Dark Matter University is a democratic network with the following principles guiding its actions. We work to create:
1) NEW FORMS OF KNOWLEDGE AND KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION
through radical anti-racist forms of communal knowledge and spatial practice that are grounded in lived experience. We challenge hegemonic pedagogies, canons, and epistemologies drawn from paradigms of white domination while elevating ancestral and local knowledge.
2) NEW FORMS OF INSTITUTIONS AND POWER
along a networked resource distribution model between institutions. We extract from those who have extracted to collate resources and lift up marginalized voices.
3) NEW FORMS OF COLLECTIVITY AND PRACTICE
that democratize models of practice, education, and labor at all phases of production. We operate with deep consideration of ethics and a duty of care, moving from hard to “soft power.”
4) NEW FORMS OF COMMUNITY AND CULTURE
that expand the circle of those contributing to anti-racist design pedagogy and practice. We actively build power and share knowledge to build capacity and resilience in communities beyond the preconceived boundaries of our fields.
5) NEW FORMS OF DESIGN
that open the possibilities and methodologies for designing the built environment. We aim to co-create new formal and spatial imaginaries that serve broader, often overlooked, constituencies and consider multiple subjectivities.
Dark Matter University (DMU) is a democratic network guided by the principle that we cannot survive and thrive without immediate change toward anti-racist models of design education and practice. DMU X LISBON is both a living document and a model of counter-institutionality through a “constellation” of DMU’s work, methods, and narratives co-generated by the network. To provide context for their contribution, we interviewed a few members of DMU’s core project team: Jerome Haferd, Tonia Sing Chi, Shawhin Roudbari, Maria Villalobos, Sophie Weston Chien, Bz Zhang, christin hu, Victor Zagabe, Garnette Cadogan, and Cory Henry.
As a network of activist-academics committed to challenging and shifting the inequities that define academic institutions of architecture, DMU emerged in the aftermath of the political unrest that followed the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in the USA—and at the height of the Covid pandemic. The sense of urgency that emerged from these two overlapping crises “just kicked into high gear,” explains Jerome Haferd, Harlem-based architect, then an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He and other colleagues had been exploring how they could challenge the status quo long before 2020, and they were not alone. Around the same period, various design justice collectives were forming across the United States. What set DMU apart was its proposition. They would unflinchingly and boldly tackle issues of race in design from the position of design and built environment professionals of colour.
“Many of us were using a lot of remote collaboration tools that I don’t think other folks had thought of bringing together for a counter-institutional project,” Haferd continues, referring to DMU’s extensive use of online technologies like Google Docs, Miro, and Zoom. From the outset, the organisation decided to work primarily in collective Google Docs and hold open meetings on Zoom. These technologies became embedded into the network, which grew with these technologies at its conceptual core.
Like Haferd, Shawhin Roudbari, one of DMU’s early members, is an architectural researcher. Sharing a long-term interest in design and social justice issues, Roudbari is based at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he is an Assistant Professor in Environmental Design. He is also a founding member of Dissent by Design, which, according to his website, “uses design and theory-building to investigate how dissent and counter-hegemonic tactics play out in space.” In the 1960s, he says, there were “different schools in Europe, South America, and in the US, such as Columbia University, that introduced pretty radical shifts in pedagogy, curriculum and other educational structures,” Roudbari continues, referring to some of the precedents that he and his collaborators examined closely at the beginning. “However, to meet the demands of today’s challenges, DMU adopted its malleable approach of thinking about practice and the way we define practices.” It’s best to think of DMU as a community in terms of “how we act [and] relate to each other,” he adds.
For Bay Area-based architect, designer and DMU organiser Tonia Sing Chi, this flexible approach enables DMU to be more inclusive. “As somebody who came into DMU not being part of an institution, I saw it as a strength that DMU brought together people who were embedded in institutions and farther along in their academic careers—including tenured professors—and also people who were curious about teaching and interested in having a shared experience,” This approach of letting the outside in and pushing insiders to explore less familiar terrain is core to DMU’s counter-institutional strategy that seeks to promote new or less established practices that counter the norms in architectural and design education pedagogy and institutions. “We’re embracing this zone where we’re trying new things; it may be a little uncomfortable, maybe a little disorienting,” adds Chi. “There is also a desire to practise something a little slower, more nuanced, and conscientious. We see people moving more laterally. It’s been an interesting process to embrace.”
