Where the Fire Started. Toronto, 19th April 1904. Soure: Galbraith Photograph Company, the British Library digital collections.

Tim Mitchell writes, “the ‘east itself’ is not a place… but a further series of representation, each one reannouncing the reality of the Orient but doing no more than referring backwards and forwards to all the others” (Mitchell, 2004: 313). By extending a Saidian Orientalism theory, he criticizes Orientalist work as existing firmly within a self-referential system that was rooted in a citationary politics, in which only white, male, western men, orientalists studying the Global South are referenced. Such perspectives see non-Western cultural producers as objects rather than subjects of their own representations, translating into a neocolonialism that stripped them of the right to be cited or accredited in an academic canon. Like in art history (see Nochlin, 1983), the influences of Saidian Orientalism on the field of architecture and design, while expansive, are largely confined to historical and colonial contexts and focused on a question of style (see, Çelik, 1992; Dean and Leibsohn, 2003). While this has produced thoughtful and critical work, this essay seeks to extend what Mitchell called the “citationary nature of Orientalism” (Mitchell, 2004: 312) to realms of architecture predicated on rationalism and scientism that are not usually implicated in cultural studies debates. I call this citationary architecture. 

Citationary architecture exists from colonial to settler colonial states, in both the Global South and the Global North. It does not directly and explicitly engage with style but nonetheless exerts stylistic implications. I argue that it permeates building codes, deeply ingrained in the infrastructural language of North American cities, are as political if not more so than Chinoiserie or Japonist pleasure pavilions in English colonial gardens. Like Mitchell’s theorization, citationary architecture similarly constructs otherness in cities through a self-referential system of exclusion contrary to its banners of functionalism and utilitarianism. 

This essay draws extensively from geographer Katherine McKittrick’s recent book Dear Science and Other Stories (2021). Like McKittrick, this essay explores a particular form of citationary politics, one that claims universality and neutrality, while disguising a project of racial violence. McKittrick calls it by many names, including “scientific racism”, “biological determinism”, “ethnic absolutism”, quotidianism, Malthusianism, and “biocentricity”. Within these narratives, the ‘Truth’ is devoid of cultural and stylistic “citations” and applies to everyone and everywhere. The “science” that McKittrick inquires represents an infrastructural underpinning of Western knowledge. In the context of architecture and city building, building and legal code, city-wide public policies (such as zoning and safety code), and neoliberal and biopolitical risk-aversion mechanisms (such as insurance brokerage and financing) are part of a scientific outlook that dismisses informality and other forms of deviance. Together, they constitute the physical space that manifests a prevailing normative knowledge system. For this reason, this paper draws from the insights of McKittrick’s Black Studies to think through asymmetrical epistemologies. It is organized around three key insights of McKittrick’s text regarding citationary politics.

On Unnaming

McKittrick first establishes that citation is the way we know “how we come to knowing, and how we know what we know” (McKittrick, 2021: 18). However, as Said and Mitchell note, the act of citation has been part and parcel of a racist project that reinforces its own domination and hegemony over knowledge. In academia, citation is an essential method for authors to exude credibility through an impartial referencing of wide but nonetheless established voices. Often, it sidelines those of Black people and women. McKittrick quotes Sara Ahmed in explaining that “citation practices are gendered and racialized”, decisions around which are “a political project” (McKittrick, 2021: 20). Citation practices are violent in the figures that they unname and uncite, thus “naming demands that we ask about the unnamed and honor the unnameable” (McKittrick, 2021: 31). Here, McKittrick offers more than defeatism, but gestures towards a sharing that decentralizes citation from naming single and known authors.

While it seems strange to ask about the citation of code, as it ostensibly refuses citation, I ask why it is an important discussion to have. I observe that codes are sterile documents that have no footnotes throughout. They are written for everyone while seemingly not written by anyone. They claim to share knowledge, without sharing from whence they got the knowledge. They hail to protect, without saying from what and whom they are protecting people. But codes are in fact remarkably citational by nature. In Building Codes Illustrated, a handbook/ manual for training architects, Ching and Winkel precisely refer to the citationary aspect of (in this case, North American) code: “The origins of the codes we use today lie in the great fires that swept American cities regularly in the 1800s” (Ching and Winkel, 2018: 2). Codes are written over decades of crisis in the built environment. Therefore, codes are inherently citationary, and subject to citationary politics, and all architecture under code is citationary. Codes do not write themselves. They are not inevitable results. They are also not a result of ‘natural disasters’, disasters of which ‘natural’ elements assume full responsibility. Codes are epistemological, ongoing and politically authored, as unjust means of production create conditions of inequality. These man-made consequences in combination with nature, result in fires, floors, winds, and earthquakes that disproportionately affect populated areas, poor neighborhoods, and environmentally dispossessed demographics largely unnamed (see Yusoff, 2018). The one-size-fits-all mentality of code forces identical standards onto a field with historically conditioned unevenness, and the unnaming that citationary architecture mobilizes is distinctly antithetic to what McKittrick envisioned and advocated. As an example of the violence of building code, I note from my research in Hong Kong that building code that outlaws informal settlements like subdivided units today learns from accidents out of dense living in historical slums (see Shek Kip Mei squatter fire as written in Smart, 2006). 

