Dr. Dana Cuff is a widely awarded professor, author, and architectural practitioner whose work focuses on affordable housing and the politics of place, among other topics. In 2006, she founded cityLAB, an architecture and urban research think tank situated within UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design concentrating on issues of spatial justice in the emerging metropolis. Dr. Cuff co-authored (with Jane Blumenfeld) California State legislation AB2299, which passed into law in 2017, effectively opening 8.1M single-family lots for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Below, LA Forum Board Member Ismaelly Peña interviews Dr. Cuff about spatial justice, housing insecurity, and her forthcoming book.

This interview was conducted on May 13, 2021.


The work that you and your students have done at cityLAB and the Urban Humanities initiative at UCLA is deeply rooted in an interdisciplinary, pluralistic approach to design that you’ve also explored in your own research. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

It’s a little like summarizing my career, which now has a long path. But I was always interested in practice, and in the architect’s agency. I started off in painting, sculpture and also in psychology, and kept thinking, I want to do creative work that makes a difference in the world. I think many young people – and older people – feel the same. It seemed to me that architecture was a clear way to make the world you wanted to live in. I see that in all of my students, in applications to come to graduate school; their dreams are really admirable and big-thinking. I started studying that phenomenon of how practice might make a difference in the world. I thought architects and clients would be the site where that would happen; in their conversations and negotiations. That’s where you’d nd a kind of “public meets professional” moment. After looking at that, for — I don’t know, things take me ten years at a time, it seems, it’s a little slow — I decided it could be because so many clients are clients of privilege. Some of them are very publicly oriented, but they’re mostly white, they’re mostly male, and they are mostly wealthy. Whether the architect wants to work within that frame or not, that’s who our clients tend to be, especially now that the public sector is so emaciated, so stark. Then I thought, I’ll look at the history of how architects engaged in a really radical social agenda. It seemed to me that the most radical social agenda in the United States might be public housing. In other countries, social housing is part of the common will. But here, it was a battle, literally a st ght sometimes between — in Los Angeles — the mayor and his opponents, about whether or not we should spend public money to house people who needed housing, especially the poor. Of course, those were primarily people of color. So it’s forever racialized. It is always and all the time, racialized. After working on that for ten years, I thought, well, okay, studying this through history and books is really valuable. But now I think maybe I should test myself one further and start a kind of design research practice. That’s what really gave birth to cityLAB. I started it with Roger Sherman, who has moved on to architectural practice outside the university. In 2016, we founded cityLAB thinking that there would be new approaches to practice that we might be able to launch from within a university. I don’t think I realized at the time, how important that platform would be to study the things that I was interested in, particularly spatial justice

The University allows a certain insular protection of sorts and funding is another layer to that conversation, one that we as architects also grapple with, particularly those that are interested in doing socially engaged work. Because, as you say, the folks that are typically able to afford our work are not from communities that are low-income, disenfranchised, etc. So I’m wondering if you could speak to that a lile bit.

There were two primary benets, real gains to working within the University, for me and
the work that I wanted to initiate. The rst is the interdisciplinary potential there.
Especially in a big research university, like UCLA, which is for an academic like a giant candy store. Every possible mind, and activists, and people whose intelligence just blow you over, are there. That was a huge resource that strangely architecture departments and schools rarely take advantage of. But that’s because we went through what I consider to be our disastrous autonomy project for so long prior to what I think, in the 70s, was a lot of interdisciplinarity. Then we lost it for a while, now we’re recovering that. So the first benefit was really interdisciplinarity. And the second was the disconnect from capital. I mean that really directly, that I’m able to explore what happens when you dissociate architectural practice from neoliberal capitalism, to at least some extent, I mean, the university is also part of the post-Fordist capitalist system. But cityLAB doesn’t get funds from the university. We bring in all our own funds related to projects that we initiate. We can get grants and gifts, and philanthropists see that what we’re doing is valuable, really some very generous people, and we’ve had large foundation funding, especially the Mellon Foundation, that has given us a tremendous amount of freedom and capacity to explore ideas of spatial justice in the city.  

