Prison is a second-by-second assault on the soul, a day-to-day degradation of the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days.
Children do not only have an innate hope; they are hope. And more than that: they are our future. As
Kahlil Gibran writes, they are like “living arrows sent forth” into infinity, and their souls “dwell in the house of tomorrow…” They carry their hope with them to a future we can’t see.
—Mumia Abu Jamal, Activist, Black Panther, Father, and current US political prisoner serving a life sentence
As Germane, Shawhin, and I have been discussing this essay, I have to say that it has been a very difficult one to write. First, I will begin by suggesting that who we are matters more than the ideologies we take on as architects. However, after writing six or seven-thousand words in another draft, trying to touch upon the relationship between architecture, white supremacy, personal identity, and the anecdotes that tie those things together, I realized that that is a bit bigger than what this particular issue or my essay can do. So, with their blessings, I decided to focus on one invisible facet of my life to tease out an autobiographical genre of architectural writing, where it is not the recitation of ideas, the canonical links between them, or name-dropping nepotism, but a manifestation of who I am verifying that architecture shapes us and in turn we shape it back, as painful as that may be.
Architectural theory is pretty dead if you ask me. I find it irrelevant in that the same issues get reprinted in Log and Perspecta all the time with the same people, some who are included in this issue of MAS Context. I hope we are not desperate enough to buy into the canon building we are being sold by them. Them = a white-supremacist loose canon. However, I have hope about making architectural writing relevant to a world and people that it hasn’t fully represented. Frankly, it is through the anecdote, through the manifestation of our identities—not the white ones that would have been represented anyways—as the driver of ideas in design and the built environment. In addition, by writing this piece I am forced to live a truth that can never be reified by any op-ed or well-argued theory in architecture, however supported by our institutions they may be. I haven’t done this publicly, only in small close-knit communities that I have found myself safe in. That is to say, the way I think about architecture is fundamentally shaped by who I am and by the myriad of ways I was introduced to it—through joy and trauma.
Who you are, before becoming an architect, can be more important than who you are now, not in the sense that it is the only thing that defines you, but certainly in that your story matters to the development of who you are as a person, who happens to be an architect. Recently, I was asked how I got into architecture. I have been giving the same answer for close to twenty years, which is that my mother worked at an art store in Coral Gables, Florida and I was lucky enough to be exposed every day after school to artists, designers, musicians, and architects, but also encouraged to test out different disciplines having a myriad of tools I could “borrow.” This time was incredibly influential in that it was a privilege that shaped my early aesthetic and disciplinary interests, but also because I probably shouldn’t have had that opportunity based on the socioeconomic reality for my family. I grew up in a Cuban single-parent impoverished working class household with an extended family under one roof. For reasons that perhaps you will understand at the end of this essay, I have not been fully honest with my origin story, particularly with what caused my family to be in that situation.
You see, this story is ubiquitous depending on where you grew up, and in Miami there are no shortages of it. I was born in 1985. If we know anything about Miami in the 80s it’s Miami Vice, Cuban immigration, and cocaine. These happen to be the material facts to my story because in 1989 my father was arrested for cocaine distribution and money laundering by the United States Federal Government and would be convicted, spending the next seventeen years of his and my life in prison. Aside from my origin story being one filled with creative design or exposure to art culture, perhaps my pathway to architecture was more profoundly shaped by my relationship to incarceration—emotionally, physically, and later, intellectually.
The sections of this essay are centered on concepts that obviously intertwine with my personal narrative. The first is the concept of discipline that connects most directly to the history of my father’s incarceration and its effect on my life, as well as my loose indoctrination into the discipline of architecture. The second concept is the notion of house, an incredibly loaded term in architecture. I want to connect house more directly to the practice of creating a house from a chosen family and a particular situation, but fundamentally not viewed as favorably as a home. Finally, I want to take on the concept of tomorrow, particularly the concept of futurity or modeling the world currently in ways you hope a future might be. Ideally the narrative that you will read will weave in the personal anecdote with architectural ideas with radical forms of politics and compassion, so as to fundamentally do a few things: (1) critique incarceration and prison in all its facets; (2) blast the gatekeepers of the discipline of architecture and its inherent white supremacy; (3) and call on architects, students, and educators to develop an abolitionist framework moving forward.
There are two essential points in this origin story that define my interest in architecture. The first is obvious. From a very early age, I understood the physical and emotional limits of freedom, as well as the impossibility of humaneness in the design of prisons. The second point might sound a bit trivial. I have read many admissions essays and heard lots of you say things like, “the first time my parents took me to Rome, it changed how I saw space…” or “ever since I was a child, I remember my father working away at his drafting table.” Ironically, that last cliche is close to my truth.
