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Erasure and vulnerability as sites of subversion

A man standing on his hands from a lying down position. Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Wellcome Library, London.

What knowledge can emerge if the erasure of some bodies, and the absence of certain voices, were put at the centre of how we think and do architecture?

Marie-Louise Richards is a lecturer in architecture in the post-master course Decolonizing Architecture at the Royal Institute of Art.

The course uses the term ‘decolonization’ as a critical position and conceptual frame for an architectural and artistic research practice engaged in social and political questions. In being out of line with the boundaries of the discipline, she reflects on her own position as an architect, researcher and educator within the field of architecture, and has found new avenues for a possible reimagining of architectural practice and shows how past histories can project other possible futures.

The emergence of university departments devoted to Women’s Studies and Black Studies in the United States was born out of student and faculty activism. They were rooted in the social mass movements of the late 1960s, happening not only in the US but all across the world. As colonized countries fought for independence from imperial colonialism, native or minority groups of class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality were fighting for civil rights, social justice, sexual liberation, and equal rights. During those extraordinary times, universities were in a battle for these fields of study. 

These struggles were founded on the acknowledgement of a need for academic fields that draw upon interdisciplinary methods, placing lived embodied experience at the center of study and especially when examining social and cultural constructs of identity, systems of privilege, domination and oppression, and the relationships of power.

To not only conceive of knowledge in terms of who it is for and by whom, but also from where, was a radical approach in knowledge production at the time. In many ways, it still is. Not only do we need to ask why, but we also need to ask what it means if this question is put at the center of how we think about the discipline, the practice, and the history of architecture.

To study to become an architect is, for the vast majority, an opportunity that is inherited. There are exceptions, of course, but even though architectural education is showing more diversity (‘broadening recruitment’ became a government requirement for all schools of higher learning in 2000), very few of the students that do not come from the same middle-class background as their peers complete their studies and graduate. Even fewer stay and excel within the profession. The studies that have followed up on this crucial fact are scarce, so we are left only to speculate on the reasons.

What should we make of this? I would like to consider architecture as a culture, following the terminology of architect and theorist Dana Cuff. Focusing on the everyday lives of architects, she demonstrates that this “culture of practice” does not only originate in knowledge acquired in and through education, but also in routine actions based on experience through the various stages of an architect’s education and career. By looking closely at what architects do, she offers insight into what appears normal or self-evident to architects. She reveals what it means to transform from a non-architect into an architect.

Reflecting upon strategies of legitimation—on how practices are justified even though some of these produces and reproduce conditions that could be questionable to the field of architecture itself—Cuff invites us to consider how becoming an architect is, beyond gaining expert knowledge, also a matter of values and beliefs. The ways in which architects legitimize their work and actions, and how this system of meaning is translated into the formation of networks that range internationally, is also related to language and other cultural codes that are passed down within education itself.

Seven years after graduating from architecture school, I was returned to university as a student in an interdisciplinary course on architecture and art in Stockholm. I had been away from the traditional environment of architecture education for all those years, although I had been teaching since leaving school. My teaching engagements had focused predominantly on critical studies in architecture alongside interdisciplinary, experimental approaches and contexts.

I was faced again with the judgment of material pinned to a wall: the pin-up crit. A well-known and widely published architect was invited to critique us on the work we had produced, a professor visiting from an esteemed graduate school in the US. I had not been in the presence of the kind of authority our guest embodied since the days of my own architectural training. I did not think anything of it at first; this was, after all, a familiar situation for me. After all, the education of architects is structured around this mode of learning: the work being produced in the studio and then being judged, often quite harshly, by practitioners and professors from around the world.

I began to access language and movements that I had forgotten I knew how to do; attitudes that I had forgotten how to express. It was an out of body experience. The way I sat in my chair, the way I would raise my body and move over to the material pinned to the wall, study it, and sit back down in my seat. The words I would speak, and the way that I spoke them. The ways in which the space of the pin-up and the situation created by architectural critiques reactivated a dormant script in me, a script that I began to unconsciously access and then proceed to embody. I was following some form of direction that I had learned previously – and I realized that if I was to make myself heard, and to be taken seriously, I had to perform. A more important realization was in knowing exactly how to perform — how to be granted validation.

In approaching the practices of knowledge production and legitimation in architecture from a cultural perspective, and by recalling my own coming of awareness through this out body experience, I have come to recognize since that what architecture education really teaches you is this performance. I confronted it by staying close to my own body. The language, the codes of conduct, and ways of expressing a set of values were the lessons that I would have to learn. This was the skill I had to master in order to pass through the education, and to earn the degree.

In Towards a Politics of Location the poet and scholar Adrienne Rich recognizes locations as maps upon or within which she had been created and where she creates. She also sees these places as histories. She asks the reader to examine where they themselves were created and, critically, to not to begin with a continent, a country, or a house, but to start with the geography closest to themselves: their own body. She challenges the reader to locate the ground from which they speak. Being with the material of her own body, she confronts herself with the particularities of the facts of her race and her gender, not her gender and her race, in recalling where her body first entered the world – in a segregated hospital. She recognizes that she was defined by race before she was defined as female, and that this was to be a lifelong fact.

The politics of location begins with her own body, but also begins with understanding that her own body has more than one identity: living a life being viewed and treated on account of her race first and foremost, and secondly by her gender. She was located by color and gender, but the implications of both appear mystified. The assumptions of racial and gender-based divisions are based on the notion that such divisions are neutral or natural, and not on the presumptions that there is one group that is the center of the universe while others are not. To locate herself in her own body means more than understanding what it means to be a woman; it also is about understanding and recognizing the places that her skin has taken her and the places that it has not.

Coming to an awareness of how I came to embody what I believed was expected of me in order to be validated and heard, I learned to acquire the architectural modes presented to me through architectural education. In the process of learning them, however, had I erased others? In being a ‘good student’, who strived to achieve the cultural prestige of architectural being, thinking and doing, had I come to reject other modes I had carried with me into education? If so, would I even be able to identify what those were? How different was my education from all other aspects of my life, what scripts have I been directed to perform, and of what had I come to reject and erase?

This question of erasure opens up to a broader discussion on value; of what is validated as valuable and what is not. Being with the material of my own body, I have come to locate my practice in bringing the matter of embodied experience to the center. This center focuses on the education and practice of creating and shaping the material conditions of our built environment. In other words, the creation and shaping of a history and discipline in which ‘the body’ has been often referred to as abstract, not including the fact that with a history of social imbalance within the discipline the body of the architect is presumed to take the shape of what it always has been. All this despite the fact that far from all bodies that pass through the field necessarily fits the discipline’s own frame of reference, nor that such narrow frames leave the discipline with an even narrower perspective.

Decolonizing Architecture 2021–22: Difficult Heritage is open for applications until 15 April 2021.

This text has been edited as a short version. The original was published under the title ‘Out of Line: Erasure and Vulnerability as Sites of Subversion’ in Archifutures, Volume 6, Agency: A Field Guide to Reclaiming the Future of Architecture (ed.) Sophie Lovell, George Kafka &Beyond collective (dpr-barcelona: Barcelona 2020).

Image gallery, scroll sideways to see images.
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Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 163. Man Leaping Forwards, 1887.
Archifutures, Volume 6, Agency: A Field Guide to Reclaiming the Future of Architecture. Barcelona 2020.
Archifutures, Volume 6, Agency: A Field Guide to Reclaiming the Future of Architecture. Barcelona 2020.