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PERCEPTION VOLUME III PART II
COULD BE ARCHITECTURE ANDREW KOVACS BEN GROSSER
HIMALI SINGH SOIN MIMI ZEIGER BLAIR SMITH
MAURICIO ROCHA MARK RAYMOND PROJECTS OF DECENTERING
From playfulness and algorithmic bias to emptiness and decolonization, the following issue of the Ricker Report aims to explore and challenge our understanding of the normal and the everyday. This publication is designed to illustrate the values of our featured artists, architects, and curators but also the integral role of perception in the construction of our reality. The experiences of our lives define our perception of the world, but the way we perceive the world also defines our experiences. In the context of our ever-changing social, political, and economic climate, we present these notions of perception as a form of agency to construct new and other worlds. We truly believe that a future built on the foundations of justice begins with an understanding of those with a different perspective. Through whatever form our world may take on, we see our newest installment of the Ricker Report as an opportunity to learn and embrace the views of others. As the world moves towards a “new” normal, the Ricker Report will continue to develop as a platform for both criticism and change. We will continue to stand as a reminder that things are not always as they seem to be. It is only a matter of perception. The Ricker Report Team
Editor-in-Chief Shravan Arun Director of Operations Mila Lipinski Director of Outreach TJ Bayowa Editors Diego Huacuja Delnaaz Kharadi Kriti Chaudhry Hannah Galkin Andrew Cross Phoebe Glimm Michelle Mo Alejandro Toro Defne Ergün Graphic Designers Sneha Patel Rachita Ranjit Asher Ginnodo Zach Michaliska Adam Czapla Eliza Peng Jerry Rodriguez Ishita Anand
Could Be Architecture Joseph Altshuler and Zach Morrison
The Architectural B-Side Andrew Kovacs
Demetrification, NFTs, and MORE Ben Grosser
we are opposite like that Himali Singh Soin
The Optimistic Critic Mimi Zeiger
Homemade, with Love Blair Smith
The Art of Emptiness Mauricio Rocha
analōg Mark Raymond
Canon and the Projects of Decentering Soumya Dasgupta and Emilee Mathews
Could Be Architecture
COULD BE ARCHITECTURE
Could Be Architecture is a Chicago-based design practice directed by Joseph Altshuler and Zack Morrison that designs seriously playful spaces, things, and happenings. They work across scales, including designs for buildings, interiors, installations, scenographies, exhibits, furniture, costumes, and publications. As practitioners and academics, their work is equally invested in built pragmatics and speculative research. As citizens and artists, their work is committed at once to public engagement and aesthetic ambitions. They aim to create architecture that tells stories, builds audiences, resonates with people’s emotions, and instigates enthusiasm around the activities and imagery that it stages. Their work positions architecture as an active character in the world, enacting a future full of wonder, humor, color, and delight.
COULD BE ARCHITECTURE
COULD BE ARCHITECTURE
In conversation with Joseph Altshuler and Zack Morrison How did the story of Could Be Architecture begin? Zack (Z): It started with our story “Oscar Upon a Time”. It was the first project we worked on collaboratively and before naming ourselves as a collective entity. We met at Rice University, and, through getting to know each other, we became aware of our shared interest in the way that we looked at the world and architecture. This was also the first year of the Fairy Tales Competition. We partnered with Mari, Joseph’s partner, to write a story, and “Oscar Upon a Time” was the result of it. Joseph (J): On one hand, we hope that it’s a fun and engaging story so that people who don’t have a background in architecture can still enjoy and engage in spatial ideas. On the other hand, it is also a foundational narrative for our practice and research agenda. The story is about how we can have a meaningful, friendly, and companionable relationship with architecture at many different scales. From the 10
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scale of an object to the scale of buildings and cities, architecture has a capacity to be our companion and friend. In all the work that we do, we look to find ways in which people can relate to buildings less as objects and tools that serve our needs and more like a subject that could actually be our friend. Maybe a nonhuman friend but our friend, nevertheless. Z: In a lot of ways, we keep returning to that story through the overall idea of how we amplify architecture’s presence as a companion in our lives. The story allowed us to explore form, color, and scale in whimsical ways because it was a story that was only ever going to be a story. It allowed us to investigate things we were and are still interested in. How has your architectural fairy tale “Oscar Upon a Time” grown alongside your practice’s ethos? Z: In some ways, the story was very specific.
J: Oscar, the human protagonist, has the same ontological status as the architecture he interacts with. In the story, Oscar is gifted four abstract architectural “objects” on his fourth birthday. As Oscar grows, his architectural companions grow with him. By the time he’s a young adult, his architectural companions have grown big enough to become the rooms of his house, and by the time he is an old man, they’ve grown to the extent that they are actually buildings in the city. The themes of Oscar remain relevant to our practice today, and we are still playing them out. Just like Oscar, we are slowly scaling up the kind of projects that we are working on. They may be growing at a different rate than us as well. In many ways, Oscar is our avatar as we seek to make architectural friends in the world. Z: As a work of fiction, and a fairy tale in particular, the story indulges in whimsy and magic. Although the story isn’t something that is meant to be built literally, our practices
Deviant Dwellings Courtesy of Could Be Architecture
continue to grow with built work. We use the story as guide to envision how to embed the magic of whimsy and play into more practical, built projects. J: The story sets up an agenda, and the practice enacts it into the world. Where does Could Be Architecture find itself in the larger stories of practice, pedagogy, and curation? J: We operate between all three of these different vectors. We are, first and foremost, a professional practice with real clients, but we also both teach. Our curatorial practice tends to go between the world of academia and practice. So, all three of those vectors are important to us. We believe that they mutually enhance each other. We also believe that our active professional practice makes us better teachers. Similarly,
I think the fact that we are teachers makes us practice in a way that allows us to be more accessible and more approachable. It allows us to also bring certain qualities of the discipline and a discourse of the discipline into its practical application. There is a mutual relationship between these things, and sometimes there are literal crossovers as well. As a part of my teaching role at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I’m also the curator of a gallery space that’s dedicated to architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects. When we are designing and fabricating installations for this gallery, our practice, pedagogy, and curation converge. Z: I also think that it goes back to our ambition for architecture to be a more open and encompassing practice. We are conscious that we are not trying to specialize in any particular typology. We work on traditional architecture projects but also teach and curate exhibitions. In this sense, our practice seeks deliver architectural ideas through multiple modes. J: Yeah, it is a super intentional ambition to be a generalist practice. We wear a lot of different hats to not necessarily become experts in one particular thing but rather to have a very intentional exchange among the different sectors and disciplines. Speaking on the multidisciplinary and generalist nature of Could Be Architecture, what is SOILED magazine, and what role does it play in your practice? J: SOILED predated our practice. I started SOILED after my graduation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the time, there were limited outlets for multidisciplinary cultural exchange within or around
the architecture school. It was something that frustrated me during school, and I graduated with a craving to create opportunities for conversation, for discourse, and for cultural exchange in and among architecture. It is so delightful and refreshing to see the Ricker Report now taking on this kind of charge for cultural exchange—I wish you were around when I was an undergraduate student. SOILED is a very direct and explicit platform to bring new audiences into architecture via literary techniques. The publication is a mash up of a literary journal and an architecture magazine. We play matchmaker to connect writers and other folks from the literary world with architects. We invite writers to create either works of fiction, poetry, or other kinds of storytelling that provide new entry points into architects’ work. Oftentimes, the architecture comes first. We reach out to architects that interest us or have exciting work along a particular topic of any given issue. Then, we’ll invite writers to respond through the written word. The writers create flash fiction, poetry and other kinds of content that help people who may not be able to read the drawings in the way that architects do. The goal is to enter the stories in an engaging, accessible, and entertaining way. Humor and enjoyment are very much a part of the agenda. SOILED has now been in production for 11 years. The publication is a part of our effort to think about the audience(s) that is engaging with architecture and, more specifically, to engage audiences that may be left out. We believe that children are one of these groups that aren’t taken seriously enough by architects. Our most recent issue was an anthology of illustrated children’s stories akin to picture books that are either about architecture or, even more excitingly, stories that are told through architectural representation.
Left: SOILED #8 Onceuponascrapers Photographs by Sarah Gunawan COULD BE ARCHITECTURE
We launched this issue with a read-aloud for families and for kids at the Chicago Cultural Center during the last edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. It was a way to fully manifest this goal of engaging children with architectural ideas. SOILED neatly folds into our practice’s larger mission of building, creating, and challenging audiences in and around architecture. How does Could Be Architecture challenge the more traditional narratives of architecture and its modes of production? Z: To piggyback on the SOILED conversation, our practice seeks fun and entertainment in architecture. A core of our practice is to bring playfulness, a term that we use seriously, into the built environment. Most of our projects have an ambition to be realized into the world and bring a sense of play. They amplify particular characters in our built environment to engage the public. Most buildings are primarily occupied by non-architects. Architects walk into buildings and look at them differently than the general public because we’ve been trained to look at buildings in a particular way. An ambition in our projects is to find ways to invite the general public into that conversation so that the project becomes more accessible than a traditional architecture or magazine might permit. J: Part of the ambition of our name – Could Be Architecture – is to challenge things that are outside of the neat confines of architecture with a capital “A”. We suggest that other things could be architecture if they are taken seriously by architects. That is one of many ways we look to invite new audiences into the discourse. An example of this is seen in a 5K run we organized a year and a half ago. Typically, you don’t think of a 5K running race as something that is within the purview of an architect. In many ways it isn’t, but we were interested in how a 5K race could be different if architects were the people organizing it. How can a 5K race be 14
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different if architectural ideas underpinned its underlying organization and agenda? In the case of this project, it was an effort to bring new audiences into a particular neighborhood in Chicago. The race took place in the historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville. This neighborhood is full of rich and vibrant architecture but is typically off of the most mainstream tourist paths of the city. Although it was not the most efficient or easy to follow route, its goal was to connect the greatest amount of significant architecture within the precise, predetermined distance of a 5K run (3.1 miles). In doing so, it invites the audience of athletes and culture to both meet and intersect. We hosted this event during the 2019 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. We like to use the Chicago Architecture Biennial as an excuse to experiment with new audiences and modes of making architecture. In the end, the goal was not to convert runners into architecture lovers or to convert architects into runners. Rather, we wanted to diffuse the binary distinction between going to an athletic event or going to a cultural event and open it up to a non-binary spectrum of intersecting interests and affinities. How does your work aim to amplify the narratives already told by the built environment? Z: I think it goes back to working within the confines of the built environment. There is a certain amount of building standards in the United States that are manifested in codes and material qualities. In an effort to produce designs that have particular character embedded in them, we have to find ways to manifest that through the material standards themselves. I think we’re always trying to find ways to misuse or push the boundaries of the default materials we use to amplify architecture’s role in our narrative. Paint, plywood, and drywall are all things that are rarely questioned in their formal logic, but we’re trying to use these everyday materials to enact a livelier expression to spaces and the way
Twisted Hippo Photograph by Matthew Messner
HEY, HEY, THIS THIS IS IS A A
MAGICAL MAGICAL MOMENT MOMENT
people use these spaces. J: To briefly expand on that, we believe in the power of the familiar found not just in materials but also the familiar forms, familiar tropes, and familiar formats that we see in the built environment. In a lot of our work, we try to take those familiar nuggets of character and rearrange them in ways that people automatically recognize. People can hopefully start to see their built environment in ways that helps them understand that they have agency and power to change them. The world as it exists in its most familiar state is not a “natural” condition. It is not necessarily the way it has to be. Only by amplifying these conditions of the familiar can we start to reveal the imaginative underpinnings of even the most ordinary context. Even the most mundane brick wall has some kind of ideology or value system behind it. And because architecture is all around us all the time and because it is the material manifestation of our reality, it sometimes hides the imagination, the ideology, the politics that underpin it. I think a lot of the other arts are liberated from this constraint. When you go to a play, you know the story that is happening on stage is another possible world. It’s not the world as it has to exist. You freely suspend your disbelief and accept that the rules that exist in that play are different than the rules of your existing everyday life. When you go to a museum and see a work of art on a gallery wall, the frame of that piece of art allows you to suspend your disbelief and believe that anything is possible within that frame. Architecture doesn’t always have that luxury because appears “normal.” It’s all around us. It’s everyday. We don’t often question it. So, we look for playful and sometimes humorous ways to de-familiarize the built environment. A recent speculative project called Deviant Dwellings
provides an example. It’s a photographic, montage project that looks at very familiar housing typologies in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, and it starts to make little tweaks and deviations to them. There’s still something very familiar about the underlying base architecture that we’re playing with, but we try to render it as something a little stranger. We do this so that people will take a closer look when they walk down the street, so that people start to embrace the fact that the world is subject to our dreams and imagination. We don’t have to rehearse the world exactly as it exists. Z: One outcome of this ongoing pandemic is that I’ve been taking more walks with my daughter in the stroller. It’s allowed me to wander around the neighborhood and witness the beautifully strange things happening in the built environment that often go under the radar of Architecture with a capital ‘A’. With residential architecture, people add pop tops to their houses or ornament their buildings in peculiar ways, and I think an ambition in our practice is to point to those things and say, “Hey, this is a magical moment.” We should just turn the volume up on these moments so it’s not just me and my daughter in the stroller noticing it, but it’s amplified enough so that more people pause and delight. What piece of advice would you give to aspiring architects, designers, artists, and storytellers? J: Especially for architecture students, school is a really great time to take stock of where in your creative work you find pleasure and delight. Think about how you can turn your pleasure and your obsessions into careers. Figure out how to not just have fun around the architecture studio but actually have fun in the act of drawing, in the act of modeling,
Left: Bronzeville Bustle 5K Photograph by Katanya Raby COULD BE ARCHITECTURE
and in the act of producing a publication. Find what are the really specific tasks and actions that give you inner pleasures because those are the kind of things that you want to organize a practice around. If you’re not having fun there’s no point. People produce the highest quality work and cultivate the highest and most meaningful ethics when they’re having the most fun. Z: Ditto. I couldn’t have put it any better. From our position as teachers, it’s super evident when a student is into a project because they’re finding joy in it. I think our role is to help people find that. It’s also incumbent on the individual to recognize when they enjoy an aspect of a project. I’m going to push whole heartedly on that. Happy people make the world happier. What are you looking forward to in the next chapter of Could be Architecture? J: In the next chapter, we look forward to expanding the scope of our practice. We hope to deliver a seriously playful way of thinking to the world. To date, our work spans a lot of different scales, but it doesn’t often operate on the biggest end of the spectrum.
