Architecture Critic Nikil Saval Joins the Pennsylvania State Senate in a Time of Crisis

We ask the newly elected urbanist and organizer about his ongoing fight for workers’ rights, affordable housing, and a Green New Deal.

Born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents from Bangalore, India, Nikil Saval’s journey to the Pennsylvania State Senate has taken him all over the United States. In New York, he studied at Columbia University, wrote about architecture for The New Yorker, and was co-editor in chief of the influential N+1 journal. In San Francisco, he earned his PhD at Stanford University researching the history and culture of white-collar workplaces, which later served as the inspiration for his first book, Cubed, which cemented him as an architectural critic. 

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This November, Saval was elected to represent Pennsylvania’s first Senate District—encompassing the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, Center City, and much of North Philadelphia—as a Democrat. The race for the seat rarely makes national headlines, but the current spotlight is testament to Saval’s influence. Over the past 10 years, as Saval put down roots in Philadelphia, he’s become known as a powerful organizer and a key voice of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Now, as he prepares to start his term in Harrisburg, Saval talks about his love for Philadelphia, his double life as a writer and organizer, and his visions for housing, climate, and labor policy in America after the pandemic.

Dwell: How would you describe your relationship with Philadelphia?

Nikil Saval: I went to college in New York, graduate school in San Francisco, and my parents are from India, so I’m used to being mobile. But Philadelphia is the first place where I felt at home. I have found a community and a neighborhood, particularly in South Philadelphia, where I just feel at home. This is partly because it’s so diverse. Philadelphia is growing for the first time in decades because it has more immigrants and children of immigrants after years of population decline.

I love the areas of the city; I love the scale of the city: the row-house nature, the Victorian architecture of West Philadelphia, the City Beautiful aspect with the Parkway. With home-grown architects like Frank Furness, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown, it’s idiosyncratic.

Is there a legacy of activism in Philadelphia that is inspiring progressive ideas in the city today?

There absolutely is a very strong organizing or left-wing set of traditions in the city. I think that’s exactly right—the fact that it is a Quaker city, and that some of the earliest kinds of socialist, worker organizing, and pre-Marxist movements happened in the city. In the 20th century, it was a time of public sector unionism and LGBTQ activism, and also—not just Black civil rights, power activism, and Black politics—but the actual establishment of Black leadership in the Democratic Party, which is a strong feature in the city.

In my time here, there has been tremendous growth in the current progressive movement influenced by this legacy.

You campaigned in 2016 for Bernie Sanders, and you also helped campaign for Pennsylvania Representative Elizabeth Fiedler and her state house race in 2018. Tell me about what you learned from those experiences and how they informed your own campaign.

I had volunteered as a labor organizer for a long time; that was my first experience of politics. But the venue for real change for me was the Sanders campaign in the sense that here was a national figure who was connected to social movements, and whose values I more-or-less shared. That was exciting. But I only realized how exciting it was when I started canvassing and knocking doors in my own neighborhood for Sanders. That just opened me up to my neighborhood in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. I had a pretext and a way to just talk to neighbors, and then I realized that there was a much larger group of us than I had ever imagined who shared our values.

Architecture Critic Nikil Saval Joins the Pennsylvania State Senate in a Time of Crisis - Photo 2 of 4 -

A number of people in that campaign, volunteers and staffers, had that experience. So we banded together after the campaign ended and co-founded an organization called Reclaim Philadelphia. It was meant to push locally the demands that the Sanders campaign had activated nationally, and to find messengers and elected officials like Sanders, at least in theory. The first one was Larry Krasner, who ran for district attorney. We helped recruit and elect him, one of the faces of the progressive prosecutor movement. Then with Elizabeth Fiedler in 2018, we supported her and helped her get elected, too—then candidates for city council, Isaiah Thomas and Kendra Brooks, in 2019. All that activity made me realize that we are the majority, and that people agree with the issues and our values, and that we just needed to organize.

Philly is also the birthplace of scientific management, and I know you dealt with that in your book on office design, Cubed. Since you have traced the history of the office and its role in shaping labor, what do you think of the pandemic and how it will affect office design and labor practices in the future?

