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A collage of skyscrapers and people Sunra Thompson

It’s Time for Architects to Accept Responsibility

As a profession, we don’t all talk about our role in redlining. We don’t talk about equitable resource allocation. We have been complicit in warehousing people.

Architecture is about more than buildings. As a field, it plays a key role in the health, safety, and welfare of the public — or at least it should. Craig L. Wilkins — one of the most prolific writers about spatial justice and winner of the National Design Award for his scholarship on Black architects and spaces — believes architects have neglected these societal responsibilities. At a moment when people are taking to the streets to protest structural racism, he questions why the field doesn’t have a moral imperative akin to medicine’s Hippocratic oath and argues that the lack of one has contributed to the violence and harm against Black and brown communities. He resists and rejects prescribing a course of action for the industry but calls for an urgent reckoning from individuals and organizations.

“We can figure all of this out, but we can’t figure it out until we own our responsibility,” says Wilkins, who is a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and just completed a position at the University of Oregon College of Design as a visiting professor of practice in design for spatial justice. “There has to be some statement that architects don’t just work for the highest bidder, that we’re not just selling ourselves.”

I see today’s moment in the movement for Black lives as an inevitable moment. The signs have been here for the longest time — at least for someone who thinks about politics, space, race, environmental justice, and design from a social perspective.

Space is life. It really is. A healthy life, healthy food choices, leisure activity, clean air, job opportunities, transportation — all those things come from being able to access the benefit of space. So when you begin to curtail people’s access to space — whether it’s through redlining, overt police surveillance, running utility and transportation infrastructure directly through neighborhoods, poisoning the ground, having covenants that don’t allow folks to move — you restrict the access to live your best life. And these things continue to pile on, and on, and on. At some point, you are going to get massive pushback, and that’s where we are now.

Right now, the current question being bandied about within architecture is: What can we do? Then, architects sort of tinker around the edges — we do a little bit of what’s uncomfortable, but nothing that’s too uncomfortable — just as we have always done. There’s a failure of the profession to acknowledge its role in setting fire to the streets.

A portrait of a Black man with plastic-frame glasses and a white beard. He is sitting in an ornate chair against a backdrop of books.
Craig L. Wilkins believes architecture lacks a strong social contract, which means a promise to champion and safeguard a common interest. He is the author of Aesthetics of Equity and Diversity Among Architects.
Courtesy Craig Wilkins

We’ve seen this movie before. Whitney Young Jr., in his speech to the American Institute of Architects over 50 years ago, said the same thing. So, for me, the question isn’t: What can architecture as a profession do? The better question is: What is the nature of the profession? Why is it that other professions understand their role and duty to promote the well-being of the public, but architecture does not? This is the question we need to ask, because if we did understand our role and our duty, the streets would not be on fire.

Architects are on the front line of space. We’re the experts on space, and we’re supposed to use that expertise for the betterment of everyone, not just our clients. If we understood that role, things might be different.

Other professions have acknowledged a duty to protect the public, and they’ve created infrastructure to fulfill that duty and pass that responsibility down. Take the medical profession: They have the Hippocratic oath.

The American Medical Association put out a Black Lives Matter statement that pointed out the victims of racism and also the systemic manner in which we’ve reached this place and the role of doctors contributing to the problem. The best the AIA president was able to come up with was “Everyone deserves universal respect and human dignity.” What the fuck is that? How is that going to change anything? It’s the tired trope of “All Lives Matter.” We’re not talking about all lives right now; we’re talking about the Black ones that are having an issue in the spaces that architects designed for money. That’s what we’re talking about. [Editor’s note: The AIA board of directors issued a statement soon after that addressed systemic racism.] If you read the AIA code of ethics, it’s all about how not to go to jail and how not to sully the name of the architect. It’s not about having a higher calling or higher duty.

Why do we only think about justice when there is a crisis? It should be fundamental to our work as architects. You don’t have to march in the street. It’s not about the news cycle; it’s not the spectacle. It’s about how you practice in a just and equitable way every day. You have to have equity and justice as part of your thinking.

I always come back to this quote from James Baldwin: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” So if you tell me that, “You know, I really do take equity into consideration,” and you’re still designing prisons, I don’t believe you. If you’re still working with developers who steer their clients to banks that won’t loan to certain people, who will use predatory loans, or who won’t participate in the Community Reinvestment Act, I don’t believe you’re practicing in an ethical manner.

As a profession, we don’t all talk about our role in redlining. We don’t talk about equitable resource allocation, or argue for or against it. We don’t talk enough about the increased privatization of public space. We have been complicit in the design of public housing, which was nothing but warehousing people, when we knew better. And if we didn’t know better, we should have. And what’s the result of that? Whole generations of people have been lost because they were confined to spaces that we designed, and we keep refusing to acknowledge and own up to that.

When you can’t barbecue and your kid can’t set up a lemonade or water stand outside your own home, whose lives on the street are we caring about and talking about exactly? The refusal to accept our responsibility and act accordingly is a tacit agreement to allow these practices to continue. And these practices target Black and brown bodies specifically. It’s our job, our responsibility, our duty to be that voice in the boardroom, in the policy room, in the public with clients, with each other, to fight racism.

There’s a perception in architecture that if I don’t have a client, I can’t be of public use. But of course you can: Get the mayor’s ear, sit in on city-council meetings, educate the public about the built environment. This isn’t just a service industry. Architects are professionals, and there are responsibilities that come with that. You are not allowed to just hoard all your information and expertise and use it on people who pay for it.

When it comes to the question of: What kind of things should we be doing? What does it look like? I want to resist answering. What happens is, first of all, we’re asking the victim to educate the victimizers, and I think that’s just victimizing a person all over again. What also happens is that you put out these 20 points of things that need to be done, present it to an organization, and they look at it and they go, “Okay, we’ll do three. And then the other 17? We’ll just forget about them.” The organization still gets to pick and choose, and if those three don’t work out, it will say, “Well, we tried, and it didn’t work.” So the organization will just go back to business as usual; all that happened because it didn’t do the work.

I can’t tell you how many calls, emails, and texts I’ve received from people saying, “We’re sitting down and thinking about this moment, and Black lives, and the urban condition. Can you come talk?” No! I can’t, because it’s not my job to educate you. There are tons of materials available. Educate yourself. Do the work. I’m not going to do it for you. I’m too busy trying to live.

Then there’s the person who says, “I am just one person. I can’t do this,” or “I have an office to run.” You can effect change in your office with your clients. It’s not hard to ask your client who their banker is and say, “I can work with you on this project, but I won’t work with you if this bank is involved because they extract from communities; they don’t add. There are other banks.”

You get to ride a wave of change that doesn’t come around very often. You won’t be able to create this wave by yourself, but you have the opportunity to put your words into action because there is momentum. This is the time. This is the moment.