The Paradoxes of Design Activism: Expertise, Scale and Exchange Part Two: Scale

The Paradoxes of Design Activism: Expertise, Scale and Exchange

C. Greig Crysler

Part Two: Scale


This article is the second in a three part series. The first part, published in the November, 2015 issue of FIELD, explored what I referred to as “design activism,” a term encompassing a wide range of approaches loosely associated with contemporary forms of community-based and participatory design. These emerged in response to the crisis of expertise that accompanied the social movements and urban unrest internationally in the 1960s. Citizen-led protest movements in the U.S. and Europe challenged the assumptions and decision-making processes that underpinned large scale planning interventions, many of which involved significant displacement of the urban poor, and with it the destruction of established neighborhoods, in the name of urban modernization. While the failure of what came to be known as the “epistemology of technical rationality,” was widely felt, few critics approached the diagnosis with as much concision and wit as Horst Rittel, whose arguments I outlined as part the controversy around the assumptions and practices of technical rationality.

These debates ultimately connected diverse protest movements to significant forms of critical reflection in the academy. Rittel’s cogent outline of the failure of placing theory before practice, and the unquestioned belief in an objective science of design (to be achieved through the logical reductions of a systemic decision-making processes), was summarized in his critical counter-model, that of the wicked problem, which foregrounded the impossibility of finding right or wrong solutions to design problems, and instead emphasized argumentation around the terms of problem setting. This space of deliberative communication formed the basis of many different experiments in the procedural aspects of design, which Rittel summarized as the second generation of design theory. His arguments captured and synthesized some of the prevailing assumptions that cut across many of the attempts to democratize professional practice in architecture and planning.[1]

Yet the emergence of deliberative approaches to design, though discussed extensively as alternatives to the dominant norms of the 1960s and 70s, have only recently started to be examined in relationship to wider changes in the social and institutional context in which they emerged.[2] As I argued in Part One, attempts at distributed expertise and shared decision-making in the U.S. were generalized beyond theoretical debates and small scale experiments in the academy, through programs funded by the federal government, such as community design centers, which were themselves often attached to sympathetic architecture and planning programs in universities. The extended duration of community-based design processes, the sometimes awkward translation of participatory epistemologies from theory to practice, and dependence on government subsidies for staff and construction costs made the approach vulnerable to cutbacks that accompanied the move towards smaller government, deregulation and the dismantling of the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society beginning in the late 1970s.[3] What emerged in its place was a form of community-based design much more pragmatically tethered to professional practice, and dependent on the private market and philanthropy for its survival. The result was a much more explicit emphasis on problem-solving, one that while sometimes borrowing from the language of Rittel’s wicked problems, had little or nothing to do with its anti-foundational assumptions. The latter developments, in which the question of financial viability is merged with systematic problem solving from below, or community-based versions of technical rationality, forms what I described as the practical and epistemological context for today’s design activism.

I chose the example of the much-admired design firm, IDEO, to illustrate my argument. IDEO has positioned itself at the forefront of recent developments in design activism: its founder, David Kelley, also founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (known as the, and strong ties continue to exist between the two.[4] They have both played an influential role in advancing some of the more recent methodological debates around social engagement and design, through what is called “design thinking.” Kelley has recast design thinking away from earlier uses of the term by scholars such as Nigel Cross and Klauss Kripendorff, who defined it as a mode of cognition expressed through decision-making. He describes his approach as a combination of “need-finding” and “creativity plus design,” expressed through the overarching concept of Human Centered Design (HCD).[5] As I described in Part One, IDEO was instrumental in the production of a popular publication on HCD that systematizes the investigation of user groups through a step-by-step training program in standard ethnography.[6] The influence of HCD is reinforced through online training programs operated by IDEO, and a prestigious fellowship program the firm offers through its non-profit division, The techniques and practices of HCD reveal an effort to rationalize the social, by modeling communities and their needs according to ethnographic frameworks that both precede and produce their objects of investigation. I suggested that HCD defines a bounded problem space in which solutions logically emerge, precisely the scenario that Rittel was trying to question.

The conversion of social engagement into a prepackaged, easily transmittable system reproduces both the power relations and ethical dilemmas of expertise that earlier frameworks of community-based design sought to challenge. This defines the first of the three paradoxes I have chosen to discuss across these three essays. The paradox of expertise cannot be reduced to methodological slippage, or simply a lack of critical reflection. The status of today’s design activism can only be understood if the historical transformation of its enabling conditions is taken into account. The models of community-based practice that are often understood as starting points for contemporary approaches emerged under a model of state-led welfare that in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, has been significantly altered, if not dismantled altogether by the 1980s. In the U.S., the transformation of welfare arguably began in the Nixon era, and followed a long arc in which open-ended, dialogical frameworks concerned with fostering debate and critical reflection about the organization of society have gradually been replaced by more tightly focused, solutions-oriented approaches that are integrated into the market logics of the non-profit world.[7]

Understood in this light, today’s practices—which turn primarily to cultural and academic institutions, private foundations and other repositories of private wealth to survive— have necessarily become entrepreneurial in outlook. This is not to say that their predecessors, which were nominally funded by state agencies and public institutions, were any less entangled in economic relations of power. My point is that although the social context has changed dramatically, the theorization of practices that respond to it has not. It is to this question—how to rethink the practices of design activism in light of the transformation of state power, and the political economy of global neoliberalism—that I return to in the third part of this series, on exchange relations. In Part One I explained the emergence of “technical rationality from below” across the last six decades. In what follows, I explore the ways in design activism plays out in several paradigmatic contexts since the 1990s. I limit my discussion to the consideration of one of the processes that are fundamental to current iterations: scale.

It is widely assumed that the design activism of the present will be “small scale,” concerned with the “local,” and attend to the needs of “communities”. All of these terms are used interchangeably, and often without qualification. One of the more influential exhibitions of design activism, coming on the heels of the 2008 credit crisis, was staged by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Entitled Small Scale/Big Change: The New Architectures of Social Engagement, the popular exhibition acted as a both a summary of developments in the field over the previous two decades, and a manifesto for further action.[8] The foreward, written just before the financial collapse, argues that small scale design, operating outside the determinations of placeless commercial capital, offers the most potential for a socially engaged architecture. Localized interventions, or sites of “urban acupuncture” are represented as therapeutic starting points whose effects will accumulate gradually over time, leading to systemic change. Scale defines the extent of design and in doing so, serves to delimit what is included and excluded as part of the designer’s considerations. In this respect it is foundational to subsequent processes. It also marks an escape from the perceived tyranny of commercial capital, which, as Small Scale/Big Change argues, tends to operate at the scale of the mega-project.[9] In this way, small scale is represented as both a figure of social connection and authenticity, and a site of economic exchange outside the prevailing dictates of corporate capital.

In the sections that follow I begin by examining the limitations of scale. I discuss two contrasting cases that are both based in academic institutions, but employ very different practices of scale to frame their interventions. The programs are examples of “design/build,” in which students and faculty, often working closely together with minimal funds, both design and then, sometimes over a long period of time, construct buildings for what are often underserved or marginalized communities. The Rural Studio, founded  in 1993 by Sam Mockbee and D. K. Ruth in Hale County, Alabama, is operated by the Department of Architecture at Auburn University. Mockbee and Ruth established the program as a way to reorient architectural education around social engagement and the craft of building. Mockbee’s aesthetic sensibility, and his passionate commitment to the housing needs of the rural poor were pivotal in shaping the program’s agenda. The core commitments remain in place today, though the style and emphasis changed with the arrival of a new Director, after Mockbee’s death in 2001. It is to this earlier period, when a distinctive vision of beauty and scarcity were brought together in a sequence of free-standing houses and communal spaces, that I return to in the first part of my discussion.[10]

The second example, roughly contemporaneous but less well known than the Rural Studio, is the Global Community Studio (GCS), operated as part of the Building Sustainable Communities Initiative (BASIC) at the University of Washington from the mid-1990s to 2008. BASIC continues today in altered form as service learning program at Portland State University, under the leadership of Sergio Palleroni, who also led the program at UW. My focus here is on the GCS during the initial years of the BASIC program’s life in Seattle. As the name suggests, the GCS sought to construct a pedagogical environment that introduced students to conditions outside the U.S. as part of its mission to expand cultural understanding and introduce students to different ways building (and designing) outside the normative model of U.S.-based architectural education. As such the GCS represents a different set of scale politics from the Rural Studio, one that also embraces small scale design, but through engagement with multiple locations within and outside the US. It was not rooted, as the Rural Studio has been, in one region, however some of its projects, such as the one I discuss below, have lasted for a number of years and led to the formation of community/academic connections between academic and local participants. Nevertheless, the studio, while stressing small-scale design, emphasized its role in forming students into “global citizens” through exposure to social and spatial conditions outside the US. Here the global is beyond the territory of the nation-state, a place “outside” that students travel to in order to become more worldly, while at the same time, immersing themselves in a locality that is contained by available time, resources, language skills, and the demands of the pedagogy itself.[11]  By presenting these two examples within a common frame of practice, I hope to make the paradox of scale visible in all its complexity, in a way that will act as the basis for Part Three of this series, where I will foreground the exchange relations of design activism.




Scale has typically been understood as an objective system of meaning in architecture, through its longstanding use in measurement and proportion in design. Until the computer came along, conversion scales were an essential part of the equipment needed for architectural drawings.[12] The fact that the use of scale was so clearly linked to a portable and prosaic tool no doubt helped to endow it with the aura of an objective and timeless system of measurement that is applied to, but remains outside of, culture. Scale carries with it an oppositional force when it is modified by a series of qualifying terms, such as “small,” “local,” and “community,” each of which acquires meaning in relation to a chain of other terms such as “large,” “global,” and (the alienated) “individual.” We know, for example that although marginalized social groups are often internally divided and lack the means of collective representation, they are commonly (often for convenience’s sake) referred to as “local communities.”[13] In this respect, the very groups that design activists often collaborate with are constituted as “local” before any creative activity begins. The turn to the local, so often held up as not only a way to challenge the reductive demands of private development, but as the starting point for different, more equitable social orders, thus carries with it limiting assumptions that may disable the potential for political change. For example, diverse global connections that span across national boundaries can sometimes be homogenized under the sign of the local, making cultural processes such as long-distances nationalism, or conflicts between groups with opposed national histories, invisible.

As I have already started to suggest, scale is not absolute, but relational. When we think of it beyond the disciplinary concepts of measurement or spatial extent, the concept of scale quickly ceases to designate a quantifiable condition imposed on the social world in a neutral manner. This point has been elaborated extensively over the last two decades by cultural geographers who have argued that the production of space involves multiple scales simultaneously.[14] As a result, it can neither be analyzed nor intervened in through the imaginary framework of a singular, bounded scale. As Doreen Massey notes:

If space is a product of practices, trajectories, interrelations, if we make space through interactions at all levels from the (so-called) local, to the (so-called) global, then those spatial dimensions such as places, regions, nations and the local and the global, must be forged in this relational way too, as internally complex, essentially un-boundable in any absolute sense, and inevitable historically changing . . .”15

The question of how we define the scale of our analyses is therefore at least partly a question of epistemology. To think of scale beyond its traditional status as a tool, a given property, or something intrinsic to specific locations (a “local place” as suggested above, a “neighborhood,” or a “global city”), is to transform it from an objective form of  measurement that stands outside culture and history to a process in which concepts such as dimension, ratio, extent and relative proportion are socially produced and therefore power-laden and controversial. Indeed the ambitious, far reaching scale of urban renewal in the 1960s was integral to both the power of its expert conceptualization and its loss of legitimacy; neither was assured or beyond politics. Far from providing a stable basis upon which to act, scale-as-process infuses design problems with contingency, and in the refusal of absolute meaning, a sense of possibility.

The understanding of scale as process begins with a recognition of its socially situated meaning. My discussion in Part One of this series about the security fence installed around the Chancellor’s mansion at UC Berkeley is a pointed example of what happens when the cascading scale politics of the design process are ignored.[16] Campus planners, police and security consultants attempted to fix the scale of the project at the dimensional boundaries of the site, conflating the project’s meaning and impact with the limited scale of their decision-making. Expanding the scale politics of the campus “wall” debate to include intersecting issues about security at the local and national scale may well have revealed the futility of the original proposal and led to an entirely different set of solutions, which may not have involved expenditure on discrete physical interventions, but rather, on campus efforts to deal with inequality, which are at the center of the student protest movements that led to concerns about security in the first place.

Scale has also become central to political action in the global present, which is haunted by it as a measure of social change. The difficulties of the Occupy movements in moving beyond specific concerns of cities and their national cultures towards an interlinked, transnational movement is by now well understood.[17] And indeed, as Heather Gautney has pointed out, the question of scale has been central to protest movements on the left throughout the 19th and 20th century, with anarchist frameworks generally developing localized organizational structures that are horizontal and de-centered, while traditional socialist frameworks, following Leninist models, have tended towards vertical arrangements that are centralized and internally hierarchical.[18] There are similar debates in social entrepreneurship circles on the right, where “scaling up” solutions from the local to the global dominates considerations of their efficacy and value. In the latter case, the underlying assumption is that the local is merely an originary stage, to be later optimized through subsequent phases of rationality as a more general solution acquires universal applicability.[19]

The issue that reemerges in the projects I will discuss here is twofold: first, as suggested above, a completely bounded conception of the local is clearly impossible because the “local” is always transected by global flows of capital, labor and ideas. While all building projects are local because they occupy a discrete physical space, and necessarily depend on available (and sometimes unpaid/student) labor from the region for their construction, both the laborers who construct buildings, and the people who inhabit them adapt diverse practices of building, occupation and use to the physical, cultural and regulatory demands of a given location. The land itself may have global entanglements, through absentee or foreign ownership, and financing arranged through local banks with international liquidity; the production of building components, their supply chains and delivery systems also connect sites of production and assembly across global space.[20] In this respect the local might be better thought of as a space of negotiation, in which diverse conceptions of practices are mediated and transformed at specific locations where building occurs. By counterposing the local and small scale to the apparently anonymous and scaleless properties of the global, the co-implication and hybridity of both conditions are overlooked.

What would happen if intersecting scales of building and use became part of the problem space of design, rather than something that is made invisible by discrete conceptions of small scale that reproduce the boundaries of the site at other levels of consideration? Second, how might the scales of political connection specific to such projects be theorized? Many of the most prominent examples of socially engaged design have unfolded as slowly evolving, site-specific interventions undertaken with volunteer labor, donated materials and supported by grants from philanthropic organizations and foundations. Though both their methods and goals recur in other projects across the country and internationally, until now, the growing field of activity lacks any explicit effort at coalition-building aimed at creating partnerships with national or global political organizations concerned with similar issues. I return to the question of the scalar politics of social change in more detail in Part Three of this series, where I discuss experiments that link political economy and social organization in translocal configurations.




As I noted in Part One, the so-called “design/build” programs and related examples of “alternative practice” that exist within architecture schools are important because they create a framework through which to question and rethink normative assumptions about professional identity and practice, ethics, and the limits of architecture. Design/build programs, and other initiatives such as federally funded Community Design Centers, emerged historically in the U.S. as part of a progressive turn in art and design education during the 1930s, partly energized by the migration of Bauhaus faculty to the U.S. One of the best known, and earliest example is the Black Mountain College, founded in Asheville, North Carolina in 1933.[21] Broadly organized around the tenet’s of John Dewey’s concept of learning through doing, the founding students and teachers at the school not only developed an open-ended model of individualized learning in a collective context; they also built the school as a collaborative building project in a collective reinterpretation of systems built architecture. Inasmuch as the Dewey model resisted the normative thinking of standardization, and encouraged pedagogy to be tailored to the individual case, it comprised an anti-foundational model similar to the one proposed by Rittel’s “symmetry of ignorance,” and the wicked problem.

