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SAIC Goes Green! New Collaboration With City Fosters New Classes

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By Manda Aufochs Gillespie

Is green the newest color in the palette of SAIC collaborations? The city and the school are working on a new collaborative process that will involve an array of classes that incorporate sustainability into their curricula.

Sustainability, also known as “green” or “ecological,” is a way of evaluating the effectiveness of design. It has influenced everything from the way buildings are constructed–Chicago is a leader in green building–to curriculum in schools, to food choices, and urban planning.

As early as this spring, students will have the option in becoming part of a new collaborative process between the City of Chicago and SAIC that focuses on green initiatives.

Mayor Daley himself invited the school to consider partnership possibilities. The Mayor got excited about the collaborative potential of SAIC after seeing the example of the Crowne Fountain project in Millenium Park, presented by Alan Labb, Assistant Professor in Photography and Executive Director of Technology Planning. Crowne Fountain was a massive collaboration that involved SAIC faculty and students in creating one of the city’s most prominent pieces of public art.

When Labb finished his talk, the Mayor approached and said he wanted to meet with him. “I didn’t expect anything to come from it,” Labb says. “I was very incorrect.” Two weeks later Alan Labb was sitting across the table from the Mayor and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Gracia Shiffrin. “He told us about the different green initiatives and the collaborations between ITT and some of the high schools (and the city). He had never thought of the Art Institute [in this way] before and after the presentation he realized it was an obvious fit.”

Shiffrin explains that one of the things the city hopes to accomplish by working with SAIC is to educate the public and she says that, “there are ways to make that education fun and challenging and interesting.” With a great humility she concedes, “We are government, we need that sort of help and there is a tremendous wealth of creativity [at the school].” Ultimately, the city is also a student. Shiffrin explains, “We are willing to learn. The bottom line is to make our city more livable.”

The Mayor’s attention sparked a flurry of interest at the school and things started moving in a way that, “only happens after the Mayor gives marching orders,” says Labb. Many of the deans and some of the faculty have gotten involved in creating a collaboration that will benefit both institutions.

Center for Collaboration

The school is making no small plans. Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty and Senior Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, explains that the school’s approach will be to create a Center for Collaboration, as “a way to bring together all of the collaborative work under one concept.” Becker continues by saying that in this way the school can show all the ways it is interacting with the city. Right now, “it’s all very hidden,” she explains, but “the school is a great collaborator, integrating art, design and everyday life.”

Labb, who considers himself the person at the table who knows the least about sustainability, has brought his interest and skills at collective organizing. He describes the center for collaboration as an, “Umbrella project with many pieces–a timeline with milestones. Some that we can accomplish quickly and soon, others farther out.”

“There is a lot going on with sustainability but it hasn’t been put into a language or a format that your average citizen can understand,” explains Cindy Coleman, instructor in Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects and principle at Frankel + Coleman. Lab and Coleman are responsible for administering the collaboration. Coleman explains that the faculty and students at the school can help to create a “framework for talking about sustainability.” She explains that the collaboration will begin to bring an artists aesthetic to the question of “How do we sustain the social aspect, economy, and ecology of a city?”

The school proposes to eke out the maximum benefit from collaboration by starting a center that will make it easier for the school to work with other institutions on large-scale programs and by working the idea of collaboration and sustainability into new and returning classes and providing Co-ops and internships connected to departments at the city.

Why is sustainability important to art school?

It is possible, however, that SAIC is not an obvious choice for a partner in a green collaboration. One reason is that, “we ourselves aren’t a good citizen” Labb says of the schools green record. But, he also says, that we can learn from the city in this way as they try to figure out how to be a good model, a shining example to other businesses of effective sustainability practices. And there is much that the school is doing that people just don’t know about. “In order to do this collaboration, we too will have to bring ourselves into the practices,” he says.

There is also the question of whether artists really care about issues of sustainability. Coleman says that sustainability is important to SAIC, because it is too often “something we think somebody else should be doing and we don’t bring it down to the level of how does it influence me.” Sustainability is such a big issue that it deters us from being involved. She explains, “The goal of this program and the goal of bringing into the school is aligned in that we all have to understand our ethical responsibility. How do we benefit from living here? We all have an investment.” Furthermore, as artists, she tells us, “we have the ability and the vision to bring it to a level that other people will understand. Who better than the art community can bring [sustainability] into a cultural understanding?”

This spring, SAIC will be offering Co-ops and internships as part of the collaboration with the city, as well as numerous classes that will incorporate the aesthetics of sustainability.

Look for some of the following class offerings:

Greenmap TM Project, Green Materials 1, Topics in Environmental Science, Urban Geography.

Also, Materials 2: Life-cycle ecologies and Graduate Design Studies for the Masters in Architecture and Masters in Interior Architecture Degrees; and Future Green: Sculptural Strategies for City Living in the Sculpture Department.

Photo by Dimitry Tetin

November 2004

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