Anarchitecture




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ight now in any given town or city in the
United States (indeed across much of the world) small groups of
mostly well-educated upper class (mostly) men are designing the
future of the built environment. These architects, urban planners,
landscape architects, transportation experts, politicians, and financiers
are building varied projects, such as entire pre-packaged cities
like Anthem, Arizona, a 20,000-plus population satellite suburb
of Phoenix erected seemingly overnight. 


The guiding light of this is profit. The land we live on has been
so thoroughly commodified that professional place shapers exist
to create only the most profitable sorts of cityscapes, ones that
will appeal to those who have the most purchasing power. Those who
cannot buy their place in this world find themselves at the mercy
of this system. They are called the poor and homeless. Structural
racism is also deeply embedded in our urban environments in the
form of segregation and economic disaccumulation—or what the
professionals euphemistically call the “ghetto.” All in
all, the professional place makers are building a world that is
ecologically unsustainable, unjust, inhibits collective creativity
and local control, and is terribly boring and unimaginative compared
to what’s possible. 


Shaping space and place as it is practiced by the “professionals”
in the United States can be categorized by three different schools
of thought; suburbanization, gentrification, and new urbanism. Each
of these forms a part of what is called urban planning and design—a
discipline that has its roots in the 19th century work of people
such as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman. Hired by Napoleon III,
Haussman was responsible for “modernizing” Paris. His
plans included cutting massive boulevards through neighborhoods
that would facilitate the movements of troops through the city and
prevent barricades from being erected by rebels. Haussman reshaped
Paris so that its physical order was more congruent with the economic
and social goals of the rising revolutionary bourgeoisie, not those
of workers, the poor, or anyone else who lived in those Parisian
quartiers pulverized by progress. He molded Paris into the first
modern city. Haussman’s work quickly spread to have global
influence, showing politicians, capitalists, and architects across
Europe and beyond that the reengineering of space could serve their
needs for social control in ways that laws and police forces could
not. Shaping space promised solutions to the “problems”
of the city— slums, crime, ethnic minorities, toxic environments,
and supposedly declining morality. 


Accordingly, the greatest potential of top-down design was its purported
ability to create the balanced city through rational planning. This
would be the tranquil place free of class conflict and racial strife
where every man, woman, and child knew and accepted their place.
What solidified the role of professional place making in the modern
world was the assurance that designs for perpetually more intensive
land uses could be imposed on disparate landscapes, promising a
way to further the accumulation of capital (profit). 


Bernard Moses, intellectual heir to Haussman, oversaw the massive
reshaping of New York City from the 1930s-1950s. It was during this
era that top down planning monopolized its role in the U.S. and
became a major profession. People like Moses have shaped U.S. cities,
towns, and countrysides with tools of “rational planning”
and centralized authority ever since. 


The sick logic of planning has been that it focuses on the most
privileged stratum of the population; thus the wealthy live in well
planned, serene settings with tree shaded curving streets, excellent
schools, and generally healthy environments. The poor, working class,
and non-white typically find themselves unable to utilize the “skills”
of planners to improve their neighborhoods. In fact, when they do
encounter these skills it is usually because their communities are
on the the chopping block of an urban revitalization scheme that
intends to clear the slum and make way for “progress.” 



Three
Schools 




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uburban design remains the dominant ideological
and practical force in the political economy of place making. Stripped
to its essentials suburbanism is the placement of new developments
far outside of dense urban cores. Houses are usually sprawling and
arrayed in big monocrop fields with thousands of others. Streets
are ridiculously wide, and the automobile rules over all. Population
density is low. Strip malls, big box stores, and shopping centers
are built in and around suburban tracts providing infusions of tax
dollars fueling further expansion into the hinterland. All of this
works to the detriment of those left in the inner city as state,
municipal, and private resources pour out. 


Gentrification is design and development within the city that unabashedly
provides housing and infrastructure for a young, wealthy, and mostly
white population—the bored sons and daughters of the suburbs
who have come back to the city in search of what their parents fled.
Although it is often portrayed as an unplanned market process whereby
“ghettos” are settled by more affluent households and
finally made into nice places to live, the role of big business
and government in gentrification is well known. Virtually all successful
attempts to gentrify an area must gain needed subsidies and support
from city and/or federal government. Equally, this relies on the
work of architects and planners in the service of the powerful. 