That’s fantastic. You mentioned tapping into various experts or departments within the university, and I think that’s brilliant. We can’t address these very important issues alone, as architects, so it makes sense to go to these elds of expertise; economists and sociologists, planners, etc, to develop the team.

In the 70s and 80s, as architects we primarily partnered with people like social scientists, psychologists, environmental psychologists, sociologists, even a few anthropologists, but I think now the much more interesting partners for the work that we’re doing are the humanists. So within the university, it’s the humanists, people who bring narrative and history and reminders about repressed histories, and poets, those partners and collaborators have been absolutely central. What they see in architecture, interestingly, is that we think about precedent and history and about the present, but we also project forward for the future, what to make of that knowledge, literally make of it. And they are equally hungry to have real impacts in the world. The ways that they explore pasts and presents are much more sophisticated typically than architects. So, on the university side, those are the partners cityLAB establishes. Outside the university, we’ve also been super lucky and effective at partnering with the real agents of the city. People who are elected ofcials, people who are community activists, people who have lived experience that as long as you build a kind of trust, they’re willing to bring something to share so that we can collectively author new futures.

What would you say is one of the biggest issues that we face today in the reality of our everyday life in our city, and how the layering of the social, the political, the spatial, manifest? How do your collaborators, both at the university community level and among bodies of governance, see those issues?

There’s no shortage of crises, as always, but I think we would probably all agree right now that there are two that you can’t escape, and that architecture really plays or could play an important role. The first is climate change. And the second is the housing crisis. If I could start another cityLAB, it would be the Green cityLAB, so we would have a sister that worked on climate change issues. Since that isn’t my expertise, I’m really hoping someone else will start that. We have been focusing for the last ten years at least on housing, and trying to rethink housing, especially now in relationship to our unhoused neighbors, which I think is the thorniest and most moral dilemma that we face as architects and as residents of the city.

Precisely. I completely agree. When addressing these issues with communities and engaging with the organizations that are on the ground doing the work — on Skid Row for example — when should we architects and planners practice deep listening, be quiet, and absorb? And when do we bring in our expertise, without being the authoritative architect saying “I’m here to save you?”

There’s so many versions of that. When I was studying architecture, the moral was that you needed to educate the public about architecture, but that idea of super dominance, that we know and it’s our job to impart that knowledge, I think distracted us and discouraged us from what we really could do with design. So, I actually think if we don’t attack problems or collaborate around thinking through the urban problems that we face through design we’re not really bringing our expertise to bear. I believe in the agency of the architect being leveraged through design. I’m sure there are many ways that each of us could contribute. If you came from a family with money, you could donate money, if you had an apartment building or backyard, you could open it up for people to live in. What we have in common as architects is our capacity to use design, to make new circumstances, to make fresh solutions, not to continue to make conventional solutions, because those are clearly not working. This is intrinsic in all the work I do. I’m not trying to radically transform the profession or discipline of architecture to be something else, but to unleash the DNA within the profession that has always existed there but has been repressed, like so many social justice agendas, through dominant interests of the status quo. That has primarily been white men. As a white woman in architecture, I also recognize my own culpability in this and what my participation has been. I specically try to keep that in mind as I’m working. But in the work that I’m able to do through cityLAB, we look for projects in which you can use design to discover something fresh, something just that also is generative, that’s another important part, it’s not a singular solution that we’re looking for. So by meeting the people in an encampment, it’s not that I would “solve their problem” or that together, we would solve a problem, but that cityLAB can generate a demonstration that then can get reused and reiterated and rediscovered and evolve for other circumstances.

I remember in my early studios in undergrad my professors talked about the tools of the architect. So in thinking about spatial justice, how do we address the “how?” How do we create not necessarily a solution, but as you say, a prototype or a demonstration?

I think the most important tool is the potential of design to reimagine the material world. So, I’m really interested in physical architecture. I really value the work of my colleagues who are interested in theory, obviously that affects my work, but where my work gets traction is when you really look at what’s being built. Maybe that’s going to make me old fashioned as we look at a much more digital existence. But for now, especially in relationship to housing, the material world still really matters, so its design matters. And you said something earlier that I want to just lift back up again, which is the importance of listening. I think of that in the way that the landscape architect and architect Walter Hood talks about partnerships of difference. We recognize not diversity alone, but real difference as being the source of new perspectives and knowledge, then we generate a kind of respect for those partners and co-creators that are essential to coming up with new ideas for how we work through problems like the housing crisis. The other thing that we do is to try to expand the toolbox to say, well, housing is obviously the end goal.