We tend to do more installations, exhibits, commercial interiors, and small residential work. The ultimate goal is not to scale up. I’m not interested in some kind of unconditional growth in either the size of our practice or the size of the projects we’re working on. I don’t think scale or size of project is correlated with impact. I think some of the smallest projects can be extremely meaningful to the public and expand the kinds of audiences we’re interested in. While I firmly believe that, I’m also curious about what we can do on a bigger scale building project. I don’t have an immediate answer on how we will operate within that kind of scale and scope, but I’m curious, eager and optimistic about what we might lend to that realm of practice. Z: I think that we are also trying to find new ways of collaborating. We don’t have ambitions to run a 200-person studio because we like to be intimately engaged in the act of drawing, model-making, and rendering. In order for us to explore bigger projects, it requires us to collaborate with other designers. We’re really excited to diversify our portfolio and who and how we work through strategic collaborations and alliances with other small firms, for example.
Happy people make the world happier.
Left: Studio Portrait Photograph by Steven Koch COULD BE ARCHITECTURE
The Architectural B-Side
Andrew Kovacs is a Los Angeles based architectural designer and educator. Kovacs’ work on architecture and urbanism has been published widely including The New York Times, A+U, Pidgin, Project, Pool, Perspecta, Manifest, Metropolis, Clog, Domus, and The Real Review. Additionally, Kovacs is the creator and curator of Archive of Affinities, a widely viewed social media feed devoted to the collection and display of architectural b-sides. In 2015 Kovacs published the book Architectural Affinities as part of the Treatise series organized and sponsored by the Graham Foundation in Chicago. Kovacs’ design studio, Office Kovacs works on projects at all scales from books, exhibitions, temporary installations, interiors, homes, speculative architectural proposals and public architecture competitions. The recent design work of Office Kovacs includes a large-scale installation entitled Colossal Cacti at the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival and an experimental camping pavilion in the Morongo Valley Desert.
THE ARCHITECTURAL B-SIDE In conversation with Andrew Kovacs What is the Archive of Affinities and the Architectural B-Side? Archive of Affinities is an image collection project. When I was a graduate student, there was a shift in how I looked and collected images. Rather than simply downloading images from the internet, I began to upload images to the internet. This was basically the early start of Archive of Affinities. This is where I started to think about this idea of the Architectural B-Side. I was thinking about projects that were not necessarily part of the canon of architecture, but projects that you could still somehow incorporate into the discipline of architecture. For me, these projects became interesting because they were on the edge or the periphery of the discipline. You could think of it as work made by people that were trained as architects but did not actually practice as architects or artists whose subject matter was architecture. Then, the material that I was collecting for 24
Archive of Affinities reached a certain quantity. From this collection, I started to make speculative projects. At some point, I had collected a large quantity of floor plans. I would take those floor plans and reassemble them into speculative floor plans. This was probably the start of Office Kovacs. Another way to think about it is as a methodology of collection and production that Archive of Affinities facilitates. This project started off as collecting images and it is still an image collection project but I also collect physical objects as well. What is the role of serendipity in your work? How do you find things when you do not know what you are looking for? I love the idea of serendipity because the things find me. You can browse the internet, but it is hard to come across something a little more random with social media feeds that might be different than one another. But if you go to a physical library, you can easily stumble across something that you might not be looking for. I
Architectural Multiverse Courtesy of Office Kovacs
Above: Plan for a Nine Square Grid Courtesy of Office Kovacs 26
Next Page: Colossal Cacti Courtesy of Office Kovacs
think serendipity is an interesting idea. Another way I would think of it is to have a kind of looseness when approaching design projects. I find that the idea of social media feeds and the internet are quite interesting in the context of your work. Do you believe that the internet has shaped its own perception of architecture? On one hand, the internet and social media instantly increase the audience for architecture to anyone with an internet connection. Also, you start to get different approaches to how people might share content in relation to how they think about architecture on the internet and social media. An office might have its own Instagram account that only shares images of their projects, but then there are other accounts like the architecture meme accounts. These accounts use social media and the format of memes to generate architectural criticism. I find the way they broaden architecture’s audience to be very interesting. The broadening of this audience also determines how this audience might participate in architecture as well. Knowing that social media algorithms curate what we see on our feeds, how might these feeds impact how people perceive architecture? I think it really depends on the different social media accounts and what they are trying to achieve. For me, Archive of Affinities was a personal project. The format of different social media feeds was very helpful as a way to gather and collect those images. Even before I put Archive of Affinities on social media, I saved and organized images with folders on a hard drive. Thinking about this idea of an architect’s image bank, before the internet, you might have had postcards or even slides of images. For me, the image bank is a tool that architects can use not only for reference material and inspiration but also as a place where you can
chart connections between different architects and themes. I would like to think that the use of social media feeds totally explodes the architects’ image bank into many different directions, sensibilities, and ideas that might have shared relationships between different feeds and audiences. Over time, we have seen our digital and physical worlds shift and overlap. Where does the Archive of Affinities find itself in both the digital and physical world? I am interested in realizing or making things in the physical world; but whether it is sharing material on social media or using the internet to purchase things, I still operate within the digital world. I am not so interested in necessarily making work to just exist on the internet but rather using the internet to help me make things in the physical world. I think it is a really important to think about how the distance between what is digital and what is physical collapses more and more every day. You mentioned that the Archive of Affinities has the potential to transform into something in the physical world. How is the Archive of Affinities used as a means of production, and how has your practice evolved alongside the Archive of Affinities? Archive of Affinities is a project that I do almost every day. It in itself is a kind of practice that exists with no deadline, no client, and no budget. It is something that I really do for myself as a project of pure passion and fun. In this instance, it can be seen as something that mobilizes the idea of an image bank. It takes things that are collected and uses them to produce something else. This idea is particularly interesting for me because I like to make collages. Whether I am using digital or physical parts, I am interested in the idea of ANDREW KOVACS
collage or assemblage in architecture. In some sense, Archive of Affinities acts as a reservoir of these parts, a place where they might be stored or collected.
and boring to not enjoy what work you are making. It is important to have fun and some sense of looseness in terms of producing work that still makes sense.
I could easily go on the internet and collect several different floor plans, but they might be poorly labeled or have different resolutions. This is why I use a book scanner to document many or almost all the material on Archive of Affinities. It allows me to know the sources of things and have them at the same resolution. The book scanner acts as a way to remove or flatten things from their context but also to have some kind of consistency across the things I collect.
For example, I am very interested in the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and how they famously theorized the duck in relation to the decorated shed. The duck is something that I find to be both super humorous and fascinating in architecture. It has a long disciplinary history, like architecture parlante, speaking architecture, and roadside American architecture. Like, you might see a shoe repair shop building shaped as a shoe. There is something kind of every day about it,
I take what I do seriously, but I like to have fun while I am doing it. Looking more into what images compose the Archive of Affinities, how have notions of fun and humor played into your understanding of architecture?
but I appreciate the play of scale found in these types of projects. We obviously know the shoe is not a real shoe, but it is still building materials in the form of a shoe.
I like thinking about fun and humor because it also comes with thinking about using things that are recognizable to get a larger audience interested in architecture. One of the things that I am certainly interested in is creating or reaching a much larger audience that’s not just made up of architects. Although architecture is something that shapes the world around us, the discipline of architecture and architecture academia suffers from having a very narrow audience. In a way, I find this to be an ironic contradiction. For me, elements like humor or fun, or even thinking things like pop art, are ways to reach a broader audience. That being said, I take what I do seriously, but I also like to have fun while I am doing it. It would be drab
To me, projects like roadside architecture are inherent within the discipline. They already reach or attempt to reach a broader audience while still being about putting a physical building together. In an inherently humorous kind of way, I feel like I’m drawn to these types of things because it’s just funny when you see a big shoe.
I want to make the point that these are examples of architecture. For example, the artist Claes Oldenburg proposed everyday objects as being colossal. He made things like screws and fire hydrants colossal. He is an example of an artist whose subject matter is architecture.
Thinking about your models for Coachella and the Chicago Biennial, what is the role of fun and modeling in your design process? I like to make physical models. In my first year of architecture school, everyone was still learning how to draw by hand and make physical models. I learned how to design through physical modeling instead of designing something on the computer and 3D printing it. The model for the Chicago Architecture Biennial was a kind of freestyle model. We kind of just designed and made it as we went. This type of modeling is just fun to do. It relates a little bit to the way that I use collages or assemblages as a way of working. The model for the Chicago Architecture Biennial is, at one level, a speculation and, at another, just a physical model in an exhibition setting. However, if somebody had the ambition and the money, they could probably realize something like that in the world. It would probably be very expensive and time intensive, but it could be possible. One way to think of something like Colossal Cacti, our installation at Coachella, is that it is just a piece or a part that is removed from the model at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. At an event like Coachella, which is the sort of an adult Disneyland, it is all about entertainment, fun, and music. Even the way I approached that project was through physical modeling. These models started off pretty extreme but were then paired down in a way to meet the safety constraints and other demands of Coachella. What is the future of the Archive of Affinities? When I started it, there was no idea of a future for it. It was something that I was doing that eventually became important for me as a designer. It was something that I was doing to maybe fulfill or expand my curiosity for architecture and design. I am always looking for things that I haven’t seen. So, I think I will
probably always be interested in collecting images and things to make other images and things. In that sense, the project of the Archive of Affinities, just because I have been doing it for so long, is something that I will probably keep doing. There is no super defined idea about what role it should take in the future. I feel like that is okay for me because it really is this kind of personal project, ultimately, in terms of searching for things and then sharing it with an audience. Are there any projects that you look forward to working on? In one sense, I would love to realize some of the more speculative models as real projects. I have not found a client with the will, determination, and finances to realize some of these projects but there are different ways that I might approach this. There is this one project which I have tried to do a few times, but it has not happened at all. It was supposed to happen but was canceled because of COVID-19. This makes sense because it was part of an event. The project deals with turning the materials collected via the book scanner into a physical art installation. I am always trying to figure out ways to do work that is at the intersection of art and architecture and that goes back to some of the origins of Archive of Affinities. I am intrigued and interested in generating new types of engagement with a broader audience. This might be through sharing content on social media feeds, but I think something like the Coachella project, which was basically a mosh pit of selfies, is also a way of generating or using architecture to generate new types of engagement. It was awesome.
Proposal for Collective Living II Courtesy of Office Kovacs
Demetrification, NFTs, and More
Ben Grosser creates interactive experiences, machines, and systems that examine the cultural, social, and political effects of software. Recent exhibition venues include the Barbican Centre in London, Museum Kesselhaus in Berlin, Museu das Comunicações in Lisbon, and Galerie Charlot in Paris. His works have been featured in The New Yorker, Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Washington Post, El País, Libération, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Der Spiegel. The Chicago Tribune called him the “unrivaled king of ominous gibberish.” Slate referred to his work as “creative civil disobedience in the digital age.” Grosser’s artworks are regularly cited in books investigating the cultural effects of technology, including The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, The Metainterface, Critical Code Studies, and Technologies of Vision, as well as volumes centered on computational art practices such as Electronic Literature, The New Aesthetic and Art, and Digital Art. Grosser is an associate professor in the School of Art + Design, cofounder of the Critical Technology Studies Lab at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and an affiliate faculty member with the School of Information Sciences and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.
