Can we not open our eyes to our own treasures?

Richard Nickel extracting a section of ornament on the upper stories of the Garrick Theatre building. Chicago, Illinois c.1961. Image courtesy of John Vinci


Architectural photographer and historical preservationist Richard Nickel would have turned 90 years old on May 31, 2018. To commemorate this significant date and to discuss the relevance of Richard Nickel and current preservation efforts, MAS Context organized an event on Friday, June 8, 2018 with Tim Samuelson, John Vinci, and Bianca Bova at the Chicago Cultural Center.

During the event, attendees were able to see in person some of the ornaments that Nickel and his team salvaged. Tim and Bianca also discussed the newly formed Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA), an organization devoted to the documentation and stewardship of materials related to the practices of early urban preservationists who gravitated around Richard Nickel. We were honored to have the presence of many people in the audience related to Richard Nickel, from family relatives to authors of reference books on his work and custodians of his legacy.

Below is a transcription of the event with an introduction by Iker Gil (IG).


Today’s event is prompted by the desire to commemorate what would have been the 90th birthday of architectural photographer and historical preservationist Richard Nickel. We want to discuss his relevance more than four decades after his untimely passing as well as the newly formed Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive. It is also part of an ongoing effort by MAS Context to support preservation efforts that involve essays, lectures, and other types of public events. This includes essays on midcentury public schools in New Orleans, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, Josep Maria Sert’s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Cambridge, and Miguel Fisac’s Pagoda building in Madrid; lectures on Brutalist buildings in Boston, and modernist buildings in Mexico City; the US premiere and international digital premiere of the short film Starship Chicago about the Thompson Center; and the most recent project, the comprehensive vision and unified branding system for the Schweikher House done in collaboration with Carlos Segura.

The figure of Richard Nickel is well known in Chicago so I’ll be very brief. Born in 1928, he studied photography at the Institute of Design. He encountered Louis Sullivan’s work while photographing the architect’s buildings in the mid-1950s for a school project for Aaron Siskind. During that time, Mayor Richard J. Daley had a vision for a modern metroplis and the City ordered thousands of structures to be demolished in the name of urban renewal and progress. On the South Side, some of the demolished structured included 19 houses designed in the 1880s by Adler & Sullivan, something that went unnoticed for many but not Nickel. He would visit buildings across the country, drawing floor plans, photographing them, and saving pieces of ornamentation if the buildings were set to be demolished. Nickel sought a broad base of support from the general public by raising awareness of the city’s important historic architecture. He led fights to preserve architectural gems, organized picket lines, and wrote to city officials and other possible allies, including architects. Nickel would ultimately die in 1972, at age 43, killed when a portion of the partially demolished Stock Exchange collapsed as he was picking through the rubble. I want to highlight both aspects of Richard Nickel, one of very accomplished architectural photographer in his own right and another of historical preservationist. While both aspects supported each other in many cases, I think it’s important to point it out.

Today’s event title uses Nickel’s own words from a letter to the editor published in the Chicago Tribune on May 24, 1960. “In this day of mass tourist flights to the capitals of Europe where Americans continue to see ‘culture’ can we not open our eyes to our own treasures and heed what is happening to them?”

For this event I am honored to have three important people that are connected with Richard Nickel in different ways: Tim Samuelson (TS), director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive and Chicago’s cultural historian since 2002; Bianca Bova (BB), curator and associate director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive; and John Vinci (JV), architect and principal of his own firm since 1969.


From left to right: Iker Gil, Bianca Bova, John Vinci, and Tim Samuelson. Photograph by Enric Turull


IG: John, while still a student at IIT in the 1950s, you, David Norris, Phil Zielinski, and David Sharpe organized an exhibition at Crown Hall on the work of Louis Sullivan and I believe that is how you got to know Richard Nickel. Can you talk about that early experience and meeting Nickel?

JV: In the 1950s, many Louis Sullivan buildings were abandoned and you could walk through them and even take things. They were virtually open and there was no policing of much importance. In one of the buildings, the 1885 Lindauer House, Zielinski started to tear the house apart to get that baluster, which I inherited from him and brought to the event today. I was not so much a vandal. Richard Nickel came in and chastised us all for tearing apart the building before he photographed it. The house was torn down in 1959 but there are still some extraordinary photographs of it. During that time we put together the exhibition in the center of Crown Hall on the work of Louis Sullivan. It was very modest but very beautifully done. Richard cooperated in loaning us the photographs from the Institute of Design that, at the time, was located in the basement of Crown Hall. They had all these mounted photographs in storage, so we took them out and put them on the wall. We all went around collecting ornament from buildings saving such things as the angel on the top of the Falkenau House, which was included in the exhibition and that is now at the Art Institute. I went to the Chicago Stock Exchange Building and I asked Larry Ackley, who was the manager, if I could have anything. He gave me a kick plate, which I cleaned and returned it after the exhibition. He would eventually sell me the top and bottom of the elevator cages for $5 each, which Tim has in his collection now.


Victor Falkenau House, Chicago, Illinois, Stringcourse Element. Gift of John Vinci in honor of Howard Dearstyne and Carlos Hudson. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


IG: What did the faculty at IIT think of the exhibition?

JV: Dan Brenner, who I ended up working for for eight years in the early 1960s, was very impressed with it. Mies van der Rohe was around, but I don’t remember if he or other faculty said anything.

IG: Tim, there is an anecdote that John mentions in his interview with Betty J. Blum for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. He sais that when Mies was building the Federal Center, you were upset that they were demolishing the old post office with the big dome by Henry Ives Cobb. So you had a meeting with Mies at the age of fifteen or sixteen to tell Mies that he shouldn’t do it. Mies said, “Yes, it’s a noble building.” You also went to Roosevelt University because it was in a Sullivan building. Can you talk about that early interest in architecture and meeting Nickel?

TS: I was interested in old buildings. I was even crawling around my grade school and trying to figure out what colors the classrooms were painted in 1912. Needless to say, it didn’t make me that popular in the school playground. I loved old buildings and I responded to them. I used to sneak downtown and look at buildings while my parents thought I was at the playground. They had no idea where I was. I did love the Federal Building. I would say if it were still standing it would be a building that was worth keeping but it was in some ways a pretty bad building. In any case, I loved it. It had a big dome, and eagles, and light bulbs. If you looked at the top of the dome there were clouds in the sky. I think I was twelve when a story appeared in the Chicago Daily News that said, “Goodbye, Old Federal Building.” Oh my gosh, I was heartbroken.

The name of the architect of the new Federal Building was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I looked him up in the phone book, found his office, showed up there, and I said, “I’d like to see Mr. van der Rohe, please. He wants to tear down the old Federal Building and he can’t do it.” You could see it caused a stir. The receptionist disappeared. Heads were poking out the doors. Finally, someone opened the door and there was Mies at the end of this long table. I run into this whole routine, “Oh, Mr. van der Rohe, don’t tear the Federal Building down. It’s a beautiful building. Can’t you move your new building somewhere else?” I spoke my whole piece and there was a silence, after which he said, “Some day I hope you look at the new building and see many of the things you admire in the old.”


U.S. Post Office, Customs House & Sub-Treasury, 218 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, Cook County, IL, June, 1964. Photographer Harold Allen, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress


When it came time to go to college, I wasn’t even that interested in going to college, but I wanted to go to Roosevelt University because it was located in the Auditorium Building. When you were going to apply for schools, your counselor in high school had you fill in a piece of paper that said, “Why do you want to go to Roosevelt?” I answered, “Because I want to go to school in Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building.” I turned my application in and I got called down to the guidance counselor. He says, “Okay, Mr. Smartass, what is this supposed to mean?” I said, “Well, it says at the bottom that if you don’t tell the truth, it is cause for them to reject it, and that is the truth. It is the only reason I want to go there.” I would even have to say that going to school there. There is nothing really memorable about it except for being in that building every day. Frankly, I didn’t need Roosevelt because I had the best teachers on the planet. That was Richard Nickel, John Vinci, David Norris, Bob Furhoff, and Charlie Gregerson, who were part of the Richard Nickel gang. I was just a teenager when I first met up with them and I was the kid. They were talking about taking a building apart. Richard was also telling me about what the disappointments were going to be in life while dealing with preservation. You might as well learn this early. That is my teacher. It is those people who have been the guiding force that I can thank or blame for everything I have done throughout my life ever since.

IG: Bianca, you are from another generation and obviously never met Richard Nickel in person. Can you talk about how you discovered his work and why you found it relevant all these decades after?

BB: I grew up in Chicago and my father would always take me with him when he would do errands around the city. I would go to the County Building with him. I would come here, to the Chicago Cultural Center, with him. When I was about nine or ten years old, my father brought me here to see an exhibition of Richard’s work. Coincidentally, Tim had curated it. Seeing images of these grand buildings, finding out that all of them were gone, and learning that narrative as I saw this show stuck with me in a way that I am sure at the time I could never have articulated. Looking back, it was the first inkling of civic responsibility or the idea that the people who live in a city are responsible for the city. You have the agency to take action if you see something that you feel is mismanagement or something that is altering the course of the direction in which your city is going. The work stuck with me; the name stuck with me.

A few years ago I had occasion to revisit that work and I realized how much of an impact it might have had. It actually got me on the idea that I wanted to see the city do a memorial to Richard Nickel, which is something that has been in process. That brought me to meeting Tim, to getting into the Ryerson & Burnham Archives, and to doing the deep dive looking at the scope of Nickel’s work. It is still relevant and that is what has led to our forming the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA) and looking at this incredible body of work, from the photographs and the floor plans to the objects and everything that Richard Nickel and everyone else who worked with him has left us with. Now the question is, what do we do with that? What is the 21st century answer to preservation? That is what we are hoping to figure out going forward in the next year.