The paradigm of learning through doing, and “leaping before you look,” has been interpreted in architectural culture as a means to foster direct engagement in production processes historically separated by the mental and manual division of labor. Design/build offers a way to introduce students to the relationship between the abstraction of technical drawing and its realization in tangible form. But many of the initiatives that fall into this broad category go beyond this goal. The pragmatist emphasis on situated actions, collaboration and debate as key elements of the creative process also opens design/build approaches to affiliation with forms of direct political action. This connection has been a consistent feature of design-build programs from their inception, and indeed many have embraced both positions, if in different ways at the same time. In the U.S., one of the oldest design build programs in the country, founded at the school of architecture at Yale University in 1967, was started by then-Dean Charles Moore in an effort to simultaneously introduce students to construction practice and encourage social engagement outside the privileged context of the university. In its early years, the program designed and built community centers in Appalachia; through the 1980s, budget constraints led to a focus on more modest pavilion-type buildings.[22] More recently (and in a manner that is consistent with the design/build field as a whole), the program has operated in tandem with philanthropic and non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and NeighborWorks. 23

Other initiatives that emerged around the same time as the Yale program defined the relationship between training and political action in ways that stressed the latter over the former. Here we might cite such well-known examples as the pathbreaking Architects’ Renewal Committee (ARCH) in Harlem, established in 1964 to provide planning and urban design services to those who could not afford them. Its first campaign worked to block the construction of a massive state office building on 125th Street, ordered by the Rockefeller administration as a desperate, if spectacular measure to signify the integrated future of the neighborhood; similar campaigns successfully stopped the construction of a freeway planned through upper Manhattan at 125th Street, and a new gymnasium for Columbia University on a much-valued recreational space. Though not explicitly based in the architecture program at Columbia, many of the participants were in professional practice in New York City, and one member, Max Bond, went on to become both Chair and Dean of the program at Columbia. Like the Community Design Center established at UC Berkeley, ARCH was an advocacy organization that employed participatory methods in their efforts to democratize the decision making-process in design and construct political solidarity around the imagination of Black futures in Harlem.[24] ARCH was concerned with reorienting the design and planning process for both state-led and privately funded projects around black self-determination, through plans for low-cost housing and amenities for neighborhood residents. As Brian Goldstein notes, with a major global economic downturn underway in the 1970s, the question of how visions of a socially just black urbanism could be financed became required a “third way,” that was not dependent on vastly reduced state funding or private capital.[25] Instead, a combination of sweat equity and donated materials was used to reclaim and renovate housing abandoned in the wake of economic disinvestment in Harlem. The process was abetted by the policy initiatives of the Nixon administration, which, while cutting funding for public housing, made loans through the private sector available to minority homeowners. These were later canceled after becoming embroiled in financial speculation and the same corrupt lending practices that led to the 2008 credit crisis.[26]

Robert Goodman’s program in “guerilla architecture,” developed while he was teaching in the Department of Architecture at MIT (and featured in the concluding chapter of his 1971 book, After the Planners), was also informed by an impassioned critique of the role of experts in reproducing conditions of oppression in U.S. cities.[27] Published a year before Rittel’s famous article on the planning crisis, it pursues many of the same criticisms, but in terms that culminate not in epistemological reflection, but direct action, sometimes in association with social movements based in the Boston area. Some of the proposals generated by Goodman and his students, such as a “liberated space” where high school students could freely discuss alternative forms of education, were never built, functioning instead as anchors for discussion about wider social issues. Others were built, but often in ways that were only indirectly related, if at all, to professional norms, such as the group’s work with the local squatting movement.[28]

It’s clear from these examples that the requirement to design and build imposes its own restrictions on the scale of the process. The question of building raises many logistical issues related to the acquisition and use of land and construction materials, each of which tend to bind actions to specific locations. The role of regulatory agencies (through building codes and bylaws) also create locational restrictions as well as possibilities. Taken together, the qualifications of scale may sometimes work in opposition to political intentions. It was clear, for example, that while Robert Goodman carried out direct actions on specific sites, neither he nor his students believed the answer to problems such as racialized housing inequality could be formulated only at specific sites, one by one. Goodman embraced the political philosophy of André Gorz at the time, who advocated “non-reformist reforms.”[29] These required any action aimed at alleviating oppression to be carried out at both specific and general levels: building 500,000 low cost housing units in a manner that, for example, ignored the profits to be gained by those who sold the land would simply displace the problem from one domain to another. Mass housing construction could only be liberatory if all aspects of its production, from the acquisition of land to the design and construction of the units and their mode of distribution, were organized, evaluated and produced according to the same “non-reformist” criteria. If Gorz’s arguments were followed to their conclusion, the co-constitution of housing inequality with other intersecting forces, such as policy, investments structures, historical patterns of segregation, and environmental justice, would need to be recognized from the outset.[30]

Yet it proved exceedingly difficult to reconcile this expansive political philosophy with the modest grounds upon which it was spatialized in Goodman’s practice, particularly in the absence of a network for making political connections across institutions already in place. The projects that Goodman undertook were both partial and flawed instantiations of a more egalitarian social order, and a dramatic illustration of the huge gap between what “guerilla architecture” could accomplish on its own, and what needed to happen at a more systemic, and inevitably centralized level. This gap is a defining contradiction of design/build activism, both historically and in the present. The physical limits of a given site and the logistical demands associated with building tend to define the scale of political imagination that design/build projects encompass. In some cases, longstanding examples of design/build programs have attempted to overcome these limitations by partnering with national design/build institutions that are well-established actors in the small but visible sector of very low-cost housing provision. However, alliances with the soft coercion of faith-based groups such as Habitat for Humanity can sometimes cede the political framework in which activism is enacted to such organizations, reducing the pedagogical program to one of practical training and “hands on” service provision.

For example, the poor families selected to participate in Habitat for Humanity (HFH) are required to participate in the construction of their homes by donating 500 hours of sweat equity to fulfill the program’s agenda of providing a “hand up, not a handout.”[31] Habitat for Humanity operates through a decentralized system of “affiliates” — an ideologically attuned franchise system whose scale and complexity is now global in dimensions. While the more overtly religious language that characterized HFH’s self-description during the 40 years it was led by the late Millard Fuller and his wife Linda has largely disappeared from the website, the basic idea of reforming the able-bodied poor through work remains a central goal, if muted and secularized in its expression. Those receiving the housing must demonstrate their ability to pay for their mortgage once their house is complete — a threshold that many of the very poor and homeless cannot cross.[32] The process of exchanging housing for work has made HFH popular amongst those on the right in the US advocating for small government, but the way the way the housing is provided has ironically enriched the market-based lenders that charge significant penalties if payments on the interest-free loans provided to residents are missed.

The current promotional material reflects not so much a turn away from the subtle evangelism of prior years, when HFH was described as a “Christian housing mission,” but a saavy, more inclusive brand strategy for what remains a Christian NGO directed towards the working poor. The moral lessons conferred by faith-based associations such as HFH constitute a form of pedagogy in action, one that is transmitted as much through everyday interactions, and the procedural aspects of the organization, and adherence in practice to its governing principles.[33]


 Locating the “Other”


As I have noted above, the turn towards small scale interventions in architectural education is connected to the skepticism towards normative models of design and decision-making that emerged in the wake of numerous large scale design and planning disasters in the 1960s. The urban articulation of small scale (the neighborhood and its community) became a utopian space of exteriority to the logic of what was perceived as bureaucratic, impersonal design, one that could easily slip into romanticizing “premodern” societies. It’s not surprising that Robert Goodman proposed the social and spatial organization of what he called “pigmy” villages in rural Nigeria as models for “non-reformist reform” of US society: in their perceived emphases on contingent organization, adaptability to changing social conditions, and personal connection, Goodman found an antidote to not only the standardized forms and mass production of modern design, but what he viewed as the empty formalism then emerging in postmodern architecture.[34]

The significant point here is that the “local” and the “small-scale” emerged not simply as positive figures in the design-build process, but as redemptive, even heroic concepts with therapeutic (moral) properties capable of reforming the self-abstracted design professional. The same narrative, produced through contact with non-industrial, collectively produced, and geographically bounded social groups, was at the center of Bernard Rudofsky’s influential Architecture without Architects exhibition at the MOMA in 1964.[35] Here everything from geological formations to indigenous cave dwellings were assimilated through abstraction into a modernist aesthetic vision and offered as solutions to the problems posed by industrialized, repetitive building production and the process of urban modernization. Other interventions outside architecture, from E.F. Schumacher’s widely read Small is Beautiful to the racialized critique of global modernization, The Population Bomb, translated the putative benefits of small scale into a language of an apocalyptic version of neo-Malthusian politics.[36]

These diverse examples share a common basis in a relationship with “the other” as a transformative agent for the professional subject of capitalist modernity. While the work of community designers has often been regarded as a positive turn away from the grand abstractions of modern architecture, they share a common basis in a complex process by which the local and the small scale become visible on terms that are defined by experts who are socially and geographically external to the specific site of practice. From an epistemological standpoint, the modeling of the local bears a close resemblance to the historical practices associated with Orientialism, inasmuch as the local is represented to meet the needs of the professional subject who engages with it. In this respect the local becomes an artifact of the professional imagination, its needs and desires.[37]

In the sections that follow, I will examine two well-known examples, both based in schools of architecture that in different ways that embody the instrumentality of small scale production, as it was manifested in programs that became prominent in the 1990s and continue today. They provide a framework through which to consider how historical practices of the local persist and are transformed into the present. The first, at the Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama, is explicitly concerned with the sites and conditions of rural poverty: a pedagogical experience that is presented in distinct opposition to the affluent, mobile characteristics of the participating students. Here rural poverty is represented as a longstanding historical condition, one that has remained steadfastly outside the tensions and pressures of larger processes of national development.

The second example, the Global Community Studio (GCS), is also concerned with marginal communities mainly outside large cities. Unlike the Rural Studio, the GCS does not have a long-standing commitment to a single place. During its time of operation at the University of Washington at Seattle, many of its design/build projects were located outside the U.S., and indeed, the “global” reach of the program was considered to be one of the primary benefits for students. While the Rural Studio constitutes a pedagogy of the local within a single county in the southeastern U.S., the GCS offers students a range of contexts from within a global space of selection.[38] As will become clear in the discussion that follows, in each case, local scale emerges in relation to a chain of other concepts, ranging from poverty and scarcity to that of cultural traditions. Both frameworks also define the local as a return to the real, where students to learn through experience, and undergo a personal transformation through direct contact with local clients, who in some cases participate in both designing and constructing the projects. In different ways, the programs each enact complicated responses to the perceived limitations of architectural education. The local becomes a point of departure from what both programs cite as the unreal, socially disconnected realm of university-based training, giving design-build an emancipatory quality in relation to the very institutions that sponsor such programs.

My analysis draws on books and other media published in relation to both programs. Although a more comprehensive study would involve ethnographic and archival research of both programs, my focus on the publications related to each program is intentional. Both the Rural Studio and the GCS programs are part of an evolving and highly competitive landscape in higher education, where the construction of reputation (and the legitimation of professional credentials) are achieved in part through the tactical use of the academic and popular media, exhibitions, and other vehicles for the dissemination of research. Because the completed projects of both programs are in comparatively isolated, non-urban settings, mediated accounts assume a primary, and for many a singular, role in representing the results of each program: it is through these two-dimensional encounters that both the value and legibility of the programs are established and advanced. As such these publications have played a role in the generation of each program’s reputation and in turn, the symbolic rewards that each distributes to its students. The Rural Studio is the better known of the two programs. While the GCS programs described in Studio at Large no longer exist, the overarching organizational framework—the BASIC program, an independent non-profit — moved with its founder to Portland State University, where it continues to operate in altered form. While the Rural Studio investigates its non-urban setting as uniquely specific to the southern United States, and a pedagogical antidote to the comparatively privileged urban backgrounds of its student participants, the BASIC program has, from its inception, been multi-locational, sending students to work in partnership with community groups in Mexico, rural Montana and Native American communities in various locations in the U.S. Its geographically diverse operations, which at times also includes other national contexts such as Mexico, Cuba and Tunisia, produces a pedagogical framework that contrasts with that of the Rural Studio, because of its dependence on transnational institutional networks that connect BASIC participants to other countries. Even as its projects are constituted as exemplary cases of localized, community-based design, the financial and institutional mechanisms that bring them into being are transnational in scale, opening a space of contradiction that further illustrates the scale politics of design/build programs.


Famous Talismans


At the Rural Studio, co-founded by architects and educators Sam Mockbee and D.K. Ruth in 1993, privileged, primarily white students enter one of the poorest rural areas in the country, part of the so-called Black Belt of the deep south. The population of the entire county is shrinking, and is now below 15,000.[39] Students live in rustic housing while completing their time in the program, which encourages complete immersion in the building process. The definition of the local in the design/build projects of the Rural studio was formed in the divided spaces of the public imagination long before the program’s first house was built. The identity of Hale County has always been rooted in its soil, rich in minerals and black in color. Beneath the soil, along the west edge of the region, lay the coal deposits that enabled Birmingham’s growth as the “Magic City” of steel production, an industrial giant built on the backs of black convict labor. Access to cheap labor and abundant supplies of coal allowed the city to dominate steel production during the Jim Crow era; meanwhile, the topsoil sustained the agricultural economy of the region, first through cotton production under slavery. During reconstruction, when investment in cotton collapsed, other crops took over, until they too became unprofitable. The soil provides a symbolic boundary to the region, one that links its blackness to the racial identity of the black population who farmed it first as slaves, then as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and impoverished laborers. The Black Belt acquired a double signification, as a geological description and place of racial segregation under conditions of extreme exploitation.[40]

The ways in which the violent convergence of soil and race has been variously acknowledged or denied in representations of the Black Belt has played a formative role in constructing the region’s identity, one that is cross-cut and divided by the experiences of racialized history. The work of the Rural Studio is a comparatively recent addition to the long history of symbolic intervention in the region.[41] As I will suggest below, it nevertheless draws upon and transforms representational practices that became well established decades earlier, in particular those set in motion by two white male documentarians from the urban north who traveled to Hale County in 1937 to complete an article on white sharecroppers for Fortune magazine. After their eight-week trip to the Black Belt in the summer of 1937, the article, by James Agee and Walker Evans grew into the book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (hereafter Famous Men), which studied what Agee called “human divinity” in everyday conditions of (white) rural life.[42] While the audience for the initial article and first edition of the book was small, the growing recognition of Agee and Evans in other domains, and their canonization by major cultural institutions extended the authority and influence of their book as both an exemplary case in documentary realism, and a rhetorical baseline for Hale County as a mythic signifier of national identity. In 1960, a new addition with additional photos became popular as a companion document to antipoverty struggles in Appalachia and the deep south that emerged alongside the programs of the Great Society. The sharecroppers, now completely out of time and place, were called upon as evidence of both the failures and inner strength of U.S. society during a time of social instability.[43]

Famous Men’s conception of “ruralness,” individual self-reliance, and poverty as an economic relationship, formed the basis of a bounded conception of Hale County that is both repeated and transformed in the discursive context of the Rural Studio. The Rural Studio does not simply respond to the social and spatial conditions in which its buildings are constructed: it inhabits and contributes to an inherited landscape, at once physical and imagined.