Permanent housing for everyone is a right in the Right To The City kind of model and I have articulated the same thing. But I also think that we need to imagine something more like a continuum of accommodation. That’s something we’ve been working on, as we’ve been working on a kind of overnight accommodations for students who don’t have housing, sleeping in their cars, they’re living unsheltered in some way or another.

When we first started at cityLAB, looking at the housing crisis and thinking about homelessness, we thought of it as “out there” when really, it was in my classroom and in our building, and in our parking garages, so we’ve spent the last three years working with students and student advocates who are starting with long distance commuters, people who can’t afford housing near campus, and have to commute so far that they can’t get back home safely in a day. Crazy. They’re super commuters. Our administration was very willing to form a coalition with students and student services and the Housing Administration to nd a way to begin to address housing insecurity, along with food insecurity, in new ways, so we’re installing right now these really beautiful study beans, study pods. We just had four more delivered to the Rec Center. They’re so great, and so destigmatized. That’s one of the most important aspects of it. It’s not as if we’re treating students who are housing insecure as if they need a “shelter”. But really, that they’ve made choices, they are agents also of composing their own education, and we want to help towards making that as successful as possible so that they’re not struggling with where to sleep. This won’t be sufcient, but it will also be a model.

I did see them, and it reminded me of my days as a student in undergrad. I slept under my table many, many times because I was also one of those commuter students.

That’s why this continuum is so important. You know, we objectify homelessness as if it’s a state of being and it’s why I think language is so important because it’s not uncommon to go through a temporary condition of being housing insecure or having a sporadic condition of being unsheltered. And of course, the chronically unhoused are folks that we should be thinking of as neighbors, not as someone who is solely homeless.

Or “the other. ”

…or the other. That’s right. You’d be surprised how rare it is for people to actually engage their unhoused neighbors in conversation. We interviewed some people who live in an encampment near a school that we’re partnered with, and the people that we spoke with housing development and otherwise staying there. On average, I think that’s longer than their housed neighbors live in their homes. So it’s just crazy that we don’t interact and try to treat each other more humanely.

Yeah, I think equally to listening, it’s also an act of seeing each other as fellow humans rather than “the other.”

It tends to erase difference in a way, because we categorize without knowledge, “the other.” So until you speak to people who are sitting in a park on a park bench all day, you might think they’re unhoused, but you actually are projecting a lot of your own stuff. You learn about people’s lives and their circumstances when you actually speak with them. So at cityLAB, kind of a mantra for us is to begin with what I would call low-hanging fruit. Meaning, take a thorny problem and try to address it where you’re most likely to succeed. And where you’re most likely to gather constituencies. One of the things that we’ve discovered over the fteen years is that you really need partners in creating work, or a set of works, but you also need advocates. Unless you build that constituency, a new idea, a fresh work of architecture goes nowhere. So as we start to build constituencies, we understand their perspective, we incorporate their views, then they see the project is something they have a stake in or have some ownership of. And you know, it takes a very long time to do that, which is partly why it’s very hard to do this in a conventional practice that depends upon commissions.

Yes. And it’s trust-building. I think that’s key in making sure communities know you’re holding their best interest. I was reading in your work about this strategy of the “Thick Map.” Thinking about the tools again, the Thick Map provides a tool for understanding that layering that is in all of us as humans and the spaces we occupy. In a city like Los Angeles, every neighborhood has so much layering; the people who live and have lived there as well as the physical history of the place.