IG: It seems like Nickel’s efforts had two impacts. One was advocating and saving important buildings. The other one was educating or generating a public discussion about why architecture matters and the need to save significant buildings. How much progress or lack of has there been in this city since Richard’s efforts in the last four decades? Do you think there’s been improvement since that?

JV: Believe it or not, in the 1950s there was a list of 37 buildings that the city made. But the list was rescinded with the destruction of the Garrick Theater in early 1961 because it had no teeth. On that list, there were about seven buildings that everybody, including the City, thought were universally going to be saved: the Rookery Building, the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building, the Monadnock Building, the Auditorium Building, the Reliance Building, and one or two others. It was an unwritten rule. But in the process we lost buildings almost equal to them, like the Republic Building, the Cable Building, and the First Leiter Building. They were coming down like flies. We didn’t know which one to go to next or what to save or what to fight for. We didn’t fight for the Cable Building. At least Richard Nickel and I both thought that Jacques Brownson, chief of design for C.F. Murphy & Associates, would do a good building in its place and he did. It was one of the first long span buildings. We wrote a letter to the Chicago Sun Times that got printed saying that we thought it was a shame that the Cable Building was going to be demolished but that the building that was going to replace it was a good one. We were both on the Chicago Heritage Committee and Ben Weese, also in the committee, was really angry with us for writing that, but we stuck to our guns. Jacques went on to do Chicago Civic Center (later the Daley Center). When the Civic Center went up, that site had the Erlanger Theater and many other good buildings but it was a time of renewal. Of course, the Garrick Theater wasn’t saved. The Mayor didn’t want it looking over the plaza. Imagine how wonderful that would have been.


Untitled (Garrick Theater), Chicago. Photograph by Richard Nickel. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


IG: Tim, you led also some of the efforts to save buildings on Chicago’s South Side that were culturally significant and not just what was considered architecturally significant. How did those relate to some of the earlier efforts?

TS: It was interesting to see landmarking evolve in Chicago. In 1968, Chicago finally established a Landmark Ordinance that gave protection to landmarked buildings. The Landmark Commission was actually a pretty idealistic group of people who were really interested and passionate about saving buildings and doing a good job of documenting them. However, it was a small department that was looked up by the other larger departments as some little bunch of crackpots or whatnot. It wasn’t just in our hands to get the buildings through the state. You had to go through the staff, other politically appointed people and, if you got it through that, then you had to get it through the City Council.

If you had a building that had influential owners, you were going to have a tough time. I do remember one of the early efforts when they were doing the laundry list of the things to protect first. One of the early ones was the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building. Now occupied by Target, it is one of the great buildings by Louis Sullivan. In comes a letter from the Field Museum saying that they owned some of the land underneath the building and that the designation was going to harm their potential to benefit from the financial advantage of having a good piece of property at State and Madison. They were against the designation. Of course, I wrote them a nasty letter. You got things like that but, over time, it evolved. Many of the major buildings that were available received protection, but there were many things that were being ignored in terms of Chicago historical sites and social history. Buildings on the South Side of Chicago were not being covered at all. The renegades in the office stood up for things like Adler and Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Roloson Row Houses, and the Black Metropolis historic district. Some of them took some real fight, but it did open up a more diverse picture of what was considered a landmark. In the end, the regulations protecting them are still a disappointment. Let’s just say there is some interference getting in the way of the process. But it is definitely better than it was.

JV: Tell the story about Al Capone’s house. That is my favorite.

TS: We at the City were asked to generate national register nominations. People from the State of Illinois, which has its own historic preservation agency, came to us and said, “Well, we find the story of the gangster era to be of great importance and there are no historical sites.” To landmark a building doesn’t mean you are honoring the people who are named in it. It is recognizing an aspect of history. The house that they were most impressed with was Al Capone’s house, a little tiny two-flat on the South Side. His neighbors were policemen. Next door was a Presbyterian minister, who said that the Capones were nice people and that when they borrowed a cup of sugar, they would always return it properly heaping full. It did make an interesting perspective of somebody who was portrayed through media and movies of living in elegant surroundings. He very much lived the life of what his family would have experienced in New York where he came from and lived very modestly. I wrote it up and put it up just that way. It made perfectly good sense. Well, all hell broke loose. In the end, it went up the pipeline and there was pushback from a couple of senators. They actually built into a bill and, by law, there are two buildings that you cannot designate as an historic landmark under the National Register. One is the United States Capitol and the other is Al Capone’s house. I guess this was an achievement of some sort.

IG: When Nickel was trying to save the buildings from the turn of the 20th century, these were buildings that were out of style, not old enough but architecturally and culturally relevant. Today, we can apply that same situation to the Brutalist buildings that are 50 years old and even the postmodern buildings that are being threatened. History repeats itself. As Richard Nickel said, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” How can we discuss the value of buildings that are not considered old or removed from us by several generations?

TS: There is something that works against the preservation of buildings that, for a lack of a better word, I always call it the period of aesthetic limbo. It is a place in time where buildings are too new for people to have historical perspective on them. They are not old enough for people to appreciate them. The thing that often happens too is that we get a building that is 40 or 50 years old and it starts to look out of style, out of fashion. Even things like the Garrick Theater were tough to explain. The ground floor was just charted up with signs. They had repainted the interior in pink and black in the 1950s. What you do have is a younger audience that will look at these buildings with fresh eyes and say, “These are important buildings.” Older folks, especially the people who owned the buildings, see them as a fading, aging financial asset and the need to remodel them. This is the period when buildings either have a horrible remodeling or they get torn down all together. The people who have the money, who have the control, are the older folks. The younger folks don’t have that investment in it. If a building could make it through that period, it would be great because now we look at buildings that were torn down and say, “How could they ever do that?” But there were people who always saw it as an old outmoded building. They probably needed upgrades and that is a really critical issue. One time I tried to head it off. We fought for a Stanley Tigerman building, the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. It was a wonderful building of a really important period in Chicago architectural history. For all of our efforts, the building got really messed up. I don’t even consider it standing anymore. There was another building by Stanley, a parking structure that looks like a Rolls Royce front on Lake Street. Somebody had graffitied the front and one of the headlights was missing. I thought, “I’m going to see if I can pull this through the period of aesthetic limbo.” I contacted the owner and I said, “I have a background in historic preservation and restoration. This is a building that I think as time goes on people will appreciate. It is a vulnerable time. I will help you for free to restore this building.” The manager said, “How the hell am I going to replace a 10-foot automobile lens from the front of the building?” I said, “Well, I’ll find out.” I wrote a letter to Stanley Tigerman. I said, “Dear Stanley, I am trying to do an experiment, get this building through the period of aesthetic limbo. Could you provide me the drawings of the headlight, the connections, and where it came from?” A week went by, nothing. Two weeks went by, nothing. A month went by, nothing. Two months, I am sitting at my desk and an email comes in. “Dear Tim, sometimes buildings should just be allowed to get old. Stanley.” So much for that effort, but that is Stanley. I didn’t help the building, but the building is still there and I got a good Stanley story out of it.

IG: Bianca, last month, you and Tim launched the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive (CAPA), an organization devoted to the documentation and stewardship of materials related to the practices of early urban preservationists who gravitated around Richard Nickel. Can you talk more about the goals of the organization as well as provide an overview of the objects that we have here?

BB: The objects here, as well as the majority of what makes up the collections, comes from the private collections of Tim Samuelson, John Vinci, and Richard Nickel amongst others. We also hold the working files from the complete architecture of Adler and Sullivan amongst other papers. Initially, the idea was to create a safekeeping and repository for these items. But as we developed this idea, we realized that museums like the Art Institute of Chicago have items of a similar nature and sometimes the same items in a collection where they can be held in safekeeping, can stay on the wall, and be admired for their object value as well as their historic value. However, the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive has the unique ability to let these things out the door, to put them out on loan, and to engage in projects that otherwise might not come to fruition. Last month we launched with a project at IIT’s Open House that involved the Sullivan exhibition that John referenced earlier. We were able to take archival footage of that exhibition that Richard Nickel shot on Super 8 film and project it back on the walls in Crown Hall as a ghost of this exhibition and put it back in space where it actually came from.


Bianca Bova. Photograph by Enric Turull


As some of you might know, during the recent construction work being done around Crown Hall, some of the original portions of the historic Mecca Flats apartment building were unearthed. We are engaging with that site and some of the artifacts from our archive, including a piece of the railing, to see what can be done through the application of modern technology like 3D printing. The goal is to be able to recreate aspects of these buildings and place them once again in time and space where they once were. We have the ability to take these objects, loan them, let them out the door, and engage new processes to be able to raise the physical presence of these buildings.

As much as we need to continue to help save buildings, I think that this new approach is also in a small way the 21st century answer to preservation. These items are of great value in and of themselves, but now we can actually put them to use. In a way, now we can get as close as possible to saving the whole idea of the building.

IG: Tim, do you want to give a general overview of the artifacts that we have here and maybe select a few special pieces that you would like to talk about?

TS: There are different pieces and some of them have a relevance to Richard Nickel. Some of them are things I just had in my office, which is down the corridor. What I value and I learned from Richard, John, Bob, and David Norris is that all of them approach the architecture’s essence of what Sullivan gave these buildings. The architecture could parallel something you had experienced in nature. At a very young age, these buildings spoke to us. When Richard would take me to see a building I hadn’t seen, we would get out of the car and we would just look at it and not say a word. We would take it in and maybe talk about it later. That was part of the spirit. The nice thing about these buildings is that, even as they changed over the years, there were things that were built into them. The human heart and emotions responded to them no matter who it was that was in the building. The buildings were doing what Sullivan intended. That is what made it a wonderful thing. We weren’t looking to make any kind of thesis or whatnot. We were trying to save what we could. Sometimes that would be the whole building and, when we couldn’t, we had to pick up the pieces.


