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Teaching ‘Spatial Justice’

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By Bryan Finoki

Subtopia‘s Bryan Finoki is doing some pioneering in terms of architectural education. He got invited to “teach his blog.” In a series of guest posts on the Volume blog, he will share his personal experiences as a first time teacher, leading a seminar on ‘military urbanism’ and ‘spatial justice’, in which he hopes to help architecture students become ‘spatial interrogators’.

Already a month has passed since I officially started teaching here at Woodbury University’s School of Architecture in San Diego and it’s been incredibly exciting! I was more than flattered a few months ago to have been invited. After all, I’m not exactly a seasoned vet. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever officially taught anything. Better, I’m no architect, nor do I have anything resembling one of those highfalutin backgrounds architects tend to flaunt, or really any formal connection to the discipline whatsoever. Yet, I’m teaching both a seminar framed around my blog—Subtopia—(by myself) and an urban design studio with my friend Rene Peralta.

The school’s neighborhood is an old and incredibly curious post-industrial part of town along the coast on the southeast outskirts of downtown, where the US Navy has its shipyards and multiple global defense contractor firms are set up (BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics NASSCO, CP Kelco, etc.).

What makes the neighborhood–Barrio Logan–even more interesting is that it was predominantly settled by Mexican-Americans in the late 1800′s, and during the 1900′s it became an important Latino community.  More recently, it became a long time site of Chicano activism and resistance during the sixties to the urban encroach of military industrial-complex expansion.  Chicano park, blocks away from the school, represent the struggles for environmental and social justice that have taken place there since the barrio was a dumping grounds for the city’s waste and industrial pollution, while the whole thing is sort of caught in the military’s shadow.

As a newbie I was curious how the students would perceive someone with no real background in their field of study, an outsider nonetheless; of all things, a writer. I mean, what would they say: Great, I’m paying all this dough to have some hyper-babbling ‘blogger’ come get in my face about ‘military urbanism’…whuuhhh…? Can’t say I’d blame them!

Further, how would I feel about being someone’s “teacher”? Perhaps I’ve read too much Foucault because I cringe at the idea of being anyone’s teacher since a part of me still resists the inherent disciplinarian nature in the very subject and term itself. I’ve always been suspicious of any institution that claims to “teach” or to “heal” or “civilize”—to “reform.” Teaching in my view is less a function of something than it is an emergent experience. Indeed some of my most important learning has always taken place where no school could be found anywhere in sight. And I’m still proud to admit below my photo in my high school yearbook reads the caption: “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” I can’t even bring myself to call them “my students”—it just doesn’t sound right. I’m even wrestling with calling them “students” altogether. Perhaps Jerry Farber’s essay—The Student as Nigger (which I read back in high school)—has left too indelible an imprint on my perception of modern education to accept such commonly used terms these days. Or, perhaps it’s just an outgrowth of my own insecurity about being their “teacher”; maybe I’m just being absurdly extreme in my aversion to any sort of spatial iteration of authority? Time will tell, I suppose.

Of course, there is the challenge of turning my interests in the topic into something coherent and organized enough that’s not only worth “the students’” time but evidences a real relevance to their education, and that I can actually back up my writing with stimulating lectures and discussions able to stand up to scrutiny; one aspect that thankfully does not intimidate me at all. Scrutiny. Not only is it time to walk my talk but what learning would I soon be getting from them as well? Honestly, I can’t wait!

[A quick aside: I was not always the best student growing up, certainly not in any subject that involved math. It took me awhile to want to learn, to really enjoy learning. I can’t blame the institution entirely but it had an effect. Yet, I also believe it took taking myself on a yearlong trip around the world alone after graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a highly-practical degree in modern literature and creative writing to discover my desire to learn.]

Having said that I knew I’d be facing this with them—the ultimate task beyond meditating on the topics themselves would be how to inspire their desire and will to learn. Whatever approach I took to framing the course—and even the classroom space itself—would be crucial right off the bat.

For the first day of the seminar I introduced the concept of “production of space” as a basic feedback loop that people exist within between the making of their environment and the subsequent environment’s remaking of them—and, the resultant space of this relationship. “Think about the traditional power dynamics of the classroom,” I told them. “Typically, there’s the teacher (authority figure) who possesses knowledge and hands it down to the students”; a dynamic perhaps even more integral in the architect’s training since historically they are mentored by a master builder where the pupil’s ideas of architecture are handed down directly from a single person. I’m not qualifying this but “there is a dominant political regime rooted in the very identity of the architect this way,” I said, and asked, “How has the history of mentorship affected the evolution of the discipline?”

The classroom is inherently defined by a hierarchy of power, I told them, that I hope the class will further develop a means for questioning and ultimately dialoging with in their work. “Rather than being conduits for the transmission of larger power structures through space, how could your work in turn use concepts of architecture to directly confront power in space?” This seemed like a foreign concept by the looks on their faces but I read that as a great sign.

Considering “production of space” as a major theme in the course I wanted them to imagine the classroom as a “space of production” all of us would co-create together, to flatten (or at least modulate and redistribute) the hierarchy of power that traditionally looms over learning. While I would guide and provoke them with my own insights, interpretations, and questions, I told them they too possess a great body of knowledge I want them to put forward as well. The classroom would be a living experiment in exchanging and addressing the spatial concepts we would be deconstructing at the same time; we would produce an educational sphere together to practice ways of identifying and challenging authority in space. I said, “This is going to be a heavy discussion-driven course so be prepared to have an opinion—above all, be prepared to question anything I say.” And I hope they take me up on that!