When I hear you speaking, it reminds me also that most architects are extremely curious. And if we could spend the time to dig deeper, we all benet from really understanding the complexities of a situation in order to make something fresh from it. The “Thick Mapping” idea is a way of exploring that complexity. It came, again, from the humanities, particularly from my colleague, Todd Presner, who’s a literature professor and Jewish Studies professor. It really is a way of mapping, like trying to document things that might not be physically present in a space but are related to the physical geographies of space. You can look at histories, you can look at repressed histories, people can tell you about instead of a kind of singular narrative, let’s say what a Google Map gives, which is about streets and maybe the topography and about itineraries, you get a poly vocal cartography. You can map all the people who live there, all the impressions of what’s positive about their community, or what’s written in newspapers from the past. One of the most fascinating Thick Maps we’ve been working on since the urban humanities project began is a critical cartography of the Chinese massacre in Los Angeles in the early 1870s, which was the biggest single lynching in the history of the United States of Chinese residents here. The documentation is inadequate, we have maps of downtown, the stories are multiple, and just trying to grasp that narrative, that really complicated narrative, is part of what tells us about anti-Asian racism today. You can see connections and underpin perceptions and experiences through documentation that you can share with others. So it’s a new form, or another form of communication that can live outside the personal stories, or the individual histories. Those things then exist in ways that become points for further opening of understanding histories and information. So they’re kind of innite, those maps.

The U.N. has recognized adequate housing as a fundamental human right. They dene it as “the right to live in a home in peace, security, and dignity, and include security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, appropriate location, and cultural adequacy.” It’s a mouthful, but it really does touch on the point of the specicity of the imaginary; what do we think of when we say housing and “adequate” housing? How do we hold our local governments, planners, designers, policymakers, citizens concerned with spatial justice, accountable for really addressing and meeting a “standard of care”?

Ed Soja, the urban geographer, is really insightful here, in saying that we’re always seeking something, like the goal of a perfect housing universe, which, if you don’t know what the goal is, you can’t really aim for it. This goal that feels so far away from where we are today, not just in Los Angeles, but when you look at cities in the global south, or anywhere in the world now. It’s a long way from what the U.N. is recommending. If what we’re really doing is seeking spatial justice through housing, and I think housing is the most important spatial inequity that we face, and probably racist histories of that injustice, then as an architect, you start thinking about it as, for me as a pragmatist, what can I do? It’s very direct. What kind of agency do I have to begin to seek that goal? Or to move just a tiny bit on that path? Just to advance it, push it one more step. There are hundreds of ways to do that. I think when people feel overwhelmed, they need to step back and say, where is my agency here? So you’re doing it by setting up a set of interviews. At cityLAB, we take every opportunity to try to push the needle a little further towards an anti-racist city that we’re working towards, I can tell you about some projects we’re doing. At the AIA Los Angeles, they can initiate conversations, they can elevate people of color to positions of power. As a school, we can open our doors to students who haven’t had those opportunities in the past and learn from them, not think we’re giving them a break. So you know, there’s just hundreds of ways. And when people say to me, “Well, you know, we’d like to have a black woman speak at our conference, but they’re impossible to get now.” No, they’re not. You know, rst of all, there are a lot of black women who are really engaged, and look around you, they’re speaking in lots of conferences now, you can’t burden them with the job of representing their race and gender. But there’s not a shortage in terms of trying to bring people in. We need to produce more architects of greater differences. But when you say they’re not available, that’s because you’re not looking.

Agreed! The word accountability has been reverberating in the news lately in regards to the killing of George Floyd and the trial. How do we hold ourselves, our profession and political agents of the world accountable?

I think accountability and reckoning are two words that are part of our vocabulary in a way they’ve been sublimated in the past. And again, I think of these things through architecture, so if you look at the Holocaust memorials, there’s a form of accountability there that is inscribed in material terms. That’s the kind of thing we can do, is to make material the truths that people want to deect themselves from. MASS Design’s memorial to lynching is an incredible example of accountability and reckoning, really. And it’s not just the building. It’s the fact that people brought soil from the counties where lynchings occurred and put those into the museum. So they contributed literally their land, the space, their geographies, to this idea of a greater justice, or reckoning or recognition. And then that the counties where the lynchings took place have to bring one of those recorded steles home, the big columns that show who was lynched, they have to bring that back to their county and put it in their place. The ones that are still sitting there are counties who have not addressed their own past. So there’s this action and engagement in that project – justice instilled in it. That’s really incredibly powerful. Especially in terms of the accountability that you’re talking about. That architects can make that, and that it is the architecture that keeps people facing that accountability, I think is profound.

