Learning To See Through Walls

Addressing race and space with the New Architecture Writers

Interview with Thomas Aquilina
By George Kafka

There are many voices out there if you’re listening and many ways of seeing if you’re willing to shift your gaze.

— Thomas Aquilina

Thomas Aquilina is a London‑based architectural designer who works at the intersection of critical research and design. Since 2017 he has worked for Adjaye Associates. He co‑directs the New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.) programme and is one of the founding members of publishing collective Afterparti. His work features in digital and print publications, as well as exhibitions and public conversations. Thomas is invested in building communities of radical thought and progressive practice.

Thomas Aquilina is co-director of New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.), which is a free programme for emerging design writers in London, developing the journalistic skill, editorial connections and critical voice of its participants. It focuses on Black and minority ethnic emerging writers who are under-represented across design journalism and curation. In conversation with &beyond’s George Kafka, Aquilina shared his views on race, space and generating tools for alternative forms of architecture-making within the ecosystem of visibility.
Learning To See Through Walls

The field of architecture is not a diverse field, the field of media is not a diverse field, architectural media is even less so. So how do you see N.A.W. fitting into that?

You allude to the “field” of architecture, the field is made of many different parts and components. Along my journey, I’ve come to realise that architecture isn’t really any one thing. It’s not this prescribed route of Parts 1, 2 and 3 which end up with you becoming an architect who designs buildings. I think it’s becoming much more expansive and divergent. This hopefully makes architecture more accessible as well – to think about how the built environment is interacted with on an everyday basis. For me, the creation of N.A.W. is a process of thinking about the visibility of new architectural writing, or urban writing, ensuring that the story we’re telling reflects the places we inhabit. I think a lot about the idea of visibility; asking – how do we make the realities of injustice visible? How do we nurture a more diverse group of writers or insist on a more diverse way of thinking, of writing, of interpreting cities? I suppose N.A.W. is about making the invisible visible because so many ways of seeing and approaching and thinking about urbanism and urban issues have been either quashed or not historically foregrounded.

What are the goals of N.A.W.?

We’re providing the members with tools to understand how architectural writing is produced. It is quite an open programme: mainly a series of workshops with briefs attached to them that encourage the members to explore different forms of writing around architecture and urbanism. The monthly workshop series, held with guest editors, writers, academics, journalists, curators and key thinkers working on race and space, explore a whole range of writing categories, from building studies to essays. These are followed by the set briefs which are reviewed by Tom Wilkinson and me, as programme directors, as well as invited guest tutors who have individual tutorials with the members. More recently we’ve introduced a reading group based around race and space, which is a slightly more academic component. So, whilst the members are developing the core skills of writing, they are also developing a more critical way of thinking.

Learning To See Through Walls

N.A.W. Live: Drawing the Edge to the Centre Event Poster (July 2019). Image: N.A.W.

What kind of outputs or results have been achieved and produced up to now?

As a process-based initiative we try to make the call and response between brief and output the core of our work, but there are some important results that have taken the forms of written responses, online discussions and curated public debates we call “N.A.W. Live”. The first cohort brought together a heavyweight set of panellists to discuss the theme “The Time for Failure is Now!”. In 2020 the second, current, cohort had a live event called “Drawing the Edge to the Centre”. Again, we brought in different speakers to join us onstage. The speakers at these events are also of diverse backgrounds, so we’re trying to action diversity in a way that’s hopefully quite critically minded. Fortunately, events have been supported by the Architecture Foundation and the Royal College of Art. The first live event led to the formation of a separate collective entity called Afterparti who author a zine series.

It’s notable that the emphasis is on writers in N.A.W., but within this media landscape there are also editors and curators who arguably have more control over the direction of certain narratives. They, or we, I should say, are the gatekeepers. Could there also be a New Architecture Curators programme, for example, to address this inequality on another level within the industry? Or do you already see this as part of what you’re doing?

I think the first N.A.W. cohort was much more geared towards writing but I’m just as interested in showing alternative forms of architectural production. This year, for example, the members have made podcasts, and are currently responding to a brief called “The Hemisphere of Home” which is about how you might go about making a walking tour in lockdown. The idea is to make a tour about either your bedroom, home or neighbourhood – the immediate sphere you can occupy and move within in the global pandemic lockdown scenario. There’s an element of writing in drafting the script, but also a set of creative responses to delivering their tours. Whether through audio recordings, pamphlets or visual essays, their responses are very different. That’s where I find value and meaning – in the lateral or creative interpretation. I think writing is at the core of it, but curation, podcasting, broadcasting and exhibiting are all also alternative forms of making architecture within the ecosystem of visibility.