Agee and Evans were engaged in a highly selective process of constructing a world that would later be viewed as objective description. Agee’s text describes, for example, how he and Evans attempted to break into a “negro church” to take photographs of its interior; there is a famous scene at the start of their book when Evans used a lens that allowed him to secretly capture an unguarded, “natural” image of one of the men who was later to reappear at various points in their study. [44] Other details about how their book was constructed, such as the unauthorized changing of their subjects’ names, and more broadly, the public use of intimate worlds for purposes that were never made clear to those who were photographed, have been extensively documented.[45]

Perhaps most important to the discussion here is the way in which Agee and Evans approached the domestic objects and buildings of Hale County. The interiors of the sharecroppers’ houses were photographed to heighten their spartan simplicity, and direct the viewer’s attention towards arrangements of objects that Agee describes as lenses onto the lives of their subjects.[46] Agee understood Evans’ images as thresholds into a world of material talismans, that, when arranged and documented properly, had the capacity to speak for themselves: they magnified the evidence recorded by the camera’s lens. In this respect, the suite of photographs included in Famous Men, alongside Agee’s mournful and rhapsodic text, constitutes a form of fugitive collecting: photographs were “taken” without permission from, or payment to those whose lives were being symbolically reorganized.[47] These appropriations, both human and material, entered into an abstract space of circulation, display and exchange far from the immediate geography of Hale County. The double-edged process of local appropriation and distant display has been a consistent feature of cultural production related to the region since the publication of Famous Men, and continues into the present with the books, articles and exhibitions produced about the Rural Studio for audiences in largely metropolitan contexts within and beyond the U.S.. It is to this realm of discursive production that I now turn, focusing in particular on the first book about the Rural Studio, The Architecture of Decency.


Between Scarcity and Decency


Published in 2002, the Architecture of Decency covers the period from the founding of the Rural Studio in 1993 up to the year after the death of Sam Mockbee.[48] Organized around the five small towns across the county, where the program had completed buildings by that time, the book operates as both a tour guide and poetic reconstruction. The five chapters (starting with projects in Mason’s Bend and concluding with those in Akron) are each preceded with short introductions that mix elegiac references to the landscape with descriptions of the context that evoke solitude, isolation, and the slow passage of time amidst enduring conditions of rural poverty. The main chapters are each preceded by an introduction, and followed by three concluding essays that collectively offer an appraisal of the significance of the Rural Studio, both as a pedagogical model, and its built results. The book is generously illustrated with photographs by Timothy Hursley, who over the years has assumed the informal role of the program’s official photographer.[49]

The introduction, written by the journalist Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, positions Mockbee as the “soul and mind” of the Rural Studio. Her account begins by asserting the independence of Mockbee’s response to the Hale County landscape. She writes that while he “was aware” of James Agee and Walker Evans, he was “seduced by the landscape pure and simple.” [50] The comment suggests his work as an educator and practitioner occupies a position outside the rhetorical conventions of Hale County’s genealogy of representation. However, as I will suggest below, both the book and Mockbee’s work evoke these conventions. Mockbee emerges as an unorthodox figure, one who operates by turn as both a collaborative facilitator and a singular creative force. The apparent contradiction was translated into a program that was, at the time of Mockbee’s involvement, about building as a way of learning the core knowledge of the discipline, and an auteur’s conception of beauty, formed out of a creative engagement with the vernacular. Throughout the book, “Sambo” (Mockbee’s widely used nickname) remains the absent center, present but never speaking outside contexts created by the other contributors. Mockbee’s voice is threaded through Oppenheimer’s commentary, and reappears in most of the other chapters, as if to step back from the typical rendering of architectural agency, while also granting Mockbee a visionary status.

If the symbolic order of Famous Men made the African American population completely invisible, here the members of the region’s black population become visible as the clients and occupants of the Rural Studio’s projects. Taken almost 60 years after Evans’ images in Famous Men, the extensive documentation would seem to reverse the exclusions and silences of those earlier photographs. They are notable, first for their selective images of the domestic worlds of African American clients, and second, for the way they represent the passage of time. While other well-known photographers of the region, such as William Chistenberry, construct time through images of gradual overgrowth and decay, Hursley’s photographs depict a sense of rebirth and transformation. In a manner that departs from the standard, object-centered norms of architectural photography, the completed buildings are depicted as occupied and in use.[51] Rural shacks that may seem uninhabitable to an external observer are replaced with new buildings by the Rural Studio, and personalized with belongings from the prior dwelling.

Hursley’s photographs of the first two houses completed by the studio are arranged chronologically in “before and after” sequences that begin with the original domestic exterior; only after the renovation is the reader permitted inside. The post-occupancy photos are carefully staged to situate the homeowners in the midst of their domestic worlds, sometimes in ways that are jarringly personal. The images of the Bryant (Hay Bale) House, completed in 1994, show the new owners’ original home from the outside (“The Bryant’s rickety shack (left in photo) was replaced by the Rural Studio’s first completed House (right)”).[52] Partly covered with tarpaper, and topped with layers of rusting corrugated steel sheets, it appears to now to be used as a storage shed: overturned bicycles block the entrance, which is carefully defined by a path marked by old tires that protrude halfway above the ground along one side of curved entrance path. The photo is undated, but a corner of the new house establishes the beginning of the “before and after” narrative. An angular timber column defines a porch that is grand by comparison with the former one, visible in the distance; the roof, covered with corrugated plastic sheets lack the rust and deformed surfaces of its collapsing counterpart. Turning the page reverses the view, showing the new house’s font porch, which adjoins a long, shed-like building with three arched extensions protruding from the back, where the bedrooms are located.[53] A newly built stone smokehouse is nearby. In the photo on the left, generations of the Bryant family are in casual repose, some sitting on the generous front porch, some walking towards it; on the right, the Mr. Bryant, the patriarch, is shown feeding chickens with the smokehouse in the background.

The buildings that replace the shacks of the rural poor recombine what already exists. This occurs not only through an inspired mimicry of vernacular forms, but also through the use of found and recycled building materials such as the stacked carpet tiles used to form the walls of Lucy’s House, the repurposed car windshields of the Mason’s Bend Community Center, or the timber used in the interior of the Butterfly House. While the primary reference point is the rural vernacular, the other, more generic materials — castoffs of industrialized building production — play an important role in differentiating the architectural language of the new buildings from those they are replacing. The composite forms, at time both exuberantly different from, and resonating with their surroundings, define the borderline of formal and material difference along which they are constructed. The entire process reaches an apogee in the Goat House, one of the few projects of the Rural Studio that is occupied by affluent white people.[54] The post-construction interior is photographed fully furnished. Bisected by a dramatically tilting shed roof that splits a simple shed building in two, the large main room is filled with objects from the southern landscape—a scenography of collection that connects the Rural Studio to the staged objects of Famous Men. This and other buildings of the same period repeat and fix the practices of appropriation in built form, through their combinations of recycled material: they become visible recompositions of the artifacts and objects around them, defamiliarized through formal invention and unexpected material combinations.

The remarkably low budgets for the buildings (the first house cost $15,000, and others were done for less), means that the buildings are often both similar and dissimilar to the ones they replace: they use the same corrugated sheet metal for their roofs, and the interiors embrace an unfinished aesthetic.[55] They are in many cases rustic inside: exposed timber structure support metal roofs; many are heated in the winter by wood-burning stoves. They enclose their occupants in straightforward, “hands-on” construction that is carefully designed to enable self-sufficient living, with rainwater collection and insulation using natural materials (such as walls formed of straw bale construction; they include indoor plumbing that many did not have previously.[56] But the primary contribution resides as much in the ingenious use of professional skill to achieve the maximum within tiny budgets supplemented through donated materials and labor. In this case the gift economy confers not only a space, but an intensification of proto-professional knowledge far beyond the norms of practice (an entire class of students) where mental and manual labor is both multiplied and extended to make the most of extremely modest means. It is in the end an aesthetics of scarcity, but one that is dependent on an excess of unpaid labor to achieve its goals. Its benefits are also unequally conceptualized and conferred. Although the future residents are engaged in discussions regarding the design of their homes, to return to the wicked problem outlined in Part One, the question of how housing will be supplied, paid for, and produced has been decided in advance, long before any of the future occupants are involved.

A crucial part of this stage of the Rural Studio’s history is its complex relationship with local social service agencies. The first project of the Rural Studio came about because a local office of the Department of Human Services was unable to finance the repairs needed for the leaky roof of a trailer being used as a primary residence.[56] A case worker approached the school of architecture at Auburn University to see if the repairs could be completed as a school project.[57] Their successful completion initiated an ongoing partnership. Since then, aesthetic form and institutional process have gradually been woven together through iterations of practice into one expressive system. It is a process that would only be possible in a part of the country where the enforcement of building code regulations is lax, and informal connections across sectors are historically the norm.[58] We might think of the program as a small but crucial subsidy to historically weak welfare programs in Hale county, whose overwhelming beneficiaries are African Americans. Yet these services are not provided as unmediated transfers: an unusual vetting process occurred around the question of who would be selected from a list from Hale County’s Department of Human Resources to receive the housing.[59] Students from the program were involved in direct discussions with possible recipients to determine whether they were appropriate candidates for the housing.[59]

The distributed model of decision-making, though small in outcome, describes a potentially systemic transformation of how welfare is perceived and managed, in which organizations such as Auburn University formalize non-profit and public/private networks that supplement or even replace the already limited goods and services once provided by the state. The reordering of welfare in the US has only grown in significance since the early years of the program.[60] The immediate material consequences need to be considered together with the institutional changes they give form to, both within and beyond Hale county. While the physical and social impact of the Rural Studio on Hale County is limited, the ongoing experiment assumes a second level of significance through the global network of biennales, exhibitions, television shows, books, articles and mass media accounts that represent the Rural Studio’s pedagogy of production to audiences around the world. In this respect, the program can be understood not only as prototype of welfare reform in Hale County, but one that gives coherence and form to the unfolding discourse of neoliberal experiments internationally. It operates as both a local prototype and exemplary case for discussions around new modes of welfare, not only in other US states, but other countries.

It is perhaps not surprising that the global legibility of the Rural Studio has also had distinctive local effects, reactivating the region’s status as a pilgrimage site, first initiated by the national and then international fame of LUNPFM. Hale County attracts its share of architectural tourists and academics (and indeed this article can be understood as part of the pilgrimage-effect). Once the region’s reputation as a center for experiments in housing provision for the poor was established in larger national and international contexts, like-minded activists and social entrepreneurs took notice, some deliberately more brash in their approach. Greensboro, the county seat, has attracted a number of outsiders who have either joined existing non-profits, or brought their organizations to Hale County with initiatives that bridge between underserved populations, other non-governmental organizations, entrepreneurial “social impact designers” and state agencies.[61] The transformation of Greensboro into something of a test bed for partnership experiments in privatized welfare provision inevitably led to tensions between competing actors, each of which must establish their own claims to legitimacy, raise money to fund their projects, and develop strategies to access and help the poor, now reframed as clients.

Within this enlarged matrix, the Rural Studio found itself, at the time of its 20th anniversary in 2013-14, in the same space with at least two other non-profits, each with quite different standpoints.[62] While there is not space here to sketch in detail the processes and outcomes of Project M and HERO, they both depart from the methodology built up over years by the Rural Studio. Project M, in particular, is a framework for short-term design charrettes or “blitzes” as its founder likes to call them.[63] They bring external participants together in specific locations to address a problem intensively, usually over a month. The program draws heavily on the disruptive ethos of the design innovation charrette, a mainstay of San Francisco Bay Area social innovation practice, where Steven Bielenberg, the founder of Project M bases his primary business, known as Future, a “radical problem-solving company that helps you imagine, create and operate what’s next.” Project M, famous for its invocation to “think wrong,” is responsible for the Pie Lab in downtown Greensboro, an enterprise that was initially conceived as a way to strengthen community ties through the production and consumption of a local mainstay, homemade pies.[64] The effort, which failed financially in its original form, nevertheless received national attention, and continues today, but with a price structure beyond the means of most local residents.[65]


Vernacular Self-Reliance


For the purposes of this analysis, I have focused on the Rural Studio’s early history, because its assumptions and practices hold the greatest relevance for my subsequent discussion of more contemporary examples by practitioners such as Theaster Gates, who make extensive use of found and recycled materials, redefining them through symbolic repositioning in a larger discourse of place-based urbanism. The Rural Studio that has operated alongside partnerships between organizations such as HERO and Project M, is very different, in both its aesthetic politics and built outcomes, from the previous era of Sam Mockbee. It has moved away from the eccentric regionalism of those early years. Led by Andrew Freear since the death of Mockbee in 2001, the Rural Studio continues to operate within the constraints of scarcity, mediated through administrative partnerships with well-established service agencies and community groups.[66] But the buildings are now rationalized to achieve efficiency in production (as in the $20K house program), or are connected to the public realm, through commissions such as the Newbern Town Hall and Fire Station. Unlike the early Mockbee houses, the more recent domestic projects are smaller versions of more familiar houses, and their interiors speak to less ruralized, off the grid lifestyles. While the woodburning stoves of the earlier years appear in some of the units, the rough-hewn, unfinished interiors are nowhere to be seen. These are micro-starter homes, designed to help poor people enter the bottom end of the formal housing market.

The changes move the Rural Studio away from the vernacular expression that were common to the early years of the program, and situate it more fully in a discourse of standardized housing norms that are not specific to Hale County.[67] The media, buildings and service learning of the Rural Studio operate within the transformation of welfare in the U.S. While the number of houses built is modest, as noted above, the stretching and straining of the system through which they are produced foretells an emerging social order of intensified inequality, when the upgraded shack or the shrunken house may be the best possible option for those who have no other choices in the formal provision of assistance, and few if any chances for upward mobility. Within this space of reversal, race is both acknowledged and denied: its visibility becomes a measure of equality. While the systematic, historical mechanisms of racial oppression are set aside in the Architecture of Decency, the carefully staged photographs of the interiors place the beneficiaries of the Rural Studio in the foreground. Their life experiences are conveyed through personal anecdotes of housing improvement and gratitude: they are represented as living extensions of the buildings which their bodies and personal objects complete. Poverty is represented throughout the book as something that is the effect of past racism, but that can be ameliorated through the transfer of housing and architectural beauty in the present.[68]

In the introduction, Mockbee describes the founding of the program as a “collaging together” of personal experiences, including revelatory moments when his racist assumptions were challenged as a child and young adult; his growing but distanced perception of the invisibility of southern blacks in society; his arms-length appreciation for the Civil Rights movement. He describes the work of the Rural Studio as a form of reparation for systemic injustices of the past.[69] Although institutional racism has brought the region to a social impasse, Mockbee argues that it can be circumvented through social redistribution:

When you really get down to it, money talks. Money is thicker than blood. That’s one thing I went through in discovering, that there’s very little difference between people. [70]

There is nevertheless a special, meditative compartment for race in The Architecture of Decency. In a short chapter that appears after the five case studies, Mockbee’s paintings are discussed by Lawrence Chua. The images are direct in their representation of lynchings, gender oppression and the destruction of families through slavery; others depict the contradiction of race in more recent times. Chua suggests that their production was intended as a parallel space of “shadows” and “mirrors” for Mockbee, through which he confronted his relationship to racism in Alabama.[71] Mockbee’s paintings provide a means to move away from the norms of professional practice, into a poetic space of personal reflection and confession. Eclectic in both their sources and methodologies, many of his artworks are figurative embodiments of his interest in collaging, combining portions of photographic images, drawing and painting in a single image. Fragments of Hale County’s vernacular landscape are juxtaposed with references to aspects of postmodern architectural culture of the late 1990s.

