The A&E System

Public Works and Private Interest in Architectural and Engineering Services, 2000–2020

Download the PDF here or read on Instagram @a_and_e_system

Architects’ fame does not necessarily correlate with their power. In fact, the opposite has tended to be true. Distributed across anonymous joint ventures, tangled bureaucracies, and vested interests, uncounted designers and producers of the built environment in the United States and beyond its borders constitute a formidable system of private interest. Thanks to its inscrutability, this system has an enormous impact, reproducing and reinforcing manifold injustices even as its most visible, if increasingly limited, public manifestations remain subject to democratic checks and balances.

What does architecture look like when studied through this system? Considering the increasing number of climate-related disasters requiring federally funded mitigation and response efforts, long-stalled infrastructure proposals, and heated debates about a "Green New Deal," “Green Stimulus,” or even “Green Reconstruction,” what does this system reveal about the built environment's relationship to today's interconnected crises of mutual care, racial oppression, and climate? And what part do architects truly play?

Systems hide. Accordingly, these questions are not easy to answer. This downloadable resource for students, teachers, and professionals in the arts and sciences of the built environment — available for download here, to the right, and on Instagram at @a_and_e_system — offers a provisional portrait of the A&E System. This system’s power is well established and diffuse, which makes it both important and difficult to understand.

The study focuses on public commissions, with the relationship between the “who” of federal procurement and the “what” of architecture in mind. By highlighting specific actors — identified as regulators, managers, stakeholders, and stewards — four chapters foreground the agency and responsibility of individuals and institutions in shaping the built environment. A web of public-private partnerships, the A&E System is complex, as are the built forms it generates. Nonetheless, it remains the responsibility of architects and other professionals of the built environment to understand how this system works.

Educational and professional institutions supporting the A&E System, however, have tended to shy away from this critical task in favor of more narrow understandings of the disciplines that shape the built environment and of their agency. Some aspects of the system, which stretches from small, locally-focused firms to those engaged in massive, multinational projects, will therefore be recognizable to readers, while others might seem less familiar, or perhaps even unrelated. This document simply sketches its most visible contours by stitching together publicly available federal procurement data, corporate websites, and advertisements. The first step toward systemic change is recognizing the system.


Green Reconstruction

What is Green Reconstruction? It is an outline, an open work, for the repair of a world ravaged by three intersecting crises—of mutual care, of racial oppression, and of climate, all intersecting in turn with economic inequality—that moves along two axes, the Green axis of ecological transformation, and the gilded axis of material redistribution, or Reconstruction. The Green axis refers to the ecological and economic ambitions of proposals like the Green New Deal and its counterparts around the world, all of which merit serious academic and public attention. The second axis recovers the unfinished project of what W. E. B. Du Bois called, in Black Reconstruction in America (1935), “abolition democracy,” and with it, the political-economic restructuring of a system for which the expropriation of Black and brown lives is business as usual, as racial and ecological apartheid remain global norms.

More specifically for the arts and sciences of the built environment, Green Reconstruction names a new curriculum, a potential change of course. By this the Buell Center recognizes the central role of professional, academically sanctioned expertise in constructing and maintaining a status quo, including a status quo nominally devoted to perpetual innovation. To mean anything and to change anything, Green Reconstruction must speak from below; but to endure, it must find its own designers, planners, and technicians. Such figures, both scholars and practitioners, link the powers below with the powers above, with the aim of supplying technical equipment with which to make things change.

We support these efforts first by inviting any and all to join a concrete conversation about what might change and why and how. In recent years, the Buell Center has attempted to convene parts of that conversation, with detailed studies of the “right to infrastructure” in sites of racialized dispossession like Flint, Michigan, and of the states of emergency by which democratic self-governance was withheld, again along racial lines, from hurricane-torn New Orleans and Puerto Rico. We have co-hosted a public assembly in Queens to discuss the real, multi-scalar implications of the Green New Deal, and sponsored coursework at Columbia to explore its potential and its limits. Cases and occasions like these link up into a network of inputs, a constellation of site-specific conflicts and their provisional resolution, that draw the outlines of a larger, more collective effort to define change. These local efforts only begin to capture the full scope of the individual problems they explore. But taken together, they confirm the extent of the current crisis and indicate some of its key dynamics: not merely privatization, but de-democratization; not merely racist expression, but racially organized dispossession; not merely climate denial, but the knowing, profit-driven embrace of a fossil-fueled future.

