Review of “Architectures of Spatial Justice” by Dana Cuff

“Architectures of Spatial Justice” is an ambitious attempt to redefine the role of architecture in promoting social equity and inclusivity. Dana Cuff, an American architecture theorist, professor, and founder of CityLab at UCLA, compellingly argues that the built environment has long been shaped by power structures that privilege certain groups while marginalizing others. Through a combination of theoretical frameworks and case studies, she advocates for an ethical shift in architectural practice toward spatial justice.

At first glance, the writer’s architectural background sounds evident. Unlike the complex theorizing or ontologizing of space seen in works by Soja and Lefebvre, which are somewhat expected when dealing with a concept deeply rooted in social science, she offers a refreshingly pragmatic approach. Her exploration encompasses a variety of practical projects, including housing initiatives in Chile, community design collaborations in the United States, and urban interventions in Mexico and Japan. This insider perspective from an architect was seemingly absent in the relatively fresh spatial justice discourse.

Cuff’s choice of Jay Lynn Gomez’s “American Gardeners” for the cover resonates deeply with the book’s central themes. By embracing such a spatial justice framework, the cover boldly brings portraits of marginalized individuals from the unseen corners of our built environments to the forefront. It calls upon readers to confront the inequalities in our spaces and challenges architects to recognize their role in perpetuating systemic injustices

With attention drawn to contemporary issues such as the pandemic, global warming, and racism, the author suggests a closer examination of the importance of design, arguing for the crucial role of designers and architects. She presents a new utopian framework where the relationship between architects, the public, and capital is transformed, shifting from neoliberal, consumer-centered design towards designs that prioritize the public good.

While this vision presented in the initial sections of the book may resonate with those who share similar concerns, it leads to an inherent contradiction in the subsequent chapters, where the practical examples reveal the impossibility of such reframing. For readers unfamiliar with the topic, the apparent contradiction may seem like a flaw in the narrative of the book. On one hand, the author draws a utopian picture of architects and urban designers breaking away from their traditional, historically entrenched roles closely tied to the interests of capital and power. On the other hand, the practical examples reviewed in the subsequent chapters may appear to fall short of this idealistic image. However, a deeper understanding of the topic reveals that this apparent contradiction is a subtle and incisive presentation of the essence of spatial justice through relevant examples. Rather than presenting an idealistic vision that may not align with the realities of architectural practice, the author provides nuanced insights into the complexities and challenges of achieving spatial justice in the built environment.

-Darush Farrokh (University of Alberta)