Only here for so long: understanding what antifascist architecture could mean

By Alhelí Harvey

It’s a rainy morning in Austin, Texas. The kind of morning where the mugginess outside seems to creep in under the door, around the window frame, smothering the walls; it feels like a climatological manifestation of this state’s malice towards people. Anyone with a womb and without a wallet is a target, and anyone can be their bounty hunter. 1 Haitian migrants are literally stranded under a bridge, only to be brutalized by the Customs and Border Patrol; 2 this assemblage of goons on horses is the direct descendants of the Texas Rangers, one of the most openly racist police forces this “Empire of Maladies” has ever devised. 3  I tap a video on Instagram: “There was a fire last night…” and see that a stage in the center of a community that looks like a cross between a set from The Smurfs and a 1970s summer camp is a pile of ash. As the video presents the facts of the fire, we see that the community is a series of cabins (referred to as “cobbins”) under an overpass (US Interstate 880). This place is Cob on Wood– referring both to the earthen community space’s literal material and its location on Wood Street. It is as much makeshift as it is tactical: in the face of multiple failures by Oakland, California, and the country, unhoused residents and their collaborators created what has been described as an “eco-oasis” in under a year. 4

Cob on Wood has a health clinic, a hot shower, and a community kitchen. Residents make shelters on their own from a material that is both cheap and effective: cob, a weather-resistant mixture of soil, clay, sand, and straw. Similar to adobe, cob has been used all over the world and is highly durable. In many ways, the community is an example of architecture without architects. In one sense, Cob on Wood is a manifestation of a collective response to an urgent need for both housing and resources. The methods for its building came about through a collaborative process rarely seen in capital A- architecture. These details, while laudable and certainly inspiring models for different building approaches, just as easily point toward the inadequacy of architectural practices, understandings, and relationships as they are widely practiced by the trade and discipline itself. 

The mission, or rather inclination, of an antifascist architecture must always be in opposition to architectural practices and labor as tools of capitalist abstraction and accumulation. To be an antifacist means to also be committed to a divestment from the institutions that stabilize moral turpitude under capitalism. As an industry, architecture is historically a tool of settler-colonial expansion. As a specialized trade, architecture is inherently tied to a project of capital production and labor. As a discipline, architecture is entrenched in the political and philosophical enterprises of domination through spatial configurations. While a global practice, it would be intellectually disingenuous to behave as though anything but the Western, specifically European ideas about what and how to build, have considerably shaped how architectural institutions (both schools and firms) operate— and when designers vary from these established forms they suddenly find themselves “unclassifiable” or derided as “tacky” (Bolivia’s Freddy Mamani, for instance). 

Currently, there is no way to have a “decolonial” architecture under the current practices in building trades. A decolonial architecture cannot happen on unceded occupied land. With construction industries contributing to 32 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, it is also clear that building more is not the answer, nor is tearing it down. This ecological impact was discussed at length by critics and popular commentators when last year’s Pritzker Prize was awarded to French firm Lacaton & Vassal. 5 The firm is renowned for work that quite literally “transforms” social housing, taking into account the desires of residents as guiding principles. If an award-winning firm can do this, the issue at hand is a lack of willingness. That lack is a symptom of the building industry’s internal configuration as a capitalist enterprise. The market is designed to encourage building practices that are wasteful, unsustainable, and expensive. In effect, the awardees did not build anything new, a departure from the architectural establishment’s status quo which tends to reward and celebrate Starchitects and new builds.

Anti-colonial architectural practices exist the world over, however. Cob on Wood, as an organic manifestation of need, and Lacaton & Vassal’s redesigning practices are just examples situated at opposite ends of a long-standing tradition in opposition to dominant architectural attitudes and tendencies. While I do not think that either would openly think of themselves as anticolonial, the relationships with their spaces and inhabitants speak to a reorientation of relationships that acknowledge the primary function of shelter as being about occupants having dignity, pleasure, with natural light in their homes. Briefly, they both seek to preserve meaningful relationships with place through collaborative building practice. We are only here for so long, so to create only to tear down tells us about our priorities and how unsustainable they are. 

Throughout the Southwest, adobe architectural practices have been stewarded by families, mixture ratios passed down and shared as recipes. Late in September, I participated in an adobe art installation for New Mexican sculptor and adobera Joanna Keane Lopez and  co-lead by adobero Issac Logsdon. What struck me as Lopez spoke of the earthen material was how her artistic practice was greatly informed by her familial home. While adobe is durable, adaptable, ecologically sound, and relatively affordable as a material it also requires attention to detail, maintenance and care. In some ways, the structures it builds are alive. The earthen brick “breathes”: clay expands when wet, and contracts when dry. These natural reactions shape the bricks’s vapor permeability (how well water vapor travels through it), making it ideal for the arid climate of the desert. In northern New Mexico’s oldest adobe communities, the landscape itself dictates the materials in the dirt used to build these structures, in turn shaping the communal relationship to the raw earthen source. If a new material is added, it could be rejected by the house depending on reactions between materials. Relationships are a crucial part of the building process and of a building’s life span: from the start of the brick-making process to the final plastering, and each adobe community has its own techniques and sites for soil and clay harvesting, and the “health” of a building is often an indicator of the community’s well being. If no one is around to replaster the wall using the traditional methods, it can (and it will) fall apart.

