Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

In September, Rem Koolhaas stood in front of a bunch of mayors and experts convened in Brussels for the High Level Group meeting on Smart Cities and called them dumb. Not dumb as in stupid, per se, but as these proponents champion a positivist approach they are mute on the real challenges of contemporary cities and deaf to the role of the architect as a shaper of the urban realm.

In the edited transcript of the talk posted online at the European Commission on 3 November, Koolhaas starts out swinging. “I had a sinking feeling as I was listening to the talks by these prominent figures in the field of smart cities because the city used to be the domain of the architect, and now, frankly, they have made it their domain,” he begins, setting up his tweetable one-two punch. “This transfer of authority has been achieved in a clever way by calling their city smart — and by calling it smart, our city is condemned to being stupid.”

As Koolhaas’ talk progressed, he critiqued notions of livability, pleasant sloganeering, and innovation rhetoric as strategies on the part of governments and corporations for consolidating control and capital: “A new trinity is at work: traditional European values of liberty, equality, and fraternity have been replaced in the 21st century by comfort, security, and sustainability.”

When I read these remarks in late November, the text struck me simultaneously as a refreshing rejoinder aimed at top officials — finally some backlash at the coming technotopia — and a retread of 1960s political thought. In short, a Koolhaasian cocktail of influence, cynicism, and nostalgic radicalism. “When the market economy took hold at the end of the 1970s, architects stopped writing manifestos,” he laments.

And then, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, came the grand jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson who shot to death an unarmed Mike Brown on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by outrage, protest, and unrest. Images of Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue aflame filled the news. Protesters in Los Angeles blocked traffic on the 110 Freeway and in Oakland storefront windows were smashed.

Koolhaas had asked: “Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression?” It’s here. And it’s in the ongoing protests across the country — New York, Seattle, Washington DC, Detroit, and Chicago — in the wake of the rising anger over race and police violence sparked by the cases of Eric Garner and Mike Brown.

On Wednesday, the night before families across the United States come together in gratitude around a table, I found myself with my parents in a restaurant in Downtown Oakland — an upscale, white-tablecloth place in a renovated Art Deco building a few blocks from where protests were held the nights before.

After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, this neighbourhood was a ghost town. Many of the historic buildings needed expensive retrofits and local businesses moved away. Over 25 years, the neighbourhood has slowly gentrified, fuelled in part by the changing demographics brought on by the region’s tech boom. Causa Justa, an Oakland housing advocacy group, and the Alameda County Public Health Department, reported in September that from 1990 to 2011 the African American population in Oakland dropped by half. In Oakland, a place which suffered the 2009 death of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer, anger and grief go hand in hand with displacement.

As we were finishing our entrees, police motorcycles streamed by on the street outside the bustling restaurant. A few police officers became a phalanx. When the restaurant manager walked outside and locked the door, the place hushed.

My father, a UC Berkeley grad who was arrested in the Free Speech Movement protests of the 1960s, pushed back his chair and went to the window. Later, he would report he counted some 30 white vans each holding six to eight officers in riot gear. (The San Francisco Chronicle the next day reported 150 protesters, but not the number of officers.) My Bronx-raised mother unlocked the door and walked out to take photos with her phone.

And I sat frozen over our uncleared plates. Dumb. Furious at the overabundant force and shaken by a mirror held to my own privilege and comfort. My everyday is not framed by an intimidating relationship with the police and security structures.

In the days that followed, I struggled to decipher what all these events meant for architects and urban designers. Artists responded immediately with works and actions. Damon Davis’ striking black and white posters went up along West Florissant Avenue, wheat-pasted across plywood-boarded storefronts — the liquor stores and laundromats that took the brunt of rioting. Depicting the “hands up” gesture made by Brown before he was shot, they quickly become a unifying graphic and sign of resilience.

In New York City, Willing Participant, a participatory art group that “whips up urgent poetic responses to crazy shit that happens”, organised an action called “disarm”. According to three of the group’s ringleaders, Niegel Smith, Ben Weber, and Todd Shalom, the action directly engages the police in conversation in the hopes of making visible the humanity of both the police and citizens. Pairs of participants were encouraged to approach police officers around Times Square and start a conversation with the question: “Where can I go to find some peace and quiet around here?”

For Smith, Weber, and Shalom, their event was a counterpoint to the protests that opened up more avenues for expressing opinions and for dialogue. “Willing Participant creates smaller-scale work that is generally aligned with the politics behind larger protests, but chooses to use methods that are quieter, more intimate and that highlights the poetic,” they explained over email. “This form works best for us because we’re coming from poetry, theatre and performance. We strive to take the energy of the protest into the performative response form, which plays to our strengths and invites others into an alternative way to communicate and reveal their concerns.”

#Blacklivesmatter protesters marched and staged “die-ins” at sites of iconic architecture: the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Terminal, the glass-cube Apple Store on Fifth Avenue. Still, the design community remained largely mute.

Architecture as a practice sits at the juncture of hegemonic structures and the community it serves. It’s an uncomfortable position and architecture’s social agenda is often viewed as a failure when compared to its formalist counterpart. At times it seems easier to retreat into academia or simply pick one side of the spectrum: tactical urbanism or Dubai high-rises, senior centres or luxury condos, community-based processes or computation. Polarisation, however, hurts the whole discipline.

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street and Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests sparked the publication of a spate of architectural texts on the use of public space, the rise of a democratic network culture, and the rethinking of public policy. Perhaps some processing time will produce something similar this time around. Indeed, there is a growing interest in the political as an area of architectural thought.

Recently the Architectural Association hosted the event How is Architecture Political? It featured political theorist Chantal Mouffe in conversation with a quartet of top architectural thinkers: Pier Vittorio Aureli, Reinhold Martin, Ines Weizman and Sarah Whiting. But the deaths of black citizens in New York, Florida, California, Missouri, and others, have yet to incite architectural discourse.

Mitch McEwen, a professor of architecture and urban design at Taubman College of Architecture and Planning at University of Michigan, penned the 2012 Huffington Post article “What Does Trayvon’s Shooting Mean for Architects and Urbanists?” In the piece she outlined how the toxic combination of America’s “stand your ground” laws combined with architectural elements such as gated communities and exclusionary housing lead to inequality and violence.

“When 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury was shot in 2004 in his own neighbourhood, on the rooftop of a Brooklyn apartment building, the architecture community did not seem to notice,” she wrote at the time. “With the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the worlds of architecture and urbanism cannot afford to hear no evil/see no evil this time. You may think you’ve heard enough about Trayvon Martin, but this tragedy is not a ‘hot topic’. It is a lever in American history, like the death of Emmett Till — a pivotal moment when irreconcilable narratives of this country collide.”

What about this time? I asked her. At first, McEwen pointed me back to her text where she rallied designers to take on issues of race, violence, and inequality with the same attention that is given to other problems outside the direct scope of architecture, such as climate change or stormwater run-off. And then she weighed in:

“Architects and urban designers can take the #BlackLivesMatter campaign as an opportunity to look deeply into the ways that the tools of the discipline have been defined through attempts to erase black people from American cities,” she said. “I don’t mean ‘in conjunction with’, but actually the tools of the discipline emerging through the very acts of controlling, erasing, and displacing black bodies.”

These are embedded structural issues that need to be addressed within architecture and design from all sides. Body cameras are not the solution, nor are the smart, tech-centric urban fixes they represent. Koolhaas may have noted that we are past the time of manifestos, but that’s no reason to play dumb.