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Social Architectures

By Arts & Culture, Featured

Installation view of “Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line),” by Amanda Williams, Andres L. Hernandez, and Shani Crowe at Wrightwood 659. Photo credit: Tom Harris.

The United States pavilion in the International Architecture Exhibition of the 2018 Venice Biennale has been reinstalled in Chicago at Wrightwood 659, where it is on view through Saturday, April 27. The exhibit was co-curated by School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) faculty Ann Lui (Assistant Professor in Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects) and Iker Gil, (Lecturer in Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects), University of Chicago professor Niall Atkinson, and curator and critic Mimi Zeiger. The exhibit incorporates work from artists, architects, filmmakers, and researchers to ask the question: What does it mean to be part of a community, whether that be a nation, a planet, or a cosmic system? Recognizing the paradoxes of citizenship, works in the exhibition negotiate between individual, cultural, and national autonomy and the collective responsibility we have to the environment and each other.

At the scale of civitas, Studio Gang’s project “Stone Stories” draws on the firm’s research into Memphis Landing, a historic port on the Mississippi River. Studio Gang’s piece is an installation of cobblestones from the site, turning historical artifact into a gallery experience. At the scale of citizenship, Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez (Associate Professor of Art Education and Director of the Master of Arts in Art Education program), in collaboration with Shani Crowe, designed an installation entitled “Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line),” which focuses on African American relationships to shaping and claiming space. The installation is created from steel and braided cord, resembling a structure made of hair.

Installation view of Studio Gang’s “Stone Stories” at Wrightwood 659. Photo credit: Tom Harris.

These works act as invitations. They create spaces that can be occupied and are produced from forms and materials that are project-specific. The purpose of the smaller scale works in the exhibition isn’t to present data or hard statements about belonging, but to present experiences of individualism, of being part of a community, and of being a unit of a society. These projects are the easiest to grasp as a viewer. Although you may not relate directly to the experiences explored in the projects, you know what it feels like to walk on cobblestones or to do your hair or to consider your local region part of your identity. Because of this experiential connection, the smaller projects resonate in a way that large-scale projects don’t. Although the large-scale projects tackle the challenge of translating grand scales into the viewer’s understanding, they have the same struggle as any architecturally-oriented project. It’s difficult to create a connection beyond a certain scale. This difference between the projects reveals something of the nature of citizenship; it’s impossible to translate between the abstract grandiosity of the globe and the reality of existing in a community that one experiences every day.

In the national and global scale projects, the role of the individual becomes more abstract. As the projects zoom out, their subject matter moves from experiential data to global research. These projects focus on the ecological regions and conditions that shape our communities. “In Plain Sight,” by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Robert Gerard Pietrusko, and the Columbia Center for Spatial Research, uses a map of satellite images to shed light on which regions in the world hold literal electrical power and which do not, adding depth to often misinterpreted satellite images of the earth at night. The world map the project presents dissolves country lines to reveal environmental lines and clusters of light and power that in turn reveal a great deal on the state of the world. The globe, according to this project, is not divided by country lines, but by bunches of community groupings and technological power clusters, blooming like algae regardless of nation.

Hovering behind these projects is the proposition that action matters most. Action is more than a responsibility; it is a requirement of living in a society, and architecture is part of that responsibility. Individuals are obligated to be aware and to be active change-makers in the lives of other people, to aid the collective, and to aid the globe. And considering this proposition, it follows that this self-responsible society aids the individual in turn; it creates a community in which they are cared for and nurtured.

The question of belonging that the exhibit poses is, “Who should be included and how?” It ponders this on all of its scales of data, but the question I was left with was, “What is the cost that comes with being included?”

The initial question seemed to have been answered simply by arranging the projects from smallest to biggest scale. The viewer instinctively understands that the world has grown smaller and yet is too large for one person to process. The viewer understands that citizenship is multifaceted and contradictory, a mix of inclusion and exclusion. As space changes, so does one’s position as a citizen. How might architecture respond to the paradoxical conditions of citizenship? The question almost seems timid. If architecture is viewed as an expression of citizenship, the question is tweaked to become “How must architecture respond?”

Through the more environmentally-focused projects, the viewer sees that though we may all view the world differently and experience the consequences of climate change differently, in some ways we all bear the weight of the world.  After all, this is meant to be an architecture exhibit. Citizenship must be related to the physical condition of one’s surroundings. If one’s surroundings are in danger, shouldn’t the responsibilities of citizenship change?

“How must architecture respond to, shape, and express rhizomatic and paradoxical conditions of citizenship?” the exhibition text asks. The answer is: In every way possible.

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