In the short time since N.A.W. began, the names of previous and current members have appeared in publications that we recognise in the architectural media landscape. Is that one of the goals, is to get writers on your programme published and working in these contexts?

The majority of the members are either on their way or already practicing architects, so the skills they’re learning complement their main line of work. I think it’s highly important that architects are able to tell stories and I think there’s an over-emphasis, at times, on telling a visual story. A textual story is clearly also really important, not least because it’s far more accessible to a wider audience.

We’ve had members go on to work for architecture media companies and actually move to different practices with a different kind of focus that connects with the ethos of N.A.W. We’re not necessarily trying to create the next band of architectural writers, we’re trying to give N.A.W. members the tools so that they could join the architectural media landscape if they wanted. But even if they don’t, they at least now have this ability to communicate about race and space.

It seems the programme’s intentions are as much about shifting culture and perceptions of architectural culture, as they are about providing basic professional training. How do you translate this to publishing? Is there any form of partnership between N.A.W. and a particular publication or publications?

N.A.W. is fundamentally about creating the next generation of culture-makers, and is an attempt at making culture more diverse or even rethinking what culture might be if we‘re at the centre of it. That’s a nice thing to imagine, that architecture reflects culture but also creates culture and can critique culture; in that way, it feels a bit more open.

“We must share the labour of transformation, not just in moments of solidarity.”

Learning To See Through Walls

N.A.W. Cohort 2 Members on stage at Drawing the Edge to the Centre Event (July 2019). Image: Thomas Aquilina

We are generously supported by the Architecture Foundation and all of the key UK architectural media players have contributed and given their time and their energy. We have close affiliations with the Architectural Review. I think, going forward, what we could do is create partnerships for each cohort. We would like to see a column, in say Wallpaper* or The Guardian or on Dezeen dedicated to N.A.W., for example, where members could get to take turns at writing that column in a very public domain. That’s something we’ll hopefully explore in the next few months.

Learning To See Through Walls

N.A.W. Live: The Time for Failure is Now! The first public event of New Architecture Writers (June 2018). Image: N.A.W.

I’m interested in the other ideas you have for the development of the programme. For example, we’re talking now in the context of Archifutures and the Future Architecture platform which is a Europe-wide organisation. Do you see N.A.W. as a blueprint for other similar programmes? Is it a replicable model for different geographical contexts?

When the programme started it was about trying to identify the problem of the lack of diversity in architectural media and how to respond to that: asking how to bring together a group and have them develop these skills? In my mind what we don’t yet have is an infrastructure of how to actually do that. N.A.W. has developed openly and collaboratively, but not necessarily with a very prescribed curriculum. I’m interested in making an open‑access curriculum that shares the ways we’ve developed N.A.W. and how we develop going forward. In time, it could become a platform that other people can pick up themselves and hopefully we might have different chapters start to form elsewhere.

There are clearly pre-existing dominant voices and dominant spaces in this industry. The reason N.A.W. exists, in part, is in acknowledgement of the fact that these are occupied by a particular demographic – and have been for a very long time. Do you see that as the core challenge you are confronting? Or are you more interested in facilitating the production of new spaces for these conversations to happen?

Both. On one hand, we want to occupy these well-established institutional spaces, not least because they have a very wide readership or audience and I think for change to take place it is necessary to engage that audience and help re‑shape or re-articulate certain understandings. But you also need to make space for new forms and new ways of doing things. Something like Afterparti is an example of a new space or a new entity, but then we still want our work featured in leading publications or showcased in some of the many architectural biennales around the world. It feels important that we can be present on these platforms so the conversation we’re having can inform the mainstream and, as you say, dominant voices or spaces.

Learning To See Through Walls

Aerial view of the Za’atari Refugee Camp, 18 July 2013. Image: Public Domain

Can we talk a bit more about cultural shift? I’m interested in the specific things that need to be shifted. What things stand out for you and your co-members, not just in the media, but in the practice of architecture itself, which are in need of changing?

