On Dimensions of Citizenship

Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, and Mimi Zeiger

Without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped by blind history, economics, and politics beyond our control. One is tied up in a web, in a net, with no way to struggle free. Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there in a reality tomorrow will bring all too quickly.

—Samuel R. Delany, “The Necessity of Tomorrows”

To watch the news in the United States in 2018—that is, to follow streams of media inputs across various haptic devices, from various time zones—is to observe a nation actively reckoning with what it means to be a citizen. The question of belonging, of who should be included and how, is asked with every athlete taking a knee, every #metoo, every presidential tweet, and every protest sign or fist raised. Today, as transnational flows of capital, digital technologies, and geopolitical transformations expand, they undermine conventional notions of citizenship. It isn’t any monumental allegiance to flag and country that newly shapes the denotation and connotations of the term; rather, it is the intimate yet complex relation between ourselves and the actual and virtual spaces we inhabit—and the future worlds of which we dream.

Those gulfs between an individual citizen and a nation, and, parallel anthropogenic gulfs between nationalism, globalism, and cosmicism, are territories in which to explore the critical question: How might architecture respond to, shape, and express changing ideas of citizenship? This is not an obvious question to ask, nor an easy question to answer, but it is nonetheless requisite for architecture and architects, design and designers to assume any agency in visualizing the many alternatives, good and bad, of tomorrow.

We begin by defining citizenship as a cluster of rights, responsibilities, and attachments, and by positing their link to the built environment. Of course architectural examples of this affiliation—formal articulations of inclusion and exclusion—can seem limited and rote. The US-Mexico border wall (“The Wall,” to use common parlance) dominates the cultural imagination. As an architecture of estrangement, especially when expressed as monolithic prototypes staked in the San Diego-Tijuana landscape, the border wall privileges the rhetorical security of nationhood above all other definitions of citizenship—over the individuals, ecologies, economies, and communities in the region. And yet, as political theorist Wendy Brown points out, The Wall, like its many counterparts globally, is inherently fraught as both a physical infrastructure and a nationalist myth, ultimately racked by its own contradictions and paradoxes.

Calling border walls across the world “an ad hoc global landscape of flows and barriers,” Brown writes of the paradoxes that riddle any effort to distinguish the nation as a singular, cohesive form: “[O]ne irony of late modern walling is that a structure taken to mark and enforce an inside/outside distinction—a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and between friend and enemy—appears precisely the opposite when grasped as part of a complex of eroding lines between the police and the military, subject and patria, vigilante and state, law and lawlessness.”1 While 2018 is a moment when ideologies are most vociferously cast in binary rhetoric, the lived experience of citizenship today is rhizomic, overlapping, and distributed. A person may belong and feel rights and responsibilities to a neighborhood, a voting district, remain a part of an immigrant diaspora even after moving away from their home country, or find affiliation on an online platform. In 2017, Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft, reported a user community of 46 million people across their international server network. Thus, today it is increasingly possible to simultaneously occupy multiple spaces of citizenship independent from the delineation of a formal boundary.

Conflict often makes visible emergent spaces of citizenship, as highlighted by recent acts both legislative and grassroots. Gendered bathrooms act as renewed sites of civil rights debate. Airports illustrate the thresholds of national control enacted by the recent Muslim bans. Such clashes uncover old scar tissue, violent histories and geographies of spaces. The advance of the Keystone XL pipeline across South Dakota, for example, brought the fight for indigenous sovereignty to the fore.

If citizenship itself designates a kind of border and the networks that traverse and ultimately elude such borders, then what kind of architecture might Dimensions of Citizenship offer in lieu of The Wall? What designed object, building, or space might speak to the heart of what and how it means to belong today? The participants in the United States Pavilion offer several of the clear and vital alternatives deemed so necessary by Samuel R. Delany: The Cobblestone. The Space Station. The Watershed.