DEMETRIFICATION, NFTS, AND MORE In conversation with Ben Grosser
What inspired you to work with the social implications of software and social media’s fascination with metrics? This goes back to my early social media days. Given my age, the platform of choice at that time was Facebook. After I joined Facebook in 2007, when the news feed emerged as a new feature on Facebook, I started to become aware of my own obsession with the numbers that were littered throughout the interface. For example, I noticed that I was focusing on how many likes I got more than who liked it, or on how much someone commented on my post rather than what they said. I began to track how many notifications I had when I logged in, or how many seconds ago something happened. The numbers—or metrics—were everywhere. I started to question how these numbers impacted me. Why do I care about them? Why am I so focused on them? If I’m so obsessed with these numbers, who benefits from this obsession? One way I thought about these questions was in theoretical terms. At 38
the time, software studies was emerging as a subfield of new media studies, reinforcing theoretical investigations into the cultural effects of software. But as an artist, even when I think about things theoretically, I always start by making something. The work I made in response to this realization was a piece I call the “Facebook Demetricator”. It’s a free and open source browser extension that hides all of the numbers throughout the interface. It was really just a way to let myself and others experience the platform without the numbers. It allowed us to see how their absence changed our experience. As I continued to create more demetricators for a variety of platforms, I was inspired to think more critically about what’s happening when users are interacting with a piece of software. Even with the best of intentions, software unavoidably comes embedded with all kinds of ideologies and biases from the people who directed its production. These have effects on how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, what we think is possible, and what we
think is impossible. This helped me focus my work on software because every aspect of life is increasingly getting reinforced, recreated, and reimagined through software. This past year is a great example of this because the pandemic, with almost no warning, made us move everything we could onto digital platforms. It’s important to think critically about what’s happening in a user’s relationship with their software — who’s in control, who’s not, who benefits, and who doesn’t. I feel that users do not realize that there are people that make these social media platforms. It is almost as if they believe that it is magic. With metrics in particular, it seems hard for a lot of people to think about their presence
as being a deliberate design decision. If I go back fifteen, twenty years and told a joke at a party, if someone asked afterwards “how many people laughed at your joke?” I probably wasn’t carrying that number around in my head. I didn’t use to track how many friends I had or how many people were interested in me. Nowadays, ask a Twitter user how many followers they have and they have a pretty close idea. They track that number. This also shows how cultural trends to quantify and commodify everything extends into software as well. What is “software recomposition”, and how does it challenge traditional notions of digital consumption? Software recomposition is a term I coined to talk about the method of treating of existing
Facebook Demetricator Courtesy of Ben Grosser BEN GROSSER
websites not as fixed spaces of consumption and prescribed interaction but instead as fluid spaces of manipulation and experimentation. Essentially, it addresses the idea that when we encounter a piece of software, our default reaction is to conform to it and to do things in the ways that it asks us to do them. Software recomposition goes in the opposite direction, treating software as something that we can manipulate. In some cases, that could simply mean giving a platform things that it doesn’t expect or posting the kinds of content that don’t achieve platform success. In my case, it often also includes the programmatic manipulation of existing platforms. A lot of my artwork takes the form of code-based browser extensions that manipulate platforms in real time. “Facebook Demetricator” sits between the user and the system, watching Facebook as it loads, finding all the metrics, and then hiding them from you before you can see them. The idea is that this allows me as a user and anyone else in the world to see these platforms differently from what the creators originally intended. I’ve used software recomposition for many works that programmatically manipulate
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, but you don’t have to know how to code to subvert the intentions of these platforms. For example, though my “Go Rando” extension uses code to obfuscate how you feel on Facebook, it could be done manually. How it works is every time you click the like button, it randomly selects one of the seven reactions for you. The idea is that the noise generated from these random reactions does not let Facebook have access to an accurate profile of your emotions or personality. While the browser extension handles this for you, there’s no reason a user without any coding experience couldn’t just randomize their reactions manually. For me, this is a concept that calls on anyone who uses software to treat these platforms as places to experiment rather than to conform. How does the abstraction of software inform the user of the software’s original purpose, intent, or effect? The most abstracting browser extension I’ve written is a work called “Safebook”. It hides all content across the Facebook interface as a
way of posing the question: what would it take to make Facebook “safe?” This work’s answer is to hide all content across the interface, leaving only the boxes, the dropdowns, and pop-ups. It leaves Facebook as a fully usable piece of software, but you are not able to see any images or text. When you boil a complex platform like Facebook down to a series of functions without any content, it starts to reveal all kinds of things about what the software really is. First of all, you can pretty quickly see that Facebook is almost nothing without everything that we contribute to it. It’s a container for our data, and once we realize that, it starts to invite people to ask questions about who benefits from the generation of this data, whose labor is going into this, and who’s making money on the other side. I’m not making any money from contributing data to Facebook even though I do it all the time. It also reveals how homogenizing Facebook’s interface is. When we do insert data into the platform, it fits us all into its boxes, both literally and figuratively. Conceptually, it’s really sticking us into these preconceived ideas of what a profile looks like, what a user is supposed to do, and how we’re supposed to act within the platform. The extension also shows how much we internalize these platforms. Even without any of its content, I am still able to navigate Facebook because it’s so ingrained in my brain. “The Endless Doomscroller” is another project that works with the abstraction of software. It’s a very simple web interface in a social media feed style that presents an endless series of bad news headlines. No matter how fast you scroll or how long you scroll, you could never get to the bottom of this list of bad news. I made this project after realizing how hard it was for people to step away from media during the pandemic. I wanted to emphasize that these platforms are built to produce engagement and not to inform.
How has your art grappled with topics such as algorithmic bias and algorithmic transparency? It’s important to know that everything that appears on a social media feed — every item, every object — is the result of years of algorithmic development and tuning by developers that want to create an environment that is difficult for you to step away from. Social media platforms do this on a personalized basis. As they figure out who you are and what keeps you engaged, they try to give you more of that. If it’s bad news about the pandemic, you’re going to see a lot of it. If it’s cat videos, you’re going to see a lot of that. Whatever it is that activates you as a user, it’s going to give you more of that. This is part of a lot of the problems that have emerged into the public consciousness. Social media platforms like Facebook have been weaponized and used to manipulate voting in the 2016 presidential election and, more recently, to help organize the insurrection at the United States Capitol. There are multiple ways in which the design of trying to make things as engaging as possible allows individual bias to thrive. The ways that software companies think, the way that Silicon Valley thinks about the world in general, is through accumulation and getting as much as possible. They desire more because capitalism desires more and because Silicon Valley ideologically is organized around the imperative of growing as quickly as possible. That gets embedded into these systems and starts to make us think in those ways too. We start to feel like we have to maximize our friend count. If we post a picture of our latest project on social media and it gets three likes and then we post a picture of something we don’t care about as much and it gets a hundred likes, it starts to make us think that the latter is most valuable. In terms of transparency, we all are
Left: Go Rando Courtesy of Ben Grosser BEN GROSSER
constantly internalizing — trying to, anyway — a picture of how these algorithms function. If you ask a regular person, “How do you get something to get a lot of likes on platform X?”, they’ve got some ideas. They also probably click on things and like certain things not because they love those posts but because they hope that it might signal the algorithm to affect their feed in a positive way in the future. The truth is, these are all proprietary systems that are making big decisions about what everyone sees in the world. Increasingly, people’s picture of the world is based largely on their social media feed and what’s in it. The idea that a corporation such as Facebook, with one human who has the ultimate decision over everything, is making decisions about what 3 billion people on the planet see of the world every day is a problem because we don’t know what their algorithms are doing or what decisions they’re making. I would point to just a couple of people, but there’s so many we could talk about in terms of algorithmic bias. We can turn to Safiya Noble’s work in Algorithms of Oppression, looking at the way that racism is encoded into the way that Google thinks about data and shows you what you might want to see when searching for something. I’d also point to the book Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale. This book examines the whole spectrum of all of the different kinds of decision-making that happens out in the world through algorithms. These decisions can be anything from what loan you can get or what healthcare options you have. Finally, a couple faculty from our campus who have done some important work on algorithmic bias and algorithmic auditing are Karrie Karahalios from Computer Science and Kevin Hamilton from Art + Design (also currently Dean of FAA). What is the “ORDER OF MAGNITUDE”, and how does it aim to critique the desires of social media corporations? “ORDER OF MAGNITUDE” is what I refer to as an epic supercut. It’s a video project that draws 42
on every publicly available video recording of Mark Zuckerberg speaking, from his first recording in 2004 to the end of 2018. I treated these recordings as an archive and mined it for every time he spoke about one of three things: the word “more”, the word “grow”, and every time he utters a metric like “one million” or “two billion”. When I first had the idea, I thought that I’ll just make these into a supercut and it’ll probably be longer than most people would be willing to watch, maybe five or ten minutes. That is a pretty long supercut in the YouTube world. I started going through the videos, capturing snippets, and assembling the film. Pretty quickly, I got to that five or ten minute mark, but I wasn’t anywhere close to done. I kept capturing and editing, and, by the time I was done, the supercut was 47 minutes long. The scale of this project is reflective of Silicon Valley’s obsession with growth. Grow at all costs. More is always better than less: more users, more data, and more profit. That’s really the formula that drives these platforms and the companies that make them. In regards to Mark Zuckerberg, I think the film uncovers some things. You get to see change over time, such as how he talks about the company (and how that does or doesn’t change). You get to see how the company’s technology changes over time. You also get to see him end up in front of Congress having to defend Facebook in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. For me, this supercut was a way of examining not only Zuckerberg as the quintessential Silicon Valley CEO, but also more broadly the emergence of Silicon Valley’s obsession with growth. This idea of growth is what got us to where we are right now, a time where more and more people spend their time absorbed into these platforms, giving them data in the form of our consumption or literally entering data more explicitly into these systems. Most of my work has been about manipulating software systems, using software recomposition like we’ve talked about, but with this work I really wanted to take a step back and think about who makes software and how
Endless Doomscroller Courtesy of Ben Grosser BEN GROSSER
Tokenize This Courtesy of Ben Grosser
it comes to be the way that it is. How has your art evolved alongside social media corporations’ want for “more”? Sadly, perhaps, there’s always a new platform, or there’s always another platform that I can take on that is obsessed with the concept of more. Certainly, a lot of my projects try to examine this from a variety of perspectives. The “Facebook Demetricator” is a fundamental project for me because it launched a lot of the work that came after. Future works have taken on surveillance, the proliferation of computational reading, and the algorithmic examination of everything we post on the internet. As software changes, I keep watching, thinking, and playing with it to try and enact these ideas of software recomposition both as a user but also as an artist. What are your thoughts on non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the tokenization of digital art? I feel like cryptoart and NFTs have only been in the public consciousness for the last three or four weeks. Although I work with software art, a subset of digital art, I have seen how digital art has benefited from distancing itself from the more conventional art market because it is not something that people typically buy or collect. In these conventional art markets, people with a lot of money buy artwork as investments and just stick them in warehouses where nobody can see them. NFTs transform the conventional notions of ownership. One of my initial critiques of the frenzy that has emerged around NFTs is that the idea that a JPEG, or really just a certificate of ownership for a JPEG, is now a thing that creates a $69,000,000 payout for one particular artist. This approach threatens to change the focus and production of the digital art world. All of a sudden it makes all of these digital artists wonder how they can be that one-in-a-million that makes a lotto-level profit off of their digital art. The truth is that
NFTs and the platforms that make their sales possible are already complicit in reified systems of inequality. If we have Beeple, a digital artist, at $69,000,000, then you know that 99.9% of everyone else is down at the bottom making $20 or paying $200 to mint their NFT that never sells. It threatens to reconfigure the kind of work that digital artists are making. They start creating work that’s easily salable and that looks like “art” to the speculative finance crowd. If it’s going to gain immediate sale, it has to, to someone, look and feel like what people already think art should be. That means that there’s a lot less room for people who are focused on the cryptoart market to make work that doesn’t look like art—and some of the best art in history didn’t look like art when it was first made. There’s also a very active critique on the ecological costs of crypto-art and just how much energy is needed to even mint a single NFT. The frenzy around NFTs led me to make a piece called “Tokenize This”. Readers can see it at tokenizethis.link . It’s a website that, if you go to it, it presents you with what it calls a ‘unique digital object’. This object is really just a box with a random color gradient and a unique code imprinted in it; a unique ID that isn’t reproducible and will ever reoccur. There’s also a URL that links to this unique object, but the thing is that it only lasts as long as you look at it. The moment you try to copy that URL and put it in a new tab, share it with a friend, or mint it as an NFT, the unique object disappears. It’s essentially destroyed the second it’s created. It’s a way of thinking about artificial scarcity, and making a work that resists what NFTs are trying to produce. How does your art interact with or dictate your work in research or pedagogy? In terms of research, the art that I make and the art that we’ve been talking about is my research. I also write papers, go to conferences, and do more traditional academic activities, but BEN GROSSER
for me, the largest component of my research is making works, putting them out in the world, interacting with people who use them, seeing what happens, and following the things we’ve been talking about. As a professor, this work is in constant conversation with how I think about what the classroom environment is and how I help students to become more critical of the world around them. How do we see our environment as a set of systems? How do we think about who decided that a system should be the way it is? How did they come to think that it should be this way and not some other way? What does it mean culturally, socially, politically, for the decisions to have been made in those ways? In my classes, we deep dive into the analytical framework of software, helping students develop a set of skills and a critical frame through which they can go into a variety of media-focused spaces in the world. I encourage my students to look at the different ways in which software can influence users in negative ways so that wherever they end up, they can be that voice in the room that sees things differently. So for me, research and pedagogy are intertwined. I’m constantly showing work in class from the artists and scholars I know across the world. We talk about their work and have them in class to answer some questions. Research and teaching is, intentionally, kind of a blurry mess—in a good way.