That is profound. It is a kind of a physical manifestation of it and reminder of it.

Of the accountability

I was listening to a podcast with Vietnamese American novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who coined the concept of narrative scarcity, as he was reecting on the lack of multiple narratives that exist in popular culture about people of color and minority groups. When I was listening to him speak about this, I was thinking it is more than narrative – spatial representation forms a huge part of that. You were speaking earlier about how we not only have to be critical of the issues of our city, but also project futures as architects and planners. How do we address this lack of narrative of communities that are not represented in the dominant culture? Who is involved in reimagining, and who are we planning for in the public realm?

It’s such a complicated and important question in architecture, where we spend so much time thinking about precedent, and our practical history, which precedent, comes almost entirely in the United States from European roots and Classical roots, from Greco-Roman and Euro-axes. It places a real burden on us to both bring out the narratives, spaces and buildings in our histories that we have not attended to, you know, which is the other 95% of the world – the global South, the East. And, on the other hand, we need to retrieve and create with partners the repressed narratives or lost narratives, because of course, in history, only certain histories are preserved. When you look at slave narratives or narratives around the slave ship passages, you can nd ships and records, but there are a number that are just missing. And you know that they exist. The best example of that is a historian called Saidiya Hartman, who wrote Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and talks about something called critical fabulation. Again, here’s the humanists telling us how to work through some of these problems. She’s writing about black women in the 20s, and 30s, most of whose personal stories are told by outsiders, not by themselves. So she looks again at the photographs and imagines with all the data that she can nd around it, what their versions of their stories would be. It’s a new kind of historical archive that has been very controversial in History, but in my mind, is absolutely necessary in trying to nd what you’re referring to as the sort of scarcity of narratives. Too many narratives of those who were in power and wanted to maintain it. And not enough narratives of the people whose lives were repressed by those who kept those histories.

Yeah, and also the spaces that those communities occupied, or occupy in our cities.

I like the construct of spatial scarcity, of the biases that are built into the most resilient architectures, those that had the most invested in them, those that had the longest material cultures surrounding them. As an example of how valuable the “minor literatures” or the “minor architectures” might be, when we started the secondary unit research in Los Angeles and granny ats work, I was working in Pacoima at that time with a group of women who were actively trying to nd ways to help their children and grandchildren stay housed in Pacoima, keep their families at home. There was the front architecture that was the most obvious, mostly small bungalows, houses probably from the turn of the century through the 30s, for the most part, but behind them, were the informal structures that had been built over that last 80 years. No one would have thought of those as architecture. In fact, my colleagues said to me, “why are you working on the garage apartments? There’s no architecture there. There’s never going to be architecture there.” It was basically by looking at the auto construction of people who’ve found ways, despite a lack of resources and the city being against them, to produce the housing they needed, that you realize there was this incredible secondary architecture that was hidden from view. If you could just bring that out and show how robust it was as a solution, we could change the nature of the suburbs, which were already changing but invisible to people who are looking at them for formal structures. To me, that was the perfect case for paying attention to the things that, since Ruskin, we’ve called “mere building”. Which is such an atrocity to have that embedded in our understanding of what architecture is. Sometimes it’s not the elevation or the detailing, it’s the strategy, or the building system, that we really should learn from.

You mentioned something that’s always been interesting to me; auto construction. I spent my childhood in Cuba and there people make do with what they have.This was part of our everyday life. Communities have agency to enact change or simply survive, and they take it in their own hands to do so. This happens in Cuba, this happens in Latin America, Asia, everywhere around the world, and it happens here. There’s something to be learned from that. We’re talking about ADUs today, and sometimes I hear folks talk about it as a new discovery. But it’s absolutely not true as evident in the research that you’ve done. So it’s interesting what happens when you look closely — I go back to the Thick Mapas a way of seeing and really understanding — you start revealing tectonics, emergent “informal” technologies, etc.