Aldo Rossi, the late Italian neo-rationalist architect, is a recurring character in a number of Mockbee’s paintings and drawings. In “Aldo Rossi arrives at Lucy’s House,” Rossi’s body becomes a totemic figure, one whose animal skull sits atop a version of the central building of his famous Modena Cemetery; this acts as the figure’s torso. A creosote block just below is supported by wooden beaver sticks, which act as Rossi’s legs. His composite body looks toward a shack, where a figure representing the daughter of Lucy Harris (one of the Rural Studio’s “clients”) stands inside the shack, with a second female figure just outside. The shack is presumably what would later be replaced by the new house designed by Mockbee and his students, famous for its use of discarded carpet tiles as the wall structure.[72] Other artworks juxtapose painterly renditions of the Hale County landscape with images of well-known contemporary practitioner/educators whom Mockbee admired, such as Charles Moore. The combination of intuition and idiosyncratic synthesis was integral to his quest for what he regarded as beauty, an ineffable quality that he refrained from defining, but claimed was at the center of his ethical practice. At the very least it emerged through aesthetic engagement with the context of building. Beauty, Mockbee argued, was something that was distributed unequally; the architect’s role resided in making it available to those who had been historically denied access to its uplifting powers.[73]

The references to Aldo Rossi underscore Mockbee’s interest in collective memory and building typology, if articulated through a very different cultural landscape. Rossi became internationally renowned in architectural culture in the 1980s for his approach to history, which he referred to as rationalism (or la Tendenza), which grew out of larger debates around historiography at the Venice School of Architecture. He argued that architecture should be based on a series of recurring types. These he argued, naturally emanated from the collective urban memory of forms produced and transmitted across historical time; as such, they challenged modernist forms of historical negation and Utopian invention.[74] The question of where collective memory came from and how it was translated into form was, for Rossi, less a matter of empirical research than poetic interpretation, advanced through his distinctive freehand drawings. The austere, pared down classicism of his theoretical and built work evokes the stillness and purity of fascist art and architecture, but according to Rossi’s interpretive framework, remains more an ambivalent witness, one step outside the disjunctions of history.[75] Some of the critics and historians who played a role in Rossi’s international recognition argued that it was precisely the distinction between memory and politics that enabled Rossi to move beyond the political associations of his work. As the architectural historian Vincent Scully once noted, “He is better at it than the Fascist architects were. He regains the tradition more vitally because he is operating through memory rather than ideology.”[76]

The split between collective memory and politics in Rossi’s work is also present, though on different terms, in Mockbee’s drawings and paintings, where he constructs a parallel world, one where architectural theoreticians are converted into allegorical figures who wander in melancholic landscapes saturated with violence and inequality. Chua describes the process by which this space emerges as one of  “interiorization.” He defines the process through the actions of the brutal Spanish conquistador Hernandez de Soto, who appropriated and turned culture inwards for his own colonizing enterprise.[77] Mockbee, Chua seems to say, enters the same landscape, turning its historical traces and “supernatural” atmosphere of past injustices into a source of poetic interiorization in the present — a process of witnessing that offers the “dangerous” possibility of redemption for both Mockbee and the characters who occupy his mythic world.[78] The transformation of history into redemptive myth privatizes the politics of race. It reveals a reluctance to address racialized violence in any systematic way, other than as a vehicle for privileged contemplation and a moral qualification for practice that takes racial visibility as its foundation.


Racial Compartments


Mockbee’s partitioning of race is not an isolated practice: it is in fact a trope of generational whiteness that runs through the reflections of many of the South’s most prominent “native sons.”  The practice overlaps, for example, with the parallel and equally personal space of reflection of the photographer William Christenberry developed, who, like Mockbee grew up in the region and developed aesthetic and practical techniques of partitioning to deal with his personal experiences of racism. In Chistenberry’s case, the violence and terror of the KKK was permanently etched in his mind after a silent encounter with a member in full regalia on a staircase inside the Tuskaloosa courthouse in 1960, where a meeting of the KKK was being held.[79] Over his career, he collected pieces of KKK material culture, and refashioned it into a three-chambered environmental work adjacent to his Washington D.C. studio. From this internal cabinet-space, he created a sequence of miniature KKK dolls which were periodically displayed and also stored there; he explored and photographed this allegorical landscape in parallel with his return visits to photograph the rural south.80 Christenberry’s KKK room was a separate space that inverted the intentions of the collecting practices of his more public works, which he quite frankly described as a means to “possess” a vanishing south through its ruinous fragments. The latter dealt with the region’s past ambiguously, through trace, absence and palimpsest; the overgrown landscapes and old signage, though carrying multiple meanings for those from the region, remain unspecified to outsiders, operating as nostalgic signifiers of slow collapse and ruination.

In the case of both Christenberry and Mockbee, reflection on race is privatized: it fills a space of wrenching personal reflection whose connection to other forms of practice is opaque. Their interior and exterior zones of practice remain largely separate, but perhaps most significantly, act as alibis for each other. One can always point to Mockbee’s reflections on race in his “other” work, as a way to insist it has not been forgotten, in the same way that Christenberry’s periodic if rare displays of his KKK dolls hint at a more tortured racial consciousness beyond the surface of photographs that document the picturesque overtake of abandoned buildings in Hale County by tangled vines and undergrowth.[80]

We might return to these racial compartments of white atonement, trauma and expiation as a way to summarize the scale relations of the Rural Studio in its early history. As with the other examples of design activism I will discuss below and in Part Three, the built results of the program are exceedingly modest when measured against the scale of effort needed to produce them. The tiny budgets are inversely proportional to the extensive mental and manual labor needed to realize the program’s buildings. Assessing the Rural Studio through the scale of its output sidesteps the largely untheorized role it plays in altering the dynamics of welfare and its localized institutional structure, a co-extensive process that is potentially more transformative than any of the buildings on their own.

Other examples of creative work in Hale County both acknowledge and move beyond the cultural appropriation common to the Rural Studio’s early work. The representations of Hale County revealing the progressive modernization of its “before and after” Black subjects, can be counter-posed with the recent work of the photographer and filmmaker RaMell Ross, who frames his work in terms of “visual justice.”[81] Before starting his recent documentary project “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” Ross had moved to the region and developed friendships there, which are documented in the photographs that preceded the more immersive film released to considerable acclaim in 2017. His photographs are made with a large format camera similar to the one that Walker Evans used in LUNPFM, a deliberate quotation of the photographic act, and the relationships involved in staging it, including the well-established trope of rural objects (both human and material) speaking for themselves.[82] The documentary film, which follows the lives of two African American friends over a 24 hour period, experiments with the temporality of representation, moving past the periodization of Hursley’s photographs of the Rural Studio, or the slow decline represented by Christenberry. Ross calls attention to these tropes, and their status as partial representations, rather than self-evident truths.[83] The durational quality of the film is organized around staring, or “really looking” but in ways that both cite and challenge the Hale County tradition of representation from LUNPFM forward.[84] The effect is not simply jarring, but demystifying, drawing the apparently benign depictions of the Rural Studio’s black homeowners into the lexicon of public debates around race and power.

More broadly though, I want to suggest that Architecture of Decency normalizes the compartmentalized scale of the individual, and the capacity to ascend from poverty by activating reserves of self-reliance and improvement through benevolent intervention. The black homeowners of the Rural Studio are discursively fashioned as lenses onto their own reality, in much the same way that Agee and Evans’ white sharecroppers were in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In this respect the two efforts at social modeling collide across decades in the post-racial fantasies of self-determination, moral rectitude and resilience that are transparent to racial history. The scale of the early Rural Studio refers not only to the imagined territory of Hale County, whose bounded domain is small when considered in relation to the overwhelming magnitude of the housing crisis in Alabama and the U.S. at the time (and now). It also refers to the containment of social justice to a specific construction of the impoverished individual, who is, however benevolently, collected, modeled and redefined by the practices of design activism.

There is one photograph that marks a striking departure from the scenes of satisfied clients and productive students in the Architecture of Decency. Published as part of the documentation of phase two of the construction at the Sanders-Dudley House.[85] The same image forms a central part of Patricio Del Real’s 2009 criticism of the Rural Studio. Del Real examines the racialized construction of a gift economy, with the photo offering a testimony to the unequal power relations and dispossession of labor associated with it.[86] The photo also evokes the representational practices of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Indeed, the connection is (perhaps inadvertently) strengthened in the Del Real article, where the image is reproduced in black and white as a frontispiece, recalling the stark visual rhetoric of Evans’ work. Hursley took the photo from above: the camera aims downward to record a racially divided space of production that is divided by a wall being built by three white students. Three black men, identified only by the name of the Alabama Department of Corrections printed in their clothing, stand to one side; one turns to look over his shoulder, partly facing the camera. The incomplete wall operates symbolically as both the location where professional identity is produced and racially partitioned. The uncaptioned photograph is haunted by the practice of ethnographic “takings” of Agee and Evans: the Black observers remain unnamed, yet their image has circulated internationally, along with the silence about the terms of its production. In a state whose industrialization in the 19th century was enabled by convict labor, and is now used to produce everything from license plates to office furniture at the rate of around 25 to 50 cents an hour, the photographic scene offers more than matter-of-fact description: the image starts to unfold a racialized hierarchy within design/build’s structure of unpaid labor.[87]

While the more recent work of the Rural Studio is beyond the scope of this essay, it is clear that in some respects the program now operates against the grain of its own history. As I have suggested above, the second phase of the program has embraced public projects that not only address a wider and potentially multiracial audience; it has also taken a different standpoint towards history, one that, however partially, starts to move the historical reflection on race away from the space of interior reflection to that of public history, as suggested by the program’s renovation to the Safe House and Black History Museum, completed in 2011.[88] The Safe House, formerly the home of Theresa Burroughs, was used to shelter Martin Luther King on the night of March 21, 1968, after he gave a speech in Greensboro. The KKK drove through Greensboro in pick-up trucks searching for him after the meeting ended, with members in cape and hood, their rifles drawn. The Museum, which an original shotgun house, contains local artifacts and historical materials related to the civil rights struggle within and beyond Greensboro.[89] While the Museum is clearly an important addition to Greensboro, it operates within the same unstable realm of non-profit activity as other aspects of the Rural Studio. As such it is subject to the same contradictory forces, where crucial arenas for public services and debate are displaced into the intermediate zone of the non-profit sector, where accountability and intentions are defined in advance by the organization and its partners. The Safe House also raises the important question of how, and on what terms the complex issues around the racial history of Greensboro and Alabama are integrated into the curriculum of the Rural Studio, or remain silently standing on the other side of the pedagogy of professional identity the program has become famous for. A more detailed analysis of this case would ask questions about the degree to which the historical discoveries made by the three white students who formed the project team were inspired by (an integrated into) larger teaching frameworks about Black history. How was the simulated client/architect relationship that underpins the Rural Studio’s model of professional training revised to encourage ongoing, rather than “one-off” engagement with an emerging network of spaces associated with racialized violence in Alabama and beyond?


Building Global Selves


The relation between scarcity, various constructions of the local, and design pedagogy is also central to the work of the design/build programs at the University of Seattle at Washington. Here I focus primarily on the Global Community Studio (GCS) launched by Sergio Palleroni when he was a faculty member at UW.[90] The GCS was one of three programs grouped within the Building Sustainable Communities Initiative (known by its capitalized acronym, “BASIC”). I’ll be discussing the work completed in the GCS between 1995 and 2002, and documented in the book entitled Studio at Large, also written by Palleroni, with Christina Merkelbach.

The Studio at Large volume forms a parallel narrative to the discussion of the Rural Studio in the Architecture of Decency. When read together, the two books begin to delineate the assumptions of the field at roughly the time both programs were becoming established. While the early work of the Rural Studio translates the poetic vision of a single agent into a model of shared production through a revised version of the atelier, the approach to design/build in the  BASIC program stresses collective authorship. It shares with the Rural Studio a dependence upon the privileged space of US-based architectural education and a related network of sponsors to make the program possible. Yet, in its outward emphasis on multiple, and changing sites, both within and beyond the U.S., the BASIC program is markedly different from the Rural Studio: while sometimes spending years developing buildings for a single site in the network, the program was directed towards the value of mobility, and the lessons to be gained from movement within and across diverse national conditions.[91] As a result, the imagined construction of scale that shapes the UW program cannot be traced back to a single discursive formation, which students and faculty enter into and transform, as with the case of Rural Studio’s engagement with the genealogy of “poverty realism” in Hale County. If there is a comparable genealogy, it is one that problematically recalls the relation between representation and empire, as mediated through the lens of “local traditions,” which the Studio at Large both absorbs and reorganizes through the processes of design/build.

The questions around how higher education should confront an increasingly interdependent world economy surged into prominence in the 1990s, alongside the growing influence of globalization as a meta-critical concept, the parallel development of global studies programs, and related debates about the future of the liberal humanist university. The early years of optimistic debates around globalization and the importance of “multicultural” frameworks for higher education were soon accompanied by a more overtly political reading of global processes, in which the latter were often understood in the short term as an intensification of an already existing global capitalism, and in the longer term as a reactivation of historical networks of transaction and institutional management associated with colonization and imperialism.[92] Globalizing processes entered higher education in a contradictory way: on the one hand, the 1990s was a time when the canonical structure of the humanities was under attack with charges of Eurocentrism, calls for “canon reform” and a new centrality for postcolonial histories and cultures in both pedagogical and administrative practices.[93] These struggles built on the growing presence of women and minorities on campuses in North American and Europe following the urban unrest and struggle for civil rights in the 1960s; they were significantly enriched and complicated by the demographic changes in higher education that reflected similar changes in society at large, following the adoption of the Hart-Cellar Act in the US in 1965, and comparable legislation in other wealthy countries, including Canada, where the government was to make multiculturalism official policy in 1971.[94] As the Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor was to famously argue in 1994, multiculturalism was increasingly negotiated through “the politics of recognition,” where expanding categories of identity formed the basis of both legal and cultural claims within the nation-state.[95]

At the same time, conservatives in the U.S. were conducting a cultural war in defense of  “traditional values,” at all levels of society, and a vigorous advocacy of free-market capitalism was being translated into arguments about public policy and foreign intervention on a global scale.[96] Measures designed to ensure trade liberalization and the global movement of capital, labor and ideas across national borders emerged as part of the unfolding of the de/re/regulatory frameworks of what became known as global neoliberalism, a complex shift in the processes of capital accumulation emerging in response to the rigidities and crisis condition of state-managed capitalism in the 1970s.[97] “Globalization” was a rather awkward moniker for these divergent pressures, but the term gained popular currency.[98] It signaled a narrative of inevitability, something that was driven by new technologies and an optimism about the transformative potential of global economic processes and institutions. The pedagogical effects of the Utopian free-market version include training in “global competency” based on frictionless conceptions of an interdependent world “as a single place,”[99] and accompanied by the universalizing rhetoric of “human rights.”[100] Others were to examine globalization less as post-facto description of a “flat world” of pulsating networks than an umbrella term for distinctive and power-laden forms of situated modernities, energized by transborder flows, but entangled with national institutions, cultural practices and diverse, localized contestations on the ground. [101]

As the polarizing and unequal terms of neoliberalism have been drawn in increasingly sharp relief over the past two decades — particularly since the financial meltdown of 2008 — the earlier dream of “all boats rising” on a self-adjusting model of market-based redistribution has come to seem increasingly fantastic.[102] The apparently benign educational frameworks built out of this failed orthodoxy (from academic programs stressing “global competency,” and quantitative measures for understanding the impact of “difference” to global satellite campuses in the Middle East) now appear to function primarily as ventilator/control valves for the brutal effects of material disparities enacted through intersections of race, class, gender, religion and sexuality.[103] Nonetheless, the prior institutional model for managing the effects of global interactions remain deeply sedimented in U.S. universities, particularly in professional degree programs, where assimilation to global business networks after graduation has been (until very recently), a routine, even tacit assumption.[104]

Though there is not space here to fully trace these seismic changes back into architectural education, it is important to note that the conditions I have sketched above occurred alongside a major investigation into architectural education in the U.S. and Canada that was published in 1996 .[105] Entitled Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice, the report was produced in collaboration with the Carnegie Foundation, and seen by many at the time as a pathbreaking effort that reassessed architectural education in relation to rapidly changing social, economic and cultural conditions. Its recommendations give a significant nod to the importance of “social engagement” in architectural education, but do so in a way that affirms the status and institutional organization of the profession.[106] Moreover, looking back at the report from the vantage point of the current moment, it is clear that some of its main recommendations ­— notably the call for more “community engagement,” an embrace of “diversity” as a mosaic-like framework for managing difference, and even the report’s dependence on the largesse of private philanthropy — prefigure the transformation of the university from the disinterested tradition of liberal humanist investigation, to the corporate model of verifiable “excellence” that was gaining prominence at roughly the same time. Those changes have only intensified in recent years, particularly in relation to the public university’s entanglement with private wealth and all that it entails. The entire process was effectively diagnosed and positioned historically in Bill Readings’ prescient 1994 book, The University in Ruins; the process has been elaborated with empirical precision by authors such as Christopher Newfield, who has made studying the decline of public education in California the center of his research.[107]

In what follows, I suggest that the Studio at Large, with its expansive, early embrace of the rhetoric of global citizenship, needs to be understood in the context of the rise and rethinking of the wider structural and institutional efforts made in higher education to acknowledge and “prepare” students for an increasingly (and inevitably global) world. The Mitgang and Boyer report is cited favorably in the Introduction, with the BASIC program’s goals resonating with it.[108] Though the framing of the global outlined in Studio at Large is sometimes cross-cut with the instrumental language of self-realization through design/build, as I suggest below, the UW program also created a valuable opening for discrepant forms of understanding that are not aligned with given ideas of globalization or cultural difference that I have outlined above. It is these gaps and contradictions, which register below the promotional surface of the program and its project descriptions, that I identify as a genuine (and wicked) contribution, that, on reflection, can be valued and built upon.