We propose to assist in this change of course by changing professional curricula. By gathering specialists in the professions of the built environment, part of whose job is to impart meaning to that environment and to make it work, the Buell Center aims to show how these curricula might be modified with tools designed expressly not to repeat a deadly status quo but rather, to model societal transformation both symbolically and materially. As signaled in the Buell Center’s Green Reconstruction public service announcements, this is a civic undertaking, governed by a spirit of cooperation among educators, students, and publics with different and sometimes competing interests. Today’s multi-dimensional crisis requires us to rethink together the social, economic, and ecological order devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic in a manner that repairs the damage, amends injustice, and averts still worse. It requires us to ask how to erase longstanding inequities made clear as day, when safety, comfort, and care for some has meant heightened risk for countless others. 

How to heed the warning, as fossil-fueled climate change forces overexposed populations onto front lines redrawn before our very eyes? How to see what links the absence of planning with planned exploitation? Racial oppression with ecological apartheid? Public health with environmental justice? Healing the planet with healing society?

To assist in teaching these questions and developing their provisional answers we aim to fashion, with the help of many, a tool kit of new curricular infrastructures for professional education in the design and planning of the built environment.

Our larger goal is twofold: 

  1. To educate ourselves, our colleagues, and our students into ways of thinking and acting that link professional responsibility with societal change.
  2. To outline pedagogical frameworks and courses of action for others to adopt and make their own. 

Please join us.


The Right to Infrastructure

The methods and effects of emergency management, especially regarding its relationship to race, invite further analysis in a broader infrastructural context. Considering questions around incorporation, debt, and infrastructural access—whether it be of a small Freedmen’s town on the edge of Houston, or an entire island such as Puerto Rico—brings to light issues of access, discrimination, and financialization, requiring an overall conceptual framework that explains parallel events as more than aberration. “The Right to Infrastructure” seeks to elucidate some of these cases, and develop strategies so that they might be more effectively addressed.

In this project, Danielle Purifoy and Louise Seamster identify and examine a pattern of racialized extractive practices and predatory governance in black towns. They define black towns as communities comprised of a majority-black population with black leadership, regardless of municipal incorporation or demographic history. According to this pattern, the consequences of chronic dispossession through practices such as the seizure of water rights, the denial of eligible public funding, and the imposition of exorbitant and discriminatory tax rates are reframed as deficiencies of black towns themselves, or simply curious anomalies. Charges of failed leadership, incompetence, and even fraudulence, are frequently leveled against local black officials, particularly during intergovernmental disputes over resource access.

The fight for basic services is replicated in black towns of all types across the U.S., from unincorporated black towns in the South to majority-black industrial centers in the North. Most journalistic coverage of these black towns, however, treats each one as a surprising, special occurrence. In each supposedly isolated instance, the black town’s failure to get basic services—a clear indicator of structural racism—is framed in the public sphere as a case of “lack of leadership,” “incompetence,” “non-compliance,” or even “negligence.”

To understand black towns requires understanding white towns, cities, and unincorporated places as raced spaces. In order to answer commonly asked questions about black towns, Purifoy and Seamster plan to delve deep into ordinary structures of governance: infrastructure, taxation, incorporation and annexation, loan and grant agreements, etc. They investigate processes of erasing and rebuilding—dynamic processes that produce the illusion of stability. How do government arrangements shape land outcomes and resources? How do those disparities, in turn, predict the re-shaping of governance?

Currently, Purifoy and Seamster are developing a conceptual framework for understanding black towns within extractive white space, highlighting questions of citizenship, extraction, and exclusion as we focus on how legal, spatial, racial, and economic systems structure black spaces’ access to infrastructure and facilitate environmental violence. In their framework, Purifoy and Seamster draw on several theoretical principles that nest black towns in a larger sociopolitical, economic, and visionary context. First, in the realm of politics, they apply Charles Mills’ “racial contract”1 on a local level, looking at how the rules that constitute both black and white towns (and the spaces between them) are far from the neutral, stable structure usually imagined. Second, they take a relational approach to these black and white towns, describing an intimate bondage between them, forged through plantation power structures but reproduced today through a material and affective dependency. Third, they foreground physical space by examining how black towns have enacted black spatial imaginaries2 and served as crucial sites for the envisioning and practicing of alternative modes of governance.

Purifoy and Seamster build this conceptual framework because they can’t understand how infrastructural access is racialized without it. They focus on the social, political and economic mechanisms that map resources, exclusion, and racial inequalities onto physical spaces. The study of environmental racism has shown a broad array of adverse impacts on communities of color, from siting environmental hazards to the quality of land allocated to black communities, and lack of access to clean water. These effects are compounding—for example, environmental ruination from pesticide use to industrial pollution made Flint’s river corrosive, while state and county–level political machinations led to Flint’s use of corrosive water, and racialized assumptions about credibility and deservingness led officials charged with ensuring clean water access to ignore and mock residents’ complaints. Effects range from lead poisoning to property value destruction (which in turn structures the city’s ability to pay for future improvements). Similarly, the black towns of Sandbranch and Tamina, Texas need a municipal water supply because extractive gravel factories and oil fields sited along their borders have rendered their well water undrinkable.