Tim Samuelson. Photograph by Enric Turull


For example, this is a piece of the 1885 Henry Stern House designed by Adler and Sullivan. It stood near 29th and Prairie [2915 South Prairie Avenue]. It was torn down in 1959 during the urban renewal period where the city just basically condemned the whole neighborhood and tore the buildings down. Residents didn’t move out fast enough and people “mysteriously” would burn the house next to it. In 1958 people were not saving Sullivan ornaments, especially the early ornaments. Richard would go and visit the sites, trying to see the ornaments. I used to go with him. We would take a day and visit the site of the different Sullivan buildings. One day he would go back and see that house had a door kicked open and the windows had been broken. He knew it was going to disappear. You keep watching until you knew it was finally going to get demolished. Then Richard would go. In some cases, he would have his team of John Vinci, David Norris, and Bob Furhoff to try to save things. Sometimes he would go on his own. One that he did by himself was the Stern House. The house was a big three-story house. This is the piece of ornament. He basically went in the evening with a wooden extension ladder and climbed the equivalent of a three-story building, pounding down the bricks and then hauling the thing down. I invite anyone who doubts the achievement of what Richard did here to come and take this thing out. It can be done, but a man by himself being three stories in the air with a rope rescuing this piece is something that I might consider a miracle. I would like to know if I can still do it.


Tim Samuelson. Photograph by Enric Turull


We also have Bob Furhoff with us here. When I talked about my mentors, I have two of my mentors here. Bob was the one who brought back the colors of the Chicago Stock Exchange stencils. Here is a picture of David Norris and Bob Furhoff taking rusted sheet metal from the top of the Frank House. A third artifact is from an early Sullivan building that was built in 1884 at 32nd and Michigan Avenue. Bob rescued the little finial, the last little burst of energy, and it is here thanks to Bob. The other thing that Bob has done is an arm of the state. Here is a piece of ornament of the Garrick Theater. I went to it once and it was horrible. Its interior had been painted pink and black. Nothing came out in better shape than this piece. Bob was able to do tests on the ornamentation and find out what the original color was. We are able to take those pieces, strip them down, and paint them to the specifications provided by Bob. The more we find, the more we can recreate how that entire theater was because it wasn’t just arbitrary color. The color and the architecture worked together. Why don’t you talk about this piece, Bob?


Tim Samuelson. Photograph by Enric Turull


BF: A group of us were in the demolition site of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building watching the wreckers. We were actually looking for Richard.

TS: This was when Richard Nickel was missing. Of course, he was missing for a good month, but this was in the rubble.

BF: Walking out of the demolition site, this piece was lying in the ground, so I picked it up.

TS: You were lucky. I found a piece that was sitting there and one of the trucks was running over it. I asked the wrecker, “Could I have that?” He said, “No.”

BF: This comes from the elevator cages. It is the last piece I collected in Richard’s presence.

TS: That is a special and important piece. Certainly the story of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building is a powerful thing. Nobody in the group collects these things because they want to own them. Every one of these has a story behind them and every one of these things belongs somewhere else. Each one is a heartbreak in its own way, like this of Richard. It was a heartbreak in a very personal way.


Recovered artifacts. Photograph by Enric Turull


Another thing that I find interesting is people using the archives. We have an open archive so we let people borrow things. The Art Institute of Chicago won’t do that. I respect the fact that they don’t because they have to protect things for the long haul, but sometimes there are small museums that will look for a piece of Sullivan art or a Wright window. The big museum will say, “You can’t borrow. You don’t have this kind of security,” or whatever. I can say, “Take it and bring it back when you are done.” I was very pleased when Michael Rakowitz, one of Chicago’s great artists, was doing a piece at the Istanbul Biennial where he was going to compare Chicago to Istanbul. Both had fires and both had traditions of decorative plaster. In this Biennial, he wanted to include a piece of melted stuff from the Chicago Fire. He wanted some Sullivan plaster. After not being able to secure it from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society, he found out about me. He wound up coming to my office with his carry-on luggage and I gave him some melted pieces from the Chicago Fire that I had and some Sullivan plaster. Am I careful where things go? Sure! I am not going to take some irreplaceable really fragile object, but whenever possible, I like to make share it.

Another object that I really love is what I think is considered the first 3D printed book. Tom Burtonwood, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a specialist in 3D printing, took nine Louis Sullivan’s earliest ornaments from the collection, 3D scanned them, and created a page for each. Nobody pays attention to these early ornaments done by Sullivan when he was in his 20s. They are some of my favorite things. The name of the book is Twenty Something Sullivan. One side reproduces the ornament and on the other side there is the negative that you could use to press Play-Doh, cookie dough, and just whatever you wanted to make your own ornament. I love the idea of this book and that it is not just sitting on a shelf. I really want to share the passion and the matter of heart, which was the spirit of what Nickel was all about. To take this ornament and these materials and use them in a way that is new and different from the way a traditional institution might have to operate.

IG: We have a few minutes for questions from the audience that you might have for any of the participants.

Audience: Are there plans to house all these artifacts in a specific location?

BB: The archive is currently based out of Mana Contemporary Chicago, which is located on 2233 S Throop St by Cermak Road. Right now it is open by appointment only. The building, in fact, is undergoing some renovations and won’t open to the public again until this fall. The hope is to eventually have it as a public resource.

Audience: Do Sullivan artifacts form the collection exclusively or do you see it going beyond?

TS: It does go beyond. What we have talked about here focused on the work of Sullivan, especially since in talking about Richard Nickel. But the scope is much larger, exploring architecture but also cultural history and historical sites. The idea too is to catalog these artifacts. Part of this project includes objects that I have and that I know what they are. But if for some reason something happens to me, they just become objects with no history. Instead of the traditional museum cataloging, we are trying to blend storytelling with the idea of a formal archive. For example, John has the top of the elevator cab from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, the only one that exists. John very kindly passed along these artifacts to be kept with the other artifacts and in taking it away, John mentioned a story that he never told me that when Richard and the crew was taking apart the trading room. There was an area where they would go and eat their lunch. Being good children of depression era parents, you took your lunch in your brown bag and sat on this metal box. I sat on this metal box every day until John finally flipped the thing over. It turned out it was this top of the elevator cab. I always think of those stories as personal history, but it turns out that the context of these early salvaging efforts in the overall story is just as important to document as the date of the building and how it fits into architectural context. It’s gathering the materials and putting the stories with them. Not just dates and figures but the story. Richard Nickel roping that piece of ornament and putting a record with that.

Audience: If Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois building [Thompson Center] gets torn down, what parts of the building would you save?

TS: It is an interesting issue for contemporary architecture. There really isn’t a lot that you can isolate. There are fragments that you could put out that people could relate to. That building is not going anywhere, not if I can help it. I have a lot to say about it. But it would be interesting if somebody would save an example of every one of those color panels on the building and even to find examples that were protected. It would be interesting to see how they had faded over time. The other thing too would be to get ahold of Helmut Jahn himself while you can and get his inside stories about it. That would be important as well. I could see things like these, but it is not the same as the decorative objects. There is nothing from the State of Illinois Building that you would necessarily hang on the wall, but there is definitely important physical material and stories that need to be gotten from and preserved.

Audience: Are there currently areas in Chicago that are being salvaged now?

TS: Salvaging is very different from what it used to be. First, when Richard was doing it, nobody was salvaging anything. In fact, nobody cared. There was no market for these pieces back in the 1950s or early 1960s. He could go down there and help himself. Sometimes the police would come and say, “What are you doing?” He said what he was doing and they would just shake their heads and drive off. Now, architectural salvage is a big business when a building is demolished. The wreckers actually build it into their estimate. They try to undercut their bidders by figuring out what is salvageable and could be resold. Many of the pieces are actually accounted for already. In my era, after the early Richard Nickel days, you would give a $10 or a box of donuts to the wrecker and say, “Can you get that down for me?” That is no longer the case. One person that I always remember, one of my other heroes that I have learned from, is Butch Mandell of National Wrecking of Chicago. He really was the one who taught me how buildings were put together because I would want to save things from buildings that would involve his workmen going up and taking time to take things out and cost them money. I actually worked on wrecking crews. I would hose down the debris and I would run for coffee and whatnot.

Butch Mandell said that he would always get whatever I wanted. One time some guy came and tried to buy something that Butch had promised to me. The guy offered him money and Butch said, “Get the hell out of here.” The guy kept insisting and Butch said, “What part of get the hell out of here don’t you understand?” Once the guy left, Butch shook his head and said, “I hate those guys. But Tim, any time you want something, it is yours. All you have to do is ask me. You know why that is? Because you are not one of those college educated assholes.” It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me.

Iker: Thank you very much to Bianca, Tim, John, and Bob for a fantastic conversation and all of you for coming.


Thank you to the Chicago Cultural Center for hosting the event and to Enric Turull for the photographs of the event.


Photographs by Enric Turull


Bianca Bova is a Chicago-based curator and the associate director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive. She has worked with national and international contemporary arts organizations including Gunder Exhibitions, SiTE:LAB, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and EXPO Chicago. |

Tim Samuelson is the director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive and has served as Chicago’s cultural historian since the late Lois Weisberg—then Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs—created that position for him in 2002. A city treasure in his own right, Samuelson has been involved in local preservation efforts for nearly his entire life, and played a significant role as part of the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks in the 1980s. In 2015, Landmarks Illinois named Tim himself a “Legendary Landmark.” He has organized multiple exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center, including “Bronzeville Echoes: Faces and Places of Chicago’s African American Music” (2018), “Mecca Flat Blues” (2014), “Wright Before the ‘Lloyd'” (2013), “Louis Sullivan’s Idea” (2010, with Chris Ware), and “Isn’t That Amazing! The Appeal and Spiel of Ronco and Popeil” (2004).