Dimensions of Citizenship argues that citizenship is indissociable from the built environment, which is exactly why that relationship can be the source for generating or supporting new forms of belonging. These new forms may be more mutable and ephemeral, but no less meaningful and even, perhaps, ultimately more equitable. Through commissioned projects, and through film, video artworks, and responsive texts, Dimensions of Citizenship exhibits the ways that architects, landscape architects, designers, artists, and writers explore the changing form of citizenship: the different dimensions it can assume (legal, social, emotional) and the different dimensions (both actual and virtual) in which citizenship takes place. The works are valuably enigmatic, wide-ranging, even elusive in their interpretations, which is what contemporary conditions seem to demand. More often than not, the spaces of citizenship under investigation here are marked by histories of inequality and the violence imposed on people, non-human actors, ecologies. Our exhibition features spaces and individuals that aim to manifest the democratic ideals of inclusion against the grain of broader systems: new forms of “sharing economy” platforms, the legacies of the Underground Railroad, tenuous cross-national alliances at the border region, or the seemingly Sisyphean task of buttressing coastline topologies against the rising tides.

Certainly, the troublesome ebb and flow of the United States’ immigration policy past and present continues to thwart any utopian quest for an architecture of sanctuary. And no conversation on contemporary citizenship can occur without confronting the current set of mass migrations and expulsions leaving so many stateless. This is why Dimensions of Citizenship presents experiences and spaces of belonging that defy, transgress, or undermine conventional boundaries. These are experiences and spaces that are not defined by enclosure, but by movement, transition, and the attendant frictions and detours of moving from point A to point B.

In Expulsions, sociologist Saskia Sassen argues that often, today, complex systems—social, economic, political—in divergent contexts often produce the same simple brutalities: the expulsion of people from where they once belonged. Across different dimensions of crisis—from home foreclosures during the recession to mass incarceration in the United States, from international industries of extraction to global environmental calamity—today’s lived experience has become precarious, if not perilous for more and more people. In this way, changing forms of citizenship, notably mass migration, can also be read as manifestations of seemingly impenetrable systems—such as market derivatives and climate predictions, now beyond any collective understanding and control—and act as lenses to evaluate their effects, ethics, and suggest tomorrow’s interventions.

“[W]hat are the spaces of the expelled?” Sassen asks. Her conclusion advocates for recognition of these “conceptually subterranean” conditions. “They are,” she writes, “potentially the new spaces for making—making local economies, new histories, and new modes of membership.”2 Dimensions of Citizenship means to add the making of new architectures and new methodologies for architectural practice. The exhibit is in part an act of rendering visible these temporally defined spaces, harder to draw than a red line on a map. Ultimately, with visibility comes the formalization of the previously informal and, subsequently, a space for design.

Architecture, urbanism, and the built environment—these form a crucial lens through which we come to understand better what, perhaps, we all already know: that citizenship is more than a legal status, ultimately evoking the many different ways that people come together—or are kept apart—over similarities in geography, economy, or identity.

When investigating the spatial relationships between architecture and citizenship, it is tempting to ascribe a pressing temporality to our own heated moment. Yet even shadowed by the gut-punch headlines so common in this particular political climate, the questions are much larger and much older than any single administration provokes. Politics only sheds light on existing conditions. A broader point of view transcends those conditions and frames them within a context of both longer-term and wider-reaching struggles and ambitions.

A historical point of view suggests that while questions about citizenship are urgent, they are also timeworn. Our accelerationist blip on the radar of history is just a couple ticks away from the seemingly democratic armatures of ancient Greece or the ideal cities of the Renaissance—two examples that come with accompanying architectures of inclusion and exclusion. In looking back, we are reminded that there has never been (nor likely will there be) a golden age of citizenship. It isn’t a stable condition, but rather a continuing site of contention, despite attempts try to idealize, formalize, and fix it in place.

As a city-state the Republic of Venice, for example, used to orchestrate an efficient, brutal, and complex system of trade and cultural exchange in its pre-modern heyday; now it is a site where several elements of the global cultural economy converge: film, art, architecture, and mass tourism. Local bonds of identity, critical to unifying the far flung empire of the past, barely register in the lucrative exchanges transacted in the city. The city’s current inhabitants—migrants, refugees, temporary workers, and long-time residents—operate in a condition of seeming statelessness: demoted to second tier citizens in the cities they call home. The architectures that make up Venice’s famed urban fabric are increasingly subject to foreign-owned, empty residences and short-term rentals. Its shipping lanes are rerouted for passing cruise ships whose scales of size and population dwarf the city’s sinking foundations.