What technologies or platforms do you look forward to working with next? I have an exhibition coming up in London this summer. I’m working with TikTok for this exhibition because it is a fascinating new player amongst the other social media platforms. It’s the current obsession and has grown tremendously during the pandemic. As a user myself, I’ve been fascinated with how long I can get lost in its feed. It’s such a regular experience of the platform that there’s a TikTok meme for getting lost looking at TikTok. I’m very interested in the effects of the platform’s algorithmic feed and how it changes the way we think as users. I have a work out there called “Not For You”. It is an “automated confusion system” that manipulates TikTok’s feed so that you can see things that have nothing to do with how you feel or how they think you feel. On the other hand, I’m also working on my own social media platform prototype, a new social media platform we can all play with. I can’t solve all of the world’s platform problems as a single person making a prototype, but I do hope to focus in on and radically reconsider aspects that are common to most every platform we’ve seen so far. Although this is being made for my exhibition in London, it will also be made available for everyone in the world. Keep your eyes peeled for that. More broadly, most of my work comes out of my position as someone looking at and thinking critically about the world of technology and software. I let my own obsessions, my own ways of feeling, and my own use of software guide where I go next.
How do we think about who decided that a system should be the way it is? 46
Not For You Courtesy of Ben Grosser BEN GROSSER
we are opposite like that
HIMALI SINGH SOIN
Himali Singh Soin is a writer and artist based between London and Delhi. She uses metaphors from outer space and the natural environment to construct imaginary cosmologies of interferences, entanglements, deep voids, debris, delays, alienation, distance and intimacy. In doing this, she thinks through ecological loss, and the loss of home, seeking shelter somewhere in the radicality of love. Her speculations are performed in audio-visual, immersive environments.
HIMALI SINGH SOIN
HIMALI SINGH SOIN
we are opposite like that Courtesy of Himali Singh Soin
The following excerpts are from the book we are opposite like that by Himali Singh Soin we are opposite like that is ongoing series of interdisciplinary works that comprises mythologies for the poles, told from the non-human perspective of an elder that has witnessed deep time: the ice. It beckons the ghosts hidden in landscapes and turns them into echoes, listening in on the resonances of potential futures. HIMALI SINGH SOIN
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Images tracing the myth of an equatorial being in an extraterrestrial landscape. An intuitional cosmology in a world governed by arbitrary rules of reason.
HIMALI SINGH SOIN
we are opposite like that Courtesy of Himali Singh Soin HIMALI SINGH SOIN
The Optimistic Critic
Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based critic, editor, and curator. She was co-curator of the U.S. Pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale and curator of Soft Schindler at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Currently, she is the co-curator of 2020-2021 Exhibit Columbus. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Review, Metropolis, and Architect and is an opinion columnist for Dezeen. Zeiger is the 2015 recipient of the Bradford Williams Medal for excellence in writing about landscape architecture. Zeiger is author of New Museums, Tiny Houses, Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature, and Tiny Houses in the City, and editor of the LA Forum Reader, Dimensions of Citizenship catalog, Made Up: Design’s Fictions. In 1997, Zeiger founded loud paper, an influential zine and digital publication dedicated to increasing the volume of architectural discourse. She is faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and in the Media Design Practices MFA program at Art Center College of Design.
THE OPTIMISTIC CRITIC In conversation with Mimi Zeiger
How did you navigate your path as an architecture critic, writer, and curator? Have you always aspired to be a critic or is it something that happened along the way? It is something that happened along the way. I first got my Bachelor’s in Architecture at Cornell, worked for a couple years in the Bay Area, and then went back to graduate school at SCI-Arc. While I was getting my M.Arch at SCIArc, my thesis project was a small publication called loud paper. Initially, I published three issues of loud paper for my thesis, but it continued for many years. I never had the same rate of publication after that, but that was when I first started writing about architecture in a serious way. The evolution of becoming an architectural critic was pretty long. When I was doing loud paper, I thought of myself as an architect who writes, and then at some point I thought of myself as someone who writes about architecture. Ultimately, I felt like I had enough experience under my belt to call myself a critic. 64
You have previously stated that “we need to place ideas, not gender, front and center.” How has the maledominated nature of architecture impacted architecture curation and criticism? What are some ways that we can dismantle this notion in the future? That is a huge question. I have inherited a lot of the ways that architecture has been practiced through a western male epistemology, so I operate within that. And yet, even when I was in undergrad, the ways of expressing gender within that system felt really important. This was in the 1990s, which was the beginning of work done on the relationship between architecture and feminism. Critical work on how gender was operating within space was being done by Beatriz Colomina and others. Sexuality & Space was Beatriz Colomina’s pivotal work, and it had a big influence on me. My undergraduate thesis had to do with ideas of the male gaze. I was playing with how the body interacts and what is seen and what is
revealed. If I take a big jump forward to the work that I did on Dimensions of Citizenship for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, I sat down with my collaborators Ann Lui, Niall Atkinson, Iker Gil to think about who we wanted to invite and who we wanted to represent architecture at that moment in time. We asked, just kind of putting it out there, “What if we invite mostly women and people of color?” It was never an intent to make this a show about women. But when you have so many excellent designers like Amanda Williams, Jeanne Gang, Liz Diller, Teddy Cruz, and Fonna Forman, it was about creating a platform for the best ideas to come through. When we were given a choice between a white, male designer or a designer that was a person of color, it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. This past year, so many women were represented in the architecture and computation conference, ACADIA. It had
female programmers and an incredible group of speakers. Sometimes it’s about thinking about the questions that we are asking and then answering them. A lot of times when women are asked to participate in something, they are either siloed or seen as a check box. This is why I say we need to place ideas, not gender, front and center. It’s because we need to make platforms where ideas are expressed at their highest level with the people who are really thinking about them. We also need to make a clear decision about featuring non-cis white men. That decision has to be made. In your article “Breaking Ground book on buildings by women is ‘both needed and problematic’”, you talk about how the women in the book are brought into this narrative of the sole genius. Could you talk more generally about how women in architecture are represented in media?
Mimi Zeiger Courtesy of Mimi Zeiger
Sure. Let’s talk about women in architecture primarily being represented in media throughout the later part of the 20th century to today. Within media culture, women are represented generally in comparison to Zaha Hadid, the best-known female architect. We talk about them as female architects, as lady architects, a little older term, or the wife of. Denise Scott Brown is an example of “the wife of”. Ada Louise Huxtable, a really powerful critic and woman in New York, even wrote about Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, husband of Denise Scott Brown, as the Venturis. The conventions of marriage and the conventions of sexuality are really baked in.
Gehry and others here in LA, outspoken to the nth degree, said, “Listen, I don’t want to talk about being a woman as a commonality. I’m more interested in talking about California.” The minute she said that, all the designers opened up about what was inspiring to them. It wasn’t about the burdens of needing daycare or being female, all very important topics, but it was really about what drives their work. I think that we have to understand how we perceive architects who are women as these creative professionals, how we perceive them as people who are bringing forth all of these rich bunches of ideas, and not just set up a platform where they have to talk about what they juggle in order to make it work. I am not saying that those things aren’t important, but I, as a reader, want to hear what makes them tick.
Can we talk about women in architecture without foregrounding their femaleness? Can we talk about women in architecture or women and architecture without foregrounding their femaleness? The subjectivities of white women and BIPOC women are hugely important, but how do we understand them as architects. One of the key things that got me thinking that ideas, not gender, needs to be foregrounded is when I was interviewing a number of designers and architects here in Los Angeles. I talked with Gere Kavanaugh, who is an interior designer and textile designer, Deborah Sussman, a graphic designer who has since passed, Annie Chu, an architect here in LA, and also April Greiman, a brilliant graphic designer, on a panel called the “Divas of Design”. We were all kind of cringing at the title, and I felt that it led us to talking about what it was like to be a woman. Gere Kavanaugh, a powerful designer who worked alongside Frank
Definitely. You don’t see posters or online forums for white male panels. That isn’t a thing. When we only invite women to panels about women, we do not do justice to the work that they are actually doing in the field of architecture. I think the subjectivity that comes with womanhood and other diverse backgrounds are distinct. I want to make sure that we hold on to that, but that we hold on to that through the lens of the work and ideas that these great people produce. I think that we have come to a point where we have carved out spaces for women to create solidarity and to express the kinds of conditions that were holding them back. Now I really think that we have to see how this operates across race, class, and
different sexualities. I think we can hold on to that intersectionality but as something that is part of a whole person who has ideas and dreams as well. In your article “It’s time to abolish the architecture critic”, you explain that education is an important factor in developing diverse perspectives. How must institutions change to be more accessible? I think if we dismantle some of its barriers, we begin to see the institution’s problems as structural. People are not aware of the privileges that have helped them go to elite schools, work for elite publications, and even hold elite positions as architecture critics. I
structural connections happen. They give you access to editors and a starting point to jump into a very competitive field. Coming from my own background, I am hugely supportive of inventing your own platform. I think there are so many free tools that are available to get into criticism and to start writing. Part of the thing is, writing really comes from practice. The more you write, the more you develop a voice, and the more likely that it will get noticed. For those who are getting started in the field, sometimes it is really important to just start your own thing and develop a voice. If you are familiar with “McMansion Hell”, Kate Wagner’s determination to be a critic came from her starting her own platform. Some of these models can be harder
The more you write, the more you develop a voice . . . think institutions need something like the Ricker Report, a place where people can experiment and get experience early on. That is an incredible step. When that step isn’t there, it’s about inventing platforms. So, when I was a graduate student, I invented a platform. These platforms do not always have to be publications. They could be something like Dank Lloyd Wright. It can be a meme platform on Instagram which expresses the kind of critique that you need. Criticism isn’t exactly taught in institutions, although there are a few places in the United States like Columbia’s CCCP (Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture) program and a design research criticism program at the SVA (School of Visual Arts). I’ve taught at the one in SVA, and these programs try to make some of these
than others, but again, it could easily just be your Instagram account. You start there and keep growing. As a lot of your work and mission is around increasing the amount of discourse on architecture, how do we make architectural discourse something that is more of an everyday kind of conversation? I think in some ways it’s about who is writing and also about who is reading. I have found that you are not going to get everybody. If you look across publications that are out there in the world, Curbed versus Log for instance, they have very different ways of looking at the built environment. If the majority of work is
sort of more general interest and then there’s other things that plug in that are a little bit more specific, that captures the readership. Something like an academic journal, that is much more specific and highly curated, is going to attract a very particular readership. Part of it is about the scale of readership for certain ideas, just sort of sliding that back and forth till you find sort of the right fit. For me, with loud paper, it was about setting forth a kind of mission statement. Now that you do a lot with curation and criticism, how has your perception of architecture and architectural education changed? Being a curator and a critic who is thinking about questions of gender and racial equity, I think it puts a lot more pressure for me as an educator. It puts more pressure on me to make sure that my syllabi and projects are reflective of the things that I am calling out in my criticism. By the same token, when I do curate, if I have brought something up in criticism around questions of gender and racial equity, I also need to be responsible to it in my own curatorial work. Because of my background at Cornell and SCI-Arc, I have baggage. I have to recognize when those are useful and also when they can be blinders to my work. There are also many people that are working to expand the canon of architecture. Mabel Wilson, Charles Davis II, and Ana Maria Leon are just a few people who are doing huge work to help us rethink the Western perspective and understanding of architecture. So, I am constantly learning as well. I am not always the expert; I am someone who has to do research and recognize my privilege. In regards to the future, what is the role of curation and critique in various understandings of architecture?
I’d like to think that both curation and critique are really good at looking at what’s happening now. This is not like a technofuturist agenda but it’s about asking, “What are the ideas that are operating within culture, first and foremost, and then within architecture and design culture?” And then we have to figure out how we put those forward, whether it is something that I am critiquing or whether that is something or someone whose work I am interested in and am curating. For example, we cannot not look at questions of climate crisis. How do we do it through work that is happening in the present because we cannot invent work. Whose work is speaking to those concerns or what other writers can we also help support platforms that are doing that? As a critic I often look to other writers, Rebecca Solnit, Donna Haraway, or Anna Tsing who wrote The Mushroom at the End of the World. I will use inspiration from something they have written and ask: How do I bring that into architectural discourse and make it relevant? I cannot predict the future, but I can hope for the future. I can hope that the speculative ideas that we are looking at now, or that I am seeing emerge now may change what happens. For being a critic, I am quite an optimist, and I would not be in this if I really thought architecture was screwed. I would have just pulled the plug long ago. What projects or ideas do you look forward to working with next? I’m currently working with Iker Gil and the folks at Exhibit Columbus on a cycle of projects for Exhibit Columbus 2021 and we are calling it “New Middles: from Main Street to Megalopolis: What is the future of the middle city?” It is about looking forward. The projects that we have started to see in the design presentations are dealing with some really necessary subjects. Iker and I have framed this topic around “What is the middle?” and we are defining the middle through the lens of the Mississippi Watershed, which includes Urbana-Champaign.
