Spaces of Co-Liberation

Ana María León

From the day of its birth, the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality of all men, and sought to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed.

—W.E.B. Du Bois1

The Latin term “civitas” is traditionally defined as the social body of citizens united by law.2 Yet, who gets to be a citizen, and who gets to decide on the law? If the civitas is based on inclusion, who does it exclude? This underlying tension between civitas and difference is a matter of concern to architects in the design of public spaces and services. That is, spaces that are meant to be inclusive, yet operate within a civitas fragmented by relationships of oppression and exclusion. A possible answer to these challenges can be found through the work of two very different thinkers. If philosopher G. W. F. Hegel wrote one of Western thought’s best-known meditations on bondage and its consequences on identity, sociologist, historian, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois has masterfully disentangled and exposed the role of slavery in the identity of the United States.3 Reading Hegel with Du Bois can provide crucial insight in thinking about the challenges of the architect within the civitas, and how this challenge informs the design of public space.

Hegel constructs his master-slave dialectic by arguing that every human’s deepest desire is to have one’s self-consciousness as agency recognized. A hypothetical self encounters another, and each one’s desire for recognition leads to a confrontation: a fight to the death. The will that is overpowered by force and chooses not to die becomes the slave, while the triumphant will, the master, forms their identity from the recognition of the slave. But this is a false recognition, for the master is recognized as an entity by someone who they do not recognize back. Philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel stresses this paradox of the master, which he describes as an existential impasse.4 Ultimately the dialectic is resolved through the labor of the slave, who, by working and changing their environment experiences their own agency in the world, and thus achieves a recognition of their own self. Kojève’s stress on empowering of the slave and disqualifying the master gives his reading of the Hegelian dialectic a useful, subversive twist. Incorporating Marxist notions of class struggle, Kojève sees the disenfranchised as the key to a new, higher form of liberation—one that transcends confrontation and subjugation.

The United States is one of many nations that suffer from this existential impasse. The country’s long history of colonial practices started through the literal and metaphorical erasures perpetrated by European settlers against the multiple cultural groups that populate the region; it continued as part of the transnational exchange of forced labor, resources, and goods known as the triangle trade. Settler colonialism turned human bodies and land into “natural” resources occupying territory, incrementally expanding these political boundaries by purchase or war, and finally superseding them into a global system—a pattern that reverberates to this day.5 Once constituted as a nation, this system was covered within claims for liberty, civilization, and democracy, a contradiction that has been exposed by Du Bois in his magisterial work, Black Reconstruction.6

Du Bois explains two processes by which the United States specifically has been mired in this problem from its conception and which are of interest here: the production of a global system of capital built on racialized, forced labor, and the effects of this system at a human scale, in the construction of racism. In his examination of the plantation system leading up to the Civil War, Du Bois notes that “the real modern labor problem” stems from the fact that slavery does not originate from an intrinsic hatred of otherness, but rather from the desire to maximize profit through unremunerated, forced labor. Thus, racism was used to justify slavery in support of capitalism.7 We might extrapolate this pattern to the construction of otherness itself: only by constructing “othered” populations whose lives do not matter can capitalism extract labor from them, generating the necessary surplus value to operate at maximum profit. Reading Du Bois between the lines reveals the ways in which racial bias is produced through a fraught return to the Hegelian struggle for self-recognition. In his first chapters, Du Bois hints at a series of projections and correspondences between the black worker, the white worker, and the planter. In this system, the planter typifies the African worker as barbarous, lazy, ignorant, and wantonly sexual. At the same time, the planter himself embodies these qualities by enforcing a system dependent on violence and abuse (barbarous), leading a luxurious life of idleness (lazy), refusing to innovate or industrialize as it would challenge the chattel system (ignorant), and binding both white and black women within different but detrimental and violent patterns of abuse (wantonly sexual). Therefore, we read a projection of the qualities of the planter into the construction of racial bias towards the black worker.8 Caught between these two groups, the white worker, steeped in deep poverty, nevertheless aspires to the life of the planter and joins him in the oppression of the black worker.

This production of alterity accompanied the rise of the modern nation-state and its development to our contemporary moment. If Hegel sets up the existential impasse of the master/planter, Du Bois contextualizes this impasse within the system of capitalism and the production of racism. Reading Hegel with Du Bois suggests the master-slave relationship is produced for capital gain, but it imprints the master or planter with negative traits that are then projected onto the oppressed.

