Harvard University has recently confronted its history with the release of a report detailing the institution's complicity in enslavement, stretching back to its founding. This revelation arrives amid a broader national discourse on reconciliation and remediation of our country’s oppressive history. The Reconstructions Options Studio engages with this report and additional literature to critically analyze and respond to the spatial, programmatic, and political implications emerging from such histories, both locally and globally. We understand architecture not as an isolated remedy but as an integral part of a broader array of strategies and future visions aimed at addressing the legacies of violence entrenched in our built environment.
The course challenges students to transition from passive observers to active participants by recognizing, evaluating, and responding to the complex racialized political systems that inform both our tangible and conceptual spaces. This process involves reimagining the potential of architecture in crafting new typologies of freedom through the dismantling of oppressive systems.
Reflecting on the post-Civil War era, the Reconstruction period was a time of revolutionary potential, marked by efforts such as colonization plans for the South, the redistribution of abandoned lands, and the extension of rights and services, including voting rights, healthcare, and education, to formerly enslaved individuals. Despite these progressive initiatives, subsequent political and social maneuvers ultimately undercut the transformative potential of Reconstruction. Through political disenfranchisement, spatial restriction, and the manipulation of historical narratives, the era's reparative actions were significantly undermined.
The perpetuation of oppressive ideologies often depends on the construction of a monolithic narrative, the commemoration of those narratives within our physical infrastructures, and the consequent obliteration of alternative historical narratives. As Paula Gunn Allen succinctly put it, "The root of all oppression is the loss of memory," suggesting that the foundation of liberation is, conversely, the unyielding preservation and recognition of memory—in culture, tradition, land, and place.
In opposition to power systems that necessitate the erasure of memory from marginalized groups for the sake of assimilation, Design Justice posits that the narratives we craft about places matter. Architecture, as a language, equips us with the means to narrate complex stories—because stories are powerful. They embed themselves in our locales, from neighborhoods to blocks to buildings, transforming memory into a monument. Thus, the place becomes significant. The cultural narratives that we allow to prevail in the built environment give birth to places of culture—because culture matters profoundly.
In this studio, we endeavor to confront and ideate upon the physical manifestations of spatial reparation that are necessary as frameworks for liberation. We will investigate and propose designs that both challenge the past and offer scaffolding for a liberated future.