Purifoy and Seamster combine an environmental focus with data and frameworks from urban studies, fiscal sociology, geography, and law to show how these harms are not the result of discrete “racist” acts, but are written into the law itself, and are central to the functioning of racial capitalism.3


  • 1. Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).
  • 2. Katharine McKittrick and Clyde Woods, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2007); George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011); Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: Race, Power, and the Blues in Mississippi (New York: Verso Books, 2017 [1998]).
  • 3. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 [1983]); Mills 1997; Laura Pulido, "Geographies of Race and Ethnicity Ii: Environmental Racism, Racial Capitalism and State-Sanctioned Violence." Progress in Human Geography, 41, no. 4 (2017): 524-533.
Two signs are shown along the side of the highway. One reads "Taylortown, City Limit" and the other reads "Citywide Speed Limit 35; Unless Otherwise Posted; State Maintenance Ends"

State maintenance ends outside of Taylortown, NC (Danielle Purifoy)

Glass door shown with typewritten sign, taped to the inside of the door, reading "Water Clerk will be back shortly." Silhouette of photographer shown in reflection.

"Water Clerk Will Be Back Shortly" (Danielle Purifoy)

Plaque shown with a short biography of Demus Taylor, the founder of Taylortown and a former slave.

Sign showing the biography of Demus Taylor (Danielle Purifoy)

Tall grasses are shown in front of railroad tracks and a sign that reads "Tamina."

Tamina, TX was officially founded as a train stop in 1871, although local historians dated it decades earlier. Early on, Tamina was known for its lumber mills.

a train is shown passing through an intersection, side-view car mirror in foreground

One of two ways into Tamina, TX—literally across the railroad tracks. Residents had to ask repeatedly for a stop sign at this intersection.

A black and white illustration shows various components of "Blacktown" and "Whitetown."

Illustration by billy dee, originally published in Environmental Sociology

Everyday Emergencies

Tracking Emergency Interventions in the United States, 1998–2008



For millennia, political entities have declared a “state of emergency” when facing acute danger or distress. Traditionally, the entity declaring the emergency was a sovereign ruler or nation-state and the threat was geopolitical or insurrectionary in nature. In response, the sovereign authority would categorically suspend political and legal-juridical norms, turning instead to extraordinary measures of control. During such “exceptional” periods, democratic rule and constitutional order were abrogated on the grounds that necessitas non habet legem (“necessity knows no law”). More recently, emergency-based techniques of governance have been used to address a rapidly growing and diversifying list of threats and disruptions, including (but not limited to): natural and human-made disasters, infrastructural and technological failures, fiscal and financial crises, terrorist threats, and public health hazards. This has entailed a proliferation of entities that possess the power to declare an emergency and implement extra-democratic modes of governance. These entities deploy emergency measures in a geographically targeted fashion, such that specific districts, cities, counties, regions, and states are subject to them.


Problem Statement

Emergency management is on the rise. From school systems, to waste authorities, to electric grids, to U.S. Territories, the technique is appearing in a growing number of different juridical and sociopolitical contexts. And yet, while emergency intervention seems to be emerging as the de rigueur response to local and regional problems of all types, there is no central repository or database tracking the practice. “Everyday Emergencies” seeks to fill this critical gap in our knowledge.


A white, outlined map of California shows red districts increasingly appearing, as another label advances from 2009 to 2014




Project Objectives

“Everyday Emergencies” addresses this problem in two primary ways. First and foremost, the lacuna that needs to be filled is an empirical one. Researchers currently lack the data necessary to make basic statements with respect to who, why, where, and how frequently emergency management is being administered. Hence, the proposed project will research, record, and visualize the recent implementation of emergency management across the United States. Specifically, by utilizing recent advances in big data analytics and machine learning to extract cases of emergency management from large databases (covering U.S. newspapers, periodicals, and industry newsletters), this project will develop an original national dataset of all cases of emergency intervention in the U.S. from 1998-2018. Such a dataset would serve as the empirical foundation needed for the development of a comprehensive typology of emergency interventions. It would also provide the basis for subsequent mapping efforts.