By doing that we’re thinking about what environmental and the climactic issues are at play there. We also are doing this under a pandemic and racial revolutions and new understandings of complicity within architecture. The folks that we’ve invited to be part of this are bringing up ideas about architecture for different species, from Joyce Hwang’s work, or questioning the idea of Columbus in general as a figure. We are working with Dream the Combine, who are thinking about all the different places that are named Columbus Colon, Columbo, or Columbia, critiquing our vocabularies of colonialism and then building an architecture out of that. Sam Jacob from London is looking at how we understand utopia, especially in a place like Columbus, Indiana, which is the ‘Athens on the Prairie’ and embodies the utopian vision of Modernist architecture. These are all ways that are percolating up through the work. That is one of the biggest projects I am working on. A lot of it has to do with a kind of visibility, and maybe even perceptions, and changing that perception. If we think about how Columbus has a kind of brand identity as this Modernist Mecca, our hope is to question that as a singular narrative and bring forth other narratives that have actually existed in the city. Future Firm out of Chicago is looking at the people who work the night shift and
what happens when we change our perception of time. The New York based artist-architect Olalekan Jeyifous is looking at the architectural archive, and he has found several moments in Columbus’s history where African and Black artists have been celebrated through exhibitions, symposia, and other cultural events. He’s bringing that forward. He is unarchiving and revealing something within the city’s history, asking, “How does finding things in the past change us?” I am quite optimistic around the threads of visibility, ecology, and ways of understanding colonialism. These are all important issues that can be discussed and talked about through design. How do designers begin to interpret these things? That is the huge project, and I am smack in the middle of it right now. Every time it is a test about how these ideas will be legible, be perceived by a public audience. Yet, Iker and I really feel like we have to pursue these ideas. There is no way around it. The challenge is not to make people uncomfortable. The challenge is to show how interconnected we really are. We’re all very human. If the pandemic has shown us anything, we are all subject to the same fragilities. From that perspective, you have a real kind of sense of being just a precarious human being on planet Earth. We can think about these ideas in new ways.
The challenge is to show how interconnected we really are. MIMI ZEIGER
Homemade, with Love
Blair Smith loves to rigorously play and make Black girl sounds, spaces, lands, planets, and galaxies with Black girls and those who love them. Her artist-scholar-curator dreams and praxis emerge where Black girlhood as a creative and relation building life force with Black girls/women, Black feminist poetics, sound, and alternative modes of cultural work and production meet. Her work previously explored poetics and sound as practiced with Black girls and collective Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a space to envision Black girlhood and our world anew, locally and galaxy-wide. Blair is a post doc fellow in art education with the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2019-21). Her curatorial and artistic praxis is focused on Black girl celebration, Black feminist poetics, sound art, and design with Black girls locally and worldwide.
HOMEMADE, WITH LOVE: MORE LIVING ROOM In conversation with Blair Smith
As the title of the exhibition references J. California Cooper’s notion of homemaking, what does it mean to be “Homemade, with Love”? To be homemade with love is about the work done with Black girls and by those who care about them. It is a legacy and continuation of Black girlhood celebration as practiced with a space-making collective called Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT) in ways that feel truest to me and those who show up/ will show to make space for Black girls. It is to putting effort towards curating space with Black girls that they might see as theirs and something that sparks their creativity and dreams. It is about being together and using our hands to make things from what we have and with who is there. The power felt from the space you have made is generated from everyday objects typically found in our homes. What was the process of selecting the 74
objects you brought into this space? Was it a highly methodological process or more instinctive? As the curator of the show, I was able to work with my intuition. The show evolved from my personal interest in the ways Black women and girls built physical and mental homes in J. California Hoover’s book Homemade Love; space making with Black girls in Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT); and many other textual, sonic and visual obsessions. Homemade Love was a foundation for me to conceptualize the show and to think of how to transform the museum from an exhibition space to a lived space. I began to source furniture and explore other possibilities of what else could be brought into the space. I made a list of objects that reminded me of home and used funding and donations from the museum to get objects from the Habitat ReStore. Oftentimes, archives and museums only present a violent narrative of Black
existence. A lot of the objects in your exhibition are passed down within Black families from generation to generation. Do you view these everyday objects as things that are embedded with narratives that challenge the real but limited narrative of violence as the only history of Black life? I come from a research practice in Black girlhood studies with SOLHOT focused on critical celebration to move us beyond ideas of representation and identity. Celebration
broader image of Black interiority? The tough part about representation when working with and making spaces for Black girls is creating a space that they see as theirs and see themselves in without relying on figuration. I am constantly asking myself how to create representation through the girl’s gaze rather than through a white or institutional gaze. How can we focus more on the things the girls want to see or the things that remind them of themselves? How can representation encourage them to make things in these spaces? With the
I am constantly asking myself how to create representation through the girl’s gaze rather than through a white or institutional gaze. does not mean ignoring our complexities and differences. It means focusing on what can happen when we work and make new ways of being together. Putting my energy towards the creation of space and celebration of Black girlhood has been very helpful in getting me through all the anti-black racism and violence that happened last year. Turning the space from an exhibition space to a lived space is particularly important in the context of Black girls, women, and femmes because it is centered around their creativity and daily life rather than the spectacle of struggle or resistance often used to portray Black women in public and private spaces. What are the effects of avoiding this spectacle and presenting a
exhibition, I consciously picked things that had this quality and avoided relying on visual representation. It becomes a space just for them to not only be viewers but to also be creators that are present in the space. Yes. A major aspect of Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown’s vision for SOLHOT is about face to face and heart to heart interaction. Although the COVID-19 regulations have made it difficult to congregate, we still found ways to obey the regulations and work with girls from SOLHOT during the creation and installation of the exhibition. Amongst other works, there is a piece by Manaya Boyd, a 9th grader from Centennial High School, in the back wall of
Proposal for Collective Living II Image Courtesy of Office Kovacs
As a sound artist, I view the noise of the girls as a sound installation. From the listening corner to the DJing to the girls, all these sounds are intergenerational.
Left: Installation View Courtesy of Blair Smith
Next Page: Installation View Courtesy of Blair Smith
the art studio space. We also had a series of sessions with the girls from SOLHOT and staff from the museum to make art and install work into the space. It is great to see this community work present in the museum.
We started talking about sound with Jen’s work. Can we expand on that and speak on the ideas of sound present in your individual practice and the collective music practice of SOLHOT?
Exploring the exhibition, it is interesting to see the interaction between the works you just explained from SOLHOT and the established artists in the exhibition like Carrie Mae Weems and Doris Derby. As the established artists are presented without labels or titles, what was the thought process for how you presented the work of these established artists with that of SOLHOT?
In my post-graduate experience, I’ve been rethinking what sound means to me as an artist and someone working in the community with Black girls. Pre-graduation, I did a lot of work with Black Girl Genius Week, a week of talking, teaching, and music making that started in 2014 and ended in 2019. During Black Girl Genius Week, I would DJ with the girl band I was a part of and we would work with the girls from SOLHOT to make music together. This practice of action and doing is what we call Black girlhood. It is less focused on identity and more on what can happen when we come together. It is a practice of Black girls coming together. That has been my approach to music. My sampling, loop-based practice has been influenced by SOLHOT, life, and the world. People always say there is never noise in the museum, so for the exhibition we made a listening corner made of records from my personal collection. I have also been bringing sound into the space by DJing and bringing girls to add “noise.” As a sound artist, I view the noise of the girls as a sound installation. From the listening corner to the DJing to the girls, all these sounds are intergenerational.
While envisioning the exhibition, I knew I wanted to involve renowned Black women artists but did not want the emphasis to be entirely on them. I knew I also wanted to include local and regional artists in addition to work from myself and SOLHOT. The decision to not use museum labels for established artists is a decision I go back and forth with because it does not allow people to learn about the artists. I ultimately decided to remove the labels because there should not be any museum labels on the walls of a living room. You mentioned regional artists. What did the Jen Everett piece add to the exhibition and are there any other pieces you would like to highlight? Jen Everett is a St Louis based artist. I found out about her work about three or four years ago. She has a couple things on view that I think are very important to the exhibition. On the right-side wall, she has the object-based installation called “Unheard Sounds, Come Through”. It is a collection of objects that she has gathered that speak to Black homes and interiority. She collects speakers, boomboxes, tapes, and vinyl to use music as a way to relate to Black girlhood. She also has a montage of moving images from her family archive called “Gestures” in the space. 78
Dev Hynes did an interview recently with Hanif Abdurraqib and he spoke of looping and sampling as an intergenerational practice as well. Absolutely. That is a big part of my sonic practice with sampling. Both my parents are deceased so I brought some of my dad’s records to connect with him in the space. Sometimes, I even use voice recordings of my mom in my music. Yes, the Sade and Regina Belle records brought memories of my mom and my childhood.
On your website, there is a quote which states “doing digital wrongly”. What does this mean? As scholars and artists, “doing digital wrongly” is a concept that came out of our music making journey together at SOLHOT. It was a way of us thinking of ourselves as sound artists, as women in hip hop and having conversations beyond what other people see us as. People do not see us as artists or hip-hop artists because of our work in academia but that is a part of us too. When we first started making music we had no idea what we were doing, so we just decided to do everything wrong. It allowed
reminded me of June Jordan’s “I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies”. I layered a record sample and June Jordan’s voice reciting her poem underneath Jayla’s voice. Poetry resonates across your practice. Could we speak about its importance to you? Poetry was a big part of my life growing up. It was an activity I did with my mother and it comes through till now in my sound practice and in the exhibition. There is a reading corner in the exhibition with one of my favorite poetry books as a child. It is a book by Nikki Giovanni
I have a belief that most of what we do is futurism. us to question the role of the artist and the concept of “wrong” because we are already seen as wrong. It is influenced by June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights’’, when she talks about already being seen as wrong but knowing that view or perspective is not you. It becomes empowering in that sense because we know what we are and what we are not. Jayla’s Tronomo is one of my favorite tracks of yours and feels like the embodiment of “doing digital wrongly.” Jayla’s Tronomo is one of my favorites too. Jayla was about four at the time and her mother lives locally in Champaign and does a lot with SOLHOT and our events. She would come with Jayla, and Jayla would perform her poems at our open mics. One day she did this performance and her mother sent us the recording if we wanted to do something with it. When I heard Jayla’s voice and what she was saying it
called “Spin a Soft Black Song.” I have been looking into Black women’s children poetry books and working to make space for girls to make and perform poems in SOLHOT. I am interested in your thoughts on afro-futurism. Although your practice seems focused on the now and building communities in the present, I was wondering if you viewed “Homemade” or “Homemaking” as an afro-futurist project? Working with young Black girls, I have a belief that most of what we do is futurism. “Homemade” is a space to think about the kind of worlds we want to build and live in. Everything Black people do is futuristic. We have spoken about SOLHOT in terms of community, but what has SOLHOT contributed to you as an individual?
What has been the importance of a community like SOLHOT to your individual growth and artistic practice? The second year of my post-doc has allowed me to see how much SOLHOT has shaped me. SOLHOT has given me more fuel to think about what my voice and contribution is to life and Black girl studies. I feel clearer in things and sometimes not. I have learnt to take ownership of my voice and more intent with what kind of work I want to do in the future. I hope we get to see it all at the Krannert Art Museum. Absolutely, I hope so too. I plan on continuing partnering with Krannert in the future.
The exhibition page on the KAM website begins with the question, “What would it mean to co-create and be in a homemade space of interior worldmaking imagined for and with Black girls, women, and femmes as part of their everyday creative livelihoods?” I would like to end the interview with that question. What would it mean for you? At this moment, that is a question that still remains to be answered. To me, it means giving more space to think about how museums could make space for Black girls and Black girlhood beyond traditional museum education. It is asking people to think about what it really means to make space, rethinking what a museum space and other public institutional spaces could look like as a whole.
Installation View Courtesy of Blair Smith
The Art Of Emptiness
Mauricio Rocha (Mexico City, 1965) Graduated in architecture from the Max Cetto Workshop of the Architecture Faculty, UNAM. Founded Taller Mauricio Rocha in 1991. Member of the National Academy of Architecture, Member of the National Art Academy, and Life Jury of the Marcelo Zambrano Scholarship. Throughout 30 years of professional practice, he has developed public and private projects, as well as museography, temporal architecture, art and ephemeral interventions. Mauricio works with the aim to develop contemporary architecture, sensitive to the context and to the environment, combining an adequate selection of local materials with technology available. The dignity and quality of the spaces is constant in all their projects, always looking for the perfect balance of budget, context, typology, and of course, the user. He has received major awards, individually and with the firm, such as gold and silver medals in different National & International Architectural Biennales, UNAM’s Federico Mariscal Chair, and the Emerging Voices recognition by the Architectural League of New York.
