After All, Who Do We Build Architecture and Urbanism for?

What would all the built environments be without its users? This question may make it easier to understand that not only do architecture and urbanism sustain themselves as physical spaces, but they also gain meaning mainly through the human and non-human movements and bonds, that - together with the architectural or spontaneous traces that make up the urban landscape - provoke the sensations that each individual feels in a unique way.

Bodies that are dissident, racialized or seen through their gender or sexual orientation, experience violence in different ways only by the way they present themselves. Oftentimes, these hostilities come from the spaces they inhabit, since built environments - public or private - contain cultural interferences which are placed through the project or its occupation. Consequently, these interferences carry burdening meanings and symbols that can oppress or downplay the existence of several people.

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Taking into consideration how spaces are conceived, Mario Gooden, professor and author of the book Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity, presents an important point of view on how the male whiteness is present in architectural thought:

“Architecture historically privileges the construction of perspectival space through the gaze of the white male subject, from Pietro Perugino’s Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter (1481–83) — whose primary actors are represented as fair-skinned European men with Roman features (although Christ and the Apostles were from Palestine and likely of darker skin tones) — to Mies van der Rohe’s perspective collages that unbind space in a manner that dislocates the stationary viewpoint and collapses it at the eye of the author.” [1]

The content of this excerpt presented by Gooden does not only highlight the invisibility of people of color in architecture, but also offers other readings on how in the Western world, various bodies and genres are forgotten during architectural thought, or do not have the opportunity to be included into it or remembered as part of it.

From this point of view, some questions arise: If architecture creates spaces of identity, who does this identity serve? Does architectural thinking (un)consciously go through a sense of resistance against other freedoms that are set by white hegemonic thinking? What is architectural education not learning by being focused only on canons of the global north? Is it possible for architects to represent the LGBTQIA+ community in some way?

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Perhaps there is no immediate answer to some of these questions. This is possibly due to the fact that the architectural intent is still very much allied to the way Western society teaches thinking, and thus, discriminates against other life possibilities than the standards set by the cis-heteronorm system: the father, the mother and their children. To propose new ways of living it is necessary to imagine spaces that embrace freedoms, new architectural programs that can suggest and allow other ways of life that involve several other family constitutions.

It is possible to trace some moments of history where it once existed. One example that fits this perspective is Manhattan. In Sarah Schulman’s book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, she expresses brilliantly how gentrification on the New York island, which occured in conjunction with AIDS, a disease that decimated an entire gay generation and until today, has not been revised properly due to its link to the gay community. This gentrification not only benefited the real estate market, but also spread onto the field of ideas.

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Collage made with photos of Jim Austin Jimages and Dietmar Rabich (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license) via Wikimedia Commons

Schulman shows that certain queer and subcultural urbanities have led to homogeneity in the fields of ideas and behaviors, which now occupy the spaces of Manhattan. People from the suburbs with "a much higher rate of gender conformity, class conformity, compulsory heterosexuality, racial segregation, and homogenous cultural experience" now occupy spaces previously rich in diversity - and here it means not only sexual, but also cultural and racial.

“Built into this was an increased “fear” of or alienation from urban culture, from multiculturalism, gender nonconformity, and individuated behavior. Innovative aesthetics, diverse food traditions, new innovations in arts and entertainment, new discoveries in music, ease with mixed-race and mixed religious communities, free sexual expression, and political radicalism were often unknown, separate from or considered antithetical…” [2]

What she describes is a summary of the hegemonic conception that begins to prevail, and that accepts only what she, herself, produces and teaches. This creates a unique truth about the way of life, one that increasingly diminishes the plurality of ideas and cultures that urbanity offers as its maximum potential. Architects and urban planners know, or should know, that the standardization of universal ideas and thoughts can often fail. Gentrification operates as an important tool in this process, so fighting it, or any form of social exclusion, should be an ethical duty of the profession. Furthermore, "Ignoring the reality that our cities cannot produce liberating ideas for the future from a place of homogeneity keeps us from being truthful about our inherent responsibilities to each other", as Schulman has stated. 

Contrary to what many people think, embracing diversity does not at all mean creating ruptures or thinking only of people who are not heterosexual or white. It is understanding the complexity of the society we live in, and how it is violent and limiting to the desires and experiences of a part of the population, one that does not fit the placed standards and to take note that this goes even deeper when it applies to race, class, gender, even among LGBTQIA+ people.

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Collage made with photos of Ana Karenina and Eneas De Troya (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license) via Wikimedia Commons

In the field of built architecture, discussing this subject and racial inclusion seems to be an even more distant subject. However, agreeing to this hypothesis is saying that architecture is stagnant and can no longer keep up with the challenges of its time. Architects are always translating their intentions through their projects. However, their intentions often come out as a mirror of only their own aesthetics and thinking, instead of integrating other people's intentions and thoughts as well. This is a process that, in addition to bringing considerations and experiences from other realities closer together, it must mainly undergo internal changes. David Harvey's words inspire some possibilities of this collective transformation that goes through each individual:

“The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” [3]

Today, the democratization of different thoughts and information found on the Internet is almost inseparable from a collective project. Virtual networks prove to be excellent tools to discover new ways of thinking and acting for those who propose to change their own ideas. It is through them that it is possible to come across different architectural practices that originate beyond the dominant patterns, and offer new visions to the field; Whether it is through the theoretical and material production of the Queer architecture of Andrés Jaque and his team at the Office for Political Innovation, the sustainable and contextual approach that the Mariam Kamara's atelier masomi presents in its projects, or the discussions proposed by Joel Sanders when, for example, revisiting the issues of gender identity in architecture and the typologies of bathrooms, among many other possible references.

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Collage made with photos of Tim Evanson and Daniel Case (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) via Wikimedia Commons

By understanding architectural works as great cultural symbols that represent their society, each project carries within itself an opinion, and for it to communicate in a more egalitarian way, perhaps the first step to initiate a change is to review the perspective of the modern, which reads the universal through a human measure that privileges whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality - the hegemony that lasts for centuries in the field. 

In other words, it is as if we have never overcome the Vitruvian man and thought of all the other bodies that exist, and by excluding non-hegemonic communities from the debate and from the construction of an architectural thought, we also exclude other visions, techniques, and ways of doing architecture; we stop benefiting from the power of the encounter with the different, a catalyst for innovative solutions and new experiences.

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Collage made with photos of KimonBerlin and Nesnad (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license) via Wikimedia Commons


  • [1] Gooden, Mario. Dark space: architecture, representation, black identity. New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016. p. 121.
  • [2] Schulman, Sarah. The gentrification of the mind: witness to a lost imagination. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012. p. 24.
  • [3] Harvey, David. The Right to the City, 2018. p. 1.

About this author
Cite: Delaqua, Victor. "After All, Who Do We Build Architecture and Urbanism for?" [Afinal, fazemos arquitetura e urbanismo para quem? ] 01 Jul 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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