Since the course itself is about the politics of space and how architecture configures power, I decided to open this stuff up through an analysis of the word “interrogate.” What does the word mean to you, what feelings does it conjure, associations do you have? I wanted them to feel uncomfortable in answering and to make matters queasy I told them I have been “an interrogator” for years. “The really interesting thing about being an interrogator” I explained, “is it takes you places you might not otherwise see, places you probably wouldn’t really imagine, or want to. You get to get up-close and personal in ways we normally shy away from, you find new angles to get at the truth.”

With the “War on Terror” and the ‘post-9/11 landscape’ heavily referenced in the syllabus this shook the class up. There was definitely a collective look of concern on their faces—again, I read this as another great sign. But, I’d go on to explain, “I’m hardly a military or CIA interrogator—no, I’m much more valuable than that, you see, I’m a ‘spatial interrogator.’”

The other day I read a bumper sticker: In an age where deception is the norm, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. What does interrogate mean in relation to architecture, to space, to cities, to the architect? I asked, while we literally define interrogate as a method of intense systematic questioning to extract information, what does interrogate produce? In the context of the “War on Terror” interrogation has shown to be less about extracting information than producing and manufacturing it. The so-called “enhanced interrogation tactics” deployed by the U.S. have been exposed as a tactic to coerce false confessions and therefore a fabrication a truth, “to construct an architecture of non-truth that can pose as truth,” I said—“an impostor of truth.” But what if we could interrogate the interrogators themselves? Could interrogate once again be a tool used to bring real-truth back into light? How could architects approach this through space? Could we use architecture as a prism to interrogate the politics of space? The goal is to infiltrate meaning itself, I told them.

I wanted them to think about current security strategies that are remaking the urban fabric, from surveillance cameras and military style checkpoints, to rings of bollards and security fences, mobile tracking devices, etc., and how these architectures of control interrogate the citizen. How does ‘military urbanism’ use the environment to turn everyone into a suspect—to further blur the distinction between ‘civilian’ and potential ‘terrorist’? I wanted them to notice this as not something that’s only practiced in battlezones abroad but is constitutive of the spaces of their everyday existence, and to confront landscape as it’s been designed into a weapon to subject them to a constant and insidious form of interrogation through architecture.

I turned to Krzysztof Wodiczko’s philosophic statement calling for an “interrogative design.” It had a profound influence on my own thinking years ago and is probably understood today as ‘critical practice.’ Wodiczko posed a methodology for questioning the very world of needs. Instead of deconstructing itself, design should deconstruct life, he said—design should unmask and uncover our singular and plural lives, our lived experience, and a history of this experience from the panopticon of our subjectivity and ideological theater of our culture, no matter how unacceptable and repressed or neglected such experiences may be. […] Design must put in doubt its search for all such often well-intended design solutions or self-deconstructions, to open the way to explore, discover, uncover, and expose hidden dimensions of lived experience. Doing so, design as a practice must acknowledge this experience as a history of resistance to the conditions of life and a history of one’s destabilized identity in the process of often enforced reconfiguration.

It only seemed appropriate at that point to subject them to my own form of interrogation.

Can “interrogate” be a function of architecture?
How can you interrogate space?
Can you use space to extract information that is hiding in landscape?
Can architecture help bring truth into light?
Does architecture hide information?
Can architecture have a hidden agenda?
How does corruption take cover in space?

How can architecture help show what’s fair and unfair in the spaces around us?
How is architecture used to disguise injustice?
How can architecture bring justice to space?
Can architecture be used to expose corruption; or, preserve a political transparency?

Is architecture politics through other means?
Is politics architecture without the use of walls?
How do we measure political concepts like “the greater good” in spatial terms?
How can architecture help negotiate the “greater good”?

What might we learn about politics by interrogating architecture; and what might the reverse reveal?
How can you hold “political processes” to scrutiny?
How can you challenge the political production of space?

If politics existed only in spatial terms then what would an examination of our architecture be able to tell us about the nature of political and social relations?
If politics didn’t exist at all then what do you think the built environment would look like today? What would be different?

If politics is a dirty broken game can you use your skills and position in shaping the environment to bring forth new protectorates of justice, new practices of fairness? How can you practice justice in spatial form?

The room felt stifled as if the air-con suddenly stopped working and the walls collapsed inward. Had I caught the attention of the room itself? Confinement. There was a uniform speechlessness about them. Their orange chairs appeared plastic extension of their invisible prison jumpers. I told them, Grab your shit now and come with me.

Time to interrogate the school. It’s structure, culture, identity–it’s little hidden significances. We rapped with the security guard about his perceptions of “security.” I asked, “so where are the cameras? Who watches the video, is it a major global company? Is someone in London right now scanning the environment through those lenses? What are the privacy concerns you should have about that? What kind of culture do security cameras breed anyway?”

A corridor in Woodbury University’s School of Architecture in San Diego.

As it turned out Woodbury’s campus is incredibly cool this way. There are no stinking cameras. But, we kept on. We spoke to the head of IT about the firewall and what networking strategies were in place for policing web traffic. “Think about the political significance of China’s great firewall and Google’s complicity.” Question the firewalls of an academic institution.  Then, I bombarded them some more: “how do you feel about the campus being smoke-free? Are there areas that are completely off-limits? How do you think the school relates to this neighborhood? What are the implications of having a taco truck come to school at lunchtime? Does the arrangement of administrative offices create spaces of power or imbalance in the school’s overall sense of community?  How do you think all of your cars effect this area? What’s the technology, or the contract behind the electronic fob cards? What’s the school’s policy on wearing burqas, or trenchcoats for that matter?”

Cornered, fatigued, maybe bored, maybe secretly plotting against me—I finally cut them loose.