Conversations: Jordan H. Carver and AJ Artemel
AJ Artemel (MArch ’14), director of communications at the Yale School of Architecture and a member of Citygroup, spoke to writer, educator, and designer Jordan H. Carver, currently the KPF Visiting Scholar and critic at the Yale School of Architecture, about the importance of rendering the spaces of disappearance visible.
AJ Artemel You’ve done a lot of investigation into black sites employed in the “War on Terror,” published in your book Spaces of Disappearance: The Architecture of Extraordinary Rendition (2018). How did you get into that line of research?
Jordan H. Carver It came from being shocked by the spectacle and politics of the United States opening secret prisons around the world and torturing people in them. Once I dug into reports from the media and human-rights organizations I developed a more comprehensive understanding of it. There was a spatial strategy to shipping prisoners around the world, so the initial idea was to understand the interrogation and torture of suspected terrorists as a form of spatial organization. But there is also a larger question of state sovereignty and how the United States formulated its authority across the world, not just in Guantanamo Bay or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in places like Syria and Egypt and Israel, and in international waters. What is state sovereignty and how is it produced? And what spaces are produced to establish claims of sovereignty? The other goal was to draw it — to make it visible — because these sites were black: they were rendered invisible through a lack of imagery, through secrecy and redaction. So the project was to comb through reports and leaked documents and Wikileaks and translate that source material into architectural representation. The book has three big sections, one of which is comprised entirely of drawings based on textual evidence and presented as evidentiary documents.
AA The question for architects might be one of complicity: translating abstract policy or bureaucracy into hard walls and barbed wire. What do you think about recent efforts to organize against designing prisons? Do you think the discipline has learned to take a clearer ethical stance?
JHC I’m not sure I would use the term complicity. The architects that design prisons or, in the case of black sites, the modular cells that could be shipped to Guantanamo Bay and around the world — that’s what they do, it’s their business. It’s not that their work gets twisted into something undesirable and they don’t speak up. These firms specialize in making prisons. I’m all for trying to amend ethical guidelines for the AIA and other professional organizations, as well as university programs, that would restrict members from building prisons and execution chambers, like ADPSR [Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility] is doing, or calling on members of design organizations to refuse to build something like the border wall. I don’t think the AIA is going to take that on, and I’m not sure the AIA has proven to be a valuable partner in adjudicating professional ethics. I think the arena for addressing ethical practice is in the university, by teaching and modeling ethical practice in the classroom and studio. It’s hard to understand that there are architectures that produce forms of violence, racialization, and inequality around the world. These ideas should be part of a broader pedagogical understanding of the practice and the profession. There will always be a market for building prisons unless architects join in to support networks of abolition.
AA You’ve done a lot of work on labor in architecture, including activism around construction work. What has been your experience with the coalition Who Builds Your Architecture? What is the next focus of the fight in the wake of COVID-19?
JHC For a long time Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?) was focused on forced labor on construction sites in Istanbul and Doha, yet there are plenty of cases of underpaid work here in the United States, an issue that overlaps with questions of migration. At WBYA? we’ve always been cognizant that we’re not operating as a policy group. We’re not a human-rights organization. We’re a group of educators, and our goal is to bring questions of construction work, and fair labor more broadly, into the studio and classroom. We produce materials for professional-practice courses to bring these issues into discourses that would not necessarily consider them. The most productive use of our time has been working with people such as Peggy Deamer and Phil Bernstein, as well as the Architecture Lobby, to build a more cohesive organizational network focusing on issues of architectural labor. WBYA? is still focused on labor on the jobsite, but coming out of COVID-19 we’re trying to reorganize and focus more on wider local labor concerns. Architects have worked really, really hard to not be responsible for things that happen on the construction site, but with that they also lose the ability to speak up about things like safety, wages, and labor standards.
AA Absolutely. This past semester you taught an advanced studio with Mabel Wilson, as well as the seminar “Architecture, the State, and Racial Formation.” One thing that you’ve brought up several times is the role of architectural education in promoting a broader type of change in the ethical landscape of the profession. What is your conception of the role of pedagogy in examining these issues? What new tools are students getting to better equip them to face the world of architecture?
JHC I was trained both in an architecture school and in an interdisciplinary humanities program, where I got a PhD. The seminar and studio this spring were conceived of as interdisciplinary courses. Architecture is not an individual act; it’s a group act requiring cooperation — there are a lot of authors to every architecture project. That’s also how academic research is done. The seminar is intended to reach outside of architecture as a discipline to think about how architecture fits into larger structures — in this case those of the state — and into the processes of racial formation. To do this we have to go outside of the architectural canon and then bring in architecture little by little. Toward the end of the semester we were reading texts on architecture written by architects, but we also spent lots of time thinking through the political history of the United States and its long legacy of racialization, and how space relates to both. Pedagogically the goal is to situate architecture within a broad network of interests, practices, and experiences and to understand that enriching architectural education, in terms of both design and spatial literacy, requires a multidisciplinary approach. The other side of this idea is to reinforce what architects do — the power of understanding space.
AA You’ve changed scales this year, from the architecture of prisons to the territories of post-plantation landscapes, in the studio. What are the connections between designing buildings for incarceration and territory as the spatialization of a state formation in the American case: the mapping, gridding, surveying, and transforming of land into an engine for production?
JHC The theme connecting most of my work is the underlying question about how state sovereignty, particularly American, is manifested in space, whether through particular architectures like prisons or through techniques of mapping and marking the land. I’m interested in the failure of state sovereignty — the impossibility of sovereignty — the fact that it’s not possible to have total control over the land, in the same way that it’s not possible to have total sovereignty over your own body in space. Yet I still focus on materials and form. One of my current projects traces the history of materials accumulating at the border: maps and monuments as well as fencing and electronic surveillance equipment. What are they actually like? What is the material of the monument doing? When did it go from stone to cast iron? Why is it in the shape of an obelisk? When did fencing arrive? What is the history of that fencing material, from World War II advanced air defense bases and the landing strips that launched napalm attacks in Vietnam to the border between the United States and Mexico? How does surveillance equipment produce images of migrants, and how do those images feed into discourses on migration? I am researching the links between the continual failure of sovereignty and its material manifestation, and how those links circulate through political narratives.
AA That’s a very interesting way to put it. It’s also interesting how material landscapes produce failure, like when the Jeffersonian grid runs up against mundane things like hills and rivers, and other real-world conditions that resist the inscription of ideas. You spoke about how one part of your book is about drawing the spaces of black sites and producing documentation. What are some other ways to understand how abstract ideas, such as those as executed by a bureaucracy, are attempting (and failing) to generate a spatial reality?
JHC For every bill passed in the Senate, for every policy proposal and speech the Mayor of New York or the President gives, there’s a rich narrative embedded. But architects can help understand what is actually being proposed — how it will look and function as an everyday lived experience. I did a book with photographer Chad Ress, who took the American Recovery Act and photographed what the money was actually funding. There is power in these big landscape-style photographs that show what government funding can and cannot do. And so, for me, it’s through drawing, photography, modeling, and other standard tools of architectural representation that we can understand space in new ways. And, most importantly, we can also rework given narratives. There is real power in understanding different modes of visibility and different modes of aesthetic presence.