In the introductory essay written to frame the UW initiatives, Palleroni positions their educational goals in relation to processes of social justice and global citizenship. As with the Rural Studio, the location of the studios, whether within Indian reservations, impoverished urban communities in the U.S. or the self-built housing of Mexico’s poor, are intended as transformative destinations for students, where exposure to poverty and lack of resources imposes severe practical constraints. These are considered a source of creative potential and part of a critical counter-model to other forms of design instruction that typically place less emphasis on the relation between cost, the mode of construction, and design. The sudden juxtaposition of relatively affluent students with difficult working conditions and the impoverished groups they work with enables new forms of self-knowledge to develop:

Alongside a discovery of ‘the other’ is a mirrored reflection of ‘the self.’ Removed from their normal cultural context, the students see themselves more clearly against their new backdrop and experiences… [109]

Both students and future occupants (who are also co-constructors) enter into what Palleroni calls a “moment of suspended reality,” that overcomes systemic inequities through shared labor on a common project.[110] The program promotes the benefits of a “shared platform” for their students, who will hopefully derive greater understanding of the privileged position they hold in the world, while becoming better future professionals. Contact with impoverished communities is also intended to impart techniques of efficiency, which can later be channeled into the building science of sustainability once they return to the university. In this way, encounters with marginalized others is understood as a means to reform pre-existing structures of technical knowledge with understandings of efficiency and reuse that are imposed by lack of resources, redefining scarcity as a positive attribute, while social inequities necessarily remain intact.[111]

The projects described in Studio at Large provide an inventory of buildings that have been painstakingly constructed, in a process that sometimes stretches through bursts of interaction over a number of years. The book title itself suggests that the studio program embodies mobility, a freedom to wander, to be “at large” in the world, away from home, while the participating communities are rooted in place: their movements or lack thereof are often forced rather than a matter of choice. Though many of the spaces that are discussed in the book are co-constructed with groups that have formed through the process of forced displacement or economic migration, in the opening discussion of Studio at Large, they are represented as sharing innate, even transcendent forms of traditional knowledge and practice that are brought to the fore through collaboration on design-build projects.[112] Their capacity for community building, both socially and materially, pre-exists contemporary conditions, whether within or outside the US.

The design/build process is fundamentally enabled, according to Palleroni, by “the social process of building community” as a “common heritage amongst traditional communities.”[113] Tradition and a capacity for community building is represented as an enduring feature that persists across time amongst the world’s poorest peoples. These capacities define a subtle, if essential, distinction with the UW students. The poor are represented as intrinsically creative, because of their need to do more with less; students lack such “traditions” and in fact are burdened with the impracticality of affluence.[114] While substantial social change may come slowly in the settlements, the students operate within the temporality of their institution even when they are at large: projects are completed in ways that mesh with the school year, and follow deadlines set by funding organizations. Although initially defined by the juxtaposition of scarcity and wealth, the global design/build process attempts to close the gap, with students receiving transfers of skills and social knowledge from marginalized communities, who in turn benefit from the capacity of their wealthier partners to provide the materials, organization and some of the labor needed for facilities and infrastructure.

If the introductory essay establishes a division between the mobility of the students in the global studio and the contained scale of the contexts they travel to, the subsequent case studies open up a more complex space of interaction. In each iteration of the global studio, “the local” is revealed less as an absolute category than an intersection point where the financial, pedagogical, and design practices of the studio are reshaped by political and economic processes, extending from the settlement through municipal, national and transnational scales. The first project was located in Colonia San Lucas, within the municipality of Tejalpa, to the south of Cuernevaca in the state of Morelos. Tejalpa is best known for the massive CIVAC industrial zone, initially established in the 1960s as part of Mexico’s import substitution policies designed to expand the domestic industrial sector.[115] Tejalpa’s rapid growth has been accompanied by the parallel expansion of self-built housing from the edge of the municipality into the adjacent volcanic rock fields characteristic of the area.

By the time construction began on Escuela San Lucas in 1995, the Mexican economy was undergoing another round of dramatic structural changes, this time resulting from harsh plans for debt restructuring and the subsequent implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 1989, Mexico signed a plan for debt forgiveness with the with the US known as the Brady Plan; parallel agreements were negotiated with IMF and World Bank which exacted further free-market restructuring in return. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) further advanced the large-scale privatization of national interests already underway as part of structural reforms of the de la Madrid and Salinas regimes. NAFTA initiated the dismantlement of the Ejido system of indigenous land ownership which dates from the 1917 constitution. The process of rural land reorganization, combined with the lowering of import barriers, drastically increased rural poverty, and further intensified internal migration.116 The effects were widely felt across Mexico, and perhaps most notably, resisted by the Zapatista movement, which declared a defensive war against the Mexican government in 1994, as part of an effort to regain control over resources and land threatened by NAFTA. The so-called “Tequila Crisis” followed, as investors responded negatively to instability in Mexico. The Mexican banks intervened to support the peso by issuing dollar-denominated debt. The peso’s value strengthened, affecting exports and leading to downward pressure on its value in currency markets.[117] The Mexican government devalued the peso in response, but subsequent attempts to stabilize the country’s debt by raising interest rates only complicated the problem and other measures were undermined by the currency’s collapsing value internationally. With the country on the brink of bankruptcy, the U.S. initially refused to help, but at the last minute intervened with a $47 billion bailout in 1995, largely because of fears about the impact of Mexican default on the U.S. economy.[118]

The wider political economic context is important here, because it exposes the cross-cutting pressures of global neoliberalism on the Mexican landscape, revealing it to be thoroughly intertwined in transnational flows, and impossible to separate as a bounded domain of traditional culture. It also creates a context in which to better understand why a U.S.-based university would be allowed to enter another country and participate in constructing an addition to a state school. The reorganization of the Mexican economy, and the historical crisis of the Mexican school system combined to create the conditions that made such interventions both possible and even necessary. In this respect, the mixed funding model used by the UW program is a pragmatic response to the larger economic and political circumstance in which it operated.[119] The political conditions on the ground in Mexico are also important to acknowledge because, as the brief summary of events outlined above suggests, the U.S. played a significant role in creating them. It was the IMF, a global financial institution whose largest shareholder is the US (and whose oversight is managed by the US Congress), that demanded Mexico’s harsh debt restructuring; it was the U.S. that was the most powerful signatory to NAFTA, which ultimately reflected the market liberalization ideology of the Reagan era; and it was the U.S., that, following the Tequila Crisis, set the terms for a crushing debt load that continues to haunt Mexico today. For UW students to travel to Mexico at the apex of such a debt-generated crisis therefore offers not only a way to contextualize the impact of U.S. actions on other countries; it also suggests the possibility that such knowledge might be returned to the U.S. through the students’ experiences, where it could have transformative effects.

Such programs could, for example, provide a starting point to construct transnational understandings of processes such as migration and diaspora, and their deeply divided social and spatial consequences in US cities. Indeed, while Tejalpa and Cuernavaca as whole receives migrants from the countryside in search of better paying industrial jobs, it is also site of migration to the US, with households affected in tangible ways through both human departures and remittances that typically follow.[120] The complex networks that constitute the spaces of migration have, over the last two decades, been viewed with ambivalence, neither as examples of pure oppression or liberation, but situated combinations of both, revealing, for example, both intensifying strategies of state domination (as in the ongoing raids of Latinx neighborhoods by immigration authorities) and creative capacities to not only endure, but imagine how different futures might be spatialized. The latter point has been a consistent feature of Teddy Cruz’s theoretical research on the border for the last decade, but grassroots organizations located far from the physical border provide support and empower groups who deal with its consequences in everyday life.[121] Their (precarious) public spaces of community, and refashioning of domestic space to accommodate diverse cultural needs are examples of architectures from below that could be enriched by an expanded version of transborder pedagogy suggested in outline by the GCS.

The project description for Escuela San Lucas provides an important, if partial window onto how such projects are produced in the context of significant social instability and lack of resources. The text recounts how a cash-strapped central government was reluctant to allocate funds to assist in the construction of the school, or even acknowledge the need for its existence. Official recognition took place only after the facility was fully built and operating, when it was no longer possible to ignore its existence. The BASIC program thus participated in the strategic leveraging of resources for education in the colonia, with the school building acting as a key figure in the redistribution of government funds. Other anecdotes woven into the project description suggest a similar use of design/build to influence the provision of other collective amenities, such as clean water supply and the colonia’s first road. Elsewhere, the project narrative describes the gradual way the entire intervention gained acceptance, by staging the program elements in parts, beginning with an open-air pavilion that acted as a public space anticipating the potential of larger process. Such careful maneuvering, designed to establish trust and draw interested residents into the process also underscores the role of temporality in such projects, which operate slowly in relation to the onward growth of adjacent self-building, and the larger expansion of the housing crisis.[122]

A sidebar accompanying the main text explains in shorthand how the project was funded and who the primary sponsors were. While only the most minimal level of detail is provided, the list usefully reveals the complexity of the financial model that brought the project into being. In this case, core funding was provided by the Kellogg Foundation and the municipality of Morelos, amongst others. Yet the list also points to a significant silence in an account that otherwise devotes a considerable effort to describing the process of building: the ways in which funding sources encode institutional expectations in the designs, often long before the design process has begun.[123] The changing regulatory map for the jurisdictions where design activism takes place also has a significant impact on the design process. The lack of building regulations in Hale County has been cited as one of the enabling factors for the Rural Studio’s use of waste material, just as UW’s participation in the production of a school building is intertwined with the more relaxed regulatory environment stemming from the chronic institutional failures and corruption associated with public sector spending on education in Mexico.[124] Indeed, these enabling conditions are as much a part of the constitution of the “local” as the physical geography, the climate, or the demographic characteristics of the local population. Including the institutional framework as part of the design process also underscores the fact that they are not simply static systems that design activists enter and operate within; rather, the institutional framework is something that is shaped, reinforced or transformed by the design process itself.

Though the changes that have led to the privatization of state services and the evisceration of schooling in Mexico are the result of systemic forces embedded in the global economy, the way they emerge on the ground is piecemeal, and in each case transformed through interaction with diverse groups of actors and institutions who mediate these processes through everyday social practices. In this sense, design activism as I have described it here not only results in an incremental transformation in the physical space of education; it also participates in the gradual transformation of the abstract space of regulation, and in the dynamics of public/private processes and policy interactions.

As I suggested at the outset, scale is not given but socially produced: the physical extent of these projects is only one aspect of their scale relations. Both the Rural Studio and the GCS are situated within networks that extend far beyond the boundaries of their design/build sites, through interaction with contexts ranging from university administrations, departments, philanthropic organizations, and centers of government policy, to architectural publishers, and exhibition venues. The two programs can be differentiated from each other by the degree to which they acknowledge the specificity and extent of these interactions. During the early history of the Rural Studio, such considerations are displaced in public narratives centered on the poetic vision of a single creator, and the quest for beauty as a gift to the impoverished citizens of Hale County.

In the case of GCS, a single author as creative source is replaced by a narrative of collective production, formed through the merging of two distinct groups, the local participants and the students and faculty from UW. While the project narrative begins to point to scale as a relational process, the effect is mainly descriptive: the institutional, financial and political actors that shape the project are listed and described, but the consideration of their impact does not appear to be a direct part of the process. Though both the Rural Studio and GCS engage in forms of distributed agency that differentiates them from normative models of production, in different ways both reassert the “local” and “small scale” as conceptual boundaries that limit the broadening of design processes to questions around in situ production. Small scale—as defined by the physical site of the building and its production—recalls how Rittel’s wicked problems are often treated as tame ones. Here the conflation of small dimensions with small scale does the work of simplifying the nested relationships between human and non-human actors, and their multifarious connections. A fully relational model of scale would make the question of how, and on what terms, these networks should enter the design process as active parts of the setting of the problem. In the latter view, a site is both a defined physical territory and an intersection point for processes that are inevitably grounded in relations of power that are experienced locally, but always extend beyond the boundaries of their enactment. Their displacement through processes of simplification and abstraction defines the paradox of scale in design activism.


Exchange and the Labor of Activism


While the turn to “small scale” figures prominently in the rhetoric and practice of design activism of the last two decades, the economic processes that underpin it have received comparatively little attention. In what follows, I discuss the relationship between scale and economic exchange briefly, as a way of introducing the primary focus of the third part of this series. Questions around exchange play a significant role in defining the enabling conditions for design/build projects, and need to be conceptualized alongside other more explicit goals. The most celebrated examples have relied on the use of labor that is paid in part or entirely through the awarding of credentials, contacts and recognition. In the case of design/build projects executed under the aegis of architecture programs, a complex gift economy distributes these rewards to faculty, students, sponsors, universities, and the occupants of the projects.

My interest here is to foreground how, and on what terms, such rewards are exchanged in lieu of money. Pierre Bourdieu famously referred to such transactions as cultural capital, a form of symbolic value that may eventually be converted back into money, or exchange value.[125] The problem is that labor relations based on the exchange of cultural capital can be highly exploitative. A student working on a design/build project to help the urban poor may also find herself in a relation of domination, where labor is exchanged for the promise of connections, or credentials that may never be fully distributed or even clearly defined at the outset (“it’s not work, it’s school”). School-based versions of design activism operate as exemplary theater in the pedagogy of becoming professional. The ways that labor is staged and acted out are socially symbolic. In their performance of work on design/build projects, students are inducted into ways of thinking about the role of the professional in society, the different values attached to mental and manual labor, the disciplinary divisions between theory and practice, and the role of cultural difference in the workplace.

