Contributing Voice: "Occupying Spaces" by Sharika Tasnim

By Amaya C. Labrador AIA posted 20 days ago


Echoing the content and context of Connection Q3: Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I), Sharika Tasnim provides additional perspective in her piece, "Occupying Spaces".

Occupying Spaces

by Sharika Tasnim, Assoc.AIA

Sharika is currently a student at MIT. She is also serving as  Managing Director of Eco Architect and Technology Limited.

The evolution of architecture and aesthetics in U.S. city-planning did not take into account the native experience and lifestyle, or draw on a connection to other non- white communities, such as the East Asian immigrant workers or Black Americans who made up the majority of the expanding industrial core of the country. 

Rather, spaces of purpose were equalized with spaces of whiteness; creating a national power structure and identity inspired by the social and aesthetic preferences of Western Europe. Consequently, the European worldview has been solidified through these actions of building whiteness exemplified in structures and memorials across the country, accentuating the notions that our national identity is, fundamentally, white identity. Furthermore, the architects of the 20th century, designing buildings, cities, and spaces, proceeded with the concept of white identity to the segregation of all others, as they styled the venues for territorial and national celebration. More recently, the previous presidential administration even proposed a mandate that classical architecture be the only permissible aesthetic for federal government buildings.

Image Credit: Gabriel Hernández Solano, 2020

Black Lives Matter protestors on East 136th Street and Brook Avenue. Image Credit: Gabriel Hernández Solano, 2020

Image Credit:Gabriel Hernández Solano, 2020


Black Lives Matter protestors and community organizers establish City Hall Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Image Credit:Gabriel Hernández Solano, 2020

Architects and planners are instrumental in determining society’s in interpretation of standardized values for spaces, infrastructure, and building. On the other hand, migrant workers, who make up a far greater part of the population, have been literally building these incredible structures and the nation itself while not enjoying the basic rights these facilities confer on others. But reflecting on the past brings relevant insights for future actions. Because we already understand the process of oppression, and can clearly identify the motivations, it becomes easier to develop concepts and implement design strategies that establish equality and freedom, while disregarding disparity and exclusion.

Our built environments are an undisguised part of this country’s structure of injustice where design perpetuates the majority’s belief system and strengthens its institution. However, trivial transformation in form can change the function, meaning, and perception of infrastructures and physical spaces. An example can be seen at the Minneapolis intersection where police murdered George Floyd. Through collective action, physical spaces were remodeled to demonstrate a new context and perception. The corner was turned into an independent zone, without the presence and influence of police, in the months between Floyd’s killing and the officer’s trial. The site transformed into a public memorial site and became the “free state of George Floyd.” Activists, community members, and other allied citizens set up impermanent signage and artwork and sought to repurpose the intersection for communal use. As a result, the city has expressed openness to commemorating the site as George Floyd Square after conversations with organizations, community members, and elected officials. Through these critical discussions and communal actions, this movement has upended the tradition of investment in a system of oppression and created a new narrative. A George Floyd Square in Minneapolis would not only change the physical appearance of the intersection, but also open the minds of all who visit it to a broader representation of policing and public safety, as well as the dignity and basic human rights of Black people.