Designing for Hungers That Are Already There: A Discussion with Mitch McEwen

Interview by: Leah Wulfman

In December 2016, the interdisciplinary arts symposium “Why Does Black Art Matter Now?”, organized by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) at the University of Pittsburgh, brought a cast of contemporary Black artists to Pittsburgh—visual artist Lorna Simpson, poet Robin Coste Lewis, and architectural designers Mitch McEwen, Imani Day, and Mario Gooden. The symposium addressed the set of circumstances that have led to the immediate now—”the now now,” as Mitch McEwen refers to it.

McEwen is an architectural and urban designer. As part of the symposium, she led a community design charrette called “This Is What We Will Build When We Get Our Reparations” at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum. The charrette was both celebratory and subversive, engaging its participants in developing visionary spatial propositions for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the US, and envisioning new futures for Black subjectivities and sexualities. Here, McEwen discusses the symposium and her individual and collective practices, sharing important perspectives on autonomy, gentrification, activism, and the work to make marginalized voices and visions central to the future of architecture.

Leah Wulfman: You co-founded (A)n Office, a studio collective that forwardly engages the social and political aspects of architecture and urban design. The meaning of the studio’s title is ambiguous: On your website you state that “the A might stand for Architecture. It might not. It might stand for Anonymous or Art—or another word, like Another.” How is this name representative of the working methods of the collective, and what brought your team together?

Mitch McEwen: The biography of A(n) Office is not that of a singular, fixed team. It is set up in a way such that the founding studio members have already fluctuated, creating a couple iterations. A(n) Office is a meta office, a studio of studios. We started with a lecture in 2013 at the Princeton University School of Architecture for the Anonymous Conference organized by Sylvia Lavin. For this, we had to come up with a name and a strategy. At the time, there were three of us, and later we obtained an office space for a month-long residency in Manhattan. Then there were a different three, and again, with this past year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, “The Architectural Imagination,” there were another three of us. It’s an iterative process, but the whole principle of multiplicity as an office structure remains intact. Of course, there’s also the wordplay with Gordon Matta-Clark’s Anarchitecture (1974)—a combination of “anarchy” and “architecture”—where the “An” becomes a “Without.” So, A(n) Office is an office without an office, or an office with multiple offices.

My individual practice is in Detroit with McEwen Studio. Through this platform, I can work with students in Ann Arbor or communities in Detroit from different disciplines. I’ve been developing work through McEwen Studio since I was granted the architecture fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany where I could produce my own work and set my own agenda. SUPERFRONT, an architecture-oriented non-profit gallery in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, was the first iteration of my individual practice. Over the course of directing SUPERFRONT for three to four years, I collaborated with nearly 150 different individuals and organizations, leading to many exhibits. I’ve been iterating on different methods of both having a practice and collaborating. A(n) Office comes out of wanting to have a structure for practice that enables me to have my own work and own agenda, but also collaborate with others on projects. We, as A(n) Office, come together to work on projects that have a more national and international scope.

In your lecture, you called autonomy in architecture “white boy surrealism.” Your work with A(n) Office seems to reject autonomy in architecture outright. How do you engage autonomy in other disciplines?

When I was talking about autonomy in relationship with Robin Coste Lewis’ poetry in the lecture, I wasn’t able to fully unpack all of the beautiful relationships she works with—around rule sets and legibility of operations. I’m extremely invested in this work, and I enjoy working with computer parametrics as a means of designing and producing architecture. This engagement with autonomy in poetry is such productive territory for me and my work in relationship to autonomy in architecture. We have a way of talking about autonomy within architecture as being about drawings investigating their own rule sets, as we see in the work of Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi. I worked for Bernard Tschumi Architects, whose early, transgressive work in architecture was influenced by the neo-avant-garde artists of the 1970s.  Autonomy here means having no relationship to society. I’m especially critical of how this becomes a white, elitist form of producing a discipline. The discipline is already social. It simply doesn’t want to critique how it’s social, and autonomy is used as a scapegoat out of that.