The first time that I was introduced to the idea of becoming a professional architect was when, one random day on one of the thousands of phone calls I had with my father in the 1990s while in prison, he mentioned to us that he was about to take a class in something called AutoCAD offered in the minimum security prison in which he would spend the end of his sentence. It was truly a special moment for a few reasons: first, it made me think that one day when my father would be released and he would go straight; and second, AutoCAD was exploding in media advertisements of that era, specifically on ITT Tech commercials where they would present computer-aided drafting as the cutting edge. The camera angles, music, lighting, and focus on the computer mouse’s ability to make points and lines on an infinite grid of space on a computer screen, all enamored me. My dad wasn’t an architect; he only went to one class, but I am really glad he mentioned something about AutoCAD to me that day.
I was a curious and creative kid with an incarcerated father that took one drafting class in prison. And now I’m sitting here writing about how all this has more power over the way I see architecture than all the canons, the supposedly important figures turned mentors, and/or the colleagues who continue to perpetuate the institutional propaganda of American architecture. You might want to question that premise because I certainly feel like an imposter suggesting it. However, I have hindsight and I’m mature enough to know what a gut feeling is. Intuition and authenticity are essential for any discourse in architecture, so let me manifest some of these truths and let’s see what you think afterwards.
What is discipline if not an action one does to something else? I think this idea that there is a discipline of architecture can be both problematic and liberating. It is problematic because of people telling us that it is a place that they identify or own, for lack of a better word. It can be liberating in the sense that if we are able to discipline something, perhaps we have a little more control over the world than we thought. The problem occurs when choosing a form for discipline to take. My goal with this identity-first genre of criticism is to complicate discipline by explaining a couple of different ways I have experienced it in my life, before and after I studied architecture.
First, I have experienced discipline within the carceral state, as it relates to my father’s incarceration. This form of discipline took the shape of growing up without a parent, of asymmetrical access to a parent. This means that every milestone, important conversation, and/or potential learning experience that a parent can share with a child would be mediated by a form of discipline: punishment. In many cases, discipline also took the form of a phone call every single day for seventeen years. Discipline also took the form of me losing bodily autonomy when visiting my father, since certain things are restricted for everyone in a visitation center, in effect extending the carceral state to you even though you have done nothing wrong. Discipline also looked like being very worried about sharing this information with people around you. In effect, this fear completes the panopticon because you police your own lived truths and who has access to it around you. In essence, this form of discipline is Foucauldian, occupying both soft and hard manners of application.
Punishment is certainly the hardest discipline possible. However, there are other less punitive versions of discipline that pertain to the formation of architectural pedagogy, how it is taught, and the expectations that are set in regards to how one should receive it. Eleven years ago, I moved to Chicago to finish a post-professional Masters in Design Criticism at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and had the chance to study under the tutelage of a couple of different critics and theorists, most notably Robert Somol. From the onset, the term discipline permeated every conversation, assignment, and expectation set upon not only the students but also the faculty around us. This might seem like an exaggeration, but I challenge anyone reading to remember a time in your architectural career when the debate was not solely on the design project in front of you—perhaps even its process—but on the conceptual foundation of the term architecture. We were challenged to constantly reinvent the term discipline to make it relevant, however we were usually met with criticism that those definitions did not account for the hegemonic weight of those before us or perhaps were too focused on how architecture interfaced with the deadly realities of capitalism and settler colonialism, or perhaps we were too “social” in focus and not “architectural” enough. The term discipline was used as a way to discipline the school—to keep it in line.
An anecdote that spells out this version of soft discipline more clearly is when Bob speaks on how he clinched the directorship at UIC. Anecdotally, when he was interviewing, he basically said that he was the “discipline” candidate. What that meant was that every other candidate was effectively talking about architecture without caring about architecture, without centering the discipline in everything that they were doing. What that did was give folks like myself a license to proselytize this version of architecture on his and the school’s behalf. The most poignant realization to arise from this moment in my life was that I got to effectively claim an entire area of knowledge by simply using the term discipline and impregnating it with very few definitions of it from the middle and end of the twentieth century. The power that comes with showing up anywhere and throwing the term discipline around freely is one that I cannot replicate using any other term.
When one starts referring directly to the “discipline” of architecture, it becomes the focus and in some ways places everything outside of it—another crack at autonomy. The hardest part for me was knowing that this world was broken; that white supremacy and settler colonialism and neoliberalism were the laws of the land; that things mattered so much outside of the practice of architecture; that I had given up my interests as a student for a while to take on a project of a very important critic, an educator in architecture. I had to do this to survive in this arena, but what I got from this experience was a false sense of security, a sense that I was a disciple who had its root in discipline, which I was not.
