Announcing the Spring 2020 Mellon Forum on the Urban Environment

Staged Encounters | Embodiment, Architecture, and Urbanism

How does the built environment influence how we perceive race and national identity? How might design work for and against the disabled body? What are architectural design and urban planning’s political capacity in the twenty-first century? Staged Encounters privileges the site of the body (in its raced, gendered, and (dis)abled aspects) to think through the role of architecture and urbanism in the twenty-first century. It discusses how design, architecture, and spatial practices stage the body and, thus, impact how we frame and interpret social inequality. Forum topics include: Space, Displacement, Disability, Citizenship, and Home.

February 18 – Space

Brandi Thompson Summers and Ashlie Sandoval

Urban space and Blackness exist as embodied realities and material relationships, but they can also be subject to aestheticization, representation, and abstraction. This opening session of the Spring 2020 Mellon Forum on the Urban Environment will consider how the aestheticization or representation of Blackness and architectural design has impacted processes of urban renewal, designs for the urban environment, and the life conditions of Black communities. Panelists will consider the ways that aestheticization can serve to depoliticize the conditions of Black life, and also under what conditions aesthetics might be marshaled to respond to anti-Blackness within the built environment and urban design.

February 25 – Displacement

Jasmine Mahmoud and Nora Akawi

Displacement has been used to refer to the forcible removal of populations through militaristic, legislative, and financial acts. Displacement is also a process of forgetting, denial, and homogenization: forgetting who and what came before; a denial and (state, academic, and social) sanctioning of the violence of displacement; and a homogenization or flattening out of the multiplicity of subjects and agonisms that constitute a population, space, or state. This panel will consider how ritual and performance can serve as a response to survive or subvert acts of displacement, the ways in which architecture, urban space, or aesthetics are instrumentalized to produce dominating forms of national and racial identity as well as exclude those who are not represented by these hegemonic forms of life, and how notions such as “community,” “belonging,” or “memory” might influence or support processes of urban development and displacement.

April 9 – Disability

David Serlin and Bess Williamson

Design’s relationship to disability is commonly discussed through the concept of universal design. However, the divergent approaches that operate under the term universal design point to the different stakes, ideologies, and politics that undergird design’s potential relationship to disability. The concept of universal design can be used to foreground disabled users and disability rights activism, drawing connections between the barriers faced by disabled users and the barriers faced by other spatially marginalized and excluded communities. Or the concept of universal design can steer away from disability-explicit design toward design for an imagined but unspecified “everyone.” In this conversation, the panelists will consider how an explicitly disability-focused design might differ from design that attempts to eliminate disability or build for an imagined “everyone,” and how the built environment might already reflect or challenge assumptions about the needs, abilities, life conditions, and desires of bodies. 

April 14 – Citizenship

Ronald Rael and Lauren Williams

Design has been used to create divisions between and within countries, such as border walls, prison walls, and surveillance technology. Through these objects, design can define who does and does not have the privilege of citizenship, mobility, and access to family and resources. But design can also bring us together. It can provoke and facilitate satirical and theatrical responses across borders, such as the case with responses to the U.S.-Mexico border wall. It can also be used to directly address and combat social injustices and hierarchies. This session will consider how design and architecture might be used to change how we think of citizenship, the possible roles that designers, architects, and scholars can take up in response to divisionary or carceral designs, and how new forms or uses of design might challenge norms around race and national identity.

April 20 – Home

Rashad Shabazz 

As an ideological figure in American media and political rhetoric, home is often represented as a space of leisure and rest, as a place separated and distinct from work, and as a detached realm of community and private family morals. These ideological representations often mask the ways that property, housing, and the figure of the home were and continue to be impacted by racial covenants, housing discrimination, predatory lending, policing, and gentrification. This final session of the Spring 2020 Mellon Forum on the Urban Environment will explore how we might bring different disciplines together (e.g. design intelligence, geography, Black Studies, and urban planning) to rethink how we access problems in the city and seek solutions, the ways housing policies, urban planning, and architectural design have made and unmade racial communities, and what effects new approaches to urban policy or the urban environment could have in undoing racially or economically inequitable urban landscapes and carceral geographies.

The Spring 2020 Mellon Forum is organized by Kinohi Nishikawa, Department of English, and Ashlie Sandoval, Princeton Mellon Fellow. The Mellon Forum is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Humanities Council, Center for Collaborative History, Department of Art + Archaeology, Program in American Studies, and the School of Architecture.

Photo Credit: Brooklyn Street Art (