Questions about labor are magnified in the pedagogies of design activism, because almost everyone receives inadequate remuneration (or no monetary payment at all) for their work, except for the professors, whose salaries indirectly subsidize their efforts. In rare cases, design/build programs receive symbolic rewards for their design and construction services through the elite recognition provided by exhibitions, books and other events that bring legibility within, and sometimes well beyond, architectural culture.[126] In some cases, the leaders of design/build programs strategically adapt or simply reproduce the dominant narratives of professional agency by casting themselves as visionary agents whose singular creativity is translated downwards into built form through complex processes of volunteer production. In other cases, an entire program will be elevated to the status of creative signature, often in ways that erase complex conditions of production, which in turn enable the program’s theoretical and built work to enter an image-centric system of symbolic rewards. In either case, complex production processes and their economies are effaced by a mediated distillation process that favors legible narrative figures, whether in the form of creative personalities or their heroic physical effects.

It is through texts and other media that the programs are able to become legible in architectural culture, attract attention, and ascend in what sociologist of knowledge refer to as hierarchies of esteem. These are sometimes translated into funding at a later date if a program successfully embarks on a trail of reputation-building, competitive distinction and institutional promotion through events such as the Venice Bienale and other forms of elite recognition. In the context of this set of arrangements, it is important to ask in what ways design/build programs—with their self-conscious claims of social engagement, moral reciprocity and local amelioration—question, or simply reproduce, the demanding paradigm of professional work that is modeled by architectural education through the exchange of cultural capital.[127]

The withdrawal of professionals from the formal wage economy is not always a practical result of not having funds to support their work. Stepping aside from “business as usual” can also be part of larger attempt to imagine and bring into being not only a different model of building production, but with it, a model of social organization that is instantiated through the process of building, and the subsequent occupation and use of space. In this case, the question of how projects are funded, who is paid (and on what terms) is inseparable from attempts to reimagine social relations outside the normative logic of capitalism. In such cases, small scale is either an opening onto a different model of political economy, or a way of entering the one we already have in a different way.

This requires us to think through the enabling conditions for a project (where the money comes from, and the requirements attached to it) as part of the design process, rather than simply considering it as something that needs to be resolved before design can begin. Viewing the design process this way means pushing back the starting point for design to a place well before the appearance of the program or project requirements. We might take, for example, this diagram by architect and urbanist Teddy Cruz, produced by his professional office and shown at various prominent exhibitions internationally, as both an indicator of the potential of examining such issues, and the limits of the means chosen to do so. In this case Cruz has designed an economic and political framework that enables the production of non-standard, individually adaptable housing solutions. The design consists of a series of micro-policies, which act as intermediaries between the needs of Casa Familiar and various government agencies.

One part of the Casa Familiar program consists of a series small infill buildings, to be modified to suit specific needs of extended families, domestic production and other conditions that lead to non-standard spatial arrangements. The realization of the project, with its unorthodox mixing of functions (through, for example, senior’s housing that was attached to daycare) and its conception of extended duration for construction (whereby occupants could expand and change dwellings over time), required Cruz and Casa Familiar to negotiate changes to both zoning and funding mechanisms in a way that would enable resources to be shifted to occupants. They would then be able (under the umbrella of Casa Familiar) to supplement starter loans with sweat equity over the long term.[128] The result is twofold: first, assigning the authority to manage how institutional funding is distributed away from municipal agencies and private lenders to those that more directly represent specific communities; and second, by the very nature of the reorientation in decision-making, gradually altering the texture of regulation from below. In this way, “small scale” has another set of meanings, produced through networks of social relationships that operate within, but reach beyond the immediate geographical boundaries of the site.


Working around Capitalism


The Casa Familiar project shares with a number of other well-known projects a commitment to freely integrate informal aspects of the building economy and modes of construction into the architecture, to open up, as Cruz, and his collaborator Fonna Forman suggest, a space which is neither formal nor informal, allowing the occupant/builder the latitude to operate in the gap.[129] We can point, for example, to the work of Elemental in Chile, which has extended both the amount and flexibility of state-led housing it has designed by channeling the funds provided toward an initial phase that will be completed later with the owner’s labor and funds.[130] As with the Cruz project, the first phase is conceived as collective social infrastructure rather than discrete dwellings. The solution, though reinterpreted here for Chilean institutional context is not unlike the framework proposed by Habraken some 60 years prior, and it comes with many of the same limitations, where endorsement of agency from below is accompanied by the parallel displacement of responsibility from the state to the individual.[131] Here, “the local” is defined by the intersection between the regulatory frameworks and institutions that create the enabling conditions of design, and the in situ occupant/builders who complete the projects according to their own specifications. The local is something that is produced rather than accommodated; we might think of it as a process of material enactment that is shaped by the contingencies of a specific place. The early work of Elemental consists of designing an anticipatory framework that, while cognizant of funding, regulation and other abstract constraints, also builds into its formulation the possibility of change and divergence from anticipated outcomes. The approach is significant because it moves beyond the opposition between the local and global, the formal and the informal, instead working creatively within a tangle of practices and funding mechanisms as they converge in specific locations.

What’s missing here, and in other examples, is a convincing way to represent the complexity of such relationships back to those involved in the building process. While Cruz’s process diagrams and other exhibition props may be unnecessarily opaque, they nevertheless constitute a starting point.[132] One can imagine that if a similar approach was adopted towards representing the procedural aspects of design by other architects with similar comparable agendas, the entire field would quickly advance on a platform of shared knowledge. Among the greatest beneficiaries would be communities in need of such housing, who would undoubtedly find the cataloguing of institutional arrangements to be immensely useful. In this light, we might regard the detailed charts produced by Katie Stohr, the co-founder of the now-defunct Architecture for Humanity, as a financial map that describes both the administrative and ethical complexity of non-profit fundraising. It continues to stand today` as a major contribution to the field. Divided into three different categories (municipal finance, public/private finance, and private finance) the charts list everything from municipal bridge loans to community land trusts, briefly explaining the sources, institutional/legal structures and limitations of each. In their remarkable comprehensiveness, they indirectly reference the day-to-day grind of continually needing to find money to pay staff and standing costs.[133] Indeed, the question not only of exhaustion, but economic survival is a key factor in shaping the field of design activism. The proverbial elephant in the living room is funding: where it comes from, and how it will be maintained. The point is particularly ironic in this case, because Architecture for Humanity entered bankruptcy in 2015 due to a burgeoning debt load accrued through the operating expenses of its San Francisco headquarters. A subsequent lawsuit for $3,000,000 alleged that the co-founders and Board of Directors transferred money donated for building projects to pay those expenses.[134]

These partial efforts to bring processes that are otherwise tacit or hidden from view into the foreground constitute an important step shifting the design process towards the question of how problems are set. When the networks of available funding, and their constraints and possibilities are made visible, they become possible sites of debate and creative intervention. This brings us back once again to the realm of the wicked problem, where the contingencies of decision-making and their basis in institutional mechanisms ranging from regulations, mission statements, and application criteria to collective reputations and institutional status broadens what counts in the design process. The result can work in two directions, altering the production of built form, but also the financial, legal and construction regulations in which it is enmeshed from the beginning.




I’d like to conclude my argument here by looking ahead to the examples I will discuss in Part Three of this series on exchange relations. The cases I will discuss extend the creative engagement with economic processes in ways that both build upon and complicate those I have just discussed. Three examples, initiated respectively by the British architectural collective Assemble working in Liverpool, the coalition of artists and neighborhood activists led by Rick Lowe known as Project Row Houses in Houston, and the neighborhood rebuilding undertaken in the southwest of Chicago by artist and planner Theaster Gates, all confront the processes and effects of deindustrialization. While they channel significant funding from non-profit and philanthropic organizations, they also attempt to reorient existing economic relations and restore processes of capital investment and economic growth within the communities they address. The process of both marshaling and redistributing the benefits of capitalist processes has proven to be challenging, because once established, the potential always exists for investment to exceed or spiral off in directions that may ultimately undermine the very communities it was intended to help. The cases attempt to create value in sites of long-term, racialized disinvestment by initiating forms of cultural production that makes their neighborhoods legible in the urban economy on terms generated by designers, artists, planners and architects working together with residents. The processes they set in motion (selectively) identify “social capital” as a resource amongst those who have been marginalized, often by the very assumptions that the now ubiquitous “creative class theories” cater to.[135]

The latter arguments have been used to justify building costly amenities (such as art galleries and museums, as well as municipal tax subsidies and other incentives to foster the creation of arts districts) to encourage the migration of economically privileged “creatives” to cities. These projects operate differently, by attempting to use the collaborative production of space and culture as ways to realize what they regard as the intrinsic capacities of long term residents who have been sidelined by development processes they neither sanctioned nor controlled. As with the work of Cruz outlined above, they occupy the gap between official policies and community-based activism. They attempt to transform given financial and institutional structures, while engaging with marginalized histories and cultural practices as way to ensure development is guided by the social needs and capacities of the residents themselves. How this space is defined and sustained as a basis for critical action will form the basis of my analysis.

All three contexts are ones in which the stakes around gentrification and dispossession are very high. The question of how to realize “other social worlds” in all their material and social complexity could not be more urgent than now. In exploring how these cases variously address or ignore the political economic contexts they operate within, I hope to bring their practices of community building into contact with critical debates gathered around term such as “alternative economies,” “post capitalist politics,” and “informal market worlds” emerging in geography, social theory, queer and critical race studies. This research, both empirical and theoretical, while rarely dealing with questions of material spatial practice, nevertheless offers insights into how to reconceptualize the three terms motivating my arguments around visions of a more socially just world. I hope their synthesis with more explicitly spatial modes of analysis and intervention will contribute to the ongoing reformulation of design/build.

C. Greig Crysler is a Professor in the Department of Architecture and Arcus Chair for Gender, Sexuality and the Built Environment at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of Writing Spaces. Discourses of Architecture, Urbanism and the Built Environment, 1960-2000 (Routledge, 2003), and co-editor, with Stephen Cairns and Hilde Heynen, of the Handbook of Architectural Theory (Sage 2012). He is completing a co-authored book with the cultural geographer Shiloh Krupar entitled Waste Complex: Capital/Ecology/Sovereignty, that explores the intersections of contemporary financial, environmental, and juridical urban crises.


This essay is a considerably revised and expanded version of a lecture originally delivered at the Center of Social Studies (CES) at University of Coimbra, Portugal. The opening lecture was hosted by the Department of Architecture. The lectures, delivered under the title “The Neoliberal Paradoxes of Design Activism: Expertise, Scale and Exchange,” were part of the “15 days at CES” program, an activity of the Research Group “Cities, Cultures, and Architecture” (CCArq) within the center. I am grateful to Dr. Tiago Castela, Assistant Researcher at CES, who organized my visit, coordinated the two lectures and provided comments on them before they were delivered. I would also like to thank Dr. Katerina Ruedi Ray for her comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and extend special thanks to Grant Kester and the editorial collective at FIELD for their support, encouragement and patience as I completed this article.


1. Rittel’s arguments about the failures of the first generation of design thinking, and the epistemology of the second generation, informed by an understanding of “wicked problems” are outlined two seminal articles: Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2 (June, 1973), pp. 155-169; Horst Rittel, “On the Planning Crisis: System Analysis of the First and Second Generation” by Jean-Pierre ProtzenDavid J. Harris (eds),The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 151-166.

2. See Andreis Skaburskis’ historical note on the emergence of wicked problems: “The Origin of “Wicked Problems”, Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 9, No. 2, (2008), 277-280;  The “Prologue” to Protzen’s and Harris’s The Universe of Design provides a useful overview of the career and influence of Horst Rittel, in the context of changes in the epistemology of systems thinking and design theories and methods: pp. 1-20. More broadly, urban and architectural historians have begun the valuable process of situating efforts at community-based design practice in its wider social and historical context, raising important new questions about the relationship between state power, academic institutions, and community-based politics. See for example, Alyosha Goldstein’s important reconsideration of the emergence of Community Action Programs in the 1960s, entitled Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). More recently, Brian Goldstein examines the intersection between design advocacy and the Black Power Movement Harlem in The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Anna Goodman’s Ph.D dissertation offers one of the first systematic histories of community-based design in the US: Citizen Architects. Ethics, Education and the Construction of a Profession. (1993-2013) University of California, Berkeley, unpublished Ph.D Dissertation. Two recent anthologies have begun to extend the process of critical reflection to contexts outside the US and Europe, raising important new questions about cross-connections between national contexts both historically and in the recent past, from the comprehensive survey edited by Nishat Awan and Tatanja Schneider, Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture (New York and London: Routledge 2011), to the more recent collection edited by Farhan Karim (ed), The Routledge Companion to Architecture and Social Engagement (New York and London: Routledge, 2017); see also Ipek Tureli, “‘Small’ Architectures, Walking and Camping in Middle Eastern Cities,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture, Vol. 2 No. 1., (March, 2013): 5-38.

3. The point is developed in Mary C. Comerio’s much-cited article, “Community Design: Idealism and Entrepreneurialism,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1984): 227-43; as I argued in Part One, the beginning of the process of dismantlement was foreshadowed by the many issues surrounding state-funded community design, particularly its tendency to reproduce existing relations of power, as outlined by Sherry Arnstein in “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4 (July, 1969): 216-224. For a concise historical overview of community-based design, see: Henry Sanoff, “Community-based design learning: Democracy and collective decision-making,” in Ashraf M. Salama and N Wilkinson (Eds.), Design Studio Pedagogy: Horizons for the Future. (Gateshead, UK: The Urban International Press, 2007), pp.21-38. The systematic overview of Community Design Centers by Donovan Finn and Jason Brody, provides a more ambivalent take on the rise of market-based approaches: “The State of Community Design: An Analysis of Community Design Center Services,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2014), pp. 181-200; see also Tom Angotti’s useful overview: “Advocacy and Community Planning: Past, Present and Future,” Planners Network. The Organization of Progressive Planners (April 22, 2017):

4. See for example, Mario Camacho, “David Kelley, from Design to Design Thinking at Stanford and IDEO,” Echos School of Design Thinking (June 6, 2017):

5. Ibid. See for example Klauss Kripendorff, The Semantic Turn. A New Foundation for Design, (Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press, 2006).

6. IDEO. HCD. Human Centered Design. (San Francisco: IDEO, 2011).

7. The policy shift was laid out in Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union address: “Richard M. Nixon, 1971 State of the Union Address,” State of the Union History:

8. Andres Lepik (ed): Small Scale, Big Change. New Architectures of Social Engagement. (New York, NY: MoMA Publishers, 2010)

9. In the Foreward, Barry Bergdoll notes that “One could almost say, without too much exaggeration that the larger project of modernization, to which architectural modernism hitched its cart in its heroic years, has increasingly developed in a way that has little need for the critical practice of architecture. In too many cases, the role of architects in recent years has been relegated to giving form to the landscapes and cityscapes shaped by larger forces, notably of capital flows in a globalized economy,” Small Scale, Big Change, p. 9; see also Lepik, p. 12.

10. Andrea Oppenheimer Dean (ed), The Rural Studio. Sam Mockbee and the Architecture of Decency (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).

11. Sergio Palleroni and Christina Merkelbach, Studio at Large. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

12. Albena Yaneva, “Scaling Up and Down: Extraction Trials in Architectural Design,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 35, No. 6 (Dec., 2005), pp. 867-894; Benoit B. Mandelbrot, “Scalebound or Scaling Shapes: A Useful Distinction in the Visual Arts and in the Natural Sciences,” Leonardo, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), pp. 45-47.

13. Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

14. The issue is discussed in Henri Lefebvre’s writings on space: The Production of Space (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991). For an overview of Lefebvre’s arguments and their significance, see Neil Brenner, “The urban question as a scale question: Reflections on Henri Lefebvre, urban theory, and the question of scale,” The International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol 24. No 2 (2000): 361-378; see also, Joseph Pierce, Deborah G Martin and James T Murphy, “Relational place-making: the networked politics of place,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 2011), pp. 5.