The larger trend towards remote work, and a de-emphasis on the physical office, is something that precedes the pandemic and has been accelerated by it. One thing that has been put into practice—I would imagine for good—is the notion that remote work is possible.

There were times, in the last decade or so, when people would insist on people being present in an office day in and day out, saying that it can encourage serendipitous encounters. That really exaggerates the extent to which those interactions are part of office work. Most head down to concentrate on work by themselves. Open offices, and offices in general, are bad for that, and bad for private space. But the trend of reducing office space per person has also been going on for decades because companies want to spend less money.

I think the pandemic will give them the largest pretext to continue doing so. So we should expect, since this is a decades-long trend, that companies will want to spend less money on commercial real estate in urban and office areas. They will try to find more efficient uses for it. And then finally, we have come to understand that the office is for a bit more than just work as usual: It’s for transactions, meetings, company culture, organizational culture.

Do you think these developments will be a net positive? That we will have more flexibility to work from home if needed?

I had thought, when I was writing Cubed, that flexibility was a dual-edged sword: that flexibility would be a way of exploiting people more fully, that you would have to work all the time. I think this is certainly true, that the boundaries between work and life have blurred considerably. This is technologically enabled, and the precariousness of people’s jobs have made people anxious about needing to work all the time.

But then, I also hope that as more people are able to structure their own workday, and as more people become independent contractors and things like that, they will have a new understanding of how they are all related to each other and need to organize accordingly. But I’m a little bit more pessimistic in regards to the pandemic. All the rhetoric about essential workers in particular has unmasked a ruthless set of exploitative practices, like those that Amazon workers face, and how very few workplaces have protections. If people go back to work in offices or are expected to go back to work in any way, the United States doesn’t protect them, and workers don’t have a lot of resources unless they have unions. The other thing is that being away from people constantly makes it harder to organize, but on the other hand, it might make it easier since you’re not being watched all the time.

I would just say that there have been a lot of labor violations, especially around worker safety, during the pandemic—and for all kinds of workers. It has been helpful for employers that the Trump administration has been in office because it has only cited two companies for occupational safety violations.

Nikil Saval campaigning in his home district in South Philadelphia.

Nikil Saval campaigning in his home district in South Philadelphia.

Another system that might face radical change is the affordable housing industry, driven by the fact that so many people are facing eviction. I know you personally endorse the idea of decommodifying housing, and I was wondering what that means to you specifically. Are you advocating for a return to a public housing model?

I fundamentally believe we should have a society in which everyone has a right to housing. This is not even a socialist idea in the sense that Franklin Roosevelt proposed it in his Second Bill of Rights. Nobody should have to live without housing at any point. That’s what it ultimately entails: the establishment of housing not as a commodity, but as something that is guaranteed to everyone.

I think the public housing model the United States adopted had multiple flaws. On the one hand, it largely tended to segregate people by income and race. The housing was neglected, there was under-investment, and it was poorly constructed—not always, but often. And so it was set up to fail over time. The programs were not going to succeed in the way we set them up.

That said, there are other models for paying for housing that work better. In social housing, which is the European model, you have mixed-income developments which can be owned by a municipality, and not necessarily by a housing authority. There are ways in which we can construct housing that’s also mixed-use with retail on the ground level to be listed for bidding, which is less forbidding than the public housing that was built in the United States.

There are other models of building permanently affordable housing through cooperatives, like limited-equity cooperatives. The union movement was usually involved in that in the early 20th century. But as affordable housing has become harder to secure funding for, it has become more difficult to construct even just a few units of affordable housing, so a lot of people are finding other models. Say, nonprofit land trusts, whereby the land underneath the housing is held in common by a trust—where people can still buy and sell houses, but there’s a kind of cap on the housing prices that prevents gentrification and maintains a sense of ownership and co-governance over the land. We have to encourage the development of models that can render permanently affordable housing.

We also have to protect renters and back tenants with rent stabilization or rent control. I don’t think it should be arbitrary what landlords are able to charge. We need protections in terms of legal access to counsel in the case of eviction. We also need to reexamine zoning in many areas of our cities and suburbs—we just need to be wary of changing zoning laws without protections for existing residents and renters.