Gentrification is the darkest side of the suburb. Although it allows
city colonizers a lifestyle more ecologically sustainable than the
suburbs, it displaces the poor and mostly non-white communities
long abandoned by the consumer class (more commonly called the middle
class). It causes particular harm to the elderly poor. Right now
highly paid place makers are hard at work trying to seize inner
city areas in order to convert them into high-rise condos, lofts,
corporate offices, and trendy business districts. 


The third major paradigm of elite dominated place shaping, new urbanism,
is neither suburban nor crassly gentrifying. New urbanism is a school
of thought that touts the positive effects of dense housing, urban
life, and mixed-use or mixed-income neighborhoods. It praises the
idea of integrating different socio-economic classes and racial
or ethic groups into the same places. Its vision of community is
a dense cluster of housing, greenspace, sidewalk, and businesses
that are well proportioned, centralized, easily accessible, and
safe. 


However, it largely fails at these goals because, like suburban-styled
development and overt gentrification, it is bound completely by
the process of planning from the top down. Designs flow from planners,
technocrats, politicians, and financiers at the top. Furthermore,
it only redevelops these “mixed-income” communities on
top of formerly poor and non-white communities. New urbanist place
makers displace these groups in their quest to create supposedly
diverse and healthy communities. Never before have they demolished
upper-income areas to build “mixed-income” communities.
The degree to which they actually succeed in bringing different
social classes together in living is questionable, to say nothing
of other schisms. 


One high profile example of this sort of planning is River Garden,
an urban housing development plus a Wal-Mart supercenter built on
top of the demolished St. Thomas housing projects in central New
Orleans. (I use it as an example because that whole city is on the
verge of being rebuilt and River Garden is the likely template.)
The majority of homes in River Garden are priced for “middle
class” homebuyers, effectively locking out those who used to
live there—the rationale being that it was a “blighted”
neighborhood in need of revitalization. The buildings resemble a
Hollywood back lot imitation of New Orleans’ architectural
styles in bright Caribbean colors. Thus, new urbanism’s solutions
to problems that are fundamentally about poverty boils down to more
tried and untrue solutions that fetishize aesthetic and spatial
fixes to problems grounded in social inequality. 


Anarchitecture 



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here is an alternative process of making
place not beholden to the financial interests of a powerful minority
or the professional monopoly of planners and architects who work
on their behalf. Its defining features include creating useful habitats
for human beings and creating a meaningful sense of community, one
that extends deeper than the look and feel provided by the façades
and embellishments of top-down planning. It’s not a process
of imposing form. Rather, it’s a process of collectively creating
form and sharing space. One particularly useful name for this decentralized
and rebellious form of place making is anarchitecture. 


Anarchitecture shouldn’t be taken as any particular ideological
commitment to anarchism. Rather, the prefix “anarch” serves
to keep the idea of some sort of anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian
place making as open as possible to various visions and projects
and to emphasize that this form of creating place occurs largely
beyond (and in spite of) the state. It can be cooperative and quiet
or a contentious ruckus of activity. “Anarchitecture”
also captures the spontaneity and unpredictability of many collectively
built structures outside of the purview of the planning professionals.
What already exists in cooperatives, urban farming, guerilla gardening,
green building, community development corporations, DIY infrastructure,
squatting, protest, small businesses, participatory budgeting, random
beautification, small builders, handymen/women, and even basic homeownership
is a desire to cultivate use values over exchange values and to
do it in a way that not only benefits individual users, but also
the community as a whole. 


The
distinction between use value and exchange value that distinguishes
professional architecture from anarchitecture is rather simple.
The capitalist political-economy of making places is powered by
the buying, selling, and making of real estate in order to make
money. This is exchange value. Use values are those social things
that capital will not necessarily provide for. Indeed the normal
operation of capital overruns and destroys many use values. Capital
demolishes low-income apartments to build gentrified high-rises.
It strips forests and destroys watersheds in order to stamp new
suburbs on top of former fields or forests. Out of this fundamental
conflict between real human needs and the products of the market
(products that can never fully provide a place to make our lives)
arises anarchitecture. 