THE ART OF EMPTINESS In conversation with Mauricio Rocha What is the role of the arts in your relationship with architecture? Since I was a child, I have developed a very close relationship with art. My mother is a photographer, my best friends are artists, and my brother is a musician. I believe that when you experience art from an early age, you start to think through it. For me, it was very difficult to decide if I wanted to be an architect or an artist. I did not see architecture as a field where you could take risks and follow an artistic process. I even thought about pursuing film school when I graduated from architecture school. However, I was very fortunate to have great professors that showed me that architecture and art were very close. 88
When I see the movies from Tarkovsky, or when I see land art, povera art, or photography, I have noticed that the light, atmosphere, time, and density of the space play an important role. In architecture, you can work with all of these aspects on different scales. You can touch these things that happen in the air but not in the form. That is why I like artists like Duchamp or John Cage. I like the ideas, or in Tarkovsky’s case, the process of working with time, light, and atmosphere. In that sense, Zumthor, Luis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, and Luis Barragan are also very important to me. When you see the process of a sculptor, or what Zumthor does with models, I care more about the process than the final product. In that way, I traced the line of
Right: Iturbide Studio Photograph by Rafael Gamo Next Page: Iturbide Studio Photograph by Rafael Gamo
Iturbide Studio Photograph by Rafael Gamo
architecture, but I told myself to never forget to cross different lines. I love to do interventions like ephemeral architecture. For me, they are a good exercise in using different ideas and philosophies. When I finished my degree, I did what any young artist would do. I would go to abandoned houses and art galleries just to make things. The important thing for me was to have that exercise, to create a dialogue not only with other architects but also with sculptors, musicians, contemporary artists, and curators. These conversations get you to other places. At the same time, I think that it is also very important to work with the preexistent. People should know how to work with something that was already there or the readymade. They have to ask how they can get something new out of something that was already there. I have never gotten far from art because I always wanted to stay close to it. I like to think that I can blur the line between architecture and art and have the liberty to do anything with my both my process 92
and work. For me, my architecture is like art. It is always about the strategies and never about the form. What messages do you intend to communicate with your architecture? On one hand, the program is very important. Whether you are making a studio for an artist, a school, an intervention, or a public space, what I communicate is the dignity that is found in the atmosphere. You need to make an experience for the people that will inhabit the space. It is important to understand how a place feels when you are there. Sometimes my architecture may go unnoticed at first, but when you walk inside you can feel the atmosphere, the materiality, and how the density of feelings changes from one space to another. Although architecture is three-dimensional, it is not about the form. It is about the materials you choose and how you use them in a contemporary vision.
For me, my architecture is like art.
It is always about the strategies and never about the form.
Gallery of the Contemporary Art Intervention Courtesy of Mauricio Rocha
There are different memories behind brick and stone walls. If you begin to deconstruct those elements, you being to ask yourself how to re-interpret gravity in the place. This is when you know you have a strong composition. You must make a lecture of the tradition, make a lecture of the place.
re-composition of architectural elements and their materials are very important.
When you can do artisanal work, it is important to think about how you work with your hands and that memory, but you also need to deconstruct these elements to get to a new and more contemporary understanding. I think it is important to take these elements into a new meaning. It can even be done with the feeling of weight and gravity. That is why I change materials all the time. I choose them depending on the site and the situation. My professor Humberto Ricalde would say that we should never use more than five materials. If we only have five fingers, then we do not need more than five materials. You can how this plays out in the works of Luis Kahn, Barragan, and Alvar Alto. The composition and the
I think that in my generation and in your generation, the idea that you can communicate your work on social media is incredible. I never thought of having 80-90 thousand people looking at my work.
As architecture is increasingly driven by imagery and consumption, how has media challenged the more tactile experiences of architecture?
Ten years ago, other people of my generation were very interested in form, and because I was not doing much academic work, Facebook and Instagram were a good way of talking about my work, my ideas, and what I see. Most of the people that see my work are architecture students. Sometimes I wonder if I am happy when I see the likes I get. I also wonder if the best pieces of work are the ones with no likes. When
Gallery of the Contemporary Art Intervention Courtesy of Mauricio Rocha
Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Photograph by Luis Gordoa
you try to show something that is not as obvious, people usually do not hit “like”. I also try not to define my work as something to have “likes”. Social media is a place that can serve as a bitacora, a space where you can show and share your thoughts. For Luis Barragan, photography was very important. He would ask Armando Salas Portugal to do the photographs of his work. Together they would walk through his buildings and choose only three photos per project. This was important because they were trying to talk about space with only a few photographs. Tarkovsky, for instance, would illustrate a landscape for ten minutes with just the wind. That is a clear decision that, in a way, does not have many likes but still has a lot of good likes. I use social media so I can show my work, but the decision on how to show my work is not about having many likes.
How does your architecture aim to work with the ideas of emptiness and the invisible? For me, emptiness is most important. Like John Cage said: “To have sound and music, you need silence.” Emptiness in architecture is an opportunity to create the structure of the space. The privilege of working with architecture is that you can articulate what happens inside with just some walls and a roof. An example of this emptiness can be seen from the patio of the Salk Institute. The view from this patio to the sea is a wonderful moment. This moment lets you talk to both the sea and the sky to figure out how the building relates to it. It is the same thing with the work of Barragan. An understanding of the work’s sophistication and how he works comes only with time. That is how I want to work with emptiness.
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Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Photograph by Luis Gordoa
In what ways do you see architecture as a tool for political expression and change? In an interview for El País in 2014, I said that architecture is political. I think that every time you design architecture, write a book, or do art, you are doing politics. You have a certain philosophy and a way of thinking. Whether the client has money or not is not relevant because you are creating a sense of dignity in space and that is a political position. I believe in democracy and equality but also that everyone can have dignified spaces. You do not need gold or a lot of decorations to make a dignified space. What is necessary is to think about space and what you can make for people. I like political and social architecture because that is a way you can work inside the various institutions of cities and towns. You are able to work with the memory and culture of the community. You must not only understand how they live but also their ideas and traditions.
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You must always understand the structure of things before you do something. If these spaces are meant to be for everyone, then you must make an ethical statement. This is very important because if you are ethical in your work, then you are not working for your name or for the likes. You are working to do strong work that creates something beneficial for the communities. How has your understanding of a “profound” Mexico helped you create a timeless avant-garde? As you see in the history of Mexico, there has been very strong art and architecture because Mexico es profundo. Mexico is a lot of Mexicos. You have a lot of communities that were created from the relationships between the colonial world and prehispanic civilizations. For example, the changes in platforms in the landscapes in cities like Cantona, Monte Alban, and Uxmal show how the structures of space work in Mesoamerican architecture.
Left: Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Photograph by Luis Gordoa Right: Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Photograph by Luis Gordoa
Cantona is one of the few cities that talks not only about religious life but also about social life as well. It talks about the placement of homes, the positive platforms for the houses, the negative platforms for the water reservoirs, and the plazas for public life. Many of those elements are still present in “auto construction”, because they are strong architectural elements that, even without architects, had a stronger cultural background.
country are very good tables for investigation. In Mexico, there are differences in what is happening in the north, in places like Chihuahua, Baja California, in the center, in mining cities like Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, San Luis Potosi, and also down in cities like Oaxaca, Tabasco, and the Mayas in Yucatan and Quintana Roo. There are so many different cultures, climates, and ecosystems that make this place so beautiful.
You have Mexico Profundo but also the Revolution, the war on drugs, and the culture of all the artists that come to Mexico.
When we talk about Mexico Profundo, we talk about textiles, ceramics, and all the different idiosyncrasies of the peoples that come from very long ago, but there are also relationships between everything. For example, the buildings in the 16th century are among the most beautiful I have ever seen. The people of Mexico were making things that were very different from what you
Artists like Josef Albers, Trotski, and Sergei Eisenstein come to see the work that is being done in Mexico because there is something happening in the energy here. The liberty and the strong ideas that happen in this
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see in Spain or in Portugal, and that is still something you see today. That is why I believe that Mexico is a good place to have my practice. From the artists, mentors, and colleagues that you have collaborated with, who has been the most influential to you?
Left: School of Visual Arts of Oaxaca Photograph by Luis Gordoa Right: School of Visual Arts of Oaxaca Photograph by Luis Gordoa
It is really a combination of people. For instance, my mother is a photographer (Graciela Iturbide), so when I was studying at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), a lot of her photographer friends would hang out at our house. I would hear her talk to Josef Koudelka or Sebastiao Salgado and listen to them sharing ideas for their next project. I learned a lot from these conversations. Manuel Alvarez Bravo, my mother’s mentor and maybe the best photographer of
the 20th century in Mexico, never took a photo during the week. He would read, listen to music, talk to people, and think, and then over the weekend he would only take five photos. For him, leisure was very important as a space to think, and my mother learned that. I am trying to learn that too. I am trying to learn how to design my days by looking at who I talk to, what I think, read, and see. It is very important for my work. I am also childhood friends with Gabriel Orozco. I really like his early ideas about emptiness. Another childhood friend of mine is Damian Ortega. Together, we like to think about ideas surrounding deconstruction. He did a deconstructed Beatle in Venezia, and I would like my work to be like that but with adobe and stone. Sometimes we also share precedents. He tells me about sculptors, and I tell him to look at MAURICIO ROCHA 107
the work of Scarpa and Louis Kahn. I think I am part of a creative generation in Mexico. We talk and work a lot together. For example, I like the work of Francisco Toledo. He changed the city of Oaxaca by doing small interventions, by doing nothing and everything all at the same time. When Josep Maria Montaner talks about museos, he puts the small interventions by Toledo in Oaxaca alongside the work of Kazuyo Sejima and Frank Gehry. Toledo made social work and social art, and his best work was changing the city. For me, this contact and touch with people is very important. Which projects or people do you look forward to working with in the future? Right now, I am working with Gabriel Orozco for a public space here in Mexico City. I am also working with the artist Javier Marin. It is important to work with artists because their view is
different than mine and we get along because of that. In a conversation with Toledo, we concluded that, in the contemporary context, it is very important to work with artists. It is important to invite them to work together with different ideas and not necessarily to do a sculpture or a mural. It is about figuring out how collaborate but also working together to make an emptiness of sorts as well. That is the way I am talking to Gabriel Orozco, the way I talked to my mom for her house, and the way I also talked with Toledo when I did the School of Arts in Oaxaca. Even if it is just a conversation with a friend or another architect, these collaborations are very important. When I was a child, I studied in escuelas activas. As the school had children from South America and Spain, at a very young age, I learned to work in a team and worry about society. I believe that the only way to do good work is to collaborate.
Left: Tower of the Winds Intervention Courtesy of Mauricio Rocha Right: Tower of the Winds Intervention Courtesy of Mauricio Rocha 108 MAURICIO ROCHA
110 MARK RAYMOND
Mark Raymond is an architect and educator and is the Director of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) and RMIT’s practice-based PhD program and is the Plym Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois (Spring 2021). He has extensive international experience in both practice and architectural education. After graduating from the AA, he worked in Europe for practices including Conran, Norman Foster, Ulrike Brandi, and DEGW before returning to Port of Spain, Trinidad. His practice has embraced a wide range of architectural and urban design/planning commissions throughout the Caribbean. Raymond has combined his practice with writing, teaching, lecturing, and design research. He is committed to the effective engagement of design pedagogy, through practice and research, with processes of transformation and social justice.
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In conversation with Mark Raymond How do you transmute within the realms of pedagogy and practice? Do you see them as distinct entities or as an overlapping, overflowing, and integrated phenomenon? Architectural practice is commonly interpreted as ‘professional practice’, that is activity primarily engaged with the design and production of built form. The term ‘practice’ can however imply a far wider range of activity undertaken within the discipline of architecture. I see architectural teaching and research as critical forms of architectural practice. Architects are often deeply immersed in professional practice and in my experience are often not aware that they are also deeply involved in research; many are in fact suspicious of the idea of theory and research. Like many architects, I had initially considered research as being a separate type of activity that was not connected to architectural production in the way that I was practicing. Research was an activity that took place elsewhere – imagined 114 MARK RAYMOND
as occurring for the most part in libraries – and that it necessitated contemplative engagement with the complex world of theory. I realized over time that my architectural practice which began primarily through engagement with commissions for the design of building projects – in fact actively constituted research. Over time, I have come to believe that practice and research are ultimately indistinguishable and that all design evolves through iterative research. Observing, reflecting, discussing, planning, testing, modelling, and drawing all constitute forms of legitimate research but are not often appreciated as such as they do not resemble the conventional modes of research that characterize research in other and particularly academic disciplines. Recognizing architectural and design research in this expansive way opens a myriad of creative possibilities. So, in terms of my own practice as an architect, whilst it remains a practice that is primarily grounded in the design and production of buildings, it is also a practice that engages with critical self-reflection together
Figure Thapelo Ntema, GSA, Unit 13 MARK RAYMOND 115
Figure 1 Marize-Louise Viljoen, GSA, Unit 13 116 MARK RAYMOND
with reflection on architectural and other forms of cultural production (and also on work in other disciplines that may have nothing to do with building). My practice also involves teaching, or more specifically in my current position at the GSA, the directing of both teaching and research. Teaching, research and ‘professional practice’ are thus all aligned under what I recognize as practice.
develop authentic and nuanced relationships to the social and political environment in which they operate, where their work is directly situated and upon which their work exerts significant impact. This relationship cannot only be a relationship that is focused on the aesthetic, the formal, the physical or the theoretical, it inevitably engages with the social, political and the economic.