Moving on, though, soft discipline is an idea that I want you to walk away with in this section as an instrument of change, of revolutionary power shifting. There are forms of discipline that mean to have dedication, a routine, a calling to a specific system and, to a certain extent, I think we could update it. A soft discipline is one that doesn’t look to figures to give you authority. A soft discipline is one that emerges out of a scene of people or a closely aligned political collective of like-minded comrades. I think the idea of comradeship is dangerous to the disciplinary proselytizers of the world because it might challenge the cycles of power and abuse through collective action, collective identity. One key thing I can say is that I have a lot of colleagues, but not a lot of comrades. If you are a comrade, you know you are one because I told you so. Defining our relationships based on accountability and care between each other; basing them within the political ideologies and realities that we agree we would like to see that challenge the neoliberal academic and professional projects in architecture; using whatever platforms each of us has to collectively amplify stories of abusive discipline and disciplinary coercion; empowering our communities, students, and family around us to fundamentally manifest their identities without a worry that they do not fit the sociopathic molds we are being told to fit in to are the ultimate form of soft discipline in that, like gravity, they are easy to break away from, even for a second. That breathing room is liberation. I think that is a more authentic version of discipline and softer in that it is not about the location or a moving target or a doppler effect, but how you interact with the world at large based on ethics, politics, and practice.
You do the time, too, as a family member of an incarcerated person. I can personally tell you that this builds on Foucault’s conception of the institution and, of course, the panopticon in one of the most insidious ways possible. In essence, the panopticon works because you bet against yourself, even though there is no way for the jailer to always see what you are doing, you essentially police yourself out of fear. When your parent is locked up, you are guaranteed to have trauma around loss for the rest of your life that emerges in the most unexpected moments. This loss is incredibly dull but poignant in that it is categorically less difficult than a parent’s death. It is more poignant in that there is an entire industry, architecture and social system dedicated to making sure that your loved one is not only deprived of fundamental human rights, but you are, too. The penal system in the United States is one of the most brutal and regressive racist machines that exists on this planet. Its sole function is dehumanizing prisoners within models of cohousing and its tentacles have fully shaped my understanding of architecture, more specifically my lifetime fight for prison abolition.
Imagine waking up at age four to 20-30 US Marshals with their automatic weapons drawn in your house, knocking down the bedroom door where your mother, father, brother, and you sleep. Imagine what it looks like for both of your parents to be arrested, my mother only for a few months, but then your father for seventeen years, where he is only present in a visit, phone call, or a letter. Imagine not understanding how someone ages since you are so young that when you do finally visit him after seven years of not seeing him, you are so overwhelmed that he looks more like a stranger than the dad you saw in pictures growing up. Imagine that every time you go and visit him, your mother is patted down aggressively by a corrections officer (CO) and you, as a young child, have to sign a waiver stating you are not bringing in any contraband substances or weapons. I will save you the suspense and let you know that the COs in this instance unfairly targeted Latinx and BIPOC families who came to visit for these “random” searches over white ones. Imagine that when we entered this prisoner visiting room, we were lucky that it wasn’t behind glass and we had our own family areas and platforms specifically designed for surveillance, with a plethora of microwaves and vending machine options, as well as a TV room for families (but not for inmates). Imagine having fond memories of this, as I do, because it is literally all I had in terms of my physical childhood relationships with my father. Imagine your father is a federal prisoner in the 1990s, who has to have a life-saving triple bypass surgery and you do not hear word of him being alive or dead for weeks, regardless of how many times your mom would call in. Imagine that because of this systematic degradation of a human life in both physical and emotional ways, your relationship with your father would wither away and he would never talk to you before he died some years later.
The scenes that stick with me through all of these moments have to do with both an architectural reality and an emotional trauma. I carry both of these in everything I do, so when I was introduced to prison abolition it was basically the name of the feeling I’ve had my entire life. No one deserves to be dehumanized in this way and this system serves one purpose as an industry, to churn new inmates out of us all. What is more misunderstood in the history of architecture than the house?
I can’t think of anything else, but I must say that the driving force around the development of a home or a house underlines a potent debate in the discipline of architecture and how it extends to our bodies and lives. To start, the idea that the avowed Nazi intellectual Martin Heidegger, who still finds his way into many of our architecture lexicons today through the hegemony of phenomenology, the house (or in Heidegger’s case, the cabin in the woods) is the most primordial of architectural realities. That is fucking bullshit because no one is guaranteed it within capitalism as a human right, let alone the millions of Jews that were murdered, intellectually and materially supported by Heidegger. In another sense, housing was the saving grace of modernism in that there was a problem to solve post World War II and architects foamed at the mouth to interject their relevance back into the world that left them behind after the war.