As a perspective on things, anarchitecture recognizes that landscapes
can be disempowering or isolating (indeed many of them are purposefully
designed to be this way), but it doesn’t let us off the hook:
we can’t claim of any place that “there is no there there,”
as Gertrude Stein famously said of her estranged hometown. Whatever
is there, or is not, is our responsibility. It’s up to us to
make it if it doesn’t yet exist or to deconstruct it if the
professionals have imposed it on us. Free floating capital seeking
to maximize profit can only build the same homogeneous, interchangeable
units of land with familiar buildings decorated with numbing logos. 


Three Examples 



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here are numerous examples of anarchitecture
in practice. Three facets of anarchitecture give the concept more
clarity—(1) urban farming, (2) infrastructure creation, and
(3)  disruption of top-down planning. 


Urban farming—including community gardens, backyard plots,
and guerilla gardens—is an example of anarchitectural place
making because it challenges so many of the dominant forms of space-time
organization under capitalism. In the first instance, it challenges
industrialized large-scale agriculture as the best model for food
production. Urban farms are always smaller than the mega-farms that
dominate food production and, because they can fill spaces, such
as backyards, empty lots, parks, and greenways, they decentralize
production. This allows urban farmers to utilize more sustainable
techniques thereby causing less harm to the land and the people
who ultimately eat the food. This means that crops must be acclimated
to the local climate or microclimates and that seasonal variations
in production determine variations in what people can eat. This
contrasts with industrial agriculture where food is grown in large,
remote monocrop plantations, treated after harvest to prevent spoiling,
and then shipped an average of 1,500 miles to the consumer. 


Urban farms also challenge dominant notions about the “best
uses” of space within cities. According to capitalist economics,
real estate should be developed according to whatever use is most
profitable. Under these assumptions, inner-city agriculture is incredibly
inefficient at capitalizing on land values and therefore should
be replaced with more intensive projects like high-rise buildings,
condos, or factories. 


Urban farms range in sizes from large multi-acre sites to small
patches alongside roads and railroad tracks. Many are legal, some
are not. By far the most common form of urban agriculture is simple
backyard gardening. Individuals and families that take it upon themselves
to produce a portion of their own food are practicing a fundamentally
subversive means of production in our society. Community gardens,
often formed in partnership with city government or through non-profit
organizations, are much more organized than guerilla gardens or
home landscaping, but still represent a challenge to the dominant
forms of centralized food production and landscape creation. In
the southern California city I live in, I have seen everything from
community gardens with dozens of members, to small milpas and gardens
around homes, and even the rogue efforts of guerilla landscapers
who have established clusters of avocado and loquat trees in formerly
desolate patches of dirt which years down the line bear rich clusters
of fruit free for anyone to pick. Urban agriculture and landscaping
can change local ecologies for the better and challenge corporate
control over food and land uses. 


Another form of anarchitecture widely practiced involves the creation
of infrastructure. Infrastructure is anything that facilitates movement,
connectivity, and communication. It is the roads, wires, bridges,
and pipelines that connect homes, workplaces, schools, parks, prisons,
farms, and factories. Rather than allowing government or private
developers to plan and build these most social of projects, many
have taken it upon themselves. This form of anarchitecture is most
prevalent in societies without strict zoning codes or the means
to enforce the dominance of centrally planned infrastructure as
the only system of connectivity. In large portions of the global
south whole community water systems are fashioned in this manner,
as are roads and walls. In many cities residents and squatters have
taken to tapping the official power grid and wiring elaborate electricity
systems.








A major form of anarchitectural infrastructure in the United States
includes footpaths and bike paths that appear wherever centrally
planned transportation infrastructure is inadequate, boring, or
divisive. It might be easy to dismiss a footpath established through
an empty lot or alongside a highway as anything like “infrastructure,”
especially because it takes virtually zero capital to construct.
If, however, we think about the kind of investment that people make
in a certain pathway simply by traveling on it frequently enough
to demarcate its boundaries, to compact the dirt, and even to repair
its flooded or eroded areas, we start to get a sense of how much
human energy actually can go into what appears to be nothing more
than a casual trail. 


