One Linear Mile: Towards a Hospitable Architecture

Jul 22, 2012

In architecture today, one could say that our problems are no longer formal, but social. The spatial politics of race and class, the privatization of public space, and the ecological crisis we all face on this planet -- all this is forcing us to think in profoundly different ways about architecture than we might previously have been inclined or educated to think. Our reluctance to take initiative perhaps explains why our work in the cultural sector over the last fifty years is often thought to be more successful at creating claims on progressiveness than at creating progressive change itself.

Aaron Levy, PhD, MPhil was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Slought (2002-2022), a...

As one response, I would like to propose the heuristic device of "one linear mile" as a possible model for how we can all negotiate these problems in our practices by thinking differently about architecture and agency, irrespective of place. I understand the concept of the linear mile to function as a metaphor for determining action wherever a thin line of proximity separates communities of need from communities of choice. In doing so, we can be attentive not just to the practice of building buildings, but also to the practice of building relationships.

Now I am not a particularly hierarchical thinker, nor do I approach the built environment from a formal architectural perspective, so I cannot tell you in these few pages what to do or think next. As an educator and practitioner who frequently negotiates the tensions that define the built environment, particularly in urban contexts, I hope that what I say might nevertheless be enabling to you in whatever you do. Throughout, my concern is the severe breakdown in trust between publics and institutions that has developed in recent decades, as well as the agency we have to mitigate this breakdown - an agency that makes us who we are and this society what it is.

Despite the massive data collection and analysis that occurs in non-governmental and governmental arenas, all of this so-called information rarely enables an understanding of what is really at stake for those that live in neighborhoods marked by decades of public disinvestment, the erosion of public education, and a lack of political representation. The challenge is perhaps nowhere so severe, or as legible, however, as in the predicament facing youth from marginal neighborhoods.

Our understanding of the stakes crystallizes in a recent remark made by a social worker at a public health conference in Philadelphia, concerning the current epidemic of violence and sexually transmitted diseases amongst youth. He acknowledged that his colleagues know more about the city's youth when they are on the autopsy slab than when they are still alive; public knowledge of the individual arrives post-mortem, when it is too late. What does it mean to live in a society in which you are invisible, only appearing to the public when you die? What does it mean for your life to only count in statistical form? How can we work back from these corpses and find value in life?

Part of the art of survival sometimes consists of not talking about what is painful. It can be paralyzing to consider the implications of these questions for architecture and design, as well as the myriad other pressures that define the urban landscape today, particularly on the neighborhood level. Perhaps we can begin by taking an anthropologist's gaze, if only to recognize that this crisis is in many respects a manufactured one, one that indicts our institutions and ourselves. Our challenge is to imagine practical ways to mitigate these uncomfortable realities, themselves decades in the making.

We need to think of the built landscape as a potent tool - one with the potential to enable social interfaces that can help rebuild lost trust between publics and institutions, as well as civic imagination and participation more generally. The heuristic device of one linear mile can help us think differently and more hospitably about architecture and agency. Mimi Cheng, Ken Saylor, Megan Schmidgal, and others at Slought have helped me develop the concept over the past few months, building from the realization that nearly all the tensions and divisions that define a city such as Philadelphia are typically concentrated within any given ten-block distance.

For instance, I work each day in a cultural institution located at 40th and Walnut Street. I can walk North on 40th toward the Mantua and Belmont neighborhoods, or West on Walnut Street. I can also walk East onto the University of Pennsylvania campus, or South towards Baltimore and Chester Avenues. Regardless of the direction in which I walk, within one linear mile I confront considerable shifts in formal and informal economy, institutional opportunities, and social relations, among other disparities.

My focus here will be on the ten blocks moving South that separate the corner of 40th and Brown from the corner of 40th and Walnut, and specifically the shift in public and private investment that occurs. At 40th and Brown, one encounters a predominantly Black neighborhood with a vibrant and resilient social fabric alongside neglected buildings, vacant lots, and impoverished residents. At 40th and Walnut, one encounters a predominantly White neighborhood, the commercial edge of a private university campus with manicured landscaping, a private security force, and sleek temporary housing, all masquerading as public space. As we walk from 40th and Brown to 40th and Walnut, we move across race and class, from eroded public school to elite private university, and from a landscape of public disinvestment to one of total privatization. If ever there was an opportunity to study architectural agency and its history of well-intentioned mistakes, surely it could be found here.

Far from eluding our grasp or sense of responsibility on account of their abstract nature, the tensions we find along this linear mile can also be negotiated within this same distance. We can aspire, for instance, to amplify and empower neighborhood voices and opportunities along these ten blocks, and to facilitate exchange between the everyday knowledge of neighborhoods and the specialized knowledge of institutions of higher learning. But rather than perform here additional analysis of the demographics and socio-economic disparities of this particular linear mile, it may be more productive to simply state that architects and others can enable interfaces between neighboring communities wherever they are found. It is in this sense that I propose the concept of the linear mile as a starting point for designing in response to the profound challenges we face.

Conceptually, the idea of the linear mile is informed by sociologist Elijah Anderson's ethnographic study of eight miles along Germantown avenue in Philadelphia, which stretch from the prosperity of the Main line suburbs to the North Philadelphia ghetto, and the Indian author Arundhati Roy's analysis of the proximity of the billionaire Mukesh Ambani's 27-story-high residence in Mumbai, the most expensive dwelling ever built, and the adjacent slums that are home to the impoverished and dispossessed. The concept of the linear mile also builds upon architect Teddy Cruz's research along the 60 linear miles that separates the favelas of Tijuana, Mexico from the wealth of La Jolla, California. It is Cruz's understanding that density can be more productively conceptualized in terms of social exchanges per acre, rather than the more conventional defining of housing units or residents per acre, and that architecture's task is thus the production of housing units that multiply social exchange. Cruz provides an important prompt to understanding architecture beyond building. He has argued for a definition of architectural practice that envisions buildings not as isolated units of private housing, and rather as essential elements in the construction of vibrant, diverse, and affordable neighborhoods.

Is this recognition of architecture's relationship to the urban fabric and the need to rethink its fixed role not the founding impulse of the Venice Architecture Biennale as well? Let us not forget that Vittorio Gregotti's inaugural impulse in 1975 with A proposito del Mulino Stucky was to critique the tendency to focus on an anthropological collection of the most recent output, and instead to recognize architecture as a fundamentally creative act - one that enables relationships and has the potential to transform the urban and social fabric in which we live.

We would do well to also remember that architecture was once understood as a seismograph through which to understand and negotiate contemporary conditions. Let us urgently rethink systems of display and power in a way that recovers and responds to this forgotten history. In doing so, we can be attentive not just to the practice of building buildings, but also to the practice of building relationships. We may need to re-conceptualize our understanding of architecture as well, at least as we generally have understood it, if only to imagine a different way to go about talking about what architecture can mean today, the structures and relationships it can generate, and, fundamentally, who will have access and opportunity to this potential. Moreover, we will need to think not just about the sustainability of materials or building performance, but of the social relations that are the real infrastructure of mixed neighborhoods. Let us begin, then, to approach every building, every site, and every exhibition as an opportunity to enable neighborhoods and communities that are more equitable - and in more than just name.