John Vinci, FAIA, a principal of his own architecture firms since 1969, has an established reputation for excellence in the restoration of historic architecture and the design of new buildings. His restoration work includes Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park and numerous projects for the Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. Vinci’s new buildings include the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, the Arts Club of Chicago and several award-winning residences. Mr. Vinci received his Bachelor of Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1960. He was elected to the AIA College of Fellows in 1992.

Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is the editor in chief of MAS Context. He is the editor of the book Shanghai Transforming (ACTAR, 2008) and has curated several exhibitions, most recently “BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago” as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club and has been recognized as one of “Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century” by a jury composed by Stanley Tigerman, Jeanne Gang, Qingyun Ma, and Marion Weiss. | @MASContext

MAS Context Spring Talks 2018
Nathan Friedman


Video shot by Troy Gueno and edited by Matt Goetz of Lucid Creative Agency.


Lecture by architect Nathan Friedman as part of the MAS Context 2018 Spring Talks in Chicago. The lecture took place on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at the Society of Architectural Historians.




En-Medio is a research project and publication series produced by Departamento del Distrito in collaboration with illustrator Arina Shabanova. The project highlights the delicate status of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City with the evolving stories of six mid-century masterworks. Case studies include the Casa Ortega, Súper Servicio Lomas, Museo Experimental El Eco, Casa Cueva, Restaurante Los Manantiales, and Torre Insignia. These buildings, and architecture of the twentieth-century at large in Mexico, fall outside the jurisdiction of federal preservation law. Modernism arrived to Mexico at a pivotal moment when the country was becoming an industrialized nation, literally building itself in the image of an independent, consolidated country for an international audience. This heritage is now at risk. Architecture of the Modern Movement—conceived of locally as a means to establish a national identity that was separate from a colonial era past—is currently at the mercy of private political and economic interests.

Through conversations with those who have lived and worked in the project case studies, activists who have fought for their preservation, and historians who speak to their contemporary relevance, En-Medio drops into architectural narratives of Mexico City, long underway, to ask what possible futures lie ahead.







Photos by Enric Turull


Thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians for hosting the event.


Nathan Friedman is a Lecturer in Architecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and cofounder with Francisco Quiñones of Departamento del Distrito, a new design-research practice based in Mexico City. His work linking architectural theory and geography has been published in MAS Context and Scapegoat, and was recently featured in a solo exhibition at the LA WUHO gallery with support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Friedman is a former editor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Thresholds, and has previously worked for Eisenman Architects, SMAQ Berlin, and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam. He holds an MS from the Department of History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT and a B.Arch. from Cornell University.

MAS Context Spring Talks 2018
Terry Evans


Video shot by Troy Gueno and edited by Matt Goetz of Lucid Creative Agency.


Lecture by photographer Terry Evans as part of the MAS Context 2018 Spring Talks in Chicago. The lecture took place on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.


Ancient Prairies and Fragmented Landscapes


The great swath of prairies from Canada to Texas has inspired and guided the photography of Terry Evans for forty years. During her talk, she showed her explorations from a small ancient prairie in Kansas to Greenland glaciers to fracking in North Dakota and to community activism against environmental pollution in Southeast Chicago. Finally, she showed current work that explores the wild remnants of prairies in our own home landscapes.




Photos by Enric Turull


Thanks to the Chicago Architecture Foundation for hosting the event.


The prairie ecosystem has been a guide for Terry Evans since 1978. She photographs the prairies and plains of North America, the urban prairie of Chicago, and landscapes threatened by climate change. Combining both aerial and ground photography, she delves into the intricate and complex relationships between land and people, especially recently where local people’s landscape is threatened by corporate industrialization.Explorations of the effects of industrial land use on local people have led her to photograph in Southeast Chicago, Illinois with local people who fought petcoke storage in their neighborhood on the banks of the Calumet River. Evans has exhibited widely including one-person shows at Art Institute of Chicago, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, The Field Museum of Natural History, and Amon Carter Museum of Art. Her work is in museum collections including New York Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Nelson–Atkins Museum of Art, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Washington, DC National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum of Art and many more. Terry Evans has five books including Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans and Prairie Stories. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of an Anonymous is a Woman award.

MAS Context Couplings 2018

MAS Context Couplings, Chicago, 2018 © Iker Gil


On March 27, 2018, graphic designers Pouya Ahmadi (Pouya Ahmadi), Amir Berbić (Amir Berbić), Renata Graw (Normal), Jim Misener (50000feet), Ashley Ryann (JNL Graphic Design), Cheryl Towler Weese (Studio Blue), Enric Turull (Niu), and Alisa Wolfson (Leo Burnett Chicago) participated in the second edition of the MAS Context Couplings series as part of MAS Context’s 2018 Spring Talks series. The event took place at the offices of Leo Burnett Chicago.

The event explores the influence of past projects, realized or unrealized, in shaping contemporary thinking in a design discipline. In this edition, each of the eight Chicago-based graphic designers participating in the event will share a project by another graphic designer that they consider relevant for their practice today. This framework establishes conceptual connections between projects while providing a snapshot of the opportunities and issues at stake in graphic design. Below is an edited transcription of their presentations.


Pouya Ahmadi © Iker Gil


Pouya Ahmadi on Gregory Vines

The designer I chose to speak about today is Gregory Vines, one of my instructors at the Basel School of Design.

Gregory Vines was born in 1946 in the United States and studied at the Massachusetts College of Arts, Boston, graduating in 1968. After graduating, he worked for a publisher in Boston for some time. While working there, he accidentally came across an ad in Graphis journal, which would eventually change his career. This ad was for Kunstgewerbeschule Basel, which is known as the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, and he figured that this was the place that he wanted to go to. He applied for this school in 1972, and he moved there immediately after being accepted into the program to continue his education under people such as Armin Hoffman and Wolfgang Weingart. Upon graduating four years later, Gregory decided to visit his friend Weingart who was helping with the summer workshop that Armin Hoffman was leading in Brissago, which is located in Locarno, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Taking the train to Brissago, he had to change connections in a city called Bellinzona, also part of the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. Instead of taking the next train, he decided to delay his connection to visit the three castles in Bellinzona: Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbar,.

While walking around Castelgrande, he came across a gate that he found quite fascinating because of its formal and functional details. He decided to document it in different ways, from photos to drawings, with no specific goal in mind. When he went back to Basel, he found some interesting connections between the drawings and images that he took of this gate and the typographic rules and tools that they used to do these lockups on the bedsheet of printing press in Type Shop. So he developed a typographic translation project where he could use these elements to come up with some kind of representation of the gate.

The following year, Wolfgang Weingart asked Gregory what he wanted to do next. Gregory showed him the photographs and the drawings of this gate and Weingart told him to go for it. He ended up working for two years on this project that he never even imagined working on. A year into the project, Weingart took Gregory’s sketches to a meeting with Rudolf Hostettler who was the editor of Typografische Monatsblätte (TM), the Swiss graphic design magazine. Hostettler fell in love with the designs and commissioned Gregory to design covers for the upcoming issues of the magazine. Every year, a designer would take over the design of TM covers, creating an entire series of six covers. Gregory agreed to do a series of six covers. But he had tons of sketches that he had produced for this project, so he decided that he could do something else with them. A selection of his design process was also published as an insert together with the same issues of TM magazine in 1978. Gregory taught at the Basel School of Design for thirty-three years until 2011 when he retired. I am honored to have been one of his students. Thank you.


Amir Berbić © Iker Gil


Amir Berbić on Ismet Berbić


My presentation is about a designer from Sarajevo, Bosnia, in former Yugoslavia. His name is Ismet Berbić and he is my father. Ismet studied graphic design at the Academy of Fine Art in Sarajevo. The school occupies a nineteenth century building built during the Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia, which used to be an evangelical church. He actually first studied mechanical engineering until the Academy of Art was formed in 1972.

This is him in the center with his classmates in what was the first generation of graphic design students in Sarajevo. They were mature students, in their mid-20s, essentially waiting for the Academy to offer a design program while studying other things at the university. My father’s work at the time focused on images of pop rock culture icons. He was influenced by the experience he had at the Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1970 in the UK. It was the European version of Woodstock, I suppose, and one of the last times that Jimi Hendrix performed before he died. Among the posters he designed as part of his thesis project at the Academy was an obituary for Mick Jagger. He predicted that after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger would be next. It is clearly an example of an unsuccessful speculative design project since the Rolling Stone is very much alive.

My father went on to have a career in designing visual identity programs, posters, catalogs, products, and packaging. In the 1980s, he led an in-house creative studio at Svjetlost, one of Yugoslavia’s large publishing companies. He took part in graphic design work for Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympic Games, where he designed a commemorative certificate of appreciation to donors. This specific one was awarded to my uncle but essentially every household received one of these certificates. In Socialist Yugoslavia everyone was a donor. Decided by a referendum—2% of every salary went towards the Olympics—no one said no.

In the late 1980s, he designed this catalog for a large Yugoslavian electrical engineering company. They were promoting the company’s security system products used in places like power plants. I think the metaphor was that their security systems were as strong as the ancient pyramids in Egypt. And just remember this image because the pyramids come back later in this presentation. Ismet said that during the photo shoot for this page of the catalog, he thought that the arrangement of electrical parts looked like the city of Chicago. He had never been to Chicago at that point and had no clue that one day our family would end up living there.