These types of pathways facilitate movement not sanctioned or planned
for by the authorities. The elaborate ways that the U.S. Mexico
border is dissected by trails is an example. These pathways undermine
the official infrastructure of the border, providing passage for
those being exploited and oppressed in no small way by the official
infrastructure. The homeless and itinerant have created vast infrastructures
to traverse cities and suburbs outside of the surveillance of authorities
and the scorn of others. Migrant and immigrant laborers have also
cut diagonals through the official infrastructure of roadways and
sidewalks as a means of connecting their workplaces, homes, and
places of socialization. As a general rule, the more a society persecutes
and pretends away the subalterns it exploits, the more they will
take it upon themselves to build the structures and infrastructure
necessary to make their lives and to fight toward a better future. 


A third example of anarchitecture can be found anywhere local communities
disrupt the top-down planning process that produces urban sprawl,
gentrification, or other losses of community in the pursuit of profit.
Every major U.S. city has seen movements challenge the architectural
prerogatives of the power elite. From the 1940s through the 1960s
one major goal of these movements was to oppose the negative (and
oftentimes discriminatory) impact of the federal highway-building
boom that threatened to cut cities into shreds. What tended to happen
was that federal funds and expertise would be channeled through
local political regimes that would inevitably map highways through
non-white and poor districts. Those in the crosshairs of the asphalt
layers seldom stood idly by while their homes were paved over. Many
of these battles were lost and the multi-lane monsters were built
through once thriving neighborhoods, but many were won, thus sustaining
community cohesion and economic vitality instead of sacrificing
them to the supposed progress of autotopia. 


The urban renewal programs that exploded on the U.S. inner-city
in this same era were opposed with even more effort. It was during
this time that cities first secured massive federal grants specifically
to rebuild themselves. After receiving federal grants, cities would
proceed by exercising the laws of eminent domain to forcibly remove
residents from their homes and neighborhoods. They demolished millions
of lower-income housing units, as well as many thousands of small
businesses, and sold the land to wealthy developers who usually
built luxury apartments, condos, sports arenas, and convention centers,
among other projects for profit. 


Neighborhood activists opposed this most fervently. Their main contention
was a political-economic one: why spend our collective resources
on projects that clearly benefit the few at the expense of the majority?
Why destroy “slum” housing, replacing it with fewer units
of higher prices? Where would the people go? Residents and activists
were always quick to question the assumptions on which renewal operated—that
blighted neighborhoods were better off demolished, and that there
is a spatial and aesthetic fix to problems of urban poverty. They
were right to connect the decline of inner cities with the rise
of suburban America. They were right to refute the idea that their
communities were terrible places filled with crime and despair.
They countered that their communities were vibrant, if troubled,
but they were theirs and they would not give them up without a fight.
Many fights were won. 


Disruption of the top-down planning process is anarchitecture in
practice. Whenever those who will be most affected by a proposal
enjoin the process, whether it is welcomed by those who drafted
the original plans or resisted tooth and nail, it shapes the outcome
in a more equitable way. When the professionals try to impose plans
on communities that are widely perceived as harmful and not in the
interest of the community as a whole, the outcomes can be several.
The professional place shapers can ignore, repress, and impose their
form on the community; they can alter the design so that it incorporates
some of the demands of the community; or they can abandon the project
entirely. The first outcome has been a common one. The second two
solutions are the results of anarchitecture in action: the building
of place and space in spite of capital. 


The promise of anarchitecture—the decentralized making of place
by and for the community—is an activity that continually challenges
the ability of the powerful to reshape our cityscapes and countrysides
as they see fit. Anarchitecture can be a defense of place, but also
an imaginative way of shaping it. It can be a reaction to the destructive
power of real estate capitalism and our political system. It can
also be a proactive undertaking—spontaneous, unpredictable—a
window into a different world where place might be more than a means
to accumulating wealth and power. It might be a reason unto itself.


 





Darwin
BondGraham is a graduate student in sociology at UC Santa Barbara
currently writing about social movements in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Woodcuts on pp. 50-52 are by Eric Drooker.