Second, “Everyday Emergencies” also seeks to understand the deeper patterns and broader implications of emergency management practices. Targeted emergency management is a phenomenon based largely on the negative applications of state power whereby citizens are deprived of certain rights and protections during periods of crisis. As such it is exceedingly important to understand who is being subjected to these provisions and for what reasons. For instance, a recent analysis of fiscal emergency management in Michigan finds that while the fiscal prognosis of local municipalities and school districts will explain a great deal in terms of the distribution of emergency managers (EMs), the proportion of black residents is also a determining factor (Kirkpatrick and Breznau, in progress). Specifically, when we control for fiscal health, the odds that an EM will be assigned increase by 50% for every 10% increase in the local black population. Obviously, such findings raise grave questions concerning the relationship between emergency management and disenfranchisement in Michigan. It is imperative that such patterns are also interrogated on the national scale. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to build out a more robust dataset that includes additional demographic and political variables. This will be accomplished with the help of a team of undergraduate research assistants (RAs), who will “clean” the raw dataset (described above) and construct a short case study of each emergency management event. This will allow for deeper and more sophisticated forms of analysis. “Everyday Emergencies” is thus a stand-alone project that will both empirically establish the frequency and distribution of emergency management strategies over a two-decade period, as well as provide a framework for identifying and critically analyzing patterns that may emerge from said data. This helps us to better understand the social and political effects of emergency intervention, and better predict its future use. If successful, however, the project may also serve as a blueprint for a larger project that could be expanded longitudinally and/or geographically (e.g. cross-nationally).


#GreenStimulus and Beyond: A Resource

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to deepening global economic crisis. Even as relief efforts accelerate and immediate economic rescue packages are assembled, longer-term economic recovery proposals have begun to circulate. Many of these incorporate the comprehensive, society-wide response to the climate crisis proposed by the Green New Deal. To assist scholars, students, and activists in tracking these discussions, the Buell Center is compiling a working resource—with a focus on the period of mid-March through mid-May. It builds on recent calls for a progressive #GreenStimulus in the United States. To these have been added real-time analyses of the global financial system at various levels, and documentation of fast moving facts-on-the-ground.


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    Architecture against Democracy

    In 1816 on the island of Saint Helena, Napoléon Bonaparte articulated his failed vision of a pan-European empire with him at the helm: “I felt myself worthy of this glory.” By 2016, a group of ersatz Napoléons had assumed leadership positions in governments across the globe, from India to the United States. Architecture against Democracy investigates the spatial and architectural dimensions of hyper-nationalism and de-democratization that have unfolded throughout industrial and postindustrial modernity, with an emphasis on developments after 1945. The political move to fascism and its likenesses related to modernization has found particular echoes and reinforcement in architecture. Taking what historian Christopher Bayly has called the “wreck of nations” following 1815 as its starting point, but concentrating on less well-studied episodes in the long history of nationalism, proto-fascism, and fascism following the Second World War, "Architecture against Democracy" offers an architectural history of the present conjuncture.

    Green New Deal

    Since its introduction on February 7, 2019, United States House of Representatives Resolution 109 - Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal has become the focus of a nationwide—and international—campaign to advance climate justice. Recognizing the United States’ historical responsibility for a “disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” the resolution links the unfolding climate emergency to a series of related social and environmental issues, including income inequality underpinned by racial and gender discrimination, and a host of interconnected public health concerns. Although not mentioned in detail in the resolution, the built environment is at the center of many of these matters.

    Beginning with infrastructure and moving inward and outward from there, the Buell Center seeks to provide a forum for engaged, critical discussion on the role of the built environment in the Green New Deal (GND) and related proposals. Inclusive as it is, the resolution is not without contradictions. Planetary warming does not respect national borders; climate justice in one country is not climate justice for all, and the explosive force of capital remains. Nonetheless, the GND has gained significant traction as a serious, thoughtful, and informed starting point for linking decarbonization with just transition. Toward this end, the Center has begun to gather knowledge, materials, and perspectives that center on three related areas:

    1. Linking policy with politics

    Too often, policy proposals pay little heed to the political struggles that underlie them. Climate justice is not simply a matter of expert-driven, technical proposals for decarbonization, “managed retreat,” or infrastructural “resilience.” Recognizing the conflicting interests inherent to such proposals—from the bottom up—should be an essential part of GND-related debate.

    2. Working across scales

    The climate question is a universal question, not in the sense that it affects everyone equally, but in the sense that it affects everyone unequally. To grasp this fact and to address its injustice requires thinking and acting at a number of interrelated scales, simultaneously.

    3. Thinking relationally and systemically

    Ecological thought has long stressed relational approaches, such as the regionalism that was central to New Deal planning. Too often, however, such thinking homogenizes, compartmentalizes, and divides. Rural, suburban, and urban systems interlock, unequally and unevenly; so too, the lifeworlds of different social strata. The GND implies their connection.

    Climate change is not an ahistorical problem; it is a project to further empower the powerful—whether through denial or expropriation—at the expense first of those frontline communities already in its crosshairs, and then the rest. The Green New Deal is therefore not a solution. It is a beginning, a means of changing both elite and popular imaginations, such that meaningful, collective action might follow.