First of all, you can’t be what you can’t see. We need more visible examples of options, of routes, of trajectories, of possibilities. I think a lot of the barriers and challenges are very latent and unspoken.

But this global moment of visibility around racial injustice, that is happening right now, allows us to speak through uncomfortable conversations. I think it’s important that there’s a commitment to being anti-racist and to understanding what racism constitutes; how racism is also at play again and again in boardrooms. There’s a kind of subconsciousness that needs to be worked through, impacted and challenged. A lot of it is to do with education and with history. What are you learning at school? When I was at school learning history all I remember is Henry VIII and his six wives. But there are really key stories which have to be learnt. It’s about foregrounding the everyday. For example, the tragic story of Stephen Lawrence is one that should be taught and understood by all generations.

It’s also about showing the larger picture, that history is complex and uncomfortable and interrupted. That’s a really important idea: that there are interruptions in histories reflected in our spaces. For example, what would have happened to the colonies, had they not been colonised? That’s an interrupted history. So I think there’s an understanding that narratives are never linear and in my mind what we learn at school and what we’re taught is a lot of the time too linear…it’s always a timeline, a very singular line and actually it has to be fundamentally a much more interlacing and oscillating journey.

In your June 2020 Afterparti video manifesto with Siufan Adey, for the Dezeen Virtual Design festival and the London Festival of Architecture, you also talked about wanting to cover uncomfortable subjects. Beneath the post about this on Dezeen, and others relating to the work of N.A.W., there have been comments about “creepy, divisive, identity politics” and even accusations of racism against white people. So clearly you are making some people uncomfortable! There still seems to be a lot of resistance to these kinds of programmes, there’s a lot of scepticism around quotas and fears of political correctness. How do you feel about those reactions?

Since this was an opportunity to elevate the conversations from our workshops and dialogues onto a larger platform there was a reluctant optimism that we’d be able to have difficult conversations with a wider audience. I remember when we shared the news that Dezeen was going to profile us, the first thing that we all said was: “Let’s wait and see what the comments are going to say”. And while comments are part of the dialogue it’s somewhat disappointing that unproductive banter is given such space. My hope is that we are trying to articulate something in a very composed way – reaching out and being open to dialogue. There’s an inevitability to these reactions. They reflect white fragility, which is part of the game, part of the process. It’s important we are not distracted by comments and don’t let them define or interrupt our trajectory. How you have a conversation about these things is important, but it comes back to that idea of how N.A.W. can make a curriculum that allows us to understand very different histories, very different narratives, and that actually there’s a deeper understanding to the underlying structural injustices that take place. But we live in a political landscape at the moment that is strange and complicated, to say the least.

Yes, as you mentioned earlier the immediate context we’re talking in right now is one of heightened attention towards, and higher profile conversations around, race following the murder of George Floyd in the USA. I was wondering if it has changed the role of the programme for you and what you aim to do or what you can demand or attain?

It’s really brought us into the spotlight. I have been inundated in the last few weeks in response to this global movement of Black Lives Matter with invitations, requests and inquiries. So, perhaps, this moment has given us more allies and more visibility, but it will be a shame if it does not propel change and only exists as a historical attempt that faded over time. And, in a way, being expected to represent the voice of marginality is exhausting and we must share the labour of transformation, not just in moments of solidarity.

I think there’s a few things at play here. On one hand, the sense I get is that there’s a genuine attempt to better understand this movement, and you do that by engaging with people of colour, of diverse backgrounds, and allowing us to articulate our visions. Our perspectives are different, there’s no singular way of understanding this zeitgeist. There are many voices out there if you’re listening and many ways of seeing if you’re willing to shift your gaze.

But on the other hand, it does feel like a lot of the time that certain places and institutions are doing it only because it’s “on trend”. So we have to tread carefully, listen to the ideas and conversations and requests that are coming to us. Because we want to engage in a really authentic way and maintain an ethical standpoint.

How do you filter that? How do you negotiate between these two interests or work within that dynamic?

It feels exploitative. You want to say: “Hey! I’ve been here – we’ve been here – for years!” But I think it’s important to take this opportunity or that platform and articulate your version.
To me, what this is all about is actively seeking out different versions and understanding the nuance of each one. It’s about understanding that it’s not about political correctness, it’s about the nuance of detail and language, the nuance of history and that means deep listening and engaging in conversation.