Neutral Violence: Reframing Institutional Spaces and Structures for Post-Pandemic Equity


November 9, 2020

By Henry Smith

I. Foundation

Humanity is experiencing a moment of vulnerability. An infectious disease has revealed the weak points in our systems and structures. Increasing uncertainty with these structures has led to new revelations and conversations. Those structures do not treat all people fairly. Not everyone is considered equal within these systems. By structures, I mean the unseen conventions, institutions and authorities. I also mean the concrete structural nature they embody—designed objects and spaces, architecture. These spaces are not equally open to all people, despite supposedly being for all people. They are often built and controlled by white authority figures. They are not spaces people of all different races, backgrounds, orientations, and abilities are allowed to comfortably exist in, let alone access and utilize to their full potential.

Accessibility is something that is felt. It isn’t fully determined by regulations dictated through legislature—though those mandated aspects are necessary. Accessibility is feeling capable and empowered by a space to utilize its resources and components. Accessibility is confidence in the system around you to be supportive. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates a 32-inch doorway. These clearances do not equate to spaces and resources being truly accessible, despite the numerical fact that a person utilizing a wheelchair could enter the space. The attributes of accessibility cannot simply be designated by laws claiming to establish equality and “colorblindness.” But they can be designed.

With society working to accommodate the needs of pandemic life, we are teetering on the edge of an opportunity for a reframing of the spaces we occupy: a “hard reset.” The impacts of the pandemic are coinciding with, and informing, a movement towards greater equality among all people—a push to finally confront racism at the root. It is imperative to take advantage of this moment of revision to not allow the spaces made and occupied to be continuously exclusive. 

II. Obstruction

Stepping out on my front porch on a bright morning in August of 2020, I was confronted with a white piece of paper stuck to the other side of the screen door with black electrical tape. Dark sharpie strokes bled through the white loose-leaf, backlit by the morning sun. The message was immediately clear, the statement intense and direct.


 A note that reads TRIM YOUR CACTI from the walkway. The current situation is remarkably inconsiderate of your neighbors, particularly those with vision & mobility impairments. It’s also in violation of city code and will be reported."


[Transcript: TRIM YOUR CACTI from the walkway. The current situation is remarkably inconsiderate of your neighbors, particularly those with vision & mobility impairments. It’s also in violation of city code and will be reported if you don’t CLEAR THE SIDEWALK.]

I recently moved into this house, inheriting a long list of maintenance tasks. I also inherited a lush but overgrown yard, the centerpiece of which is a sprawling paddle cactus, spilling out onto the walkway. The grassy parkway between the sidewalk and the road has been worn thin and yellow by pedestrians sidestepping the thorny arms. I was aware of this issue, its violation of city code, ADA standards, and basic decency toward the neighborhood. I had looked at this cactus every day for the entire summer. But I had yet to do anything about it.

A long list of excuses sustained my procrastination: the triple-digit heat, the prickly nature of the job, the infestations of insects hiding between the paddles. Not to mention that the plant was actually quite stunning in its overgrown state—the immense arms of the cactus reaching upward to the sky, casting an array of yellow flowers and small purple fruit. Cutting away these elegant limbs would reveal the grimier interior and inflict harsh scars of the dismemberment. The public-facing edge would be less attractive. 

I could accept all these excuses because I personally didn’t need to use my own sidewalk every day. It didn’t inconvenience me. The task of addressing the problem was the inconvenience. I was aware of the problem, but I hadn’t been required to empathize with the human manifestation of its impact. And thus, I could put it off.

Upon receiving this note, I acted promptly. My neglect had been called out. The overgrowth was trimmed. I was poked by a few spines. Overall it was fairly painless and was finished in an hour. But the rhetoric of the note echoed in my head throughout the day. The author stressed the moral importance of being considerate of neighbors, particularly those with vision and mobility impairments. The ethical nature of caring for fellow community members was the main point. The threat of imposing civic authority to ensure this moral compliance was secondary. Human decency came first.

In what ways do we let metaphoric cacti obstruct public channels throughout other areas of life, despite awareness of these obstructions and mistreatments? In what ways does this neglect further inconvenience or harm marginalized people who must navigate these intrusions more directly? This period of reconstruction mid- and post-pandemic is a keen opportunity to identify these “cacti” and address their thorny arms left to hang in spaces by the institutions in power. It will take much more consideration and thought than a single hour on a summer morning.