It is here in the realities of the invisible city described by Marco Polo to Kubla Khan that we find the uncomfortable conflation of the local and the global. Parsing such slippery, subjective territory prompts another paradox: the understanding of the self as “citizen” and the other as “stranger” is constructed by, even as it constructs, the built environment. As scholar Engin F. Isin, writes in Being Political: Genealogies of Citizenship, “[G]roups cannot materialize themselves as real without realizing themselves in space, without creating configurations of buildings, patterns, and arrangements, and symbolic representations of these arrangements.”3 This is the need to materialize, to render visible structures of belonging.

Our goal with Dimensions of Citizenship is to reflect contemporary configuration of belonging as they operate across a series of points from the individual body to heavenly bodies. For example, in the shared etymologies of the words citizen, civitas, and city, we read that acts of architecture are also acts of inclusion, and that these manifest across dimensional scales. By organizing the exhibition around seven such spatial parameters—Citizen, Civitas, Region, Nation, Globe, Network, and Cosmos—we pay homage to Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten film and the telescopic way that they represented and showed the affinity of the smallest and the largest points of our existence. Leading us to commission seven practices to take on the seven scales, this framework serves as a conceit and means to bring together a diverse set of designers, enabling each team to go deep into one particular area of research and design. If this scalar framework is restrictive, we hope that it forms productive restrictions: boundaries against which the exhibitors can chafe, wrangle, and entangle themselves—bringing the viewer and discourse along with them.

We are aware that this framework emerges from a decidedly humanistic position. In accepting concepts drawn from Renaissance thinking about the ideal city and the social armatures (both religious and secular) that have led to particular developments of inclusion and exclusion, we also bear the weight of certain embedded biases. In a recent Artforum interview, architect and scholar Mabel Wilson calls on architects to ask what are the other, more diverse kinds of subjectivity that don’t fall within humanist thinking or discourse. “Architecture has always propped up Man with a capital M, whether we’re talking about the Vitruvian Man in classical antiquity or Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man in the twentieth century, and architecture has always excluded other ways of being human,” says Wilson.4

Alternative methodologies lead to alternative futures. Ideas drawn from cinema, Afrofuturism, agonism, and speculative design undergird the new works on display and run through the films and videos shown in what we call the Transit Screening Lounge. Works draw on the violent lineage of slavery and fugitivity in black history and culture, yet find liberatory spatial practices; represent the ways in which stateless people endure and risk potentially fatal exodus in search of asylum; and document alternative ecological geographies against the growing spector of transnational corporate power and neo-nationalisms.

It should come as little surprise that issues of citizenship in the so-called Anthropocene emerged as a recurring sub-theme in the exhibition, with the recognition that citizenry might extend to non-human actors. While Sassen tracks the conditions in which environmental crisis has led to human migration, homo sapiens are only one agent of the global ecosystems—who happen to have, in some situations, mobility—other citizens from microbe to mammal must bear the impact in situ.

Dimensions of Citizenship does not solve or fully untangle the complex relationships of governance, affinity, and circumstance that bind us, citizen to stranger, self to other. Instead, it uses design—spatial research and speculation, drawing and dreaming—as a means to engage and visualize the legal, cultural, and ecological ties that bind.

Because citizenship is comprised in part by our actions in the public realm, by our voicings of discontent, desires, or demands, Dimensions of Citizenship stakes out a crucial agency within the architectural discipline. We posit this exhibition as a necessary framework for future conversations about the conditions, methodologies, and interventions of inclusion and exclusion that impact all of us. Our intent is to render visible paradoxes and formulations of belonging. Only when these new understandings of citizenship are in sight might we struggle free from antiquated definitions, forms, or bureaucracies and activate potent spaces for new design possibilities.

  1. Wendy Brown, Waning Sovereignty, Walled Democracy (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 24–25. 

  2. Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 222. 

  3. Engin F. Isin, “City as a Difference Machine,” in Being Political: Genealogies of Citizenship, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 43. 

  4. Mabel O. Wilson and Julian Rose, “Changing the Subject: Race and Public Space,” Artforum, Summer 2017.