Conversations: Keller Easterling and Chat Travieso

Conversations: Keller Easterling and Chat Travieso

Keller Easterling—architect, writer, and the Enid Storm Dwyer Professor of Architecture at Yale—spoke with artist, urbanist, and designer Chat Travieso (MArch ’10), Fall 2023 Louis I. Kahn Visiting Assistant Professor.

Constructs You both look at ways in which infrastructure and the built environment act on people and spaces — or active form, to use Keller’s term. Chat, you’ve published the article “A Nation of Walls” in Places Journal, about segregation walls and infrastructures of division. You’ve also done work with interventions that have positive effects on the environment, such as amenities for seating and for playing music. How do you make sure that the effects that you’re trying to produce as a designer are positive? Keller, what examples of active form have you seen that ricochet correctly?

Chat Travieso I see urban interventions as both direct responses to everyday needs and poetic gestures. The work I do as an independent artist and designer, as well as with Yeju Choi for Yeju & Chat, is very much invested in working with what’s already happening on the ground. It’s meant to uplift existing efforts, not start from scratch. People are already adapting their built environments to everyday needs. There are already social bonds and relations, and the work is designed to reinforce those and learn from them at the same time. I also see the work as a catalyst for larger actions. The temporary nature of this approach can be disappointing, however: it activates the space and people are excited, and then it goes away. So what is the afterlife of the intervention? Can it spur changes in policy? Can it exist at another site? In my research work I try to investigate the histories and policies that have shaped the built environment in order to start thinking more expansively about alternative futures and systems. Of course, Keller, having been your student, my thinking has been greatly influenced by your work.

Keller Easterling We are talking about the design of things as well as of an interplay between things — how things might engage in a design ecology. It does not take away from anything the discipline already does but allows it to be effective in an additional register. It suggests interdependencies, or chain reactions, between things. The protocols for interactions are themselves infrastructures as worthy of funding as those of concrete and conduit. This is a moment when we’re rethinking the kind of infrastructures that build communities — that put together spatial, financial, social, or decommodifying protocols. It’s a prudent investment of our resources, it seems to me, since these kinds of interplay redouble any resource that’s given to them because they are alive. One seed, when planted, produces ten seeds. Capital doesn’t understand this. These are community economies, which create a superabundance of value beyond any financial registration value. I guess I am looking for entanglements that enrich the situation.

Constructs One thing you both do so well is build theory from very specific examples. What is your research methodology? And what new projects will you be taking on?

CT My research process tends to be circuitous and multipronged — guided by conversations, connections, and relationships that blossom and multiply over time. “A Nation of Walls,” my project exploring the history of segregation walls that you mentioned earlier, is a good example of this. I’m originally from Miami, and in 2016 I read N.D.B. Connolly’s book A World More Concrete, about the history of real estate and Jim Crow in South Florida. Connolly describes several race walls throughout Miami, including the one in the Liberty City neighborhood that was a model for others built throughout the country. There’s a footnote that discusses a wall in Detroit. I’ve always had an interest in my creative practice to subvert objects of exclusion in the built environment, namely walls and fences, and turn them into spaces of community, of action. Naturally the subject of segregation barriers deeply intrigued me. I emailed Connolly to ask, “Is there more information about these walls?” And he replied that all the books he’s read mention segregation walls only in passing, and there’s no comprehensive study. So that triggered the research project. Concurrently I was talking with Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play that the movie Moonlight is based on and started a youth program in Liberty City oriented toward theater. He’s from there too and we both attended the New World School of Arts — but he wanted to bring in a more social justice community-based design aspect. He mentioned how when they were filming Moonlight he told the young actors about the wall, and they were shocked to learn not only that there was a wall built to separate Black and White neighborhoods but that there are still remnants of that wall today. That led to the “Wall (In)” project, a summer arts program in which local youth investigate the history of the Liberty City wall, talk to community members, and come up with ideas for interventions. I worked with Arts for Learning Miami and architect Germane Barnes to develop and facilitate the program from 2017 to ’19. So “Wall (In)” informed “A Nation of Walls”, and vice versa. In the Places Journal article you cited, I quote from interviews conducted by the youth with Melba Rose, Hattie Walker, and Phillip Walker, who were instrumental in this project. One thing led to another, and I heard about more segregation barriers. People in Miami that I met were like, “Oh yeah, there was another wall over here.” “Oh, I remember those.” I wrote some things about this history online and started getting emails from people across the country telling me about walls in their hometowns. I also dove into the archives. So far I have uncovered evidence for more than thirty race barriers either still standing, removed, or planned in eighteen states. I try to ground this ongoing research as much as possible in oral histories and community engagement.