III. Structures

I should state here that I am not an architect. I am an artist and an educator. I think about space and objects, and the human relations that happen within and amongst them. Education, particularly in a creative field, is heavily dictated by the objects and spaces we can utilize. In our current era of virtual teaching, so many of those resources are unavailable or compromised. This is sparking new thought, innovation, and appreciation around space and human interaction within it. We are in a moment of rethinking how to keep ourselves and each other healthy, as well as how to better support and respect the diverse members of our community. With these new perspectives provided as a side effect to a pandemic and a reckoning with deeply ingrained inequities, how can spaces be retrofitted to fit these needs?

Beginning this project, I set out with the intent to explore some longstanding beliefs about the building on the UT Austin campus that is home to the departments of Art and Design: a vast expanse of brown brick, a conglomeration of rectangles astutely named the Art Building. A myth about the structure that is often shared anecdotally is that the building was designed with purposeful intent to suppress the assembly of students. The building was conceived and built in the 1960s, paralleling a period of nationwide, student-led political demonstrations against the Vietnam War, in support of the Civil Rights Movement, and other humanitarian causes.

Another sweeping movement of the era was an architectural style known as Brutalism—a branch of modernism featuring primarily raw, unadorned materials like stone and concrete to create large geometric structures. The stoic angles and sallow earth tones are often challenging. And many Brutalist elements have not held up to current needs and preferences. It is clear that many aspects are not what the general public envisions as comfortable. 

With a very quick Google search I found that this is a common anecdote—or urban legend—about Brutalism on college campuses. In truth, many of these buildings were planned and built before these protests were far-reaching. Though the anecdote of the Art Building is perhaps a common myth, there still are elements of the design that has persuaded people of its truth. The building lacks communal space. There are very limited sightlines between spaces. It is challenging to see what people are doing and what possibilities might be accessible. It looks like a high school. Everything is off-white or beige. Windowless doors are kept closed and locked. There are “cacti” looming everywhere. It makes a lot of sense that deliberate oppression could have been an intent of the design. But any evidence of this was not found in UT archives. I’ll chalk it up to the limited research privileges of the campus pandemic restrictions. 

College campuses across the globe are made up of expansive buildings whose interiors tend to be far from inspiring. These institutional spaces are often oppressive on a fundamental level. This is due to some practical needs required for function within such a large system. It is also due to the enormity of the institution as an entity—it is invisible, looming above our heads. Immense gears are turning elsewhere, out of sight. It is not sinister, but it can be neglectful. Institutions are large organizations, like schools, states, and governments. They are also systems and norms, protocol and rules. Walls are painted with neutral colors to be easily recoated. Fluorescent lighting and ceiling tiles are necessary for standardized maintenance needs. The architecture is the face of the institution, and the faces generally are accepted as fact, unquestioned. The suggested “neutrality” of the beige walls and fluorescent lighting are the ways a person interacts with the system of authority. And the use of beige is quietly violent. It is a subconscious and ubiquitous reminder of an institution that often must prioritize efficiency of operations over human experience. The beige is “clean,” and it is consistent. It is authoritarian.

The way a building makes you feel is planned. We are constantly being impacted by the built environment we occupy. In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand examines the lifetimes of buildings, and how changing needs and alterations impact the inhabitants. Brand quotes author David Owen to illustrate how when someone designs or modifies a space, any choices, alterations, or additions made to that building are a form of communication with the later inhabitants. “To tinker with a house is to commune with the people who have lived in it before and to leave messages for those who will live in it later,” states Owen. An architect is communicating with the future dwellers of their design. This seems to be discussed with a somewhat romantic tone; the idea is poetic. This premise is true of more violent and exclusionary structures as well. When a building is designed or altered by a cisgendered white person—which most buildings are (see The Aesthetics of Equity by Craig Wilkins)—then it was planned with subconscious biases and without the ability to fully consider how marginalized communities move through the world. 

A perpetual issue with this subject is that buildings exist on long time scales. They are like trees—or a cactus. Their timeline is long and slow. They are planted without knowledge of how the world will develop around them, what needs may exist, how they may be obtrusive in the future. This is another point that Brand muses on. Buildings are predictions of what is to come, and they often are based on poor estimates. We still occupy spaces that have been designed in a different time period for different purposes and standards. Brutalist spaces often feel obtrusive and aggressive, not progressive and futurist as they once did. Over time, the occupants must keep those spaces relevant and accessible. This is increasingly difficult as progressive movements push to shift norms and shape a more equitable society—such as renovations to address accessibility for differently-abled people, or gender-neutral restrooms. Perhaps the only way to fully reframe the spaces within which we exist is to imagine that these conventions do not exist at all. If binary bathrooms and fluorescent lighting and stairs weren’t our touchstones, then what would we build? 