Unfortunately, and this is one of the reasons I am presenting his work here, Ismet managed to save only a few examples of his design work. Most of it was destroyed or lost during the war in the 1990s. I am in the process of reconstructing some of his work based on his descriptions and my memories of it from childhood. It comes out of my desire to rebuild a collection of his work that was lost, but also from an interest to use design as a way to recall or understand historical context or family narratives. It is related to my own research into the notions of place identity, productions of history, and storytelling. Also, reconstruction brings up interesting issues of interpretation, meaning, accuracy, and relationship between memory and history.

Ismet won two logo design competitions for the Congress of the League of Communists of Bosnia, a rather large political convention during those times. I knew the stories, but I had never seen the logos until I reconstructed them. He won the contest for the 8th and 9th Congress. He said that the theme for the 8th Congress was “action” and that the reference in the symbol that he designed was to a clenched fist. I always thought that the gaps between the alternating lines stemming from the bold red star symbolized the party’s gradual acceptance of new ideas. He said that the 9th Congress was meant to be the congress of reform, of turnaround, of the Communist party becoming more open—hence the number 9 that suggests a turn in direction. Instead of reform, unfortunately, soon thereafter the country was swept up by nationalist movements and then ravaged by war.

Few people remember this work and generally there is neglect of the country’s Socialist history in terms of design, which is another reason why I am looking at it. I have begun reconstructing the visual identity for this coal mining company. Ismet explained to me how he resisted designing a logo that featured two intersecting hammers, a common symbol for miners at that time. Instead, he opted for abstraction, derived from circular forms to symbolize power.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and during the war in Bosnia, my family left the besieged city of Sarajevo and we lived as refugees in Croatia, Denmark, and ultimately we settled in the United States. In Denmark, we lived in these UN field tents, each housing three families. In the corner of our tent, Ismet made a small makeshift design studio, where he designed the visual identity program for our refugee camp. He branded the camp “Sahara” in reference to the plot of sand on which our tents were erected. The pyramidal graphic forms in his logo denoted our tent dwellings. The fluctuating nature of sand formations echoed the refugees’ sense of baselessness. He designed a welcome billboard for the entrance to the camp and posters announcing events at the camp, like this open house poster where the refugees introduced themselves to the residents of the small town in Denmark. I reconstructed this poster recently based on my memory of it, or perhaps from my imagination of what it could have been like.

Ismet urged that the refugees should be identified by name, not by registration number assigned to them by the Danish Refugee Council. For each tent, he created a sign that listed the names of its residents and an icon that referenced a trade of the tent’s residents. The identity program also included a mock advertisement: on a grass field, with pyramids drawn in the background, a happy family walks and kills time. My parents organized a school for the children living in Sahara by enlisting parents to teach children elementary subjects. A doctor was assigned to teach biology, while an economist taught math. The local soccer club allowed us to use their office facilities as classrooms.

Sahara became the camp’s official designation in formal documents of the Danish Refugee Council, as well as the name of our self-organized school and soccer club. Through design work and his improvised studio, my father attempted to signal hope and opportunity for our family and our fellow refugees. His initial playful gesture further evolved into a collective action for improving conditions in the camp, such as organizing a school or a soccer club, and other activities. It was an effort to be identified as more than refugees and perhaps to shift the attention from the hard circumstances of war that brought them to Denmark toward some seeming normalcy.

In 2002, my parents visited Denmark. They went to see the site where our refugee camp was once located and found a medical facility for disabled children in its place. The facility retained the name “Sahara.” When I shared a version of this story in the form of a visual essay with a person that did not know my personal history, he wasn’t sure if it is real or fictional. And that prompted me to continue Sahara’s visual identity by reconstructing and expanding the original design to other applications—to imagine other things that could have been designed for it, such as event posters for the open house event I showed. I use the process of design to recall the experiences from that period.

For example, I remember that our school managed to receive single copies of Bosnian textbooks, which we then photocopied for use in our classes. So I started imagining the design of the cover pages for those textbooks. The cover for this sixth grade shop class, featuring an image of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel on a stool piece is designed in loving memory of Denmark where everyone rides a bicycle. The textbook for the seventh grade art class, literally translated as A Culture of Visual Form, makes a reference to Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, which was stolen in early 1994 from the National Gallery in Oslo. Around the same time, a group of people in Sahara proposed to gather in front of the town square in Odense and collectively scream in public to protest the marketplace massacre which had taken place in Sarajevo.

Most recently, I have also attempted architectural reconstruction, with the help of Andreina Yepez, a graduate student of architecture at UIC. The process goes back-and-forth between my description of the place and making and adjusting architectural plans and digital models. I make lists of people that lived in the camp, try to remember the camp’s layout and who stayed in which tent, map the location of facilities like toilets, showers, cooking stations, and so on.

In 1994 my family arrived to Chicago. In his first job in the US, Ismet worked as a sculptor in a factory that produced moldings and other decorative elements for interior architecture. He would model them in clay to then be cast in polyurethane. The company was called UPA, Urethane Products of America. I still remember its corny tagline that said “we love USA, come to UPA!” We joked that he literally became a factory artist—and not the kind that produced heroic images or figures of workers to adorn the halls of the company. He was now part of the actual production line.

As I began to express interest in design, our family founded a small design studio and published Zambak, the magazine that supported the arriving refugees from the Balkans. Working for the magazine was my first experience as a designer while I was still in high school and later when I became a college student. It was also an experience working with the identity of Chicago, which is largely made up of immigrant communities that often operate in silos, where people live within their community and have a separate life outside of it. Thank you.


Renata Graw © Iker Gil


Renata Graw on Cildo Meireles


I am going to talk about Cildo Meireles, who is a Brazilian-born artist. He was born in 1948 in Rio, and his project called “Insertions Into Ideological Circuits” was conceived in the spring of 1970. The story goes that he was coming back from the beach on a Sunday afternoon and decided to stop for lunch with friends. And noticing discarded Coke bottles, after a long weekend, his friend made a remark and said, “If you insert a pit, an olive pit, into one of these bottles, the industrial cleaning of the time is not good enough to take it out.” That same day, Meireles went home and wrote these principles:

Number one: In society there are certain mechanisms for circulation that he called circuits.
Number two: These circuits clearly embody the ideology of the producer, but at the same time, they are passive when they receive insertions into their circuits.
Number three: This occurs whenever people initiate the circuits.

It sounds kind of brainy, but to give it a little context, in 1970 when Meireles produced these “Insertions,” Brazil was undergoing the most oppressive period of its twenty-one years of a military dictatorship. Just a couple years prior, in 1968, the dicatorship had passed a law curbing civil rights, increasing censorship, and endorsing torture. So these “Insertions” constituted a form of guerrilla tactics to try to counter the military regime.

The “Insertions” took several forms, but the first one that I am going to present is the Coca-Cola Project. In 1970 in Brazil, the Coca-Cola bottle was a symbol of U.S. imperialism, capitalism, and consumerism. For the Coca-Cola Project, Meireles stamped messages onto the Coke bottles, returning them into the circulation. The first bottle on the left has the phrase, “Yankees, go home.” The one in the middle offers instructions for making a Molotov cocktail. And the one on the right features the more philosophical question, “Which is the place of the work of art?”

Despite these dramatic provocations, the expression is very subtle, practically invisible. When the bottle is empty, you can barely see the message. The message only becomes legible when the bottles are full. Meireles inserted something that was physically the same, though ideologically different, into a pre-existing system in order to counteract an original circuit without disrupting it.

He used the same principles on the Banknote Project. For the Banknote Project, Meireles stamped subversive messages onto banknotes before returning them into normal circulation. He actually said that he tried silk-screening them and it became a little too much, so he just made a series of stamps. The messages appeared in both English and Portuguese, and included various political slogans. There were questions like, “Quem matou o Herzog?” (“Who killed Herzog?”), referring to the journalist Vladimir Herzog who was arrested and murdered by the military regime in 1975. In others we can see a call for democracy and political freedom, asking for direct elections. He would also go back to the “Yankees, go home” as an anti-imperialist message. He preferred to stamp on the lowest denomination possible because he thought it would get a bigger reach.

As part of the project Meireles included his instructions alongside the messages, encouraging the viewer to actively participate into ideological circuits. The insertions read: “Register information and critical opinions on banknotes and return them to circulation.” This kept going on after the 1970s, especially on the banknotes. The Coca-Cola Project was probably killed by the fact that we don’t have refundable Coca-Cola bottles anymore to return them into circulation. But he kept going and some other people do the same, not only in Brazil but in other countries.

I thought this was interesting because as graphic designers, we are constantly inserting ourselves into ideological circuits. So what is the place for graphic design? Thank you.


Loosely translated from the Cildo Meireles interview: “Cildo Meireles na exposição: Do Objeto para o Mundo – Coleção Inhotim”

With excerpts from Elizabeth Manchester text about the project:


Jim Misener © Iker Gil


Jim Misener on metaphor


Today, I would like to talk about metaphor. One of my favorite writers of all time—a person who inspires me—is Gertrude Stein. I love Gertrude Stein.

Simple and prosaic, a little abstraction of hers is: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Within it, she’s actually using the language of metaphor to question and possibly argue against metaphor. She is supposedly speaking to Lord Byron’s “A rose is a rose, who had likened a heroine’s lips to a rose.” She is, in effect, arguing against the objectification of language and in some ways is taking back the purity of language in an incredibly simple way. Her sentence is really interesting to me because it calls into question figurative and representational roles within language. It opens up the opportunity to question, to muse, and to debate, and it allows us to ask different questions and to find different answers—all from the simple sentence, and all by using the language of metaphor.

