Cover story: Architectures of Spatial Justice by Dana Cuff

Cuff’s latest book demonstrates how architects are breaking with professional conventions to design more equitable spaces

As state violence, the pandemic, and environmental collapse have exposed systemic inequities, architects and urbanists have been pushed to confront how their actions contribute to racism and climate crisis—and how they can effect change. 

Author Dana Cuff.

In her new book Architectures of Spatial Justice, Dana Cuff reveals why architecture as a discipline requires this critical examination. Blending theory, history, and applied practices, Cuff establishes a code of ethics that breaks with professional conventions to correct long-standing inequities in the built environment, uncovering both architecture’s limits and its potential.

In considering the cover design for Architectures of Spatial Justice, Cuff’s background and continued interest in the visual arts brought her to American artist Jay Lynn Gomez. Gomez’s work focuses primarily on issues of immigration, race, and labor. Her pieces include multimedia reimaginings of other artists’ works, using cardboard cutouts of characters like landscapers, nannies, and other oft-unseen and underappreciated workers to reveal the underpinnings that make our society run smoothly.

“She brings into focus an often-hidden layer in how to see the world,” Cuff said. “She literally makes visible the repressed, marginalized, and exploited laborers in the Los Angeles landscape.”

“You won’t be able to look at a gated house or a clean yard without the Jay Lynn Gomez lens,” she adds.

Gomez’s 2014 piece American Gardeners is featured on the cover of Architectures of Spatial Justice. It depicts a precise, sparse sculpture garden with two men—one wielding a leaf blower—tending to it. The work is a riff on David Hockney’s 1968 painting American Collectors, but Gomez’s version replaces the contemporary art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman in Hockney’s piece with the workers who undoubtedly kept the space around them so pristine.

“When I saw the Weismans in their stiff environment—a kind of modern box, with their collection of indigenous art and abstract art around them—replaced with gardeners, that seemed to me a kind of perfect metaphor for thinking about architecture in a way that we haven’t seen architecture portrayed before,” Cuff said.

Cuff was especially drawn to the figure highlighted on the cover of her book. His leaf blower, Cuff argues, could be seen as a cross between a weapon and a musical instrument. He stands powerfully, facing the viewer directly. Cuff was inspired by the feeling of resistance the figure inspired in her. “When looking at that figure specifically, I get a sense that this man may keep this yard clean, yes,” she said, “but he exudes a strength and creativity all his own.”

Cuff hopes that readers of her book feel a similar inspiration. “I want this next generation of architects to know that privilege doesn’t own aesthetics,” she said. “We always assume that if you’re interested in formal issues in architecture you can’t be interested in social issues, and if you’re interested in social issues you’re likely to not be interested in formal issues.” She considers that to be old wisdom—and something that has become largely outdated.

She sees that there are ways architects can leverage design for public good through both resistance and creativity. “It’s not as if we have to change the discipline across the board: it’s that we need to see those opportunities and invisible sites where inequalities could be transformed by advancing more just alternatives.”

Learn more about Architectures of Spatial Justice