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Medium Design:
Knowing How to Work on the World

Keller Easterling
Verso Books

What architectural theory offers us, in its better moments, is language. Not the language of narrow disciplinary concern (though depth and difficulty have their place) and not the well-worn language of common knowledge (though plainspokenness should at least sometimes be an obligation of a public-facing field), but language that complicates without obscurity—shorthands that help us gesture toward ways of seeing differently. The language of theory doesn’t need to be easy or obvious, because the friction of a word can help uproot us from certainty, from comfort. But the best theory gives us language that travels well, language that gets mixed into architecture’s disciplinary soil as a fortifying substrate in which to plant possibilities for action.

Few designers, teachers, and writers have contributed as potently to this shared language as Keller Easterling. Her latest book, Medium Design, explores “the chemistry between things”—how objects and people and ecosystems come together to form the complex and interdependent systems of something like a city, and how the “limits, capacities, and values” of designed space can be acted on and acted within (vii, ix). Medium Design builds on Easterling’s earlier Extrastatecraft, which explores the political and material infrastructures of an increasingly global urbanism based on “operating systems” and repeatable “spatial products.” Where Extrastatecraft uses in-depth case studies to ask how these forms of modern worldmaking are enacted—and, to a lesser extent, how they might be harnessed to other ends—Medium Design takes a more directly interventionist approach, organizing itself around a broad range of vignettes where seemingly familiar systems and situations might have produced unexpected outcomes.

The first chapter draws out a series of concepts (interplay, affordances, actants, media, active form) that ground Medium Design’s propositions. Chief among them is the word “disposition,” a term that has seeped into the argot of design studios almost entirely, I suspect, thanks to Easterling’s vivid theorizing of it. Against the pretense of causality that animates the flowcharts and diagram arrows and teleological slide decks of still too many architects, the term “disposition” reminds us that flows are not controlled but are (at best, sometimes) channeled. The indeterminacy of “disposition” is at the heart of the ideas in this book. While “the modern Enlightenment mind” traffics in binaries and absolutes, Easterling claims, the medium designer might instead read the room, survey the table, and intervene with subtlety or economy, redirecting the existing forces of the world rather than reinventing them (4).

The remainder of the book teases out these terms by applying them to different questions of the contemporary city. The second chapter explores the economics of ownership, from single-family dwellings to blockchains, pointing to models that might resist market cooptation. The third chapter joins a growing body of critique around the notion of the “smart city” (Shannon Mattern’s recent The City is Not a Computer is a good pairing here), offering “switching” instead of “smartness” as the mark of a resilient urbanism. The fourth chapter, “Problems Can Be Assets,” asks whether climate crisis and inequality might engender kinds of design beyond the left’s call for public works and the right’s ongoing campaign of disinformation and extractivism. 

The fifth and final chapter explores strategies for ameliorating or evading violence—or, rather, turning from the spectacle of violence as “punctuating event” toward the modes of environmental or epistemic violence that might be addressed through design practices (110). In most of these chapters, Easterling asks whether there are possibilities outside of the familiar binaries that guide so much disagreement, in architecture, urbanism, and life—not centrism, not the false equivalency of both-sides-ism, but an evasion of entrenched discursive “loops.” A reader who blanches at leaving their firmly felt partisan commitments to the side might find this to be the most challenging provocation of the book. But perhaps Medium Design has less to do with how we advocate in the forums of social media or the classroom, and more to do with the push-and-pull dance of making things happen in conflicted situations.

These chapters are joined with short “interludes” that include figures from fiction (Jane Eyre, Spartacus, Lady Anne of Shakespeare’s Richard III), history (Rosa Parks, Joseph McCarthy) and current events (Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, teenaged ISIS recruits). The anecdotal nature of these interludes and chapters and the array of protagonists that appear in this short volume suggest to me that they are not there to “add up” but to emphasize, through a kind of rehearsal (another of Easterling’s favored words), a way of searching out possibilities within the very familiar. The sites discussed are perhaps not spatial products so much as methods for using existing conditions and local concerns to produce specific effects.

I am more at ease with some of the examples than others—I struggle, for example, with the kind of “parallel markets” explored in chapter 4 that assign nonmonetary exchange value to things like social capital or depleted ecosystems and industrial sites (117). I want to imagine something more public, something less value-driven than “reverse-engineering the market” that brought these conditions into existence (99). But Medium Design anticipates this; the book’s question is not how the world should be, but how to keep doing work, as Hito Steyerl puts it on the back cover, “in the interim.”


Medium Design emerged into a world marked by global pandemic, climate change, and police violence—all discussed here—and alongside them a growing desire for change within the architectural profession. What does Easterling’s call to think beyond certitude, to work from within, mean at a moment when the choices feel so goddamn stark? Is Medium Design the closing bracket of the 2010s in architectural theory, or a hinge between the “before” and the “after” that so many designers, teachers, and writers are wrestling with? Mitch McEwen, writing for the Avery Review, offers an exemplary reading of Medium Design in this regard, challenging the largely unnamed whiteness of the “modern Enlightenment mind” and fruitfully extending Easterling’s terminology (codes, switching, indeterminacy) into the “relational work” undertaken by Black artists and architects. McEwen’s review is a good companion to Medium Design, not only in proliferating connections but in demonstrating what to do with architectural theory—which is to think openly with its language, to ask how that language might help us order our thoughts anew.

For designers (like myself, some days) interested in “knowing how to work on the world,” Medium Design proposes that there might be ways of designing positive potentials despite the structural constraints of contemporary architectural practice. Accustomed to “having to wait on either the defeat or the indulgence of capital,” or, more grimly, “accepting a downstream assignment within a bad idea,” as Easterling puts it, what are the options for the dissenting architect (95, 112)? Refusal, yes—one of the profession’s most potent tools, whether in the hands of principals or interns. But Easterling is interested in working on the problems of practice that elude the clarity of refusal. And, perhaps, she is also writing for those students who will, for many reasons, be taking jobs that are not wholly aligned with their political and architectural beliefs.

For those who prefer their politics declarative, who place their faith in correct answers, and who doubt that they can navigate the world of capital with enough subversion to do much besides affirm the existing order (like myself, on other days), Medium Design might offer something else. A caution against the kind of certainty that keeps you on the sidelines, perhaps, or a reminder that while it’s good to be vocal, there are also always changes afoot beneath what’s being spoken. In that sense, Easterling’s contributions here include more than just language. “The most successful and relentless activism is both ideological and dispositional,” Easterling writes, “mixing declaration with action” (133). The message of Medium Design is, for this reader, that we would do well to cultivate both.
James Graham is a historian and architect. He teaches at the California College of the Arts.

How to Cite This: Graham, James. Review of Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World, by Keller Easterling, JAE Online, September 19, 2022.