Making those spatial narratives public, I think, is really critical. When we co-authored the ADU bill for the state, it was a statement to say this is actually not new. This idea of the suburban house has never been pure, except as an imaginary, so let’s expand the imaginary to other histories, where households were not nuclear, but actually extended, where parents moved into a smaller building as they got older because they wanted to rent out their front houses. The idea that we would share the single family lot was something that was really central to me in working on that legislation, that we shift our way of thinking about the single family zone to being something that was collective, not male, heroic, which is the language that surrounds even the most humble, small tract house. Which is so ironic. It shows the power of imagination, if you can talk about a man’s home as his castle, applied to a Levittown 800-square-foot tract home that only the woman is present in? We can inscribe totally new narratives there. If we work at it.

Absolutely. To sum up some of the conversation, how would you dene spatial justice? I know you’re working on a manuscript for a book that’s on spatial justice, if you want to tell us a lile bit about that. And how has the trajectory of your research and earlier books, work at UCLA, how has that inuenced the book?

I think what you have to start with, with spatial justice, is to understand that justice has a geography. And that space is an essential part of building justice into everyday life. So the second thing I want to recognize in understanding spatial justice is that it’s a struggle. It’s not a thing. And that what we’re struggling for is an anti-racist geography, and an equitable geography, and one in which all people, as it says in the U.N. statement, live with dignity. So what’s the architect’s role in that, is what comes to me very quickly. How can we as architects advance the struggle for spatial justice? I think we do that in no single way, but through multiple means that step outside the standard economic relationships that our profession is based on. And out of the singular authorship models that we hold. Those two factors are open to all architects to greater and lesser degrees. In your work in a firm, as you’re just trying to feed your family, which many architects are doing, you know, we’re not a well-paid profession. The work you can do may be in your own neighborhood as you expand your humanity towards your unhoused neighbors. It may not be through the work you do at your rm. If you run a rm, it may be that you take a small percentage of the money you earn and dedicate it to work that doesn’t have a financial return. It may be that you volunteer at your local professional organization, at the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design or the AIA, any of those, and inject the agendas there with conversations and actions that will move the dial towards greater equity, and greater inclusion. So, you know, I think we all have means, and it can be small or large, since everything is just a step on a really immense goal. Whatever size step you can take is a contribution.

So tell me a lile bit about the book, I’m curious about it.

That is one step I’m working on. At cityLAB we’ve been working on spatial justice questions for years, particularly around housing. My last book had a lot to do with racism and housing in Los Angeles, and what it meant to construct a notion of a public that was responsible for housing, rather than the tract homes where private property was, you know, eating up land in order to fulll another set of goals. So this book kind of builds out of all of that work earlier in my career. It’s an emancipatory project, I think, for architects to realize that their own profession has the DNA to work towards spatial justice. It’s really trying to examine architecture, for architects to say, this is our work. This is where our creativity matters and our agency is essential. You could write another book that would be a criticism of our profession. That would be an easy book to write, because everyone can see how inadequate our histories have been in terms of working towards anti-racism or equitable geographies. But I feel like this project that I’m working on through writing is to demonstrate how architecture actually can — by showing how architecture, particularly from the global South, and from the East — give us insight about the potentials that our discipline and profession hold.

We need to hear it as much as possible.

That’s why I would describe it as an insider’s revolution. I have a feeling that once the revolution I would like to start begins, they’ll kick me out, and I’ll no longer be an insider, but right at this moment, it’s still somehow from the inside.

I think it’ll come out and everybody will welcome it. Certainly the younger generation of students and those of us that are interested in teaching in schools of architecture, are interested in teaching in a different way. I’ve talked to colleagues that are my age and we’re interested in changing the canon and I think your research, your work, and what you just said is right on the spot.

That’s so good of you to say. I really am writing this for my students and my younger colleagues, all of whom express what you’re talking about and are searching for the “how,” really. They feel the “why,” they feel the convictions. And the question now is how? That’s what I’m trying to work on by showing all these different projects and strategies, not just cityLAB. I want to make it a bigger story. So people can see themselves in it, of course.

Photo Credits: cityLAB, Dana Cuff and cityLAB Fellow Jane Blumenfeld co-authored AB2299 for Assemblyman Richard Bloom,  Photekt,  BIHOME Prototype., Urban Humanities students, Students working on a Thick Map,  cityLAB/Dana Cuff,  BruinHub,  Backyard Homes focus areas
© 2022 LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design
︎     ︎     ︎