectively, everyone agrees that the medical profession has a key role to play in the pursuit of health and safety. Meanwhile, the field of architecture still lacks a global system to study the issue of the housing crisis or create practical solutions for implementing the Green New Deal. Cuff's book asks whether it is possible to unite all individual sustainability initiatives into a global institution with real clout.

Don Norman „Design for a Better World”, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2023

Don Norman „Design for a Better World,” The MIT Press, Cambridge 2023

© The MIT Press

Bernard Rudofsky's famous book „Architecture without Architects” begins by rhetorically erasing the figure of the architect from the process of architecture. Don Norman, author of a bestseller translated into many languages under the title „Design for Everyday Life,” also seems tired of the existence of the design profession and architects. He begins his book „Design for a Better World” this way: "We live in a world of artifacts designed by people. From our homes and clothes to tools and books. The concepts of countries and forms of government are artificial[artificial], designed by humans. Even things we consider natural, part of nature, such as the earth, the environment, animals and plants, have been shaped and influenced by the creativity and actions of humans. Humans have invented—designed—organizational structures and ways of governing themselves. Hunting and farming. Ways of preparing and cooking food for consumption. And just as these designs have shaped, molded and limited these things, so they have shaped us, and as a result, we too are no longer natural."

This passage is a good indication that Don Norman's latest book is written in the classic authoritative tone characteristic of a typical white, privileged male with decades of professional success. So there's a personal starting point, which is then balanced with metanarratives about modern times. There is expertness contrasted with a biblical apocalyptic tone. The world Norman describes is facing fire. Finally, there is hope: because we still have a choice to redesign what is destructive.

One of Norman's most important solutions leading to the abolition of inequality in the world is the idea that people can "design for themselves"—because they are experts at naming the issues that trouble them. The tone of this postulate is nothing more than a typical American affirmation of success. The solution seems inspiring for a while; the problem begins when we get to the specifics. For example, can people who lack running water really successfully "hack" their problem? Can people who don't have the luxury of free capital and time design their lives? „Build it yourself!” is a medal, the other side of which may read: "It's not my problem."

Norman's book is extremely ambitious. Untangling the relationship between design, identity, systemic bias, corporate greed, public projects, systems thinking and environmental disaster is an incredibly difficult task for one person. Norman admits that he undertook an almost impossible task, but the problem with his narrative is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of proper perspective. His academicism is the biggest flaw not only in the book, but also in the ideas he proposes. Starting with the language and ending with the philosophy of equality and inequality. He writes: "It is necessary to break the impression of many people that there is a difference between 'us,' the poor, uneducated, and 'them,' the rich, well-educated. We are all in this crisis together, and quite often the daily knowledge and experience possessed by 'us' is very instructive for 'them'." Norman's use of the words „we” and „they” is semantically confusing, but more importantly, the passage reveals a fundamental problem with his understanding of human-centered design. His paragraphs are meant to instruct groups of which he is not a part.

Reading both books in quick succession provides a complementary perspective on the issue of design "equality"—a value that is strongly coupled with the climate crisis. The fact that both publications were published by the same publishing house—The MIT Press—seems symptomatic. The discussion of race and economic inequality and their consequences for the environment is getting louder in the United States. The reason? Adequate capital, which gives free speech and the publication of books such as those described above, which of course are read by a small percentage of practitioners, but certainly not the people affected by these narratives. The good news is that the perspectives of Dana Cuff and Don Norman are not mutually exclusive, but complementary: neither author exhausts the topic of socially sustainable design. And this is at the same time the worse news. Cuff seems to be right when she writes that we need a global system that unifies local architectural initiatives. Questions about where the initiative will come from and who will pay for it remain open.


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