15. Doreen Massey, “Geographies of Responsibility,” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 86, No. 1, Special Issue: The Political Challenge of Relational Space (2004), p.5.

16. Karim Doumar, “Fence around Chancellor’s Residence Completed at 2-1/2 times original Budget,” The Daily Californian. (May 26, 2016):

17. Donatella della Porta, Social Movements in Times of Austerity: Bringing Capitalism back into Social Movement Analysis (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015). For a useful overview of the literature on the Occupy Movement after its dissolution, see: Alesdair Roberts, “Why the Occupy Movement Failed,” PAR (September/October, 2012), pp. 754-767.

18. Heather Gautney, “Political Organization on the Global Left,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, (2007), pp.150-182.

19. P.N. Bloom, Scaling Your Social Venture: Becoming an Impact Entrepreneur, (New York, N.Y.: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).

20. For a discussion of the complexity of global architectural production see, Paolo Tombesi and Jennifer Whyte,“Challenges of design management in construction,” in The Handbook of Design Management London: Bloomsbury, 2011), pp. 202-213; on the role of contingency in architectural production, see Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

21. Helen Molseworth with Ruth Erickson, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015); See also Jonathan Fisher, “The Life and Work of an Institution of Progressive Higher Education: Towards a History of Black Mountain College, 1933-1949,” Black Mountain College Studies, Vol. 6, (2013):; Katherine C. Reynolds, “Progressive Ideals and Experimental Higher Education: The Example of John Dewey and Black Mountain College,” Education and Culture, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-9.

22. Spatial Agency. “Yale Building Project,”:

23. Richard W. Hayes, The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years (New Haven, N.J.: The Yale School of Architecture, 2007). A basic history of the Yale University School of architecture design/build program, known as “the Jim Vlock First year Building Program,” can be found at :

24. Brian Goldstein, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), pp. 58-106.

25. Ibid., 155.

26. Goldstein’s research documents the shift from mixed funding for community initiatives in Harlem (including support from Federal, state and local governments) to the emergence of self-build responses, following the change in national funding policies initiated by the Nixon administration and the constraints of the global recession. The turn by Black activists to the private market for support of low cost housing is is outlined in Eric Peterson’s unpublished 2017 conference paper for Annual Meeting of the Society of American City and Regional Planning History (October 18, 2017).

27. Robert Goodman, After the Planners (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1972

28. Ibid., 221-228.

29. Ibid., 226-227.

30. Ibid.

31. The popular news reporting on HFH homebuilding initiatives repeatedly cites the “hand up” doctrine when explaining the intentions of the program. The repetition itself qualifies as a force in normalizing the privatization of welfare from local reporting outwards. See for example Chelsea Shar, “Habitat for Humanity offers ‘hand up not handout to new homeowners,” The Alliance Review (August 2, 2016):; David Thomas, The Austinot “Austin Habitat for Humanity Gives Families a hand up,” (Feb 11, 2015):; Winchester Press, (may 2, 2018): “A Hand-up not a handout with Habitat Home,”

32.The most comprehensive study of Habitat for Humanity is by Jerome P. Baggett, Habitat for Humanity. Building Private Homes. Building Public Religion (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2001). For a discussion of Millard Fuller’ ideology of Christian missions, see Baggett, 40-65. Habitat for Humanity was placed under considerable public scrutiny when it became involved in the provision of post-disaster housing in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 . Slow completion times, restrictions on access to  housing, and entanglement with the mortgage industry in the lead-up to the 2008 credit crisis have also been subject to criticism. See for example, “Habitat Failing Humanity,” Where Most Needed (February 22, 2010):; Habitat for Humanity’s financial practices have also been the subject of public rebuke during the housing bubble that preceded the financial crisis of 2008: Mara Der Hovanesian, Greg Hafkin and Christopher Palmeri, “Habitat for Hustlers,” in Bloomberg Business Week (November 10, 2006):

33. This point is made well in Vicanne Addams’ ethnographic study of the role of faith-based organizations in the rebuilding after Hurricane Katerina: Vicanne Adams, “Faith in a Volunteer Recovery,” Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith. New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), pp. 126-152.

34. Robert Goodman, pp. 239-243

35. Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects. A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964).

36. See for example the special issue of the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, “The Population Bomb Revisited,” Vol. 1, No. 3 (Summer 2009):; in particular, Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer, “The Post War Intellectual Roots of the Population Bomb,” pp. 71-98; for a useful critical discussion of The Limits to Growth, Paul Dragos Aligica, “Julian Simon and the ‘Limits to Growth, Neo-Malthusianism,” pp. 49-60

37. The point is highlighted by Edward Said, when he is outlining his second qualification in relation to his definition of Orientalism. Using the example of Flaubert’s description of an encounter with a European courtesan, he writes that “she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was ‘typically Oriental.’ My argument is that Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled.” Edward Said, Orientalism (NY: Vintage, 1978), pp. 13-14. Critics have extended the production of inequality through the Orientalist process of othering to other contexts, where asymmetrical relations of power and practices of representation intersect. Gyan Prakash’s “Orientalism Now,” offers an analyses of the potential and limitations of the expansion of Said’s framework to such contexts. History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Oct., 1995), pp.199-212

38. Sergio Palleroni with Christina Merkelbach, Studio at Large. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

39. United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts. Hale County Alabama,” (July 2017):

40. Gerald R. Webster and Scott A. Samson, “Defining the Black Belt: Historical Changes and Variations,” Southeastern Geographer, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Nov 1992), pp. 163-172.

41. Scott L. Matthews, “Protesting the Privilege of Perception Resistance to Documentary Work in Hale County, Alabama, 1900–2010,” Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 1, Documentary Arts (Spring, 2016), pp. 31-65; for a specific focus on the role of representation across the history of the Rural Studio, see Anna Goodman, “The Paradox of Representation and Practice in the Auburn University Rural Studio,”  Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring, 2014), pp. 39-52

42. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, (New York: Mariner Books [1939] 2001), p.x.

43. Walter Ben Michaels, “The Art of Inequality, Then and Now,” in The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Economy, Autonomy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 105-152.

44. See for example, James C. Curtis and Sheila Grannen, “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Photographs. Walker Evans and Documentary Photographs,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 1-23; Caroline Blinder (ed), New Critical Essays on James Agee and Walker Evans: Perspectives on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

45. Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson revisited Hale County and interviewed the surviving sharecroppers and their children about their experiences with Agee and Evans; their book also juxtaposes Evans’ photographs with the same sites over 40 years later. They reveal the terms of Agee and Evans’ appropriation and uncover lasting anger about their work: And Their Children After Them. The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008).

46. Agee ponders the inside of “The Gudger House,” with voyeuristic reverence while its occupants are away: “I shall move as they would trust me not to, and as I could not, were they here. I shall touch nothing but as I would touch the most delicate wounds, the most dedicated objects. The silence of the brightness of this middle morning is increased upon me moment by moment and upon this house, the whole of heaven is drawn into one lens; and this house itself, in each of its objects, it too, is one lens.” Agee and Evans, p. 120.

47. On the ethnographic methods of Agree and Evans, see John Dorst, “On the porch and in the room: Threshold moments and other ethnographic tropes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” in Caroline Blinder (ed), New Critical Essays on James Agee and Walker Evans: Perspectives on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), pp.40-70; See also Paula Rabinowtiz, “Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Cultural Critique No. 21 (Spring, 1992), pp. 143-170.

48. Andrea Oppenheimer Dean (ed), The Rural Studio. Sam Mockbee and the Architecture of Decency (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).

49. Hursley’s career has moved from early mentorship by the modernist photographer Balthazaar Kolob to commissioned works on a wide range of contemporary architecture, including the Rural Studio. Cesar Pasori, “Timothy Husley’s architectural eye,” in Interview Magazine (May 18, 2017):

50. Mockbee, as paraphrased by Oppenheimer Dean, The Architecture of Decency, p.1.

51. Christenberry and Hursley are compared along these lines by Cervin Robinson, in the Architecture of Decency, p. 175-177. He argues that Hursley’s photographs depart from standard architectural photography by showing both the people who produced the buildings and those who live in them; in the latter case sometimes documented at regular intervals after move-in.

52. The Architecture of Decency, p. 19

53. Ibid., p. 24.

54. The Goat House was originally intended as the hub for an artists’ community; when that plan fell through it was converted to a private residence. The Architecture of Decency, pp. 106-115.

55. The cost of the buildings was covered by grants and donations (included unpaid student labor). The Architecture of Decency, p. 18. The Bryant’s smokehouse was reportedly constructed for $40. Amy Virshup, “Designer houses for the poor,” New York Times (Sept 21, 1997):; The formally elaborate Butterfly House cost $25,000. See Fernando Pages Ruiz, Building an Affordable House. Trade Secrets to High Value, Low Cost Construction (Newton, Conn: Taunton Press, 2005), p. 12.; University regulations limit Auburn University’s financial commitment to operating expenses, meaning that funds for materials and other building expenses need to be raised from private sources, whose support has been significant. The program received more than $2,000,000 in grants and donations between 1993 and 2000, including $650,000 from the Kellogg Foundation (Oppenheimer Dean, 4), which also funded the school built by the Global Community Studio discussed as the second case in this article; The program’s modified salvage aesthetic is in part an effect of budgetary constraints, turning necessity into a pedagogical virtue. Nick Kaye, “Architecture for the people: The Rural Studio turns 20,” The Bitter Southerner (2014):

56. Social theorists have argued over the last two decades that the quest for ecologically self-sufficient environments and buildings needs to be understood in relation to the practices of neoliberal governmentality, which also privileges resilience and “going off the grid” both metaphorically and in everyday life, as part of its free market logics. See for example, Leerom Medovoi, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Ecology: Sustainability as Disavowal.” New Formations 69 (2010): 129-143.  The Rural Studio, whose examples and arguments are disseminated far beyond Hale County, both intersect with, and act as (unintended) models for these practices. For an overview of the critical arguments around the relationship between socially engaged architectural practice, informal settlements, and neoliberalism in the global south, see Monica Grubbauer, “In Search of Authenticity: Architectures of social engagement, modes of public recognition, and the fetish of the vernacular,” City, Vol. 21, No. 6 (2017): 789 –799. Grubbauer argues that an emphasis on the transformative capacities of form and construction tend to depoliticize informal settlements, displacing consideration of collective social actions with the agency of authentic “local” form making. These arguments provide a useful comparative framework for rethinking similar claims about design/build in the global north.

57. The Architecture of Decency, p. 7.

58. Ibid.

59. Fred Bernstein, “In Alabama, a poor county is rich in modern architecture,” New York Times (Dec 25, 2005): Bernstein writes that “It’s an open secret that Mr. Mockbee liked to work in Hale County because there is no building code enforcement.” Bernstein’s informative article is written as travel guide to the Rural Studio, with suggestions about how to find the projects, and where to stay.

60. The Architecture of Decency. p. 8. See also Sam Mockbee’s extended interview with Judy Hudson, where he describes the process of acquiring the Harris family as clients for a house provided by the Rural Studio. After initially being directed to them by a social worker at the Department, Mockbee and the students arrived at the Harris’s existing house and offered to build a replacement. The offer was initially rejected, but Mockbee returned with the students to try again: “The students visit these families and then they have to decide which family they’re going to pick….Yeah, it’s tough. All of them are in desperate need of a decent home. So you want to do it for all of them, but we can’t, no money and all that. So you gotta figure out who’s really gonna benefit. And so I said, ‘I’m gonna tell you all something, nobody’s gonna deal with them: no Christian organization, no agency, federal, state or otherwise will consider building these people a house. So, if y’all build them a house, y’all really will be doing something important.’ They went back and they built them that house.” Judy Hudson, “Samuel Mockbee,” Bomb (April 1, 2001):

61. It is useful to measure the changing structure of welfare in Alabama through its capacity to provide housing for its poorest citizens. Alabama currently has a severe affordable housing crisis, with a shortage of over 95,000 units for working families, senior citizens, and individuals on a fixed income. The crisis was intensified by the tornados of April 27, 2011, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported completely destroyed 5800 homes, left 7,300 homes with major damage, and another 15,000 homeowners reporting some level of storm damage. The Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama (LIHCA) argues that the Housing Trust Fund (HTF) (part of the state-administered Alabama Housing Authority) should direct its funds towards constructing and rehabilitating affordable homes. See Lafayette Sun (June 9, 2016):; LIHCA:

The HTF was established in the wake of the 2008 credit crisis, under the terms of the Title I of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. As such it is indirectly the result of the free-market liberalization of the housing market, whose collapse led to the creation of the Recovery Act. A modest $3 million was allocated to Alabama through this fund, far from what would be needed to address the scale of its housing crisis. Other research supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development has shown that the percentage of “worst case needs” renters across the South has been increasingly dramatically—20% between 2007 and 2009 alone—a figure that also reflects the impact of the 2008 crisis on regional housing inequality. See for example Sung-jin Lee, Kathleen R. Parrott and Mira Ahn, “Exploring Housing Challenges of Low-Income Minority Populations in the Southern United,” States Cityscape, Vol. 14, No. 1, American Housing Survey (2012): 73-98.

62. The 20th anniversary of the Rural Studio prompted retrospective discussions in the popular media that comment on the expansion of the creative non-profit sector in Greensboro. See for example, Nick Kaye, “Architecture for the people: The Rural Studio turns 20,” The Bitter Southerner (2014):

63. In 1998/99, four fifth-year women students designed The Hale Empowerment Revitalization Organization (HERO) Children’s Center. By the time of the Rural Studio’s 20th anniversary, HERO was led by Pam Dorr, who attended the Rural Studio as a visitor in 2003 and stayed on, first as an employee and then Executive Director of HERO. She left HERO in 2018, to become a Program Director at Soup, a Menlo Park, CA. non-profit that mobilizes “talented collaborators who use their expertise to break down overwhelming world problems into discrete projects.” See Soup: she was Executive Director of HERO, Dorr arranged for the organization to collaborate with Project M., providing a bunkhouse for blitz participants, and taking on the ownership of Pie Lab. See Rob Walker, “The Heart of Hale County,” Fast Company (January 13, 2014):

64. Steven Heller, “M stands for mobilize. An interview with John Bielenberg,” AIGA. The Professional Association for Design,” (March 17, 2009):

65. John T. Edge, “Pie+Design=Change,” The New York Times (October 8, 2010):; See also the Project M website: The more recent history of the Rural Studio has been recognized by social entrepreneurs and disruptive capitalists. Although Mockbee’s thinking does not appear to have been explicitly aligned with social entrepreneurship frameworks, the Rural Studio’s approach has recently been celebrated as an example of it. See J.P. Faber, “Two schools of thought: Going small, rural and urban,” in The New Pioneers: How Entrepreneurs are Defying the System to Rebuild the Cities and Towns of America, (Dallas, TX: Bella Books, 2017). 

66. Walker, “The Heart of Hale County.”

67. Ibid. Numerous press accounts published at the time of the 20th anniversary of the Rural Studio comment on the shift in direction under Freear. The transition is also described by Andrew Freear in the book he edited at the time, The Rural Studio at 20. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), pp. 23-35; See also Anna Goodman (2014): 51; Freear’s signature initiative is the 20k home project, recently redefined from “20k project to 20k product.” This involves “taking steps to move the projects out of the research area.  This includes activities such as conducting complete architectural reviews, including code review and FHA compliance; discussions of the need, placement and method of completing model homes; and a branding and marketing plan. See “20k Product Line,” The Rural Studio:

68. Mockbee addressed the question of beauty and its centrality to the moral framework of the Rural Studio in an extended interview with Rick Lowe and Octavia Butler, conducted at Sci-Arc in Los Angeles, on September 12, 1996:

For Mockbee, beauty is discovered through processes of intuition and explored through his drawings and paintings, which then inform his design process, and vice versa. The opacity of intuition (both to Mockbee and others) is clear in his Sci-Arc interview, as he struggles to find the right words to describe it and its relation to beauty.