You support a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania and nationally as well. I’m wondering how that plays into the issue of housing. Do you think there’s a way to marry climate and housing concerns? 

I think our climate and housing equity goals are totally united. One thing that makes housing more affordable is actually increasing the energy efficiency of housing and making sure that people aren’t energy insecure. Energy insecurity and utility shut-offs have an effect on people across the board, but especially the working class and people of color.

I think it is a sound idea to retrofit existing housing. It’s also a good idea to preserve existing housing where we can, where the energy costs have already been sunk into the construction of old buildings. You now want to try and make them passive and smart from a climate perspective. Housing can be a huge percentage of our greenhouse emissions. Energy use on the demand side is influenced by how our homes are built and what resources they consume, which forms of heat they have, and how their kitchens work. These are all little things that add up to big greenhouse emissions.

If we are able to really invest in our housing to improve it and make it energy-efficient, to make it easier for people to heat and cool their homes in a way that is affordable both for them and for our society, while reducing greenhouse emissions overall, that would be huge. Then finally, there’s this historic connection between the siting of homes and the history of race in the United States, including redlining. It becomes clear that redlining has a connection to heat islands and influences our climate, too. So everywhere, you want environmental policy tied up with housing policy—it can also be a huge job creator.

Tell me about how your career as a writer and how that has led to architectural criticism, activism, and political aspirations.

I've been interested in architecture and urbanism since college by virtue of moving to New York City, and thanks to a very close friend, Jacob Shell, who is now a geographer at Temple University. He inspired that love in me of the city and politics—he was the right friend at the right time—and we started an urban planning journal at Columbia together. My other kind of great friendship in that sense is that with my wife Shannon Garrison, who is an architectural preservationist, so a lot of ideas I owe to her.

I always felt like I kept two sets of books. I’ve been a professional writer but also an organizer, and then I write about politics in my architecture writing. It’s not made to inspire movements, but it’s an inflection. I can write about architecture, and I can organize, and live both lives.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
How did we get from Scrooge's office to "Office Space"? From bookkeepers in dark countinghouses to freelancers in bright cafes? What would the world be like without the vertical file cabinet? What would the world be like without the office at all? In Cubed, Nikil Saval chronicles the evolution of...

Then of course, I wrote Cubed, which initially was meant to be this history of white-collar labor, focused on asking a particular question: Why don’t white-collar workers have the same class consciousness that blue-collar workers often have? As I started to write it, I was telling the story of the office as a place that is distinct from other kinds of workplaces, a phenomenon with origins in America and the redevelopment of downtown office districts. Architecture and labor were tied in the development of a certain kind of culture, which was expressed in the interior of the office—with large rooms for typing pools and private offices in the hallways. Labor and power are always tied up in design.

When the book came out, people told me the book was a great architecture book. I wasn’t expecting that, but then I started getting assignments to write about architecture. And now in politics, I’m meeting people who work on green buildings and sustainable materials, people who I would have covered as a writer. But now I can actually try to make policy around their work easier, and therefore, the connection between politics and writing is not as wrenching as I thought it would be. I find it very intellectually satisfying.

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It is a tradition in other countries for academics and writers to have political careers.

In Latin America, especially. I spent a lot of time in Bolivia when I was in graduate school, and the Vice President under Evo Morales was Álvaro García Linera, a Marxist academic. I was like, "How did this happen?"  I know it’s much more common in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Any last thoughts about what’s next your agenda in terms of housing?

It’s dependent on all of us to organize, and we need new movements. I was in a housing conference earlier today, and many there had good ideas. We just need to scale them up so that they actually have an impact on people's lives. It’s one thing to have a breakthrough, establish a small community land trust, and make 50 homes permanently affordable, but the need is so much greater than that. My hope is that we’re able to find solutions that meet the scale of the housing crisis today because people are suffering now.

Related Reading:

Representative Ilhan Omar Wants Homes for All

Denver’s Albus Brooks Wants Cities to Incentivize Equitable Development


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