IV. Practices

As students move through their educational careers, they are routinely treated as subordinates. Educators and educational spaces tend to “presume an adversarial relationship between students and teachers,” as is poignantly illustrated by Jeffrey Moro in his essay “Against Cop Shit.” The institution and many educators working within it “will presume that you [the students] will attempt to flout [them] at every turn.” Despite paying large sums of money in order to attend the institution, the student is fundamentally anticipated to be a delinquent. In truth they are (often) fully functioning people with adult responsibilities. The student is the customer, and the customer is being berated. The universalization of these methods creates a culture of militarized structure as the only rightful means of proving oneself. The student must be processed by the perils of the institution. Spiny cactus arms are sprawling all over the place, hoping to stab someone. Moro’s terminology is apt at a time when society is examining the white dominance of another institution for its overuse of violence under the guise of order—our American policing systems.

Architect and theorist Craig Wilkins has done a lot of work in these areas of thought, contemplating how institutions and their conventions relate to the architecture that makes up the systems. In an article from July 2020, Wilkins describes how truly “space is life.” So much is determined by the spaces we are able to access and exist in comfortably, from our nutritional choices to employment options, and so many other dimensions of healthy and unhealthy lifestyles. In his 2007 book The Aesthetics of Equity, Wilkins shares some ponderings on space and what it affords us—particularly what it affords white people and what it denies people of color and other marginalized communities. Space is a perpetrator of “othering” these nonwhite folks into disadvantaged trajectories. Spaces are predisposed to favor whiteness as a constant neutral. “The unquestioned assumption of neutrality in what is in truth a carefully constructed social view inevitably renders people of color not necessarily criminal, but suspect,” he elaborates. This sparks and exacerbates any manifestations of “Cop Shit.” The units of space that are designated through the practice of architecture—a practice dominated by white norms—are discriminatory. Occupying space with comfort and without fear is true freedom. Many communities are denied these rights.

V. Reformation

The thesis of this project (and Wilkins’ writing) is not a suggestion that buildings be built or modified specifically for marginalized communities—doing so would be problematic and potentially in itself discriminatory. What is being offered is that the spaces we occupy must simply be accessible to all people, or as many people as possible. This is achieved by reframing what is “neutral” and allowing a diverse community to shape those spaces. We also must acknowledge the constant oppression that exists fundamentally in Western colonial society. It must be admitted that our institutions and their spaces possess colonialism and white-dominance as a constant presence. The designers of buildings must be bringing diverse perspectives to the collective architectural table.

The eternal phenomenon of white comfort and confidence to move freely through the world shifted in March of 2020 as the cloud of viral paranoia descended on the United States. Simple everyday tasks like grocery shopping became an immense endeavor, weighted with paranoia and fear of an invisible threat. More than half a year since this new chapter began, many of these concerns have become normalized despite their continued urgency. Perhaps the fear experienced during this vulnerable time can gestate immense growth and understanding, uniting our diverse family through newfound empathy. Many Americans carry fear with them as they move through the world, simply trying to participate in the daily demands of life; fear of being prosecuted—or killed—due to being “rendered suspect” by not fitting into the institutionalized whiteness that is our baseline.

As was illustrated in the cactus note, empathy between people is the first priority. Through this empathy we can observe the ways that institutions too large to comprehend are embodied by spaces that reiterate the inequities of vast, broken systems. We can talk to each other to discuss and observe these systems. And we can hold everyone accountable, especially ourselves. Trim your cacti and regrow the grass that has been worn thin.

Read more from the Journal of Design and Creative Technologies


Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built. New York: Viking, 1994. Print. Pp. 163–164

Owen, David. The Walls Around Us. New York: Random House, 1991. Print. Pp. 5

Wilkins, Craig L. The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print. Pp. 11, 25

Wilkins, Craig. “It's Time for Architects to Accept Responsibility.” Curbed, 21 July 2020,, As told to Diana Budds.

Speck, Lawrence W., and Richard Louis. Cleary. The University of Texas at Austin : an Architectural Tour / by Lawrence W. Speck and Richard L. Cleary ; with Photographs by Casey Dunn. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. Print. Pp. 186

Moro, Jeffrey. “Against Cop Shit.”13 Feb. 2020,

Tingley, Kim. “How Architecture Could Help Us Adapt to the Pandemic.” 10 June 2020,

Lowder, J. Bryan. “Were Brutalist Buildings on College Campuses Really Designed to Thwart Student Riots?” 18 Oct. 2013,

Hall, Gordon. “Reading Things,” Walker Art Center, 8 Apr. 2016,

Lee, Emily. “Mist.” University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts, Department of Art and Art History, 2019. Pp. 14–15.

Unknown author. “TRIM YOUR CACTI” note received by Henry Smith, Crestview, 4 Aug. 2020. Austin, Texas. 

Photographs by Henry Smith

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