At 50,000feet, we often begin creative ideation with the exploration of language. From there, we explore visual language that helps to express, explore, and build on the possibilities presented through the narrative. In any creative process, it is always interesting to explore the tensions between ideas and elements; and in our work, we explore the tension and conversation that words and images carry forward.

When I began to think about this talk and the idea of couplings, I began to think about metaphor. Then, I began to see them everywhere. Metaphor influences our thinking and ideas and language in powerful and ubiquitous ways; they affect the way we think, feel, see, speak, learn, and live. Perhaps the point of this discussion is to consider how metaphor—and the language that we use—helps to shape our thinking and the possibilities of the ways that we create.

As I was studying up on metaphor this weekend, I came across this interesting fact in a book by James Geary: “We utter about one metaphor for every 10 to 25 words, or about six metaphors a minute.” It really has become a significant part of our language, and you can imagine why Stein and many others wanted to take back our language from the influence of metaphor. In the modernist duel between representation and abstraction, metaphor sits somewhere in the middle, helping to bridge the two while also heightening the divide.

For designers of all kinds, metaphor offers a way in and a way out. By its very nature, it involves coupling things that are different from one another to create new meaning or new ways of understanding and of seeing. How do we use metaphor as artists and designers? If anyone has ever seen my desk or my house you will know that I love this quotation: “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” It stuck with me because I love to associate unlike things and to explore the friction and the tension between and among them. Metaphor gives us a way to explore relationships and then to create systems.

The following slides briefly explore ideas of metaphor and the powerful relationship between couplings—whether captured in a single idea or word or abstraction.

Magnetism: Here, an incredibly powerful physical force is created through the relationship between two opposing forces—two poles, two opposites, two things. With the nature of magnetism, the force resides among and in between the two poles, and therefore, in some ways, can become a metaphor for metaphor—finding power within the coupling of two forces and creating a powerful force in the relationship between the two things.

Doppelgänger: The idea of Doppelgänger also explores the idea of two like but separate and distinct things, or more specifically, two people. In this image, we tried to explore the relationship between two things, and we wanted to ask the question of how similar or different those two things can be when brought together in a coupling.

Ghost: The idea of Ghost rests on the mystery of some couplings—life and death, before and after, here and hereafter. Metaphor can be a handy tool to begin to think through and to describe concepts of which we are not familiar or ideas of which we are not comfortable.

Twins: Within the idea of Twins, there are actually two metaphors going. We can even find three. Is it one set of twins, or is it twins of twins? Or is it twins of twins of twins? Which in some ways is similar to “a rose is a rose is a rose.”

In summary, Wallace Stevens offers us this: “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.” And then, “Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be untrue.” Metaphor is a way to move between time and space, concrete and concept, where you want to be or you don’t, where you want to be versus where you need to be. It’s art to play with. And it’s a tool.


Ashley Ryann © Iker Gil


Ashley Ryann on George Maciunas


Today I want to talk about George Maciunas. He was a Lithuanian-born designer, architect, artist, you name it, creator in general. He leaves Lithuania with his family after World War II and lands in New York as many immigrants did. He gets wrapped up very quickly in the avant-garde movement of the early 1960s. He opens an art gallery and fails miserably, but he makes a lot of really cool friends along the way.

In an attempt to recoup his creative ego and capitalize on some of the friendships he had made in the last decade, he brings together a group of people that go by the collective name Fluxus. They start creating work under this singular name without much distinction between who was creating the work. In retrospect, however, it’s quite obvious Maciunas is very much the originator and designer responsible for organizing these Fluxus works. Fluxus initiatives included music, film, events, painting, sculpture, and more.

Maciunas sets out to document the scope of work being created by the Fluxus collective through a series of self-published books. He called for submissions from his fellow Fluxus members and in doing so, we start to see these documentation efforts take on a life of their own. One of the first compilations that he puts together is called Fluxus One. Some of the contributors to this project include Christo, George Brecht, and Yoko Ono. Although Fluxus One was created under a singular authorship, we start to see evidence of the various artists involved through a set of small type based cards, that we now know to be the contributor’s names. This is one of the few circumstances where you can see them recognizing individuality. Typographically the whole publication is very compelling. We see the use of Letraset, screen printing, risograph, and a number of other commodity-based print methods. It is estimated that only about one hundred copies of Fluxus One were originally produced.

The most compelling aspect of this project is how Maciunas pushes the boundaries of what documentation—specifically within the art world—look like. The book itself references an artist’s shipping crate. He uses removable bolts as the binding method allowing the reader to edit and reorganize the content as a way of interacting with it. He uses folders and instructional language to compel people to engage with the book in a way that was really unique for print publication and art practice at the time.

In the second iteration, he continues to push the publication format including numerous sculptural objects. This version also out-grows traditional binding methods and is housed within a custom folio of Maciunas’ design. It is a very physical, a very tactile experience. He is asking people to engage with the work in a very interesting way. Again, very little authorship is attributed to any of these individual pieces.

Although these publications were always intended to be art objects, there are a number of creative techniques employed throughout this project that are very inspiring to me as a designer. The first being commodity production does not necessarily mean that it has to be a commodity product. We are dealing with really lo-fi print techniques here, but ultimately, it ends up being a unique piece of art. He makes the art itself very pragmatic. The work is not elitist, it is very approachable. And at the time this was really unique. He is usurping the ego and authorship of art and allowing people to enjoy and engage with it. Maciunas is not interested in propping art up onto a pedestal. Last but not least, this is a really good example of documentation as art practice. Just the process of documenting becomes an artwork in and of itself.

I’ve included a couple examples of how this project has specifically influenced my work as a designer. Here is an exhibition catalog for Industry of the Ordinary: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. In the back, we designed a little folder where artists from this exhibition could pull unique prints and it made each of these commercially produced books a unique edition.

Similarly, this is a publication that I work on continually called THE SEEN. It is a journal for contemporary art that is published here in Chicago. We print it on newsprint, so it is a very low-fidelity medium. It’s also free. You can get it at any Newcity box. We have the opportunity to work with some very talented artists on this publication. At least once per issue we try to collaborate with artists and come up with something new, something that people won’t be able to see anywhere else. Here is a good example. We did a collaboration with an artist collective called Art & Language, very conceptual and super old school language-based artists. We kept dancing around the idea of what their work was and how do explain it to people, and at some point, we just decided to show it. Let’s stop trying to tell the story of something that’s already happened and create something new our readers can be a part of.

In short, print doesn’t have to be stagnant. It doesn’t have to be a commodity just because it is mass-produced. Also, the process of documentation doesn’t purely have to be transcribing, we have an opportunity to create something unique. Thank you.


Cheryl Towler Weese © Iker Gil


Cheryl Towler Weese on Mevis & Van Deursen’s environmental graphics for the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


This is an identity that everyone here probably knows, as it has been heavily publicized over the past six years, but I’d like to talk about one aspect in particular: its environmental applications. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam’s signage, environmental graphics, exhibition graphics, and identity were designed by Armand Mevis and Linda Van Deursen (Mevis & Van Deursen) and extended by Janna and Hilde Meeus (Meeusontwerp), among others.

A little context: the Stedelijk’s new identity was the result of a competition. Although a designer (Pierre di Sciullo) was initially chosen, a new museum director began her tenure shortly after the competition. She didn’t like di Sciullo’s work, promptly fired him, and hired Mevis & Van Deursen instead, who had worked with the museum in the past. Mevis & Van Deursen’s proposal was based on the idea that art crosses boundaries, and that the identity should create a framework for art—which meshed with the director’s preference for conceptual and minimalist work (rather than di Sciullo’s formally complex letterforms).

In describing the Stedelijk’s identity, Frederike Huygen and Lex Reitsma write about the simplicity of a museum that is still “innocent”—absent of top-heavy management or marketing—and that this is a thing of the past. At the Stedelijk Mevis & Van Deursen appropriated this basic approach. The designers hoped to relate to work designed for the museum by Wim Crouwel in the 1950s and 1960s, which forms the basis of the museum’s celebrated image. By looking to history, Mevis & Van Deursen tried to resurrect an attitude.

The designers write: “We are type lovers and typography is a major recognizable element. We selected a font (Union, by Radim Pesko, which is a fusion of Helvetica and Arial, two fonts available on any Mac or PC), that is ordinary and neutral, but can serve as a message from the Stedelijk. . . . We believe a museum’s identity should have an open character, be diverse, and [be] something than can develop.”

When describing images from their sketchbooks about the identity, they explain: “We put art center stage, because the museum is the place where new and unfamiliar art is given room. This plays out within the institution’s walls, but also in the public space that is the museum.” A museum is a place for discourse around ideas, but is also a public space unto itself, perhaps similar to a mall. It is both an intellectual space for ideas—and a physical space for people—to gather.

Some of the images included here are sourced online, and others are my own; but each shows the ways in which the identity is used environmentally. Letterforms shape all of the exhibition and informational graphics within the museum, printed on large sheets of vinyl stuck to the walls. This ubiquitous treatment is arranged in as many ways and orientations as possible to reflect the content of a particular exhibition. The signage thus consists of these primary building blocks: large vinyl sheets affixed to the walls and text on plastic bars that are attached to the building in various ways for wayfinding. Here is a diecut version that is then backfilled with black. Meeusontwerp is shown prototyping them in the space, testing sizes and arrangements, even wrapping spaces. These signs are used both for permanent elements in the building and temporary exhibitions.

Mevis & Van Deursen aim to escape from uniformity and systems, and collaborate intensely with others. In this case, I believe that they’ve developed a loose set of constraints that allows in-house designers or others outside the Stedelijk to work in concert. It’s a pretty permeable enterprise.