Architecture, a discipline dependent on power and capital, has traditionally served the master and remains beholden to its existential impasse. Hence, we find traces of this pattern in the history of public spaces, public buildings, and public infrastructure built by the state. The scientific rationality of the 1785 US National Land Ordinance’s gridding of newly-acquired territory covers architecture’s role in the colonization of occupied land. The modernization impulse behind the expansion of the railroad masks its complicity with the wars against Native Americans defending their soil and their way of life. The neoclassicism incorporated into the burgeoning state’s buildings effectively “whitened” the identity of the newly imagined community, ignoring the enslaved labor contained within them. The expansion of modernity itself carried within it a fetishization of otherness and the drive to clear space for the new, facilitating the destruction of struggling, disenfranchised communities. The use of public funding towards the construction of highways and the racialized suburbanization of the United States vacated jobs and capital from urban centers, while keeping people of color within them.9 These and other histories, which highlight the important role history has to play in our contemporary political moment, are too often absent from the architect’s education.10

This projection informs a pattern repeated in a long history of segregation policies up to the present. We see projection in the criminalization of African Americans through the prison industrial complex, while large corporations are allowed to evade taxes for increased profits. We see projection in the segregation of gender identities outside heteronormativity under vague sexual allegations of dangerous restrooms or challenges to the family unit, while the #MeToo campaign points clearly to where the real sexual predators can be found. We see projection in the policing of female bodies, their coverage, nourishment, and aging, while any culpability in cases of violence goes to the victim. We see projection in the exclusion of immigrants and refugees under vague notions of terrorism that ignore the mass shootings facilitated by the lack of appropriate gun control regulations. As scholar Ananya Roy has productively pointed out, these and other crimes are often perpetrated legally, when states regularize the illegalities of the powerful and criminalize the infractions of the subaltern and the marginalized.11

Thinking about the regulation of difference, political philosopher Iris Marion Young concludes that while the civic necessitates claims to impartiality, this impartial citizen is produced through the loss of others, often resulting in authoritarianism.12 Operating within systems of differentiation and oppression, supposedly public spaces can never be truly public—they always are, and have been, spaces of exclusion. Yet those who are excluded—discussed by critical theorist Nancy Fraser as “subaltern counterpublics” and by anthropologist James Holston as “insurgent citizens”—are key to the constitution of a public sphere.13 Thus while a civitas is defined by conformity with the law, public space can only be produced, and claimed, through the agency and presence of the very populations under threat of exclusion.13 Thus we have a contradiction between the civic and the public: if one is defined by exclusion, the other is produced by inclusion.

This contradiction begs the question: Who do architects design for when they design civic spaces that are meant for the public? Architects have a fraught relationship with communities struggling against exclusion—disenfranchised groups are mined for information, used as props for public relations, and in many instances, dismissed. Architecture’s autonomy anxiety has led the discipline to distance itself from the bodies that alternatively walk through its spaces, breathe the air within them, gaze upon them, and listen to their echoes, even while arguing these very readings might provide some sort of political resistance to the irrelevance of the discipline as it surrenders itself to the forces of real estate and the market.14

Depoliticizing the discipline leads to upholding discriminatory laws, serving predatory capital, and openly discriminating against the disenfranchised—in sum, it leads to collaboration with increasingly totalitarian states. At the root of this relationship between the architect and their constituencies, I argue, is the discipline’s existential impasse—the constant and implicit distance between the architect and the communities they design for. This exercise in othering is part of the discipline’s Western tradition, which ties the architect in a hierarchical chain of subservience to capital. Thus, depending on their relationship and proximity to power, the architect either plays the metaphorical role of the “master/planter” or that of its aspirational delegate and collaborator, the “white worker.” In the case of public space, the master is most often the state—not the bodies that might struggle to access, occupy, and claim those spaces. While serving these states, or the private interests embedded within them, architects cannot escape the problem of an existential impasse. They cannot but replicate the mechanisms of the higher power they serve under, and understand themselves as separate from communities which have been deliberately othered. Attempts to serve the disenfranchised still struggle with this separation by preserving the role of the architect as expert and by seeking to transform the “other” into a citizen.

The way out of architecture’s existential impasse follows a similar path as this revised master-slave dialectic. It is the agency of the oppressed in actively laboring and changing the world that makes them aware of their own humanity, leading to a cognizant, higher form of liberation. Thus the agency of the oppressed holds the key for self-recognition, and it is only by joining these very populations and understanding their leadership can the discipline understand and supersede its impasse. In order to resist the exclusionary potential of the civitas, the architect must become part of the community they are designing for. This is not to argue that architects must necessarily belong to or come from to the communities they serve, although certainly every effort must be made to diversify the discipline. Rather, I argue for a conceptual remapping of the role of the architect as critical members of the communities that work as concerted collectives to change their environments. Here I follow the Indigenous Action Media group, which advocates for “accomplices not allies,” that is, a rejection of the ally—as a separate, sympathetic, but ultimately condescending and advantage-seeking trope—in favor of an understanding of what it means to be in complicity with communities in struggle.15 To clarify, standing in complicity with those under struggle is the complete opposite to the French notion of “collaboration”—the cooperation with the representatives of power.16 As long as architects design for an “other,” they remain enmeshed in a discourse of alterity that prevents them from participating as active members of the community. Furthermore, as poet and organizer Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty explains, by emphasizing difference and privilege, alliance contributes to a politics of dehumanization. Petty proposes we can supercede this impasse through a politics of co-liberation which challenges us to understand that projects of exclusion affect us all, regardless of whether we are excluded or included by practices of systemic racism, gender discrimination, and predatory capital.17 What might this project entail for architecture?

