As part of a four-month-long seminar organized by New York architect and Assistant Dean of the Yale School of Architecture Mark Foster Gage, students investigated new forms of political activism through the design of objects.

The course synopsis began with this quote from Leonardo Da Vinci:

It had long since to come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.

By way of some background, in 2014, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London produced an exhibition titled Disobedient Objects, curated by Catherine Flood. Here, the constraint of urgency amplified the political power of designers’ work. Examples included a mask (made from a plastic water bottle) that protects protesters from tear gas and an arrangement of poles that people can climb and avoid being removed from an area by police.

Speaking to The Architect’s Newspaper (AN), Gage discussed how the October symposium he organized at Yale, titled Aesthetic Activism, explored how architecture’s critical-theory basis for socially engaged design is increasingly ineffectual, as it “merely calls for the revealing of a given social inequality or problem—not a requirement to act to remedy it.” “Seeing a problem rarely actually prompts action to solve it,” reads the synopsis of his class—an idea that echoes the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, on whose work the seminar was significantly based.

Trump Triumphal Tower by Rob Smith. (Courtesy Mark Foster Gage) Trump Triumphal Tower by Rob Smith. (Courtesy Mark Foster Gage)

Trump Triumphal Tower by Rober Smith Waters. (Courtesy Mark Foster Gage)

After guiding students through works by philosophers such as Rancière (who explores the politicization of aesthetics), Elaine Scarry (who wrote Thinking in an Emergency), and Graham Harman and Timothy Morton (significant philosophers in the burgeoning Object Oriented Ontology movement), as well as the more household names from aesthetics including Kant, Fiedler, Burke and Hickey, Gage saw his students produce a series of increasingly politicized design projects that emerged, increasingly, in reaction to the recent election and presidency of Donald Trump.

These included:

  • A 3-D printed monument of Donald Trump (an ostentatious and vulgar creation laden with authoritarian imagery) and model depicting Rancière’s “Distribution of the Sensible” philosophical framework (whereby political perceptions are altered; note Trump’s back is turned); both by Robert Smith Waters.
  • A ballot box in which only one shape can be placed inside (note the shape of a heart does not fit).
  • A protective face mask that offers guidance on what do if arrested on one side and an eye-less smiley face on the other, by Casey Furman.
  • Roller-blades that can only go in perpendicular directions, by Claire Haugh.
  • A hammock to aid those who climb corporate towers as an act of protest, by Steven McNamara (see AN’s coverage of the man who climbed Trump Tower in New York last year).

The Yale School of Architecture has a history of political protests dating back to the 1960’s. This year, numerous large banners of “We won’t build your wall” covered the Paul Rudolph–designed structure. Previously, a large banner had read: “United Against Hate.” Students also issued a statement in wake of the AIA’s initial stance on Trump, saying: “Our profession been plagued by a history of racial and gender inequity. The AIA’s immediate and unquestioning pandering to the Trump administration threatens a continuation of our troubled past and demonstrates a willingness to pursue financial gain at the expense of our values.”

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