I have lived in a few houses throughout my life. These have been everything from large palatial mansions to multi-generational cramped homes to apartments to my own modest starter home that I currently live in with my family. I have had a difficult relationship with my first long-term house for a lot of reasons, most notably because of the disrepair it fell into due to the fact that my family was working class. As an architect, I was always left puzzled by the lack of care that was put into this house, when I saw people around me always renovating the smallest things in their homes. As an architect, you are taught this horrible optimism about the power of design as a projective possibility, possible if only for the current reality not allowing it to manifest. We learn that reality itself is negotiable in education, but not in practice. The irony is that depending on your socioeconomic background as an architect or student, reality is much more negotiable with wealth. Growing up working class means you cannot add value to a home through expensive renovations, or perhaps it means borrowing against the equity in your home to help pay bills when a parent’s sole income is lost due to layoff. More than any disciplinary idea or history, houses are about survival, health, and safety. But what is the house in architecture in the US other than a wealth generator, a market ploy, a site for formal investigations, a manifesto?
The other form of house that was painfully obvious to me was the reality that my father could not live in my house. I had to negotiate that throughout the years, particularly when I was younger, not fully understanding the reality of living in the US prison system. To be frank, I don’t think I thought about it all the time because it was something I did not have access to outside of the media. It wasn’t until I went to visit him that I started to understand what the architecture of the federal prison system in the United States was like. My father spent many years of his sentence at Terre Haute Correctional Prison in Indiana, which is a maximum-security prison. I received several phone calls from him that started with the familiar robotic greeting, “This is a collect call from a federal inmate at Terre Haute Prison.” The phone call reminded you where your loved one lived, where and how they were housed. I do not remember contemplating the realities of his living situation in prison when I was young, probably because it was too traumatic. The saving grace was when he was moved in the mid-1990s to a low security prison/work camp at Jesup, Georgia, which was only eleven hours away from my house in Miami. At that point, I started to visit my father in prison, due to the fact we were a little older and the proximity of our living situations, our houses.
In this case, the house was inhumane regardless of security level and there was nothing anyone could do to make it humane without totally abolishing the prison industrial complex. This goes out to all the bootlickers and pieces of shit in architecture that try to make prisons “better” through piecemeal design charrettes and competitions or ameliorating the realities of prison through design. No architect should design a prison again and if they do, they are only serving the capitalist class in a failing fascist state, further dehumanizing people in the United States.
Every educational institution in the United States that teaches architects should cease to make projects about prisons. We should out all institutions of higher learning who allow projects like these, as well as all designers of prisons in the United States. Believe me, they do not want people to know this. I will start with Harvard GSD a few years back when they touted Glen Santayana’s project on youth prisons as a success, with a lot of media coverage on it through national outlets and Facebook shares. They praised its “humaneness” without critiquing the prison industrial complex that makes that impossible, effectively focusing on the individual as the problem and an architecture that can straighten you out. In practice there is Roula Associates Architects in Chicago, which designed the renovation to the largest carceral complex in the United States, Cook County Jail, which is 96 acres large. You can start with them because they love the design of prisons, and we need to put them on blast because it is the only way that people listen. They do not like bad publicity, but they are also very proud of what they do, so I suspect we just need to make some more names public, put more pressure on architects by any means necessary.
Prison abolition at its core is about the house. There is no way to house someone humanely in a prison, so if you do not deal with the core of the problem with the carceral state—housing, capitalism, resources, and discipline—in the United States, then you further lose the ability to rehabilitate and only punish. This current system does not seek a reparative or restorative accountability, in the words of Derecka Purnell and Sonya Renee Taylor. To do so, to hold someone accountable, you must have a relationship with them. Without a relationship, punishment is the only thing that is possible in a prison industrial complex. Accountability exists within relationships and communities where one can be held within, nurtured, rehabilitated, and cared for. The cycle of punishment in the carceral state dehumanizes and limits any possibility of rehabilitation because of neoliberal profiteering necessitating the participation of the under-resourced in the cruelty ad infinitum. It is built from the chattel slavery system, the original king of dehumanization through forced labor and creating objects out of enslaved black and brown bodies. Punishment is literally an extension of everything you hate so to engage it with any seriousness—design, support for the police, worrying about what happens to dangerous criminals—only perpetuates this cycle.