In many cases, what happens is that the processes of displacement have left adobe buildings as sites where Western preservation or commercial building practices have intervened, often without any traditional adobe knowledge. The incompatibility of these practices is such that the effort to “restore” an adobe structure is often the very thing that causes further destruction to it.  One frequent example, known as “honeycombing,” happens when a cement mortar is used with adobe brick, rather than an earthen mortar. What ensues is a process of erosion within the wall: the cementitious mortar is softer than adobe brick, and it begins to break up the brick. This is also due to the incompatibility of the cement and the earthen composition of adobe. The adobe begins to hollow itself out, crumbling inside out around the mortar, which produces the texture that gives it the appearance of honeycomb.

Another frequent issue is exterior delamination, which is when cement stucco flakes off the wall. Both concrete mortar and cement stucco uses Portland cement as a binder. Both earth and cement react differently to water, heat, and cement cannot bond to the earthen bricks. Abode and earthen plasters however, do connect on a physical level: the platelet structure and electromagnetic charge of the clays bind the earthen plaster to the adobe bricks naturally. Cement stucco requires using 3-4 inch long masonry nails to hold up wire mesh because the cement stucco does not bond with the adobe naturally.  Builders must rely on the nails to hold up the wire mesh that cages the outside of the building in their attempts to insure getting the stucco on. The nails themselves however, run the risk of rusting out inside of the bricks, creating erosion inside and then spreading to the mesh.  This stucco essentially is then only the shape of a wall— it hides the internal damages created by the masonry nails, and any  other issues caused by incompatible materials on the underlying brick. Rather symbolically, the use of cement stucco was something that was brought about during the twentieth century, as Anglo boosters sought to craft their vision of a “Far Away Near By.” It hides not only the damage done to the building, but also its extent under a smoothed, but ultimately suffocating facade. Adobe buildings that have earthen mortars and plasters show their wounds on the outside, alerting the community to what is going on and how to remedy it immediately. Because of this degree of required maintenance and ongoing care, a structural break in an adobe house points to one of two things: a break in the family relationship to the house or a break with the land that house is on. Both breaks represent a rupture in placed based knowledge.

When I think about most of our built world, I imagine suburbs, strip malls, satellite towns, shopping centers, financial districts, court houses, monuments, cemeteries and other locations that get chopped up into one movie montage. Buildings do not have political orientations in and of themselves, but they reflect what we do value. Design can only tell us so much: who is inside the building, as well as who has a relationship to the building, tells us much more about its orientation and about how that place shapes our relationship with our environments. 

Architecture, as an industry dedicated to the production of commodities, must work to secure the following relationships :

  1. Architecture as Asset: facilitates how Architecture is a commodity of rich use to launder their money in public. Buildings lose their function as shelters and are seen purely as opportunities for investment.
  2. Architecture as Marvelous Apparition: The workers that build the designs of the Architect are also (human) capital. The Building abstracts the labor required to bring it into existence.
  3. Architect as God: The Architect is a romanticized figure of status who is endowed with privileged knowledge of world making, forming, and mastery of space.The Architect is the only one who can properly distinguish between shape and form, place and space, concrete and abstract. 

An antifascit architecture would seek to reject and actively undermine these relationships, requiring a shift away from the privileged status of the Architect, exploitative labor practices, and relationships that only value buildings as commodities. We cannot design or build our way into a somehow less violent world order without changing our relationship to labor, to housing, to land. Rejecting the false separation of urban, rural, and even that bizarre middle ground known as suburbia begins with reconsidering who and what we are even building for and how we create and approach the built world. The popular refrain “people over profit” also means turning away from the idea that property ownership is a requisite consideration for Personhood. Understanding that this credo is not just about providing solutions for the already vulnerable and marginalized but should be a priority applied across the board: everyone has a right to a home. Antifacist architecture must purposefully reject the notion that property-based status is even worthy of attainment. This does not mean that I am advocating for austere uniformity. It means that the relationship between person and property should not be understood as being a factor in an individual’s value.

Early in the pandemic, I decided to revisit places via film. Grey Gardens (1975, dir. Albert and David Maysels) follows Jackie O’s estranged cousin Edie Beale and her mother, Edith, after a national scandal involving the dilapidated state of their mansion home (which provides the film’s title) in Long Island. The film is also a story about the failures of what whiteness promises, problematic documentary styles, and the horror of being isolated on terms that are not your own. Grey Gardens (place and film) is neoliberalism par excellence, and this is crystal clear in a scene towards the end. Sunbathing on the creaky, empty estate, Edie screams and cries about a marriage proposal. The imagined life it promised for Edie ended when the proposal mysteriously evaporated. Her mother, somewhere off camera but near enough to listen, chimes in: “It wasn’t true! It wasn’t true!” Edie leaves the room in a storm of quiet anger, swelling with shame having been newly baptized a liar. She enacts her own exile, picking up trousers, fussing with their form, muttering to anyone and no one: “How could such a sweet, warm woman turn into something so cold?” The camera remains, silent and waiting for her answer: “… and I thought that was just too much.” She is talking about her mother, or possibly herself, but she could just as easily be referring to Grey Gardens, and the contradictory image the house and her life in it represent to her. 

