Citizen Architects: Ethics, Education and the Construction of a Profession, 1933-2013

Anna G. Goodman (UC Berkeley)

My research considers the idea of the citizen architect as an evolving concept in the twentieth-century United States. Specifically, it traces how a form of hands-on and outreach education called “community design-build” shapes architects’ ethical and political identities. Community design-build is an umbrella term for programs in which architectural educators lead students into disadvantaged areas to physically construct designs for community use. American architectural educators argue that in this “win-win” scenario, students master building techniques while aiding a neglected population. The pairing of physical labor and social values, in a profession not known for either, defies standard accounts of the nature of architects’ ethical commitments. Most writing on community design-build focuses on either the benefit of programs for student learning or the positive impacts of projects on the lives of individuals and communities. I instead ask what motivates architects to pursue this mode of practice at specific historical and geographic moments, and what types of politics are practiced as design students encounter poor others. Drawing from social histories of welfare in the United States and feminist readings of political economy, the project considers three significant cases of design-build education from the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. In so doing, it demonstrates that architects’ humanitarian commitments arise in cycles as responses to shifts in national attitudes towards race, inequality and work. Architects’ reflexive response to what they perceive as periodic crises of nation and profession consists of a celebration of the physical labor of construction and an emphasis on communal spaces and experiences. Professionals and educators understand the practice of “building together” as an alternative to and critique of both capitalist development and state-sponsors social welfare programs. Yet, their alternative practices often reproduce normative dynamics. They elevate architects’ voices over those for whom they build, support a narrow range of acceptable critical positions and, ultimately, obscure the structural conditions that produce the crises into which they intervene. In short, the “can-do” attitude that empowers students and volunteers diverts attention from the efforts of marginalized groups whose individual and collective contributions to alternative political visions are left unacknowledged in the citizen architect narrative.

Architects’ ethical commitments, and specifically community design-build, connect to a larger landscape of humanitarian engagements and religious affinities through their performative nature. Rather than working from ideological standpoints, design-build programs allow architects to practice ethics by placing their bodies in foreign territories and then performing “service” in these spaces. This type of humanitarian engagement is familiar from Christian missionaries, early twentieth-century work camps in the United State and Europe, Peace Corps volunteers beginning in the 1960s and the ubiquitous service learning trips that shape the identities of today’s youth. Structural critiques focused on traditional notions of political economy or those that diametrically oppose top-down and grassroots practices cannot sufficiently explain this persistent decentralized humanitarianism. Critiques of these types of practices often center on the problem of “parachuting” into unfamiliar and inappropriate contexts and volunteers’ failure to deliver on promised material or social gains for locals. These can be powerful correctives to the egoism of “do-gooders,” but they often miss the larger stories of the pushes and pulls that drive middle-class individuals to enact their social consciences in this manner. More productive insights come by way of analyses focused on the practice of the self, the production of identity and the everyday politics that take place between specific groups and individuals. These types of analyses, of which I consider my own, demonstrate surprising affinities between the religious and secular, across race and class and among individuals with seemingly opposite worldviews. As a starting point for re-imagining the role of the volunteer, the beneficiary and the scholar herself, a focus on humanitarian ethics reframes all three as participants in a performance across difference. The acknowledgement of this performance is the first step in understanding the meaning of oppositional and collaborative politics in practice.

Advertisements

Melissa M. Brough, “‘Fair Vanity’: The Visual Culture of Humanitarianism in the Age of Commodity Activism” in Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser (New York University Press, 2012), pp. 174-194.

In her contribution to this exciting and necessary collection, Brough explores the production and use of media in the humanitarian sector through a study of Invisible Children. Her study sketches out the field of Western Humanitarianism and its construction of donors and receivers, with consideration of both Christian and neoliberal underpinnings of the endeavour.