Sustainability as Plantation Logic, Or, Who Plots an Architecture of Freedom?


The plantation is a persistent but ugly blueprint of our contemporary spatial troubles.
—Katherine McKittrick

Sustainability is the new architectural innocence

The touchstone for green building, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is the most popular standard used by builders in the United States to demonstrate their environmental responsibility in metrics of increased energy and water efficiency. Notwithstanding its contributions to greener design, LEED certification also fabricates innocence for development projects with massive carbon footprints, complex problems of sourcing and finance, heavy demands on municipal infrastructure, and complicity with displacement. Sustainability is the present story of the settler colonial future. Modernism and “slum clearance” were the prior narratives of progress. Not long before that, the story was settlement and civilization on wild lands against savage people. Undergirding the veneer of sustainability are settler colonial logics. Plantation logics.

I write from Kumeyaay land, as a provost and professor in my office within the geometric buildings designed by Robert Mosher, A. Quincy Jones, Frank L. Hope, Gayne Wimer, Dale Naegle, and other fathers of modernism in San Diego. To be clear, as my critique may suggest otherwise, I love these buildings. Their shapely concrete faces. Their hive-like cubical details. Their sleek edges. The vines growing into their skins, like a jungle claiming the hulls of aging spaceships. I will love the new buildings too, rising up adjacent to ours; half-century younger models of modernity.

Next door to us, cranes raise the newest structures on our campus colony—LEED certified of course. As an administrator, I attend many meetings about future construction on this campus, which is destined to become the largest residential university in the country. To say that a building is sustainable brings smiles to the otherwise concerned faces of students, who in meetings question what the rents will be, how parking will be impacted, who will pay for the campus expansion, and how large the carbon footprint of the construction will be. LEED helps us reassure each other that ours is an architecturally innocent project. Add in a landscape of native plants, water catchments, and a biodigester that creates natural gas torches to light up outdoor patios, and we have a state-of-the-future model worthy of science fiction imaginaries.

I cannot help but think about how our massive sourcing of capital and material and water and gas and electricity are all connected in a web of extraction with its roots in a plantation logic:

The plantation normally contains a main house, an office, a carriage house, barns, a slave auction block, a garden area, slave quarters and kitchen, stables, a cemetery, and a building or buildings through which crops are prepared, such as a mill or a refinery… Plantation towns are linked to transport—rivers, roads, small rail networks—that enable the shipping of crops, slaves, and other commodities. This is a meaningful geographic process … an economic structure that would underpin town and industry development in the Americas.

Where I write, California cities are named after Spanish missions and presidios, dots on a map connected by King’s Highways and galleon trade routes. Missions were built on plantation economies, and torture, and enslavement, and militarization, and land speculation. Mission…

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