The idea of a museum as a place for encounter and debate contributes to a less static view of these institutions. Signage and exhibition graphics can also engender discourse. What can you do with two sheets of vinyl? A lot. Still, the paradox remains that “to be a contemporary space the museum must continually deny that it is an institution, while on the other hand it depends on its reputation as an institute.”

Thank you.

Each of the texts quoted are from The Style of the Stedelijk by Frederik Huygen and Lex Reitsma.


Enric Turull © Iker Gil


Enric Turull on the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games


It has been great exercise to look at my own city, which as you can see is Barcelona. A lot of you are familiar with that name and maybe you have also been there, but you probably don’t know that the name of Barcelona has design in it. Separating it in three syllables, we can find several features that define what Barcelona is all about. It starts with “Bar,” a social, loud, and vibrant place. Next is “cel” which in Catalan means “sky,” optimistic and open. And “ona” that means “wave,” so it is freedom and it is energy.

If we use clichés, Spain is bullfights and flamenco and Barcelona is beauty. But it hasn’t always been like that. Starting in 1936 we go from a Civil War to a dictatorship, which led to great suffering, devastation, and economical and cultural poverty. But we had a moment of transformation in the 1980s when all the economical, social, and cultural energy came together. In 1986, Barcelona was selected to host the 1992 Summer Olympic Games and that became a catalyst to bring international exposure, economic opportunities, and social and cultural activities. It was the sum of all parts. It was about creating a synergy of elements involving architects, urban planners, politicians, graphic designers, and citizens. All worked together to create a moment of transition. It was really important for everyone to put extra energy to foster change.

There were three key graphic designers involved: Josep Maria Trias for the pictograph; Javier Mariscal for the mascots, Cobi and Petra; and Enric Satué for the official poster. All of them were following the provided brief of capturing the idea of innovation and the Mediterranean. Looking at Olympic precedents, what we see is that all the previous logos have the same common denominator, which was a rational geometry. Josep Maria Trias broke with this rational approach and created something completely different that was vibrant, vital, energetic, and human. It is a gesture of a man/woman jumping or running, expressing a moment of freedom. As a personal interpretation, it is an expression of escaping from all the manipulation during the dictatorship and repression. The red and yellow colors combined implied the Spanish flag, and the blue represented the Mediterranean.

In terms of typography, they used Times Demi-Bold, which was related to the antique and the geographical situation where the Olympic Games were originated. That traditional approach gave the precise seriousness to balance it out with the fun, spontaneous, and almost childish figure of the mark. The five Olympic Games rings represent the five continents that were participating. In the logo for the Paralympic Games, the only aspect that changed was the addition of the circular shape, symbolizing the wheelchair, but all the other elements were applied exactly the same.

The pictograms were introduced in 1964, being used in all the Olympic Games since then. Trias breaks with all the rigidness of the previous geometry, introducing a sense of freedom, almost of escape. A cultural reference from Gaudí that inspired the signage was the trencadís, a type of mosaic found in early 20th century Catalan modernism.

The mascot Cobi, whose name derives from the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee, is personal and young. It has open arms that express the idea of receiving and open to everything. Cobi is a Catalan shepherd’s dog, and it is inspired by the interpretations of Picasso of the painting Las Meninas by Velázquez. So it is reinterpreting an interpretation, and it conveys Spanish and Catalan culture. His belly shows a touch of how good life is in Spain. As he represents the Olympic Games, he has to be sporty, agile, and dynamic. He is also representing the people, so he does the same activities that everyone does. But, most importantly, Cobi is human: he has emotions, he has feelings, and he cries. Petra is his young sister and she is the mascot for the Paralympic Games. She has no arms and conveys a sense of inclusion. She is a very energetic representation of what these games were all about. Both of them are global, they have friends all around the world, and they speak different languages. They represent the idea of openness and being connected to the world.

Enric Satué also introduced the idea of humanity by using arms in the poster. He connected them with the five colors of the rings, all interlaced creating an idea of unity, a multicultural event, and including the sign of victory. Many graphic designers from the city were invited to provide their perspective and vision. Some of them were more illustrative, some were more abstract, and others were photographic. It provided the idea that everyone had an opportunity to share a point of view, and everyone was invited.

After the Olympic Games, Barcelona turned into an international city. The interesting part is that I think the Olympics Games were not just a celebration of sports, but also a celebration of humanity. That was really what it was all about. It was bringing back humanity after the dictatorship and the repression. The Olympic Gamer were the ideal project as it was social, cultural, international, and human. Those are aspects that make design meaningful and purposeful. As a conclusion of all these facts, I would say that for me design is inclusive, global, growth, borderless, limitless, and personal. Thank you.


Alisa Wolfson © Iker Gil


Alisa Wolfson on Irma Boom


I want to talk about a project by Irma Boom, a Dutch designer that I love. She was born in 1960 and to date she has designed over 300 books. I am kind of embarrassed right now that I we have people from the Graham Foundation here because they are going to make fun of me about my book fetish. But I do really love books, and it is an interesting thing as a designer to really love them because they are so accessible and personal. I think that you can find so much of yourself in them. It is also an interesting conundrum to be a designer at a large advertising agency because we rarely make them. So when I get a chance to make one, buy one, or even see one, I am very interested in it.

Irma Boom has inspired me as a designer in countless ways on projects. It was very difficult for me to find a particular project of hers that most inspires me, but there is one that sums up the relationship to design that has most affected my work. It is a combination of a lot of different things, so I’ll just quickly flip through some samples of her work that I think are quite lovely. She has this incredible sense of history, like the installation she did in Cuyperspassage, a long tunnel that runs under Amsterdam Central Station, where she used 46,000 hand painted wall tiles and 33,000 floor tiles to reinterpret an artwork by painter Cornelis Bouwmeester. She is also very adept at minimalism, which I very much appreciate as a designer, and she is very brave in her use of color and lack of color. The book she designed for artist Sheila Hicks is quite impactful. And she is not afraid of maximalism. The SHV book is over 2,000 pages and it celebrates the centenary of a coal company in Holland.

A couple of other examples that I very much appreciate about her work is her very brave use of color and very minimal use of type and layout that punctuates a lot of her work. This is an image that I used to keep on my desktop just to remind myself of all the things that I love. So when I am slugging through my day to day, I can kind of look at my own personal bookshelf. I don’t own a lot of her books because they are so collectible and expensive, but I do wish I did own all of them.

It is very hard to pick from the things that most inspire me about Irma Boom. But there is one in particular that I think best sums up everything that she does, and that is this book. It is called The Architecture of the Book and it is tiny. I think it is something she did for herself as a self-promotional piece. It is 800 pages and it features 515 images. It was birthed from something that she does for all of her projects. She makes a very tiny mockup of each of her books and I think that requires such an incredible discipline as a designer. It is way to try to see your work in miniature before you see it in large scale, either in thumbnail form to mark off your thoughts and look at something from over inside of you, or just to get a better sense of the impact of it before it actually becomes a final piece.

It is tiny and, when it was sold, it was actually embedded into a size of a normal book. You can also see it in relationship to a gigantic version of itself that was made by her. To me there is such an elegance, simplicity, and bravery in this. The thing that I really respond to is her requirement for simplicity in the medium and the ability to put a narrative toward something.

It is very interesting that a book designer at the point in her career that she is at, which I hope is midway through, decided to do a compendium of all her projects and decided to do it in miniature. To me, she has such a maximum overview of the design of a book that she could have been super egocentric and very brash about her delivery of all of her work. Instead, she had a lot of wit in the way she delivered the object to us. That is another thing that is important to me when I see something. I want to see a brave use of the medium because then it becomes an artifact that I might want to keep. If it is simple and uses the medium in a nice way, it doesn’t really matter if it is a physical object or a digital object, or something that you see when you pass by on a bus on your way to work. It doesn’t matter as long as that artifact sticks with you and it has a very simple signal to you that it actually cared about the medium that it was in and took a little bit of a risk to communicate to you an idea.

The other thing that she does is creating a connection between the format and the way she treats typography. Even though all these books aren’t related, they have a certain point of view and visual cohesiveness that I can immediately tell she designed it. Once I accidentally ordered a book of hers on Amazon. I was looking for something and, at one point, I punched in her name and bought a book. When she does do something that I can afford, I usually try to get it. And then one day, unbeknownst to me, I received a box in the mail and I opened it up and looked at it. I thought, “My God, this must be a mistake, I did not order a book.” It was the book for Sheila Hicks that I mentioned earlier and that had just come out and I had never seen it before. I looked at it for a very, very long time, inspected all the details, flipped it open, and I loved it. I thought, “Great, I guess I’ll keep this.” I looked at the back of the book and realized that it was by my favorite designer. Something must have happened there where it knew I wanted it, but then, I also knew I wanted it immediately after I seeing it. Irma Boom just has that stamp of a point of view that is so lovely, and I can just sense her DNA in all of her collections.

I am very inspired by the body of work that she has created, especially as a graphic designer living in a community where we specialize in artifacts and objects. Some of us do books, some of us do art or things for artists, some of us do things in agencies, but we all have our own DNA that we put to it. I love that she has really forged her own point of view in her landscape that already has such a preconceived notion of what it meant to be a Dutch designer. So that is Irma Boom. Thank you.








Thanks to Leo Burnett Chicago for hosting the event.


