What is the point of critical thinking?...One could argue, quite convincingly, that there are much more urgent things to talk about—the degradation of the environment, the global ecological crisis, the problems of the third world, and so on. To talk of theory and criticism seems secondary and academic compared to the magnitude and severity of today’s global problems…the emphasis on objective and pragmatic reasoning has promoted a view of life that is more about the efficiency of means and ends, methods and techniques, over questions of existence and being…and yet the predominance of technoscientific logic has not only failed to come to terms with many of our earthly and spiritual problems, but might also be seen as a precursor to many of them. 1
- 1 James Corner, “Critical Thinking and Landscape Architecture,” Landscape Journal (1991), 10(2): 155-172.
This is the time of crisis, characterised by roiling heat and flames in California, the Amazon and Australia; by surging seas and storms in New Orleans, Jakarta and Lagos; and by ever-brazen state violence and eco-apartheid across the planet. Whether through the genocidal, blood-in-soil nationalism of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or the more genial poll-tested isolationism of President Joe Biden’s ‘Buy American’ rhetoric, the stakes of the climate crisis, foregrounded by the ecoapartheid politics of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, have never been clearer. In a century that will be defined by a tension between international cooperation and competition, the most promising programme to emerge with a real shot at delivering global climate justice is an internationalist Green New Deal (GND). 2
- 2 Billy Fleming, “Crises and Contestations: The Promise and Peril of Designing a Green New Deal,” Architectural Design, January 2022, available at: https://onlinelibrary.
In the time of upheaval and crisis, what is the point of landscape architecture? Is it, to borrow from landscape urbanists, to view the profession as the “urbanists of our age”, their work focused on rendering “previously extant planning regimes...redundant through design competitions, donor’s requests, or community consensus?” Or, put another way, is the point of landscape architecture to gleefully participate in the broader neoliberal project of privatization and a hollowing out of the state? Is it to adopt a totalizing view of landscape architecture as a critical practice, attuned to and inexorable from the realpolitik of the real estate state? Or, put differently, is it to naturalize (rather than contest) the role of luxury real estate development as the world’s primary producer of the public realm? Though landscape urbanists often position themselves at the avant garde of activist practice—extolling the “agency” of landscape as an agent of change in contemporary cities—their body of work appears far less compelling in practice. Mapped here for the first time, the body of contemporary design praxis—which certainly includes, but is more expansive than landscape urbanism—reveals the extent to which design is less a creative, cultural practice and, with few exceptions, exists as any other professional service might: as a set of professions beholden to market forces, clients’ whims, and the structural forces that ultimately produce the built environment they are commissioned to adorn. Put another way, the design academy and professions exist to reproduce the social and racial order of global capitalism in the 21st century. 3 Twenty years of scholarship proclaiming the “necessity of landscape architecture” 4 and the “agency of design” 5 have not altered this immutable fact. The design professions are not agents of change; they are simply instruments of power.
Contra to the culture of self-mythology and exceptionalist rhetoric about the power of design, the built environment professions are indistinguishable in their aims, operations, and material conditions from the rest of the professional services industry. Put another way, landscape architecture and its allied disciplines share a political economic framework with multi-national consulting firms like McKinsey & Company. While their instruments often differ—McKinsey is focused on organizational structure and optimizing corporate and autocratic regime finances; design firms translate these aims into the built environment—both are pursuing commissions and contracts from the same pools of public and private capital, in many of the same cities and nations, and are equally complicit in some of the most egregious forms of human immiseration that capitalism has to offer (e.g. AECOM’s prison-building practice, HOK’s petro-state building program, and MSP’s eco-apartheid portfolio in the UAE and beyond). 6 Design goes where capital flows—whether it be for social housing, coastal infrastructure, or prisons and pipelines. To put it bluntly, designers are most often tasked with laundering the aims of the ruling class through investments in the built environment.
- 3Billy Fleming, “Frames and Fictions: Designing a Green New Deal Studio Sequence,” Journal of Architectural Education, 75(2): 192-201.
- 4Kelly Shannon, “Landscape Architecture as Necessity,” Chapter Nine in Landscape Architecture Foundation, The New Landscape Declaration, Rare Bird Books: New York (2017).
- 5Richard Weller, “Landscape (Sub)Urbanism in Theory and Practice,” Landscape Journal, 27(2): 247-267.
- 6Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, “The A&E System: Public Works and Private Interest in Architectural and Engineering Services, 2000-2020,” available at: https://power.buellcenter.columbia.edu/initiatives/ae-system.
Within architecture, a project of delivering performance, or soliciting a surprising plausibility, suggests moving away from a critical architectural practice—one which is reflective, representational, and narrative—to a projective practice. Setting out this projective program does not necessarily entail a capitulation to market forces, but actually respects and reorganizes multiple economies, ecologies, information systems, and social groups. 7
- 7 Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting, “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,” Perspecta (2002), 33: 72-77.
Though the concept of laundering burst into the public’s consciousness most recently through scandals related to the Sackler Family (it’s ubiquity in elite cultural institutions alongside its role in driving the opioid crisis) or Jeffrey Epstein (his relationship to academic institutions like MIT’s Media Lab alongside his global child trafficking ring), design has not yet reckoned with its own role in laundering capital and authoritarian power around the world. Spencer gestures in this direction, writing that “while architects and architectural theorists have generally been less brazen [than Schumacher] about their enthusiasms for the subsumption of the urban and architectural orders to those of the market, they have tended, since the mid-1990s in particular, to push those same trusts of the way of the world as have served [the logic] of neoliberalism.”