The major detail of Grey Gardens that gets me every time is that the dilapidated estate is what brings media attention to Edie and her mother in the first place. It’s that they failed to be proper custodians of the house and the whiteness it represented: they failed to cash in on the wages of whiteness, as DuBois put it. They failed to protect the status the estate was meant to ensure: Jackie O.’s charitable efforts to restore the house had everything to do with performing a cosmetic repair of the estate. To “fix up” Grey Gardens was to insure it, if we want to be playful. By “fixing” the house, the socialite could further distance herself from her already estranged relatives, and more importantly: from their failure to live up to the expectations of status. Jackie O’s capital could maintain the “integrity” of Grey Gardens, silencing the HOA’s complaints and by extension, muffling the “idiosyncratic” Edie and her mother. When white monied places do not perform their assumed functions, or when their custodians do not exercise their role, they become oddities: places or people that can be salvaged, corrected, cosmetically re-adjusted. The house is a stand-in for the people who live there, but we are never encouraged to consider the material or social conditions of, say, maintaining such a property. A break in the family, a break in the land.

Because the inherent internal contradictions of capitalism require it to constantly reproduce itself, innovate, dress itself up in different ways that can enable it to reproduce the systems and abstractions that keep it moving, various crises are manufactured. As a result of this process, class struggle (the nature of it, the how of it) is always given, never chosen. The “Housing Crisis” is not simply about inflated rents, or over- and under-building. One part of the large puzzle is with the relationship to the labor that creates our unequal landscapes. Undocumented workers make up 13 percent of consutruction jobs in the U.S. (1.4 million workers) alone; this figure does not include workers involved in the  landscaping, sanitation, and maintenance of the spaces built. 6 These workers find themselves in the crosshairs of physically demanding labor that is grossly undercompensated, and precarious due to their status as migrants. What is likely as well, is that these workers participate in global remittances and their own networks of community solidarity and care as a direct result of their experiences that led them to migrate; these are the political contexts that are often invibilized as part of larger myths of U.S. exceptionalism.

 Class alliances are about maintaining or modifying the given choices provided by capitalism, and an antifascist architecture would recognize the urgent need to radically change those choices. A defining fact of US life is that privileges exist in direct relation to the exploitation of others and we are trapped in the unfruitful limbo of knowing that nobody really deserves what they do and do not have. My greatest fear in this pandemic is that as a result of our enclosure we will come to rely on our privileges to the point where we will be blinded to how those comforts come at a great cost. The collaborators of Cob on Wood provide one example of how a built environment can indeed come together out of a collective solidarity, a firm rejection of the comforts of individualism. As I watched the Instagram video of the fire’s destruction of the shared space, the various scenes were dotted with optimistic captions flanked by star and sprout emojis: “this is a reminder that every day is a chance to build something new.” I think about who and what I claim as I watch how Edie rejected the people around her, but not her belief that Grey Gardens— her property, privilege, status— would give her everything she wanted. 7 Buildings, when built well, cannot give us more than shelter. They cannot give us relationships, but they can house them, foster them, provide a place to anchor ourselves and the people who make our world. Who claims me? And who will? I cannot imagine a future, much less an antifascist one, unless there is an intentionality behind who and what we claim.

[1] Feuer, Alan. “The Texas Abortion Law Creates a Kind of Bounty Hunter. Here’s How it Works.” The New York Times. September 10, 2021.

[2] Chappel, Bill. “Haitian Migrants Have Now Been Cleared From Del Rio Border Camp, U.S. Says.” September 24, 2021.

[3]  Estes, Nick. “The Empire of All Maladies.” July 2020.

[4] Marcus, Josh. “Unhoused people in Oakland built an eco-oasis during the pandemic– but may soon get evicted.” The Independent. July 30, 2021.

[5] See: Miranda, Carolina. “Pritzker Prize goes to French anti-starchitects who bring life to old buildings.” The Los Angeles Times. March 16, 2021. 2021.

Wainwright, Oliver. “ ‘Sometimes the answer is to do nothing’: unflashy French duo take architecture’s top prize.” The Guardian. March 16, 2021.

Vogiatzaki, Maria. “Lacaton and Vassal: how this year’s Pritzker prize could spark an architectural revolution.” The Conversation. April 7, 2021.

[6]  Montecinos, Claudia. “Release: Millions of Undocumented Immigrants are Essential to America’s Recovery, News Report Shows.” Center for American Progress. December 2, 2020.

[7] I would like to acknowledge how this particular line of inquiry is inspired by a presentation given by Kim TallBear in the spring of 2018 at the University of Texas at Austin. I think about this question almost daily since then.