An architecture of co-liberation understands that exclusionary spaces also affect the populations they include, by suggesting those included have a different, additional set of rights. An architecture of co-liberation refuses to collaborate with projects that participate in spatial practices of aggressive exclusion, particularly in carceral spaces such as the prison industrial complex, housing projects conceived as exclusionary spaces of investment rather than dwelling, infrastructural projects mobilized to push the urban poor away in order to make space for redevelopment, and the privatization of public space at large. An architecture of co-liberation understands public space can only be designed by making space for the leadership of those traditionally excluded because of gender, race, class, or origin. Projects such as Mapping the Water Crisis, the community research done by We The People of Detroit Research Collective, and the Abolitionist Planning for Resistance pamphlet, produced by the UCLA Abolitionist Planning Group, are instances of this ongoing task.18 In the words of Black Lives Matter, “we center the most marginalized, and look to them for leadership. We fight for our collective liberation because we are clear that until black people are free, no one is free. We are committed to practicing empathy for one another in this struggle.”19 Let us construct and understand architecture as a practice of co-liberation.

We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, _Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit: Volume One_, front cover,, 2016. © We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective

We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit: Volume One, front cover,, 2016. © We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective

UCLA Abolitionist Planning Group, _Abolitionist Planning for Resistance_,front cover,, Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin, 2016. © UCLA Abolitionist Planning Group / Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin

UCLA Abolitionist Planning Group, Abolitionist Planning for Resistance,front cover,, Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin, 2016. © UCLA Abolitionist Planning Group / Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin

Detroit Community Research Collective,

  1. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935), 3. 

  2. In Latin: concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati. William Smith, “Civitas (Roman),” A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: John Murray, 1875), 291–93. 

  3. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977 [1807]); and Du Bois, Black Reconstruction

  4. Alexander Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1969). 

  5. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, 1 (2012): 1–40. 

  6. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction

  7. There is a large body of research and debate on this matter, which I don’t have the space to fully reconstruct here. It is useful here to keep in mind Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as: “… the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 28. Cedric Robinson specifically ties the development of capitalism to racism in his term “racial capitalism”: “The development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology.” Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Press, 1983), 2. 

  8. A careful writer, Du Bois never outspokenly makes this connection, but it is there for the reader to find it. 

  9. Suburbanization also produced oil economies abroad that remain dependent on the fluctuations in the price of oil, just one example of the many transnational repercussions of these policies. 

  10. We find many of these histories in specialized forums, for instance in journals dedicated to vernacular architecture or cultural studies. In reaction to the events in Charlottesville, VA, of August 2017, I initiated a crowdsourced reading list on how race and racism are constructed with spatial means, and on how in turn space can be shaped by racism. This reading list, collectively produced by over forty architectural historians, is meant primarily as a teaching resource. It’s open to the public and available here: I have also been involved in reformulating the histories we teach through the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC). See FAAC, “Counterplanning from the Classroom,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 76:3 (September 2017): 277–79. 

  11. Ananya Roy, “The City in the Age of Trumpism,” a talk at Taubman College (November 17, 2017), See also Ananya Roy, “The Infrastructure of Assent: Professions in the Age of Trumpism,” The Avery Review 21 (January 2017). 

  12. Iris Marion Young, “Impartiality and the Civic Public,” in Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in Late-Capitalist Societies, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1987). Hannah Arendt precedes this critique when she finds that attempts to overcome plurality result in the arbitrary domination of others, or an imaginary world where these others do not exist: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 234. 

  13. Here I am deliberately eliding more idealized definitions of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt in favor of a position of inclusion of difference, following Chantal Mouffe, Oskar Negt, and Alexander Kluge, among others. For discussion on some of these positions vis-à-vis public space, see “Agoraphobia,” in Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). See also Reinhold Martin, “Public and Common(s),” Places Observer (January 2013):

  14. I refer here to Peter Eisenman’s insistence on the reading of architecture as an instrument of resistance to power, most recently in Peter Eisenman, Kurt W. Forster, Jacques Herzog, and Philip Ursprung, “The End of Theory? A Conversation,” e-flux architecture (November 10, 2017):

  15. Indigenous Media Group, “Accomplices not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex,” Indigenous Action (May 4, 2014):

  16. A notion that stems from collaboration with the Axis powers during World War II. 

  17. Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty, “Shifting the Language: From Ally to Co-Liberator,” Eclectablog (December 17, 2017):

  18. See Abolitionist Planning for Resistance,; and We The People of 

  19. “Black Lives Matter issues a statement on Trump’s election,” (November 15, 2016):