Speakers at the University of Pittsburgh’s “Why Does Black Art Matter Now?” symposium, December 2016. From left to right: designers Mitch McEwen, Imani Day, and Mario Gooden, and poet Robin Coste Lewis. Photo by Heather Kresge.

four Black creators sit at at a wooden table in discussion with a mic, notebooks, and water bottles in front of them

Robin Coste Lewis, poet and author of Voyage of the Sable Venus, mentioned the other day in response to your talk organized with Imani Day and Mario Gooden that she is constantly inspired by architecture, and as she sees it, architecture is always of and for the future. It reminds me that Cedric Price once set a rule for architecture: “it must create new appetites, new hungers—not solve problems, architecture is too slow to solve problems.”

To have the ability to be in a dialogue with amazing poets and artists, and with the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) at the University of Pittsburgh, is amazing for me because it’s about providing space and language for things that you know and feel. It is this expression which, in certain fields, is hidden and goes so unstated that you don’t even know how to reach for it.

I like that citation from Cedric Price because if I could just amend it, I would say we need to be in a situation where we can recognize the hungers that are already there. In the meantime, we need to be a part of engaging with people in ways that may not seem like typical architecture, but that are working on setting up situations where there can be a fulfillment of hungers that are already there. There is a hunger: there are people that don’t have places to live; there are people being pushed out of their apartments; there are all these kinds of lacks that have been and are still being produced.

Participants in the “Reparations” charrette at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, 2016. Photo by Heather Kresge.

a variety of people stand in a semicircle with papers in hand, reading aloud

At the beginning of the charrette at City of Asylum, you invited all the reparation-deserving individuals to the front of the stage and instructed them to disperse amongst the tables of participants to direct discussions, immediately making them leaders of each group. I know  you were working on various iterations of the charrette—were there any working methods you were referencing and replicating here?

No, I actually came up with that initial step on the spot. For anything in public space, you have to invent the public. When the charette is called, “This Is What We Will Build When We Get Our Reparations,” I simply assumed that the majority of the people in the room would be showing up to say, “When are we getting our reparations?” When I saw that this was not the case, I had to to take advantage of the steps I had already drawn up in order to make sure that those who identified as getting reparations would be the ones leading the group. This is an example of what we do as architects and urban planners. We make decisions based on what is at stake for whom. When it comes to “This is What We Will Build When We Get Our Reparations,” it is as if there is no constituted “We,” and we are already talking about “They.” In that situation, I needed to organize the “We” in order to avoid the “They.”

Participants in the “Reparations” charrette at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, 2016. Photo by Heather Kresge.

a group of 3 people sit around a folding table with papers and markers scattered on top in deep discussion

There’s this implication, when you are working in the realm of art and architecture in big cities, that gentrification is not so far behind. How do we as architects promote improvement without displacement, true self-sufficiency and solidarity with and within communities?

In social justice we have words like “gentrification” that are overused. We can sit here and critique something like gentrification—which, especially with its implication of the term “gentry,” is ultimately not that productive of a word—but on a fundamental level, why aren’t we working speculatively to design how housing could be self-sustaining as cities are transforming in the midst of climate change and everything else? If you are only working for white people with money in a place like Detroit, then it is the case that gentrification is not far behind. This gets back to the “We” and the “They” type of dichotomy. Obviously urban planning in America is a whole different discipline unto itself, but in architecture, we have two distinct modes of working. We work with clients whom we are competing for and marketing ourselves to, and then we work speculatively. While complicated, there are a number of ways to work on the marketing side with clients and not support the cultural hegemony and status quo. However, when we work speculatively, why would we ever assume that we are serving the status quo? In architecture, we have so much methodology for speculative work.

Participants in the “Reparations” charrette at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, 2016. Photo by Heather Kresge.

a group of people sit and stand around a white round table with papers, scissors, and markers scattered on top in deep conversation

How can the architectural imagination be broadly encouraged to think more about “community” and “activism,” and not just serve the privileged?