For Sophie Weston Chien, working flexibly requires embracing an experimentation mindset. “We think a lot about hierarchies in terms of people, experience, and knowledge formation,” the Rhode Island School of Design graduate says. A “designer-organizer”, Chien is a core organizer of the Design As Protest Collective, an organisation that was started in 2015 and reactivated as the DAP Collective in June 2020. For her, a crucial part of DMU is its space for experimentation. “Our agreements are that we take care of each other, and we collaborate on everything, and then past that, every new project is an opportunity to try something new,” she says.
DMU operates on a purely voluntary basis. Currently, its roster lists about 170 network members. Most are design educators and practitioners from various North American universities from New York to Ohio and New Orleans to Ontario.
DMU network members have developed an impressive number of courses covering various topics. Courses include titles such as “Foundations of Design Justice”, “Dissent By Design”, “Labour, Organising and Architecture”, “Vulnerability”, and “Decolonising Design Research Methods”. Many of these courses are designed collectively. The volunteers propose and work with other like-minded contributors on topics they feel passionate about. One gets the sense that part of the DMU project is to facilitate sharing the burden of academia’s dreary, often lonely, unheralded labour. They are thinking through new coursework and developing a new curriculum that fills in the gaps and challenges the monoculturalism that defines most established educational institutions.
Among these are the “Learn-In” workshops conducted in New York and Philadelphia in fall 2021. Consisting of three sessions, the programme brought together faculty, staff, administrators, and master and undergraduate students. “It was a fascinating process to explore how they’re structuring learning sessions that are neither top-down nor bottom-up; something that’s horizontal in a way, and also transversal because they’re multidisciplinary, multicultural and cross-generational,” says Maria Villalobos, an Assistant Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she coordinates the second year of the Masters of Landscape Architecture + Urbanism programme. She has been an active member of DMU since 2020. Designed to reach a broad audience, the Learn-Ins attracted students from both public colleges and Ivy League institutions. Accommodating such a diverse group of participants is a difficult task, Villalobos continues. The question is, “how can we create a conversation that is specific enough but also flexible enough, so everybody feels welcome and encouraged to be part of it?”
Haferd agrees. “We want teaching to be more bi-directional,” he says. “We don’t want to be unidirectionally conveying knowledge, which is how architecture, our built environment, and information is usually conveyed,” he adds. “So, we hacked our model of a module in a way that allows for the maximum participation of our members,” he continues. For Haferd, this is “the raw material of the conversation” about how DMU members’ diverse identities—both collective and individual—come into play and can influence the disciplines of design and architecture.
In the Winter of 2021, some DMU members co-created and taught an introductory seminar titled “Foundations of Design Justice”. The course, which saw the organisation partner with Florida A&M University and University of Utah as well as University of Michigan and University at Buffalo, counts as one of DMU’s proudest successes so far. “The seminar was a really amazing experiment in collective authorship, collective teaching and student-centred learning,” recalls Tonia Sing Chi, who taught the course. She says that the live Google Docs she and her collaborators used in designing and preparing the course are a critical component of the process and reflective of the way DMU works. “The fact that we have a live document that we can all type in at the same time seems so basic,” she says. “But, being able to see everybody’s words as they type and interact with each other adds something to the process.”
This collaboration process is not intended to flatten members’ opinions into consensus. Jerome Haferd, Maria Villalobos and Sophie Weston Chien argue that internal feedback, criticism, and reflection are central elements of a collaborative generation. It is also part of the deliberate attempt to create processes that counter how older, existing institutions operate. “I think we have very consciously banded together as a bloc that is different. We have debates that strengthen any singular voice. If anything, they are against reprimanding an individual for being critical or wanting to do something different,” Haferd says, “that’s an important part of our counter-institutional ambition.” For Villalobos, there is safety and even joy in this embrace of debate. “The part that’s most rewarding is when I don’t have to tippy-toe around an issue trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. In this space, I can be myself fully and not have my guard up,” she says. “I don’t need armour; I don’t feel threatened. It’s very different from going to a faculty meeting where that freedom, that sense of joy, and feeling of safety that allows for different kinds of creative energy and collaboration is curtailed,” she adds.
In the grander scheme of things, most DMU members seem to hold positions in the US institutions they are determined to change from within. Introducing new curricula that represent more diverse perspectives and amplify and expand the canon, which has long defined how architects think of society and the world around them, is a laudable project. The project of democratising and shifting the institutional cultures of the academy is a much heavier lift. Shawhin Roudbari is aware of this challenge. “There’s so much risk of reproducing institutional hierarchies,” he says. “We’re still embedded in these hierarchies in ways that we’re conscious of, and others we are not.”
That is the quandary and opportunity offered by DMU’s proposition.