Finally, I want to deal with the concept of a house as a chosen family, a safe space that is not always material, but is definitely physical. The house is something you can build with others; they can be communities that create homes for people without them. In Trans BIPOC communities centered around the hallowed ground of NYC Ballroom competitions, a house is a refuge from abuse and trauma; a chosen family; and a powerful platform for individual expression bolstered by a community. As I am not a part of those communities, I can only appreciate the beauty in finding a chosen family and being part of a house. As an ally, I want to not only voice support but also preach the good word of communities of care that are absent in many walks of one’s life, let alone in a community as cannibalistic and traumatic as architects.
I found chosen families many times in my life or perhaps they found me. I have found survival in Latinx Punk communities and activist circles around Miami, Chicago, and Portland. However, not as much in the practice or education of architecture. Little by little, I have seen more and more architects change and start to reflect the possibility of a radical new world around them. Chosen family is ultimately the healthiest of ways to oppose the status quo abusive realities found in all dimensions of architecture. It is architecture sans Ivy League meritocracy, nepotism, and hopefully whitecishet patriarchy. Within a chosen family, a community of care, accountability is possible because our relationships matter more than using them for personal gains, jobs, academic appointments, or clients. They become the bedrock or foundation of a house that architects can live in, grow in, and ultimately move out of, allowing for the next generation to cultivate their own relationships in. It is the most important life project one can do and it has nothing to do with designing your way out of it. The critical and cruel optimism of architecture should be supplanted by the beautiful and strange identities we manifest. Architecture is not more important than a revolutionary change in our world and we need to do everything we can to ensure a new radical, socialist, and egalitarian future if we want it to grow holistically with us.
Disciplined in the House of Tomorrow
To reconnect with Mumia Abu Jamal’s quote at the introduction of this essay, being disciplined in the house of tomorrow necessitates the abolition of the “second-by-second assault on the soul, (the) day-today degradation of the self, (the) oppressive steel and brick umbrella,” that architects in our current world design. It asks for multiple humanisms that center our identities and do not seek to homogenize them into ideal forms, stereotypes, tokens, or data points. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, but it will become today and modeling the fight for a more radical future needs our involvement in those systems now. If we are not actively pushing and challenging capitalism in our work, from naming it to developing and exalting new practices outside of it, then we are partaking in the performative reformism of projective architecture. If we, like children, are to carry hope into the future we can’t see, as Khalil Gibran suggests, we need to abolish the current forms of optimism in architecture that reward the most irrelevant changes to the biggest problems our communities face.
Being disciplined in the House of Tomorrow means engaging in the development of a community, of a chosen family and armature for them to travel into the future.
Being disciplined in the House of Tomorrow necessitates a process of futurity.
To be disciplined in the House of Tomorrow means you are dedicated to the cause of liberating as many people as possible after you are liberated.
To be disciplined in the House of Tomorrow means you are giving reparations without being mandated to white people.
To be disciplined in the House of Tomorrow means to exist at one point in the carceral state and then not; to achieve escape velocity from a system you think is unshakeable.
To discipline in the House of Tomorrow means to abolish the carceral state.
The House of Tomorrow is a place of hope, a place where the realities of today do not have to be the realities forever. To discipline that house means that we have more power tomorrow than we know today. It might also mean that we need to believe in that power to fight today. Without that, we are just redesigning the versions of prison and discipline we each inhabit today.
I have been involved in prison abolition in one way or another for the last sixteen years. I became an activist in Miami in 2005 working closely with other Latin American socialist and anarchist organizations fighting for workers’ rights, housing for all, abortion rights, against war, against capitalism, as well as the release of political prisoners in Guantanamo Bay during the Anti-War movement of the 2000s. This intellectual introduction to revolutionary ideas occurred simultaneously to my introduction to architectural and critical theory. These events would provide the bedrock of my own personal discipline of architecture and its theories.
I have had the pleasure to teach at many institutions and I have made it a point to object to any prison project that was being proposed by faculty or students. I have also had to see architects around me fetishize prisons every single school year and I feel like this is a good medium to make a case for all architects to basically join in on this lifetime fight to abolish prisons by literally not designing them. Instead, educate yourself politically.
The arguments that many grassroots and national organizations have made for abolition should be enough in that they present it in architectural terms, in design discourse. This testament presents it to you from a first-person perspective validating that everything they are supporting is right and everything you are thinking of regarding the “worst criminals” argument is wrong or at least isn’t robust as a concept.
We have to connect the economic system of capitalism to the prison industrial complex. For some of you that view this world through a Marxist lens, this is probably enough. For the rest of the neoliberal and neoconservative designers around me, I am trying to create a vehicle for you to empathize with my story. This story is the norm, and it could literally be much worse; it is, especially if you are Black and Brown in the United States.