KE I want to work for you. Can you send me down to do a project in Miami? Some of the work I’m doing is on a different scale. Maybe it’s something to do with my personality; my shyness may lead me to work in some other register on this kind of collaborative work. But if you hired me to do that sort of work for you, I would do it. I’m working on something now that I’m really excited about. I’m reviving an old project from 1993: some counterfeit USGS maps and aerial photographs that were superimposing all the public land of the United States onto all the thin little stringy byways of interstate highway to claim a different mesh of land for many different negotiations. It was called ATTV because the first step was to merge some TVA land with the Appalachian Trail. The one I’m working on now is called ATTTNT. The idea is to highlight scars and wounds and trails and paths in the United States, and not shy away from the ugliness of this tangle. The line of connection is the Appalachian Trail, the Trail of Tears — one part of which happens to coincide with TVA public land — and the Natchez Trace. It makes a messy, vaguely linear formation passing through areas in Alabama and Mississippi that are rich with a 150-year history of elegant and resourceful resistance — freedmen towns, mutual aid societies, agricultural wheels, cooperatives, and episodes of the Civil Rights Movement. The Revolutionary Action Movement’s proposal for the Republic of New Afrika had its capital in the adjacent Kush District of the Mississippi. The formation prompts the memory of all of these things and more. The more than 6,000 miles of surface area aggregates land for reparations in new kinds of land trusts that can be used in many different ways. Rather than a single ideological solution, there is work being done on multiple fronts with multiple authors and constitutions to achieve a kind of opacity, fugitivity, and robustness. That’s the experiment we’re working on this summer. We are looking for low-hanging fruit in the inevitable failures of capital and governance — ways to release and decommodify land from property conundrums, forms of stagnation, oversubsidizing, and so on. It’s a different scale of endeavor, but it shares a habit of mind with what you’re doing.

CT I think what you’re doing is so fascinating, Keller. I’m very excited about it.

KE It also corresponds with your idea of making forms that return authorship to other people. The things you make break down barriers allowing other people to create their own forms. What will you be teaching at Yale?

CT I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m debating between going deeper with the wall research and exploring issues of borders and boundaries. Another side of my research is an interest in young people, creating a more open, inclusive city for them. Teens are not only seen as nuisances; they’re actively criminalized in public spaces, especially Black and Latinx youth. They are also completely forgotten in the design process. We think somewhat about young children. They have playgrounds, although we can think more expansively about this too. And obviously we consider adults in the process because those are the people who are typically doing the design. But where can teens go to feel safe and autonomous?

KE Teenagers are the subject. It seems like a good idea to try to be a teenager again. In fall 2020 we did a studio where teens had an important role. We looked at the fat White middle of the United States. It was a chance for a White institution to work on Whiteness — a chore that only White institutions should have to do. One of the sites in this tangle of problems was Minneapolis. We made a community land trust that would divert subsidies from the USDA as well as the overfunded police in the urban areas of Minneapolis. It diverted funds from two monocultures into a community land trust to create a chain reaction of training, jobs, renewable energy, building reuse, and edible food production in both urban and rural areas.

CT I love that. Rarely do studios interrogate spaces of privilege and Whiteness as sites that necessitate action. What if we work on those communities and institutions that have been hoarding resources and imagine ways to redistribute those resources more equitably? There are remnants of a race wall in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami. Unlike other spaces, like the Liberty City wall, where both sides of a wall are now predominantly Black due to white flight, the Coconut Grove wall still holds that color line. You see the redlining maps, and then you see the Google aerial view. You can see how the tree canopy is different — it absolutely aligns with the redlining map, which also aligns with where the wall is to this day. To address the disparity between the two sides of the wall — the difference in the tree canopy being just a symptom of deeper systemic injustices — and enact a reparative praxis, we must focus our attention on dismantling the structures that perpetuate advantages for wealthy White neighborhoods to the detriment of communities of color.

KE One thing we’re trying to do in the university is to demonstrate the importance of spatial variables to leveraging reparations. More authority is given to legal and econometric variables. It is stronger to multiply approaches to reparations — to make the effort more robust and harder to target. I wish culture had another kind of spatial fluency. In the university it’s remarkably hard to make even obvious arguments about the link between land tenure and the environment.

Constructs What are you both planning in terms of pedagogy for the year ahead? What are the things you’re hoping to invite students to think about at this moment in time? What excites you about teaching now?

CT Architects might not perceive how the law and policy have spatial consequences. I want to bring into the classroom an understanding of how policymaking can be a design tool that shapes our material geographies, as well as how architecture is a form of regulation. I also want to introduce students to participatory methodologies in which they would engage with community stakeholders, including young people, in the design process. Youth might not buy into some of the social, economic, and political assumptions that we make, so they are able to imagine alternatives that might allow us to see other worlds. That’s the really exciting part of teaching studio. The best kind of studio is not just a thought experiment but a potential tool for capacity building and imagining a world into existence.

KE Catalyzed a little bit by the pandemic and Zoom access to many different people, pedagogical experiments can treat students as if they have already started their careers. We are working together on something that can leap beyond the academy into contact with constituents, activists, and potential partners in design. We’re using the academy as a place to stage something that is not beholden just to this place but to many other people outside the university. Using the university to build coalitions across disciplines really raises the stakes. Students can find those partners now, while they are in school. Returning to the activist roots of the MED program, starting next year, there will be three fully funded researchers every year. Spatial knowledge and skills are crucial to working with other disciplines. It seems so important now for our students’ survival, and it extends applications of the skills we already have. It’s just that there’s more to do of what we know how to do.

Constructs Fall 2023