On Failure

Preventive algorithms refuse Black life by an “algorithmed” strategy (McKittrick, 2021: 103). Under these mathematical algorithms, Black people are predicted to be highly killable, prone to life-threatening violence. McKittrick notes that the social-scientific classification system excludes Black people from participating in the ontological process. “Black inhumanity” is thus “a variable in the problem-solving equation before the question is asked” (McKittrick, 2021: 111). She argues that algorithms should be more rooted in a black sense of place, as the “algorithmic answers to our problems” should be more embodied in the concretized and material conditions of the ground (McKittrick, 2021:114). 

These insights directly translate into the study of code. Codes can be envisioned as an algorithmic process that transform raw creativity to a socially acceptable presence in a city. In other words, building code demarcates the limits of acceptable imagination of the physical world. In the process, a modernist project is at work to weed out anomalies, rebels, and outcasts, maintaining predictability in the name of safety and welfare. As Ching and Winkel say, prescriptive codes are used for “speed, clarity, and assurance of compliance” (Ching and Winkel, 2018: 8) as an advanced capitalist tool. The architecture resultant from neoliberal code is in service of neoliberal ambitions (see LaDuke and Cowen, 2020), and architectural practices critical to the neoliberal project are rare occurrences (see Admassu, 2021). 

McKittrick’s diagnosis of the self-perpetuation of social/ architectural code is highly perceptive. She problematizes the condition where the answer precedes the question of an equation, which is often the case in code-writing. The extent to which codes are dismissive of questions of the built environment, especially those urgently begged by voices that are not white, cis-gendered, able-bodied males, is remarkable. Examples where answers premise on maleness and ableness are applied indiscriminately to all users of the city are too numerous and deep-rooted to name. Racialized and gendered people are frequently stigmatized (cited) as code breakers and violators, rather than viewed as code writers, similar to how a biocentric perspective on black people destined them to ‘failure’. The material conditions that distinguish between different communities and the vessels of historical unevenness they come in with are systemically disregarded in citationary architecture. One of the ways of overcoming is establishing a sense of place of these communities, as McKittrick argues. 

On Life

I have noted how blackness is uncited and how its perspective is unaccounted for. It is also despised, disrupted, and destroyed. In the chapter “I got life”, McKittrick followed Wynter in tracing the violent interruptions of black practices and consciousness in historical events like the Middle Passage and slavery. Black people, however, invented “rebellious activities” to “honour black life” (McKittrick, 2021: 161), performing black music, waveforms, lyrics, and other texts. McKittrick argues that these new forms of humanness allow us to “restructure our existing system of knowledge” (McKittrick, 2021: 154), built on white supremacy. She remarks that “black cultural production and inventions were… seen as noncultural within the dominant order of knowledge” (McKittrick, 2021: 162), unworthy and unscientific in the measure of dominant white culture.

The disruption and ostracization by modernism continue in settler colonial cities today. In a planet envisioned by Mike Davis (2005), this modernist impulse has intersected with the issue of informal settlements. Juan Du (2020) flags how informal settlements (urban villages) in Shenzhen precede post-Reform-and-Opening-Up architecture for centuries but are continually displaced by an eminent domain. The existence of informal places threatens the legitimacy of a building code, the legal definition of which is proclaimed by a constant regulation, prosecution, and surveillance, proclaiming and removing nuisances, outlaws, and defects. I note the legal malleability of building code - it functions to distinguish between the authorized and the unauthorized in favor of power. The informal under this definition includes all those rejected by the modernist project, such as ‘slums’, ‘ghettos’, gay spaces, and crip spaces. Code makes and edicts the informal by excluding it from the citationary formalization. However, following McKittrick’s and Wynter’s provocation, informal spaces are not just the negative of the formal. They critique it. The informal sustains in places where the formal fails- they happen for a reason. The informal produces humanness. Ara Wilson (2015) formulates how formally ambiguous spaces shelter queerness and non-binary intimacies. Rob Imrie (2006) perceives how absolutist spaces sanctioned by the formal often hinder care practices for people with disabilities. The absence of informal practices and spaces from architectural literature only attest to the fact that the citation structure within the discipline is broken and in need of fixing. The theory of citationary architecture reminds us how normative systems of knowledge inhibit our ability to learn from non-Western, non-white, and non-capitalist practices, and that a liberated view requires the questioning of and looking beyond these citationary systems.



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Kachun Alex Wong is a PhD student at John H. Daniels Faculty of the University of Toronto. He has obtained degrees from Columbia University, and the University of Hong Kong (HKU). He was previously a research assistant at the Urban Ecologies Design Lab at HKU.