Educational Inclusion In the Age of Social Media

Community Headshots-AIFF

Community Headshots-AIFF. Credit: Architecture is Free Foundation

I am the founder of a School of Architecture. Believe it or not, I run the entire operation off my cell phone. I do not have any institutional backing and I don’t need any. We are a disintermediation project or, put another way, we are a decentralized network of operators effecting change without the need of a mediator or an intermediary. I can come up with a new idea, develop a promotional flyer in Photoshop and run a targeted-audience paid promotion for about 50 bucks, and within a week or two, I can be teaching a new architecture course to a virtual classroom of students. This makes us free, - Free to organize, free to adapt, and free to express ourselves. This is truly the basis of a school. We require minimal additional funding in order to grow or to offer more resources to our students. It wasn’t until I was an unemployed professor in 2019, that I realized I didn’t need an institution in order to teach. And guess what? Students don’t need one either in order to learn.

I created The Architecture Is Free Foundation on Instagram. AIFF operates as @architectureisfree. If you follow us, feel free to direct message me. I am the admin. I usually respond within one minute unless I am asleep, in which case it might take me three minutes. We also recruit all our students on Instagram. Instagram is arguably the most popular free public utility in the world. As a visual medium it is perfectly suited to architects and the on-line media platform is the ideal place to network with others that share the same optics. If you have a good idea, it is easy to build a community around it. You don’t need to invest in expensive brick and mortar real estate and you don’t need to fundraise in order to turn the lights on.

AIFF is a global school of architecture that exists only on the internet. It is six months old. It was launched during the pandemic lockdown. It’s free, just like the name suggests, and provides world-class instruction by both highly qualified and emerging architects. We currently have 73 volunteer faculty members, 15 researchers, and over 2,000 students. We communicate on Telegram and on Zoom. We provide mentoring, tutoring, design studios and a lecture series. I have no paid employees, only a team of volunteers eager to improve the world through architecture. We are a growing heterogeneous public that has the potential to dismantle existing architectural institutions of power. We are committed to building a more inclusive and diverse community of architects by removing barriers to architectural education. We hope one day to be part of a new hybrid licensing path that allows students to demonstrate educational competency through on-line and free coursework while working with accredited mentors.

We also provide a platform for emerging teachers to test new ideas and to get experience as lecturers and studio instructors. There seems to be an abundant supply of architects wanting to teach and they are more than willing to donate their time. Traditional academic openings are few and far between and often require having the right friends and being willing to re-locate every few years. We don’t care where you live. We don’t care who you don’t know. We just care that you care. It seems like a lot of architects care a lot and want to be part of a healthy community of architects working together for good. Along with other digital collectives and partnerships, we are establishing new platforms for emerging publics.

Students from around the world also seem very eager to participate and give back to our school. They work together in groups with other students, assisted by our faculty to develop research and real-world projects that shine a light on overlooked communities and lesser-known cultural projects.

Here’s a sampling of some of our current student-led research projects: Amadou Camara is leading a project to build a school in Guinea, West Africa. Yusuf Siddiqui is working on a spatial justice start-up project aimed at influencing political decisions that are displacing and upheaving communities in London. Myint San Aung aims to understand how architecture can promote and assist refugees in Burma. Njabulo Mkwananzi is interested in redefining the “eras” of Zimbabwean architecture to include notions and conditions beyond the current “pre-colonial”, “colonial”, and “post-colonial” systems as they are presently defined. Jenina Alyanna Yutuc explores the relationship between unseen/unbuilt space and community health centers experienced by Filipino health care workers in San Francisco.

We continue to develop new content and studio offerings. Caleb Lightfoot presented his work on social equity and re-imagining the place of American monuments. Nazifa Virani showed us new ways of designing for diversity through her analysis of the work of Arawkawa and Gins. Adil Dalbai and Livingstone Mukasa presented their work on documenting Sub-Saharan Africa’s architecture. Adil and Livingstone subsequently won a Graham Foundation grant to continue their research. Tiisteso Mofokeng is working on decolonizing the architecture curriculum in South Africa. Together with Marcus Carter, I am currently running a summer bootcamp studio for students getting ready to take an integrated design studio in the Fall, while Mihajlo Elakovic and Joan Razafimaharo are teaching a social housing studio.

I have spoken to hundreds of architects and students from all over the world over the past six months since I launched this project. I am amazed at the goodwill and support I have found. I do believe that if the architecture public mobilizes around an idea there is nothing we cannot accomplish together. This is a unique moment in time. Fresh off the pandemic, people are used to the idea of meeting and collaborating through virtual means. Technologies connect us in ways we could not previously imagine. We have all been given unprecedented access. If the world we live in is to truly be a valid expression of our collective cultural moment, then it has to be designed by a representative cross-section of people that live in the world, not just the unencumbered elite few. Architecture, as a public realm, has always been theoretically free but now the agencies of power that make choices for the public are becoming more decentralized and more accessible.