This, borrowing from Fisher’s theory of capitalism realism, situates much of contemporary design theory and practice alongside the rest of the world’s flagging, liberal order in finding it “easier to imagine an end to civilization than an end to capitalism.”
Put another way, professional design services operate as an instrument intended to reproduce the status quo, not to upend it.
This way of working and relating to the world is reproduced in nearly every school of design in the United States. There, a central and often unspoken agenda predominates: that “the point of design education is to condition each successive generation of students for a lifetime of exploited labor that is detached from any critical relationship to the role that designers play in aestheticizing and instrumentalizing global capitalism. This goal is not written into mission statements or strategic plans—to do so would jeopardize the machinery of student recruitment and major gift fundraising. But it is there, plain to see for those who look, in the tendency of design institutions to reproduce their most toxic traits: the valorization of individuality, the pressure to engage in endless work and infinite production, and the orientation of curricula around servicing the local and global elites who fund much of the field’s work”. 10
Though we frame this as a problem or a question of the relationship between capitalism and design at a planetary scale, we are centering this analysis on the United States. To borrow from Ananya Roy, we do so “not because it is either unique amongst nations or universal in its experience, but because, as Harvey has argued, America is a real battleground.” 11 As the epicenter of global capitalism and imperialism, 401 years into an ideological project made possible through the violence of chattel slavery and colonial genocide, it is also a rotting core—a desiccated husk of institutions and democratic norms, incapable of responding to the demands of abolitionist movements and demands like Black Lives Matter and the Green New Deal in real, material ways. Or, as Fanon compellingly argues, "the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.” 12 Wendy Brown, a political theorist, develops this analysis throughout her book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, writing that “the neoliberal attack on the social is key to generating an antidemocratic culture from below, while building and legitimating antidemocratic forms of state power from above. The synergy between the two is profound.” Though Brown here is writing about the dialectics of movement-building and statecraft, she could have also been writing of design schools and design firms. As "Field Notes" nears publication, the Green New Deal Superstudio—itself a multi-institutional collaboration, but one driven primarily by work Billy Fleming has led in the McHarg Center over the last few years—is filtering through nearly every school of design in the U.S., and there are plans for parallel efforts to begin this fall in the United Kingdom and across much of Europe. But it remains an open question whether that work will live up to the more radical demands of the Green New Deal movement, or succumb to the protectors of the status quo within landscape architecture, another victim of imagined realpolitik and capitalist realism masquerading as “natural” or “pragmatic.”
- 8Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance, London: Bloomsbury (2016).
- 9 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? New York: Zero Books (2009).
- 10Billy Fleming, “Frames and Fictions: Designing a Green New Deal Studio Sequence,” Journal of Architectural Education, 75(2): 192-201.
- 11Ananya Roy, “Praxis in the Time of Empire,” Planning Theory (2005), 5(1): 7-29.
- 12Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la Terre, Maspero: Paris (1961).
Outside of landscape architecture, the Green New Deal is already being questioned by some on the left who fear it will be co-opted by liberals and remade into a more conventional, reformist project better-suited to the logic of global capitalism.
While schools of design and professional firms have been quick to give rhetorical attention to these movements and demands (posting black squares and issuing platitudinous statements), few have made any material changes aligned with student and faculty organizing. Indeed, much of the most interesting work to date has come from BIPOC faculty and students mounting insurgent challenges to their institutions and administrators—who remain constrained by a narrow sense of what is possible (and preferable) in the field.
This, of course, is where the analysis offered through dialectical materialism and the notion of utopian as method 15 —long-absent from the core curricula of design schools—can help us make sense of these incongruities in ways that the projective cannot. Rather than equivocating or obfuscating one’s aims by remarking that the projective need not include a capitulation to market forces, materialist analysis allows for a more critical engagement with market forces, global capitalism, and white supremacy. Put another way, it offers more than a toolkit for avoiding capitulation to those forces—it also offers alternative formulations for praxis, of how to relate to the world and to one another in ways that center justice and redistribution. The axiom that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good is not an excuse to charge ahead, consequences be damned. And besides, the question of how to confront the overlapping crises of planetary climate change, racial injustice, state violence, and a pandemic is not an ecological or aesthetic or even a technological one—it is a social and political question, one that design has largely considered “out there,” and beyond the scope of praxis. Or, to borrow from Naomi Klein,
- 13Jasper Barnes, “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal,” Commune (2019), available at: https://communemag.com/between-the-devil-and-the-green-new-deal/.
- 14This is expertly introduced in Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Cambridge: The MIT Press (1976), and elaborated by Sophie Hochhausl, Torsten Lange, et al., “Architecture and the Environment,” Architectural Histories (2018), 6(1): 1-13.
- 15Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, New York: Palgrave (2013).
The interplay between lofty dreams and earthly victories has always been at the heart of moments of deep progressive transformation. In the United States, the breakthroughs won for workers and their families after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, as well as for civil rights and the environment in the sixties and early seventies, were not just responses to crises, demanded from below. They were also the products of dreams of very different kinds of societies, dreams invariably dismissed as impossible and impractical at the time. What set these moments apart was not the presence of crises, but rather that they were times of rupture when the utopian imagination was unleashed. 16
- 16 Naomi Klein’s Foreword in Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos, A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, New York: Verso Books (2020).