The relationship between practice and research is a curious one because architects are constantly researching in the course and act of their design processes and what we do in this process patently constitutes a very clear form of research. Researching architecture through the lenses and through the disciplinary techniques and norms of history and theory is enormously valuable. However, the recognition that research can take place through and in practice interests me more – the idea that the research is embodied in both the process and outcome of creative practice, that the research resides in the photograph, in the building, in the drawing etc, rather than necessarily in an academic essay or text is an enormously valuable one. I am interested in research conducted in this way; practice-based research. Research where we are advancing knowledge in the course of design; reflecting on the processes of why and how we’re doing what we’re doing through doing it rather than speculating on it or theorizing about it as if we were somehow separate from it or outside of it in a purportedly objective manner.
The limitations I refer to exist socially through clearly identifiable manifestations of social, political, and economic exclusion, violence, bias, and prejudice that are universally and historically evidenced in contemporary global life. These limitations are also epistemologically encoded within the programmatic and canonic structure of architectural education and professional practice. As both a practitioner and educator a primary concern is how we can identify and address these often-difficult issues through the agency of architecture.
How does the idea of justice play out in your practice and teaching? The idea of justice and specifically social justice is very important to me. The way architecture is currently constructed and evidenced within formal educational models, within constructs of professional practice, and within society limits the potential impact and scope of architecture in many ways and particularly in relation to social justice and equity. It is important that architects and designers
In my own personal experience whilst studying at the Architectural Association in London architects like Aldo Rossi were fascinated with evaluating the impact of modernism on the city. They were asking what appeared to be universally compelling questions; How can modernism be more effectively applied to the city?; What part of memory should be held into the production of architecture? As a student I became interested in these questions and how they related to my experience and I was curious about asking similar questions and how I might apply this type of thinking to my home in Trinidad. When I began to research the architectural condition of Trinidad through literature, I realized that there was a dearth of information on not only Trinidad but the entire Caribbean, in fact my research revealed that huge areas of global culture were patently omitted from what was advanced as a universal history and culture. I encountered mostly texts celebrating colonial architecture, emphatically and unashamedly centering the culture of the colonizing powers. The colonial period was ugly and violent, and it was deeply MARK RAYMOND 117
Figure Fahmeeda Osman, GSA, Unit 13 118 MARK RAYMOND
Figure 2 Marize-Louise Viljoen, GSA, Unit 13 MARK RAYMOND 119
problematic to me that this was the essentially singular representation of architecture that was being celebrated. At the time, I was unable to find any text that was able to explain or describe the contemporary experience of Trinidad or that reflected the abhorrence of this complex colonial history. This gap reflects a more significant gap in what is recognized as the universal architectural canon where the references, theories and artifacts that are privileged in mainstream global architectural culture are almost exclusively western. It is an orientation that exposes a fundamental asymmetry in how we collectively develop knowledge about our occupation of space. This epistemological lacuna works to the detriment of society as a whole. If we continue to develop knowledge and disseminate or propagate modes of knowledge that selectively exclude people, histories, and artifacts then architecture is complicit in perpetuating inequality and social justice. It is guilty of deliberately overlooking significant, valuable, and critical dimensions of collective human experience in favor of highly particular, peculiar, often inappropriate, and frequently offensive perspectives. Exploring how architecture can advance, acknowledging historical inequality and the impact this has had on the discipline is critical to redressing contemporary and future inequality and injustice. It is research that also offers the engendering of greater connectivity with our environment and facilitates greater control over how we are able to intentionally manipulate, modify, and formulate it in the future. We can theorize about the complexity of such injustices and describe and identify how and where this injustice occurs (history and theory) but we must also engage the enormous creative potency of architecture as a cultural agency through practice and production. The work of teaching and research at the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg focuses on 120 MARK RAYMOND
design, research and strategies that explore the boundaries of architecture and how it might engage with the complexity of the sociopolitical contexts of Africa and the diaspora. The pedagogic foundation of the school aligns itself with the project of transformation in South Africa. Building on the foundation of this transformative pedagogy we are working towards how transformative practices might be configured, practices that creatively and intentionally engage with the socio-political and incorporate emergent knowledge into broader aesthetic and programmatic propositions. What is Studio Analōg, and how do you see the idea of the analog operating at different scales? The idea for the studio came out of a series of discussions with Illinois School of Architecture (ISoA) Director Francisco Rodriguez-Suarez and the architect and educator Marcos Barinas Uribe around equity and inclusion. I proposed that students from ISoA engage with students from the GSA in a joint studio as a means of exploring architectural conditions through their respective cultural lenses. In developing the idea for the joint studio, I also considered representation. I reflected on how developments in digital representation appear to have homogenized architectural representation – it is often very difficult to determine who has produced a piece of work through the way that it is represented as the ubiquitous application of certain software has come to characterize the authorship or signature of the work. Although a lot of architectural representation is technically exceptional in its capacity to generate photorealistic representations, such representations are ultimately limited by the capacity of the software and the capacity of the operator of the software in a manner that I sense is limiting in the way that conventional manual analogous – modes of representation are not. Both modes are of course tools, but
Figure Andrew Wei, ISoA, UI MARK RAYMOND 121
Figure Rani Zaid-Kaylani, ISoA, UI 122 MARK RAYMOND
Assembly Mbali Vilakazi, GSA, Unit 13 MARK RAYMOND 123
Assembly Ridhi Saran, ISoA, UI 124 MARK RAYMOND
tools that possess distinctive characteristics that significantly influence output. Digitally generated images require great ingenuity and skill to prepare, but the homogenizing processes of the software often appears to dilute their representational potency. I wanted the analog studio to explore this apparent dichotomy, to provide a space to focus on process and in which to engage with different modes of production and creative practices. I thought of the work of Aldo Rossi who worked through drawings that operated as an integral part of his practice and in parallel to the buildings he designed - analogously. I proposed the studio as an opportunity for students to not only engage with each other across continents but also to explore the process of drawing and representing the world as they see
non-digital forms of representation – the studio accepts the possibilities and benefits inherent in digital representation, but we want these modes recognized as deliberate and intentional options and not as a default mode. We don’t see analogous representation as in some way oppositional to digital representation. We simply don’t want these modes to be understood as in some way exclusive. We encourage students to try different media and different modes of representation appropriate to the nature of their observation and reflections. The students are able to experience each other’s worlds without traveling and learn to reflect architectural circumstances in what might be considered a more direct, personal, and hopefully, authentic way than is normally proposed in studios.
The studio focuses on the process, not the product. it through the lens of architecture - analogously. The studio is constructed in six parts, each part working through representations at differing scales. The scales of the projects start with a range from the scale of the figure and the object to the scale of the city and the landscape. The students produce work independently but work in sets of three and discuss their projects between themselves and develop representations of their current conditions and circumstances. We have students living in China, different parts of Illinois, Johannesburg, and Durban. We also have critics drawn from different places across the globe. We are not forcing our students to rely on
The studio focuses on the process, not the product. In what terms does analog stand as “opposite to digital”? What value is brought by the analog within our everevolving digital world? Working analogously compels us to reconsider our preconceptions. In the contemporary architectural office, almost all functions and activities are undertaken using digital technology. I’m excited by the possibilities of digital representation, but I don’t think that we should relinquish our relationship to other modes of representation, I believe we are losing an important connection between our personal experience and our physical relationship to the
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Assembly Robyn Smuts, GSA, Unit 13 126 MARK RAYMOND
Room Nana Sedibe, GSA, Unit 13 MARK RAYMOND 127
world that is important to the implicit freedom offered by creative practices. I hope that the studio encourages students to recognize the potential and capacity of architectural representation that is not computer-generated.
work is produced must reflect our deeply felt authentic experience and we need to develop architectural literacy not only in orthodox technique but in accessing this often deeply held, tacit sensory knowledge.
This exploration has led to deeper reflection both individually and collectively on representation and authenticity. We have discussed the difference between illustration and drawing and when and how they might most effectively be deployed. We are focused on process and we have been discussing the creative process of architectural practice and production. Writers have a “voice” and filmmakers have a “gaze”, but there is no commonly accepted term for how the quality of architects might be described. The word we have come up with is the “sensibility” of an architect. It connotes the nuanced ways that architects develop their work both aesthetically and through sensory, haptic experience. I hope that through continued reflection, collectively and individually, that the studio encourages students to reflect more deeply on their relationship to their respective worlds and appreciate how the knowledge gleaned from their respective individual and collective experiences can be authentically reflected and represented in the work they produce. I believe that working in this way shifts the impetus of architectural knowledge from the systematized embodiment of creative knowledge encoded in digital technology to a more humane and responsive, analogous mode of representation that reflects more authentic, equitable and just values. The work we produce to reflect these values and the process through which the
What are your future goals as the Director of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg?
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I think that the GSA is a very special school and that extraordinary work continues to emerge from it. It is an interesting space because the way that the research is constructed around the idea of transformation continuously tests the boundaries of architecture by challenging the universally accepted Western canon that defines much architectural education and knowledge. Johannesburg is, for the most part, a compelling city, but it also constitutes a highly contested landscape that has emerged from a very complex and violent history. The GSA encourages students to embrace architecture as an agency to creatively navigate through this landscape and to formulate coherent and imaginative propositions for the future of Johannesburg and other cities and landscapes. I think the GSA is offering a fresh and differentiated approach that engages with contemporary issues as we experience them specifically through design research. I am pleased to be part of and to contribute to a community committed to exploring the numerous creative research trajectories that constitute this emergent discourse.
Room Shiyu Hu, ISoA, UI MARK RAYMOND 129
Room Tiaan Van Niekerk, GSA, Unit 13
Canon and the Projects of Decentering
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Soumya Dasgupta is a doctoral candidate in the Illinois School of Architecture, whose research lies in the nascent-but-not-recent intersection of postcolonial studies and architectural history. Emilee Mathews is the head of the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art, leading the #FromMarginToCenter project to make the architecture library a more inclusive and diverse space. In Fall 2020, Emilee hired Soumya to help build resources that can focus on content corresponding to marginalized narratives in architectural history and theory. What started as an excellent job for Soumya led to a series of deep intellectual exchanges and co-authoring grant applications that made way for a multidisciplinary panel discussion titled ‘Decentering the Canon in the Architectural Library’ funded by the University Library Innovation Fund, Humanities Research Institute, and support from the Illinois School of Architecture Lecture Committee. Here is an informal conversation where Emilee and Soumya reflect upon their co-explorations so far.
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CANON AND THE PROJECTS OF DECENTERING
An informal chat between a Librarian and a Doctoral Student of Architecture Soumya Dasgupta (SD): Hi Emilee, let us start with what prompted you to start this project. Why did you start #FromMarginToCenter, and why did you hire me for this job? Emilee Mathews (EM): I didn’t have a name for the initiative when I started, but I knew I wanted to move in that direction. It seemed urgent before last summer, but once last summer happened, I knew that I needed to move quickly. Thankfully, as head of a library, I can shape the goals and outcomes, allocate resources, and work with graduate students to help move in that direction. Your specific position helped the initiative along by creating a way for a student to contribute their research interests in ways that are mutually beneficial. The structure was inspired by an artist-in-residence experience, 136 PROJECTS OF DECENTERING
a place dedicated to hosting both artists and creative exchanges. I wanted to solicit a cooperative, mutual interest between the person in question, the scholar, and the library. So, since you are looking at the intersection of postcolonialism and architecture and I wanted to connect architecture to these fields in a tangible way, I thought that it could be something that productively supports you and the goals of the library to concretely demonstrate student engagement while focusing on marginalized topics. SD: Yes, that was quite encouraging. My original plan to go to India for my fieldwork last fall got disrupted by the pandemic, and in summer, I was desperately looking for a job. When I saw the job description, not only was I excited, but also it was nothing like any job description that I have come across so far. I felt that this was
a way to carry forward my work in a different way. While this was not strictly historical research, it was about building repositories of understudied knowledge – which can be useful for research. I also felt that I would be a part of generating pertinent conversations from the library that can then disseminate into a larger space. As a Ph.D. student, there are certain things you can and cannot do. Of course, the university offers a fantastic library system, and if you pursue an unusual line of research, you are only limited by the structural pressures that exist within the institute. At the same time, especially in the architecture school, there are certain lines of inquiries that remain within a invisible silo of ‘research.’ For example, while I am debating possible ways of critiquing
distributed within our academic environments. EM: I’m on the same page with you in regards to using the library’s position to critique and problematize knowledge production. Something that’s a cornerstone for me is injecting theory and discourse into how the library operates. I primarily think of the library as a representation of knowledge. I tend to be more interested in big picture questions and not the pragmatics (for better or worse). There are all kinds of epistemologies and worldmaking systems embedded within libraries and it is just a really rich thing to think about.1 But back to you, I was wondering, what did you think about your experience working for us, and what stood out to you as remarkable or surprising?