69.Oppenheimer Dean, pp. 4-6.

70. As quoted by Oppenheimer Dean, p. 6.

71. Lawrence Chua, “In Praise of Shadows. The Rural Mythology of Sam Mockbee,” in The Architecture of Decency, p. 163.

72. A subsequent drawing, completed in 1991, soon before Mockbee’s death, features two of the same figures, but Lucy’s daughter now emerges not from a shack but a black, otherworldly silhouette representing John Hejduk, an architect and educator known for his poetic, and personal narratives composed of mythic architectural worlds. The drawing is now titled “The Coronation of the Virgin – 1730 and 2000, 2001.” The Coronation of the Virgin was a genre subject in Italian art from the 13th to the 15th century and perhaps most famously captured in Valazquez’s 1644 painting in which the ascension of Mary to heaven is flanked by God and Jesus, who, in Mockbee’s secularized reworking are replaced by allegorical figures representing John Hejduk, Aldo Rossi and Lucy’s daughter. James Tate, “Architectural Subterfuge,” in Plat (Fall/Winter, 2011): 50-57.

73. Chua, 171

74. Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City. (Cambridge, MA: Opposition Books/MIT Press, 1984).

75. Micha Bandini, “Aldo Rossi,” AA Files, (Winter, 1981-82): 105-111; see also Mary Lou Lobsinger, “That obscure object of desire: Autobiography and repetition in the work of Aldo Rossi,” Grey Room, No. 8 (Summer, 2002): 38-61.

76. Vincent Scully as quoted in Alan Powers, “Obituary. Aldo Rossi.” The Independent (September 16, 1997):

77. Chua, 166.

78. Ibid., 171.

79. Marco Muro, “Christenberry’s Southern Discomfort,” Aperture, No. 145, (Fall, 1996): 76- 78.

80. William Christenberry and Walter Hopps, “Klan Dolls,” Grand Street, No. 44 (1993): 81-95; William R. Ferris and William Christenberry, “‘Those little color snapshots’: William Christenberry, Southern Cultures Vol. 17, No. 2, (Summer, 2011): 61-70.

81. Tre’vell Anderson, “RaMell is seeking ‘visual justice’ for Hale County,” Los Angeles Times (Jan 26, 2018):

82. RaMell Ross, “On South County, Alabama,” New York Times (Jan 28, 2015):

83. Eric Hynes, “Sundance Interview: RaMell Ross,” Film Comment, (Feb 1, 2018):

84. Amy Goodman, “Alabama’s Hale County is subject of poetic documentary on blackness and everyday life in the Black Belt,” [transcript] (January 24, 2018):

85. The Architecture of Decency, p. 116.

86. Patricio Del Real, “Ye Shall Receive. The Rural Studio and the Gift of Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education, (Jan 1, 2009): 123-126.

87. For an historical analysis of the role of convict labor in Birmingham, see Bobby M. Wilson, “America’s Johannesburg and the struggle for civil rights: A critical geography,” Southeastern Geographer, Vol. 42, No. 1. (May 2002): 81-93;, “Not just license plates: 54 products Alabama prisoners get 25 to 50 cents an hour to make,” (April 2, 2017): A nation-wide prison strike took place in the protest prison conditions and forced labor; the strike included W.C Holman prison in Alabama. See Tom Kutsch, “Inmates strike in prisons nationwide over ‘slave labor’ working conditions,” The Guardian (September 9, 2016):

88. World Architects, “Safe House Museum,” Profiles of Selected Architects (Jan. 7 2013):

89. The Safe House Museum of Black History, “The Safe House Museum” (April 12, 2011):

90. Wikipedia, “Sergio Palleroni”:;

Sergio Palleroni, “Preface,” in Sergio Palleroni with Christina Merkelbach, Studio at Large. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. xi-xiii.

91. Ibid., p. 4.

92. Anthony D. King, Writing the Global City: Globalization, Postcolonialism and the Urban (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).

93. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s,” Cultural Critique (Winter 1989-90); John Guillory, Cultural Capital. The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (London and New York: Routledge, 1993); Mark Yount, “The Normalizing Powers of Affirmative Action,” in Mark Yount and John Caputo, eds., Foucault and the Critique of Institutions (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), pp. 191-229.

94. See for example, Muzaffar Chishti, Faye Hipsman, and Isabel Ball, “Fifty Years On, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Continues to Reshape the United States,” Migration Policy Institute (October 15, 2015):; Sarah V. Wayland, “Immigration, Multiculturalism and National Identity in Canada,” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1997): 33-58.

95. Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Charles Taylor and Amy Gutmann, Multiculturalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 26-73.

96. See for example, Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory, Vol. 34, No. 6 (Dec., 2006): 690-714; and Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

97. For an example liberal free-market utopianism, see Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat (London and New York: Macmillan, [2005] 2007); see Alan Scott’s attempt to question the limits of global epistemologies in The Limits of Globalization: Cases and Arguments (Routledge: New York and London, 1997); other important contributions that understand globalization in relation to imperial history and situated social relations include: Jane M. Jacobs, The Edge of Empire (New York and London: Routledge 2002); Aihwa Ong and Stephen Collier (eds.), Global Assemblages. Technology, Politics, Ethics (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Michael Peter Smith, Transnational Urbanism: Locating Globalization (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2007). Globalization theories need to be carefully distinguished from earlier scholarship on imperialism, particularly the research inspired by Ferdnand Braudel and the Annales School, most notably Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system theory. See for example, Immanuel Wallerstein (ed), The Modern World-System in the Longue Durée (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

98. Paul James & Manfred B. Steger,  “A Genealogy of ‘Globalization’: The Career of a Concept,” Globalizations, 11:4 (2014): 417-434.

99. Roland Robertson helped to frame a critical agenda for globalization studies with Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage, 1992), in particular through his arguments about growing nationalism and the relativization of the nation-state. Roland Roberston, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage: 1992).

100. Chris Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 1:2, (1997): 41-65; Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

101. See for example, Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

102. Wolfgang Streek, Buying Time, The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, (London and New York: Verso, 2017).

103. See for example Richard M. Steers, Luciara Nardon, Carlos J. Sanchez-Runde, Management Across Cultures: Developing Global Competencies (Cambridge: CUP, 2016).

104. Both the American Institute of Architects, and the National Architecture Accreditation Board have moved over the last decade to make global practice and education an important part of their respective missions. See: The AIA International Practice Committee, AIA Global Practice Primer, (Washington DC: The AIA, 2016):; The NAAB has brought its policies in line with the larger regulatory bodies that oversee higher education in the U.S. See for example “College Learning for the New Global Century,” (Washington, DC: The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U), 2007).

105. Ernest L. Boyer and Lee Mitgang, A Special Report: Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice, (Stanford, Conn.: The Carnegie Foundation, 1996).

106. Katerina Ruedi, “A Commentary on Architectural Education,” Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Feb., 1998), pp. 148-152.

107. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

108. Sergio Palleroni, “Introduction,” in Sergio Palleroni with Christina Merkelbach, Studio at Large. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 6.

109. Ibid., p. 7.

110. Ibid., p. 6.

111. Ibid., p. 4-5. For a discussion of the politics of scarcity, see Jeremy Till, “Scarcity Contra Austerity,” Places Journal (October 2012):

112. Ibid., p. 7.

113. Ibid., p. 7.

114. Ibid., p. 4-5.

115. Ibid., pp.15-22; For a discussion of the development of the CIVAC Industrial Zone and the broader political economic history of Cuernavaca, see John Tutino, The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 373-74.

116. David Harvey, “Dispatches from the Frontlines: Mexico,” in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 98-104; James M. Cypher and Raul Delgado, Mexico’s Economic Dilemma: The Developmental Failure of Neoliberalism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2011), pp 53-78; Felipe Torres and Agustín Rojas, “Economic and Social Policy in Mexico. Disparities and Consequences,” Problemas del Desarrollo, Vol. 46, No. 182 (July-September 2015):

117. Sweder van Wijnbergen, Mervyn King, Richard Portes, “Mexico and the Brady Plan,” Economic Policy Vol. 6, No.6 (April, 1991):13.

118. Jeffrey Sachs, Aaron Tornell, Andres Velasco, “The Collapse of the Mexican Peso: What Have We Learned?” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 5142, (June 1995):

119. In the Mexican context, neoliberalism was accompanied by a parallel process of democratization, which reached an important turning point in 2000 with end of the 40-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The school system actually received an influx of funding and efforts were made to decentralize and reform its operations. However, the deep-seated influence of the PRI on its administrative structure continued after the PRI was formally removed from power, effectively disabling, and in some cases even reversing the intended reforms. See Claudio A. Holzner, Poverty of Democracy: The Institutional Roots of Political Participation in Mexico (Pittsbugh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010); see also Douglas Hecock, “Democratization, education reform, and the Mexican teacher’s union,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 49, No. 1. (2014): 62-82.

120. For a discussion of remittance transactions and the migration landscapes they foster, see Sarah L. Lopez, The Remittance Landscape: Spaces of Migration in Rural Mexico and Urban USA, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

121. Justa/Just Cause in San Francisco ( has dealt extensively with dispossession and gentrification, and its impact on immigrant communities in the Bay Area. Their report, “Development without Displacement” provides a systematic survey of, and policy response to, gentrification in the Bay Area:

122. Sergio Palleroni, “Escuela San Lucas,” in Sergio Palleroni with Christina Merkelbach, Studio at Large. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 19.

123. Ibid., p. 22. For an overview of the way private foundations shape activist agendas, see Dean Spade’s project site, “Queer Dreams and Non-Profit Blues,”: See also, Tom Barber, “From Moral to Political Economy: The Origins of Modern Philanthropy’s Charitable Feedback Loop,” The Activist History Review (April 21, 2017):; Sangeeta Kamat, “The Privatization of Public Interest: Theorizing NGO Discourse in a Neoliberal Era,” Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Feb., 2004): 155-176.

124. The chronic underfunding and poor condition of the public education system in Mexico has intensified with the structural reforms associated with neoliberalism, starting in the 1980s. A census undertaken by the by the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) as part of the education reform announced in 2013 revealed, amongst other things, that “25% of the basic education [elementary and middle] schools in Mexico are located in installations adapted for teaching facilities and not in buildings specifically constructed for that purpose. Preschool is the education level with the largest number of school plants in that situation (29% in total).” The census also showed that 24% do not have water supply, and 15% do not have chairs for students, amongst other things. See Mexican Voices (April 9, 2014): The corruption in the Mexican school system, closely linked to its chronic underfunding, has also been examined in the English-language popular media. See for example, William Booth, “Mexico’s failing schools spell political trouble,” Washington Post (June 9, 2012):

125. Pierre Bourdieu, “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital.” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed), Soziale Ungleichheiten (Soziale Welt, Sonderheft 2) (Goettingen, Gerany): Otto Schartz & Co.. 1983), pp. 183-98. [translated into English as “Forms of Capital,” See]

126. For example, the Rural Studio has developed an extensive record of publications, media coverage, extending to mass media contexts such as Oprah’s now defunct day-time talk show, prominent national newspapers, biennales and exhibitions in major museums, and two documentary films. In addition to the book I examine closely in this essay, two other edited books have been published about the Rural Studio: Andrew Freear, The Rural Studio at Twenty (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) and Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley, Proceed and be Bold, (New York: Princeton University Press, 2005).

127. For a discussion of the role of cultural capital in architectural education and practice, see: Garry Stevens, The Favored Circle. The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998); Paul Jones, “Putting architecture in its social place: A cultural political economy of architecture,” Urban Studies, Vol. 46 no.12, (Nov., 2009): 2519–2536. For a discussion of labor relations constituted by architectural practice and education, see Penny Deamer (ed), The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, The Creative Class and the Politics of Design (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

128. Rebecca Solnit, “Profile 6: Non-Conforming Uses: Architect Teddy Cruz at the Borders of Tomorrow,” Columbia College Digital Commons (2002):; Center for Architecture, “Teddy Cruz lobbies for change in urban planning process,” (May 5, 2011);Kinsee Morian, “Engaging Architecture,” San Diego City Beat. (May 18, 2011):

129. Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, “Changing practices: Engaging informal public demands,” in Peter Mortenbock, Helge Mooshammer, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Freeman (eds), Informal Market Worlds Reader. The Architecture of Economic Pressure (Rotterdam: Nadio Publishers, 2015), pp. 207-228.

130. Maria Prieto, “From Public Housing to the New Public: The Case of Elemental,” Evolo (June 3, 2010):; Irena Verona, “Elemental Program: Rethinking Low-cost Housing in Chile.” Praxis: Journal of Writing + Building, (8)(2006): 52-57.

131. Spatial Agency, “Johhn Habraken,” See also Bernard Leupen, ‘The Frame and the Changeable Dwelling’, in Frame and Generic Space (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2006), pp. 150-197.

132. Examples of Cruz’s process diagrams appear in Andres Lepik (ed): Small Scale, Big Change. New Architectures of Social Engagement. (New York: MoMA Publishers, 2010), pp. 92-102. Cruz and Forman have also attempted to produce process diagrams for other contexts, notably the space of conflict and negotiation between grassroots organizations and municipal agencies in Medellin during a time when municipal finding was significantly reoriented toward “informal public demands.” The result (though impossible to read in published form) took the form of a relational physical map that visualizes and makes accessible accessible the complexity of Medellin’s political and civic processes, including unorthodox cross-institutional collaborations and processes of urban public management that synergized community-based agencies, university research and the municipal government, as well as civic philanthropy.” Cruz and Forman, 219-220.

133. Katie Stohr, “Financing sustainable community development,” in Deborah Aaronson (ed), Design Like You Give a Damn [2], (New York: Abrams, 2012), pp. 48-75.

134. Kelsey Campbell Dollaghan, “Architecture for Humanity was wholesale looting restricted funds, suit alleges,” Co.Design, (July 13, 2016):; see also Robin Progrebin, “A leader in socially conscious architecture is closing amid financial woes,” New York Times (January 17, 2015):

135. There has been extensive debate around Richard Florida’s concept of the creative class, which was quickly instrumentalized as a “trickle-down” development strategy that tends to privilege well-educated urban professionals, and rationalize on going processes of gentrification and urban entrepreneurialism in an apolitical language of creativity and innovation. See Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, (New York: Basic Books, 2003), and The Rise of the Creative Class. Revisited, Revised and Expanded (New York: Basic Books, 2014). The criticisms of Florida’s arguments are by this point widespread and well established. See for example, Steven Malanga, “The Curse of the Creative Class” City Journal, (Winter 2004):; Ocean Howell, “The Creative Class and the Gentrifying City: Skateboarding in Phildelphia’s Love Park,” Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Nov., 2005), pp. 32-42. And for a critique of Florida’s mea culpa following the publication of the 2014 edition of his book, Sam Wetherell, “Richard Florida is Sorry,” in The Jacobin, (August 19, 2017):; The repositioning of social capital within social entrepreneurship debates arguably began with Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Touchstone, 2001). The concept appears to have developed within a liberal framework that excludes the parallel history of the term in Marxist thought, a bifurcation that explains how its instrumentality in “creative capital” debates could take place. The attempt to reclaim and mobilize the social capital of marginalized groups has emerged as one of the central problematics of community-based placemaking that involve collaborations with artists. See for example, Mariel Valeré, “The Queer Urbanism of Theaster Gates,” Omnibus (May 16, 2014):