Architect as Advocate: Beyond Patronage, Toward New Subjectivities

Joyce Hwang


To be an advocate is to defend the cause of another or to support the interests of another. One might find readily the term “advocate” in the realm of law, politics, and activism. But what does it mean for architecture to be a form of advocacy? Certainly, one could identify important concerns and address them through community-oriented design processes that engage particular (and often underrepresented) stakeholder groups; this mode of working is common among architects who stand as advocates. I would like to push this a step further and propose that we take up the notion of architectural subjectivity in a more expansive sense, not only identifying specific groups to assist but to reconsider the pluralities of subjectivity itself. In my work, for example, I place particular emphasis on exploring the inclusion of nonhuman species in the built environment. This preoccupation with underacknowledged or alternate “subjectivities” has led me to consider the scope of architectural audiences and agencies more broadly—in terms of both human and nonhuman subjects.

Focusing and expanding on these issues of redefining audiences and stakeholders, I coedited (with Martha Bohm and Gabrielle Printz) a book, titled Beyond Patronage: Reconsidering Models of Practice (Actar, 2015). As we well understand, the profession of architecture centers on the conventional notion of “patronage” and is shaped by its implications. Patronage—or relationships between clients (patrons) and architects (those in service to the patrons)—has indeed been the defining role in our understanding of architectural practice. Key relationships between architects and private clients have enabled the development and realization of some of the most significant canons of work. Today, conventional patronage is still thriving, and, of course, it is necessary to maintain the profession. Yet, we have to be aware that embedded within these relationships are power structures that tend to give advantages to wealthy patrons and people connected to them and established networks and circles (such as “old boys’ clubs”). These established forms of patronage tend to feed a system in which dominant cultures remain dominant.

In initiating Beyond Patronage, we were interested in what we perceive to be a shifting landscape of patronage today. We see an increasing number of designers who are engaging in broader collaborative relationships and finding forms of enabling outside of these dominant modes of practice and actively redefining the role of sponsorship in architecture and design. Added to that, there is a growing sense of urgency around pressing issues today—whether they are economic, political, or ecological issues—that influences practices in different ways and provokes designers to confront our own disciplinary priorities and assumptions. These emerging issues are ultimately asking us a number of questions: How can architecture transcend its status as a “service” industry to move beyond primarily serving those who can afford it? How can architecture be more inclusive of diverse interests and audiences? How do we initiate work on projects that advocate for what we believe is important and urgent?

To start addressing many of these issues, we organized a symposium at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York in 2012—which was then expanded into the book—that focused on three themes:

1. Architect as Initiator: architects who seek out ways to initiate and fund their own project through forms of creative entrepreneurship or by forming new processes of collaboration.

2. Architect as Detective: architects who conduct research and deploy strategies to reveal the unknown, finding clues to “discover” projects where they were thought not to exist.

3. Architect as Advocate: architects who find and define “clients” and “audiences” where they were thought not to exist. These architects reach out to communities beyond the conception of the typical moneyed client. They engage underrepresented populations and reconsider who the audiences and users are—and what their subjectivities are.

On one level, the book is about expanding models of practice, reflecting on ways to move architecture beyond the status of “service” and toward becoming a vehicle for advocacy or revealing knowledge. And already since the writing of the book, we have seen a multitude of new examples emerging in both the academy and practice. But at another level, the symposium and book also advocate for thinking about architecture beyond the dominant master narratives and considering a much more pluralistic view on architectural issues and ways of practicing. We conceived of the Beyond Patronage project with a decidedly feminist agenda, one that would also specifically advocate for women in architecture. We invited only women speakers to the initial symposium to make a statement. Today, when one sees an all-male panel, it is hardly a disruption in the status quo. Although we now see an emerging number of online and social media watchdogs monitoring the frequency of all-male panels—such as Congrats, you have an All Male Panel! and the Feminist Wall of Shame—it is still infrequent that one might find a panel or event consisting of all women without it explicitly being labeled as a women’s event. Citing Lori Brown’s research presented in Beyond Patronage, in the 2011–12 academic year, out of 73 US schools of architecture’s lecture series, 65 percent had no woman or just one woman in its series, and 34.3 percent—that is, over one-third of all schools—had no women as part of their public programming.

Now, in the twenty-first century, we may like to think that we are already in a postgender, inclusive world. However, many events of even the immediate past—such as the results of the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the #MeToo movement—have shown that this is not the case. Not only are the rights and dignity of women still being challenged, but so are the rights and dignity of many others, due to their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Indeed, approaching our work as advocates is essential to undertake, now more than ever. It is imperative, as in the spheres of society and politics, that we as architects resist the urge to move smoothly along with the tides—that is, to go along with “business as usual.” That kind of complacency, especially in the face of the challenges before us, will not only impede any social, environmental, or cultural progress that has been made, but more fundamentally, it will slowly and imperceptibly drive a stake into the heart of humanity itself.

Joyce Hwang is the director of Ants of the Prairie and an associate professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo SUNY. She is a recipient of the Architectural League Emerging Voices Award, the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and is coeditor of Beyond Patronage: Reconsidering Models of Practice.