Personally, it was truly humbling to work in a space built with empathy, care, and transparency. architectural history through a postcolonial lens with my professors, I am also a teaching assistant teaching architectural history and theory that has not escaped from its Eurocentric canonicity to the graduate students of the professional architecture program. As an international doctoral student that teaches graduate students from across the world, I found this condition quite intriguing as a scholar and somewhat self-conflicting as an individual. Having the opportunity to build a knowledge repository that can help explore the margins was thus a promising opportunity. I was excited to see a very humble but meaningful opportunity to raise questions that can problematize the hegemonic ways in which architectural knowledge is accumulated and
SD: What really stood out to me was the lateral work environment that the Ricker Library provided. Personally, it was truly humbling to work in a space built with empathy, care, and transparency. Participating in workshops, such as the one on gender pronouns, was also quite eye-opening. Further, while staying at home during the pandemic has been mentally suffocating, I really enjoyed working remotely with Ricker Library over Zoom and Slack. While that is how everyone with the ability to work from home has perhaps been working so far during the pandemic, I still find it extraordinary that we organized a whole symposium without ever meeting in person! EM: That’s really great to hear. I do want to
Bowker, Geoffrey C, and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 1
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create a lateral workplace, and I do want to foster a community where people can feel like they can speak their minds and be themselves. When I think of my work as a supervisor, I think it’s really rooted in my work as a teacher. I look at critical and feminist pedagogy as a basis for how I want to foster workplace relationships because I have never felt like an authority figure.2 Every institution I’ve worked for is different, every situation has so much local context and nuance, you can’t just show up and know what to do from day one. I do think that there is some decisiveness that does need to happen from a person in my position so that we don’t just flounder and never do anything, but I do want to create that open space for dialogue and shifting perspectives. SD: I couldn’t agree more! When I saw the job description that you wrote on the Ricker library web page, I thought that the position was awesome but also ambitious and extremely challenging! I might sound a bit cynical here, but I am trying to be cautiously optimistic. To my understanding, the scope of a project titled #FromMarginToCenter is huge; most of it exists in the realm of the unknown and honestly would take generations to even realize what it might mean. In my personal opinion, while postcolonial thinking is slowly but steadily continuing to break down walls in and around architecture, there is still a long way to go. If you weigh in the historical proliferation of the Western canon – no matter how we understand it – it is huge, widespread, and extremely powerful. It also has multiple ways of renewing and reinforcing itself through institutionalized productions of knowledge, especially in a field like architecture. From that perspective, decolonization as a movement within architecture is rather fresh and requires empathic nurturing and intellectual support so that it can move towards a long-term systemic shift.
As a person of color in the United States, I can understand the presence of coloniality through different urban encounters. My personal experience with the immigration check at the Chicago airport stands out the most but there are other instances as well. All these instances may not directly harm me as a person, but it is indeed not too difficult to see and possibly articulate the ways in which it operates to undermine other possible narratives of space. However, understanding coloniality and doing something to counter it, especially in the milieu of knowledge systems of spatial productions (such as architecture), is not an easy task and certainly cannot be done overnight! To me, critiquing the colonial structures of power within research is an essential and foundational step. Taking the conversation out there and presenting them as actionable ideas to be debated and further critiqued is the only way to go forward. As a student of architectural history, a scholar like me is at an advantage because I can learn a lot from how postcolonial scholarship has been developed in other disciplines. Even within Western and Westernized academia, architectural theories have been influenced by intellectual movements and critical theories such as structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstructivism. Although this trend seems to be less prominent with postcolonialism, surely, we don’t have to start from scratch! Academically speaking, at one end, #FromMarginToCenter is an intellectualpolitical proposition that makes it possible to frame some very necessary questions aimed to problematize and critique systems of knowledge repositories. On the other end of this intellectual-political umbrella is this burning question that perhaps haunts a lot
Freire, Paulo, Donaldo P. Macedo, and Ira Shor. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018; hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. 2
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The architectural library provides an optimum, amicable, and practicable site to situate these questions because architecture is neighbors with both the friendly liberal arts and a dominating realestate market.
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of scholars – “what can you do about it?” To the best of my exposure in architecture, this end, where theory intersects with practice and academia overlaps with the market, is far more contested and hostile to change. The architectural library provides an optimum, amicable, and practicable site to situate these questions because architecture is neighbors with both the friendly liberal arts and a dominating real-estate market. EM: One time we met, you asked me to really think about how the initiative shows up, not only in the research guides we created (Figure 1), but also in an overarching online presence, and perhaps more importantly, within a curriculum. You helped us mobilize the Library Innovation Funding that we were awarded because you pointed out all the different classes that could benefit from it. The NOMAS students and you were really the ones who called for decentering the canon in the curriculum. You really helped figure out how the library could fit in with what is currently being taught. I’ve done curriculum mapping and embedded faculty consultation on specific classes, but I haven’t done it specifically in the context of diversifying course content. When I visit classes, I always think about what examples I can bring to a class when I come in and ensure that I’m bringing up diverse examples and topics such as race relations. But after working with architecture students for the architecture curriculum, I feel that I really leveled up my knowledge base. I’m hopeful for how this project can get applied outside of architecture too. SD: Absolutely! I think it was a great opportunity for me to work on a grant proposal with you because it was my first grant proposal writing experience. Working for the library was different for me in this way because I got to be part of a place where I can put my ideas to work. Although the field of architectures uses words like ‘disenfranchisement,’ 140 PROJECTS OF DECENTERING
‘marginalization,’ ‘inclusive,’ ‘diversity’ all the time now, I do feel that we have to look at our peers in the humanities to improve the rigor and depth with which we engage with these terms. Whenever I think of dissent and systemic change, I try to understand where the architecture school is located in the flows of capital and labor found in the neoliberal productions of the built environment. I always feel like we are missing a lot of opportunities to make ourselves more effective in making our society more just and empathic. This scenario is genuinely frustrating. For example, although postcolonial studies have been taught for over half a century, it was not until 2017 that we got a full-length graduate seminar on the topic at the Illinois School of Architecture. Although it is hard to make things change, it is meaningful to have a platform where these questions can be raised to a larger audience. EM: I’m glad you brought up agency and power. #FromMarginToCenter was started because I looked around at what people were doing, and I really thought hard about what I could do with within my own position and power. I can’t change the entire institution or the entire library, but I can put goals in place for the library I steward. To respond to your last point, I think of the library as a platform. I see critical librarianship as a discourse where there’s a lot of problematizing but not a lot of solutions. As you said, it’s a utopian project. It is a critical necessity to position and move in a trajectory, knowing that you will make mistakes along the way. When I think about diversity in my field, nearly everyone looks like me. 90% are women, 90% are white.3 That is even more than faculty in higher education. We are even more white than the predominantly white institutions we serve. Further, to be a librarian, you need a master’s in library science or some equivalent. This is not like getting a Ph.D., so how is it that we’re even less diverse than professions that require a Ph.D.? One of the reasons I wanted this position is because I get to work with
graduate students, both in art and architecture disciplines, but also with the library science graduate students. I feel like I can make an impact on the field by positioning myself in work and, in certain ways, the end goal of making my profession look less like myself. From the #FromMarginToCenter initiative, the space we occupy, and our architectural style of our building to our collections and our social media outlets, everything is part of this process. As I do have financial restrictions, I often look at the tools at hand, and ask what can I leverage? The way that #FromMarginToCenter has taken shape is a reflection of what tools are available here and where I am in my thought process. I read Orientalism as an undergrad, and it was very clear to me that it was founded in truth.4 But I don’t know if I had really absorbed what it meant for how I approach my position as a professional or how I integrate that into my present-day reality. I
would say that how I currently inhabit my role and demonstrate my values and priorities is to take a work of scholarship like Orientalism and really think about what we can do to not only acknowledge the problem that Said articulates so compellingly, but to go beyond and find ways to address the colonial forms of power that are still very much alive in our culture today. SD: I am glad that you brought us to the topic of diversity and the perception of diversity. In my mind, it is quite tricky to tackle these concepts. Aida Mariam Davis, the founder of Decolonize Design, recently pointed out the problems with diversity, equity, and inclusion as guiding principles across universities and corporate environments and argued that they have failed to deliver their promises5. I think it is high time we scrutinize what we mean by diversity and inclusion and start thinking about how these ideas can be implemented more meaningfully. When I think about diversity, the
When I think about diversity in my field, nearly everyone looks like me. 90% are women, 90% are white . . . We are even more white than the predominantly white institutions we serve.
Stacy Brinkman, Jon Evans, Billy Kwan, and Lily Pregill, “Census of Art Information Professionals: Preliminary Report of Findings,” February 21, 2017, https://arlisna.org/images/researchreports/Census_PreliminaryResultReport_ Feb212017.pdf 3
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Aida Mariam Davis. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Have Failed. How about Belonging, Dignity and Justice Instead?” World Economic Forum, February 23, 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/02/diversity-equity-inclusion-have-failed-belonging-dignity-justice/. 5
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Figure 1: Screenshot of an in-progress list for, from and with Ricker Library on Decolonization and Architecture
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Figure 2: Poster of the event Decentering the Canon in the Architectural Library, as published on social media
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most dominant question that comes to my mind is – who determines how much diversity we need? For example, India has over 1.2 billion people and multiple complicated histories of architecture. Clearly, it is not possible for an architecture library or even the whole American academia to represent all possible aspects of its architectural history. There is a necessity to curate, however, the question is who picks and chooses, and how do those politics perform. Diversity, in my understanding, then is not only about recruiting people with different identities, be it in terms of race, gender, or ethnic origins, but it is also about having a diversity of thought processes, knowledge, and pedagogies. To put it simply, the objective, for me, is not only to find an answer to the question – what are the architectural histories of postcolonial geographies; but also how the postcolonial experience changes the meaning of architecture. This second part, in my opinion, has the potential to start from the project of diversity and lead to the possibility of inclusion. Simply speaking, it is not just about adding more books and writing more dissertations about underexplored contexts but also seek how those contexts inform and can reconfigure architectural education.
Yes, indeed, we need to include more people who are not white, but that is not the whole thing. Because, if one reads postcolonial theorists like Spivak, Chakraborty, and Bhabha carefully, one could possibly see that changing the demographics of an existing system does not necessarily lead to systemic change. While this criticism of American multiculturalism is quite old in the humanities, like your observation regarding critical library scholarship, there is not yet a direction or solution in fields such as architecture. With the #FromMarginToCenter project, I wanted to ask, “How do we change the perception of an architectural library which symbolically, if not also structurally, still carries residues of settler colonialism?” I think part of the solution is to make the library a more open and inviting space for having debates and discussions like the one that we recently hosted (Figure 2). Changing the perception of the library from an authoritative repository of knowledge to a place for live dialogue and intellectual exchange not only makes it possible to have discussions within professors and students outside the classrooms and studios but also invites non-institutional forms of
How do we change the perception of an architectural library which symbolically, if not also structurally, still carries residues of settler colonialism? 144 PROJECTS OF DECENTERING
knowledge productions to be recognized. It reminds me, for example, how Charles Davis talked about how one can make the library, which primarily collects books, journals, papers, maps, and other textual items, as also an anchor for oral history repositories that help us engage with cultures where this form of knowledge production is predominant. But Emilee, I wanted to know how you plan to take this project forward? How do you expect to change the perception of the library and make it more accessible to students and other patrons? EM: Well, I was really excited about the things that were brought up at the panel. One thing Charles and Leila both echoed was that the role of architecture and museums was to build a national identity through culture, an idea existing within the French tradition but also carried through architectural pedagogy, practice, and museology today as a canonizing force. It’s about this connection that’s supposed to happen through a set of guiding forces. Although there are very few instances where this happens, I think we can continue to resist and subvert to celebrate difference. Like
Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So, how do we get away from mastery, especially in the context of architecture and knowledge representation? One area that I’m interested in exploring is the site analysis aspect of architecture. Like you said, oral histories could be a way to disrupt and challenge the hegemony of secondary sources. I think another aspect would be to deepen the understanding of place and placemaking through other primary and secondary sources, whether they be published or not, within the library or not. I’m also wondering how we get away from the totalizing tendency of the written record. It occurs to me that the architecture and art library is a fantastic place to explore this issue because we are well-used to raising up non-textual sources of information. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to continue to be radically open and vulnerable to our constituents’ thoughts and ideas and find ways to collaborate and partner. There’s no way I can think up by myself how #FromMarginToCenter evolves from here but it has to be with and for our community. I don’t know what’s next, but I can’t wait to see further iterations and instantiations.
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THINGS ARE NOT ALWAYS AS THEY SEEM TO BE