How many Black architecture critics can you name? We can’t name any Black architecture critics. Detroit is a majority Black city, but there are no Black architecture critics. Critics are wondering how they can step into this conversation, while protecting themselves from potential criticism due to failing to see one aspect or another. There is so much reification of self that is then packaged into the criticism. This is again part of the larger pathology, where if you suggest that somebody is racist, then you are assumed to be assaulting and offending them. In actuality, you are providing a useful critique, feedback on what somebody might want to work on.

Take Detroit, for instance: The architecture critical response basically was, “I am going to protect myself from a kind of failure of identification; I’m not going to do any research into Detroit; and I’m not going to talk to any of the activist groups on the ground.” There are activist groups in Detroit that have been around for decades working on different aspects of city planning, housing, food, urban farming, all of this. So, rather than doing any research, rather than exposing their fragility and working on it, architecture critics took Detroit Resists‘ response as a carte blanche for every single article that they wrote. They didn’t have to read any of the projects. It became the laziest architecture criticism, and not all, but much of it, became completely insulting to Detroit in addition to being a terrible representation of the architecture projects. The criticism became active erasure, stupidly ignorant and racist. There was so much in the projects, and this was a missed opportunity. Andrew Zago’s project regarding Syrian refugees took an international question and compacted it into the space of Detroit. On a local level, his project was incredibly relevant in part because of the high density of Arab Americans in the Detroit area, combining imaginative thinking and formal strategies with research into how development in Detroit can function on multiple scales. Detroit Resists’ position was problematic because the pretense was that an aesthetic imagination in architecture and architectural production is already foreign to residents of Detroit and to Black America, and that therefore, this aesthetic imagination has to be an imposition, when Black America actually had to be so amazingly imaginative and culturally productive in order to survive in this country. Black America reinvented nearly every musical form, every performative and poetic form, and you are going to say that they can’t participate in the architectural imagination? That is ridiculous.

Mitch McEwen facilitating the charrette, “This Is What We Will Build When We Get Our Reparations,” 2016. Photo by Heather Kresge.

Mitch, a Black woman with shaved hair, thick Black framed glasses, and a suit stands with a pic in one hand with the other hand raised high up in the air

You suggested during your talk that you like to consider Blackness as a software, as a protocol. How can a Black lesbian feminist subjectivity and sexuality be introduced and investigated through architectural -isms or parametric tools?

In a field that was only meant for white men, to be working on Black subjectivity is not even a project. Rather, it is just not participating in the hegemonic project which is to ignore Black subjectivity. That’s not my project. To acknowledge that Black people exist in American cities, that’s not a project. That’s just me not participating in a bizarre, white supremacist project of erasure. That’s just what everybody should be doing.

Participants in the “Reparations” charrette at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, 2016. Photo by Heather Kresge.

2 people over over a map and place small white cubes on top to signify buildings/mark spaces
a close up of a map with black text on some trace paper that reads "Who: Black and Brown People, What: New Downtown, Why: Stress-Free, High Paying Jobs of Power and Influence for Black and Brown People"

What would you recommend to young architects who are looking to engage with social justice as creative spatial practitioners?

I’m working on reparations not so much because it’s idealist, but because in a very real way, my practice is still emerging. When we get our reparations, I want to be there as one of the architects at the table. I would encourage us not to be shy about things like money and clients. It’s been pivotal for me to be around artists who offer a wonderful model for how you feed yourself and have a roof over your head—they demand to be paid a good amount of money and are still working on very radical ideas, still reimagining the status quo in this part of the world. It’s okay to demand that you have a hotel room while you work on something, and it’s okay to expect to be paid and compensated for your work at the same time that you are developing and working with resistance. There is going to be resistance somewhere, and it’s going to happen, so be ready and have the skills to work with and for that resistance. It doesn’t mean that if you are gathering techniques within a context and within an institution that you can’t do this work.

This interview was produced in partnership with the City of Asylum’s Sampsonia Way, an online magazine for literature, free speech, and social justice. An extended version of this conversation appears on Sampsonia Way.

Featured image: Designer Mitch McEwen speaks at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, 2016. Photo by Heather Kresge.

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