As Heather Davis and Zoe Todd remind us, human-induced environmental damage is not a recent event, but a continuation of colonialism and its “practices of dispossession and genocide, coupled with a literal transformation of the environment, that have been at work for the last five hundred years.” Building, land use, and urbanization have been instruments of this global expansion of colonialism, modernization and capitalism, contributing to the loss of diverse human cultures and their traditions, as well as the diversity of the Earth’s ecologies that had been home to those societies. As the geographer Kathryn Yusoff writes: “The Anthropocene as a new rendering of time, subjectivity and agency announces both a break in and consolidation of modernity’s temporal arc.” Could the present moment of reckoning be a potential turning point?
In the 2021-22 academic year, we encouraged a group of thesis students in Undergraduate Architecture at the Pratt Institute in New York to imagine what this turning point could perhaps look like. Together we investigated a different role for design through a series of overlapping inquiries:
1. How can we understand socio-economic reparations in spatial terms?
Sites for spatial reparations are those characterized by multiple forms and scales of violence that have affected human societies and the shared environment of both humans and other species. Addressing these sites requires a long and critical view of history, and an understanding of what sustains or damages life in the complex relationships between all animate beings.
2. What are the temporal scales of repair at which design can operate?
Our group worked with overlapping notions of time: the longue durée of human habitation and cultures, the relatively short history of European expansion and modernization, and the slow violence of environmental toxicity and multi-generational human trauma. What sort of temporal response does the possibility of reparations require?
3. How do we identify instances of slow violence and actively address them?
Environmental damage is often not perceivable. Rob Nixon uses the term “slow violence” to describe the invisible, incremental damage that disproportionately affects disadvantaged populations, not just in space but also over time. This includes the erasure of cultures through gradual uninhabitability and toxicity. We examined ways to identify and represent this violence, create accountability, and resist the idea that it is “inevitable”.
4. Can we think of care as the primary purpose of our large-scale infrastructural, mid-scale urban, and small-scale community building?
The Covid-19 pandemic has made the need to acknowledge our mutual interdependence and vulnerabilities more urgent than ever. In our current social environments, great attention is paid to the legal and productive body of the citizen, but little protection is provided for the physical body and the psyche. We believe care needs to be valued and shared; this needs to be done at multiple scales and challenged through multiple platforms. How can we identify and address institutional and structural trauma, and spatialize places of healing? Can we shift from a prevalent culture of production to one of reproduction?
5. How do we address the cumulative effect of crises?
Mary Annaïse Heglar recently wrote that we live in an age of “crisis conglomeration”. It is no longer acceptable to look at any crisis (whether health, climate, or migration) through a single lens. We explored ways to represent how crises overlap and investigated their roots in order to actively propose responses.
6. Are we prepared to embrace degrowth with our current set of tools as designers?
Degrowth is an idea that critiques a global capitalist system that pursues growth at all costs. The concept of degrowth strives for a self-determined life in dignity for all, as well as an economy and a society that sustains the natural basis of life. This entails a reduction of production and consumption in the global North, and liberation from the one-sided Western paradigm of development.