Pouya Ahmadi is a Chicago-based typographer and art director. He is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Design and an editorial board member of Neshan magazine focusing on contemporary graphic design and the visual arts. Pouya’s work has been showcased by It’s Nice That, AIGA Eye on Design, People of Print, Grafik, Etapes, Type Directors Club, Print Magazine, and many others. Pouya holds a MA/MAS degree in Visual Communication from the Basel School of Design in Switzerland and an MFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois at Chicago. | @pouyaahmadi_com


Amir Berbić is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). From 2016–2017 he served as Acting Director of the UIC School of Design and he is currently Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the UIC College of Architecture, Design and the Arts. His design research and practice explore place identity, three-dimensional typography, and design pedagogy. His work involves collaboration with cultural organizations, arts institutions, and publishers. | @amir_berbic


Renata Graw is the founder of Normal, a small and independent team of creative thinkers based in Chicago. Their work centers on the belief that thoughtfully designed experiences can have a profound impact on how people interpret the world, and that the most powerful experiences come from close collaboration between the client and the creators. | @TheNormalStudio | @RenataGraw


Jim Misener is the Principal and President of 50,000feet, an independent global brand consultancy and creative agency that develops integrated experiences for the world’s most respected brands. One doesn’t necessarily associate poetry with the day-to-day business of a thriving agency, but Jim has found great success being an exception to the rule. Most early mornings you can find him deep in thought about clients’ businesses, and by midday he’s making rounds with tasks in hand. Jim received a B.A. with highest honors from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studied at Cite Universite in Paris, completed the AIGA Program for Creative Leaders at Yale and the Executive Program at the University of Chicago Management Institute. | @50000feet


Ashley Ryann is a multidisciplinary designer and creative partner at JNL graphic design. Her work specializes in the creation of graphic objects with unique cultural significance including site-specific artwork, institutional branding, exhibition catalogs and art reviews. Recent projects include THE SEEN, Chicago’s International Journal of Contemporary & Modern Art, Bill Walker: Urban Griot catalog for Hyde Park Art Center and Sign Language, a commissioned artwork on permanent display in the Spoke building.


Cheryl Towler Weese is the founding partner of Studio Blue, a Chicago-based firm that works with museums, universities, and other organizations that serve the public. She is also Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Graphic Design at UIC. Recognized for her conceptual approach and interdisciplinary collaboration, Cheryl’s work explores design’s civic potential. Through projects that span publication, identity, interactive, and environmental design, she investigates design’s ability to participate in public dialogue and shape collective consciousness. With this approach, she endeavors to foster an engaged and thinking public by encouraging discourse, participation, and individual perspectives. | @studioblue


Enric Turull is an enthusiast of visual communication since a very young age. He has worked for a variety of studios from Barcelona, London, and Chicago. He graduated with a Postgraduate in Typography and a Masters in Brand Identity at the London College of Communication. Enric views design as an interdisciplinary medium for problem solving. His multicultural background has given him a broad perspective of the differences that exists in visual communication in the different cultures and societies.


Alisa Wolfson is the EVP Head of Design at Leo Burnett, Chicago. She founded and currently oversees the agency’s Department of Design. In 2012 she received the inaugural D&AD White Pencil for her work on Recipeace, a social movement that brings people of conflict together over food. When not at work, Alisa is an active part of the Chicago design and cultural scene. She is the Design Director at Lampo, a nonprofit organization that presents experimental sound art. Alisa is also a mentor, volunteer, lecturer, and mom. |

MAS Context Spring Talks 2018
Jason Reblando


Video shot by Troy Gueno and edited by Nathan Walker of Lucid Creative Agency.


Lecture by photographer Jason Reblando as part of the MAS Context 2018 Spring Talks in Chicago. The lecture took place on Thursday, February 22, 2018 at the Society of Architectural Historians.


New Deal Utopias


During his presentation, Jason Reblando discussed his new photography book New Deal Utopias. The book offers an opportunity to reflect one of the most ambitious but overlooked federal programs in American history. During the Great Depression, the U.S. government constructed three planned communities – Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, to house displaced farmers and poor urban dwellers. Collectively known as the “Greenbelt Towns,” the housing program embodied the hope that these new model communities would usher in a new way of American life based on cooperation, not individualism. As the design and philosophy of the towns were inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City principles, New Deal Utopias focuses on the designed landscapes and built environments of the towns, meditating on the connection of “town” and “country.” Howard envisioned cities where nature would be part of everyday life, and residents would have the social and economic advantages of living in a community with each other. Using Farm Security Administration photographs of the construction of the Greenbelt Towns, as well as Jason Reblando’s contemporary photographs of the communities, the proposed lecture discusses a fascinating chapter of architectural and planning history during a time when the government enacted bold and ambitious plans to protect who Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “Forgotten Man.” New Deal Utopias explores how we continue to grapple with the complex roles of housing, nature, and government in contemporary life.


Jason Reblando is an artist and photographer based in Normal, Illinois. He received his MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago, and a BA in Sociology from Boston College. He is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Scholar fellowship and an Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award. He has served as a grant panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Community Arts Assistance Program. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the Chicago Tribune, Slate, Bloomberg Businessweek, Real Simple, Chicago Magazine, Marketplace, MAS Context, Places Journal, Bauwelt, Camera Austria, and PDNedu. His photographs are part of the collections in the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Midwest Photographers Project of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His first book, New Deal Utopias, has been published by Kehrer Verlag this fall. | @JasonReblando

Envisioning New Spatial Organizations

Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago, 2018 © Iker Gil


On February 14, 2018, cartoonist Klaus, architect Stewart Hicks, and game developer William Chyr presented their work at the Envisioning New Spatial Organizations event as part of MAS Context’s 2018 Spring Talks series. The event took place at the Chicago Design Museum. Below is an edited transcription of their presentations.


Klaus © Iker Gil



When Iker told me about the title of this event, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, I thought that it would be great to take this opportunity and speak of those other spaces that are being opened for architects to practice architecture outside the traditional discipline. I said this because I am an architect and, while I practiced for a long time, now I am mostly a cartoonist. I am also a professor of Theory and History of Architecture because, you know, everyone has a dark side. But mostly I like to think of myself as a cartoonist. William Chyr is not an architect but he plays with space in video games, something that my students are getting more and more interested in. I think that video games and virtual reality are great expansion fields for architects in the years to come. In the case of Stewart’s practice, it uses fiction as a way to trigger design. I think that we are spreading our ways of practicing architecture, and this is what I want to talk about.

In my case, I am going to go a little bit autobiographical. I can’t say that I am one of these people who, when asked, tells you, “I always wanted to be an architect. When I was a kid I played with my construction kit and I liked my Legos.” I did like my Legos and I built lots of complicated things with them but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. When it came the time to decide what to study, my parents asked me, “What do you want to do as a professional career?” I said, “I want to be a comic book artist.” And they said, “Sure. But something that actually feeds you?” I said, okay. What can I study then? So I pondered many options. At this time, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I had discovered European comic books, for instance the ones by Moebius. I felt that this was something that really appealed to me. I found my interest in architecture through the comics. I saw these comics and I thought that this was something that I would love to do professionally. Perhaps architecture was something that I could try my hand at if I could get into this type of work. I was also looking at some of the people who were particularly interested in architecture such as François Schuiten and Andreas Martens. He was one of my teenage heroes, who also had a keen eye on architecture and design, with all these amazing inner spaces and all these fantastic imaginary cities. I thought, “Perhaps I can have a try at this other world of architecture and maybe I can fit my other interests within it.


Andreas. Capricorne (1996-2007)


I forgot about comics for a while and I entered architecture. What I was always interested in designing were things that I could make good drawings of. In general, my projects in school were things that tended to get more and more complicated. They were very tortured. My peers and professors mistook this complicated stuff for interesting designs so I got my way through it. Professionally I also got my way, and I would go on to practice for a few years but, in the end, I still wanted to do comics. I wasn’t over it. I still felt the urge to draw those things that I liked as a kid. So what do you do when you have unresolved issues, juvenile obsessions that haunt you when you are already in your early thirties? You can either go into therapy or you can move into academia. I decided to go with the second. I thought that if I couldn’t fit this obsession into my practice, then perhaps I could study it. I decided to turn this into a PhD research where I could study all the things that I loved: comics, science fiction, and cities. I decided to look at the history of the city of the future as it had been imagined throughout the 20th century, but studying it through its representation in comic books.



In order to do so, I started researching not only the things I already knew but pretty much anything that had been published. I went through hundreds of thousands of comics (I am not exaggerating, this is what an obsession can do to you). I selected around two hundred case studies and started, studying them in detail: their stylistic traits, their urban configuration, and trying to draw the relationships with the architecture that came before and after, ultimately studying how they had helped build this imaginary future. One would think that, at this point, I would have said, “Ok, now that you got it out of your system, you can finally be in peace with yourself. You can be a normal architect and not a baby man playing with architecture.” Well, I didn’t. I had discovered too much interesting stuff that now I could appreciate it not only as a comic book lover but also as an architect. Things had actually gotten worse.

How did I solve this? Well, at this point I had already come to the United States, where I spent three years at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in order to do my PhD research. The GSD is an amazing ecosystem, a great zoo with all types of animals, all very interesting and very wild too. Before that I had already done some cartoons about a young architect struggling to get into the profession—a sort of Dilbert for architects—but at the GSD I discovered a world where you had all these egos running around and spreading their message. There was a point where I thought, “I have to sketch this.” And without knowing it, I became an architectural cartoonist.


GSD Lectures 2008: Preston Scott Cohen VS Ben van Berkel. Trays Online Journal, December 2008 © Klaus


I am not going to tell the story of this cartoon, which is the first that I did at the GSD. It was a conversation between Ben van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen that got a little bit out of hand and, at some point, it had everyone looking at each other asking what was happening here. I drew it and showed it around. People seemed to like it so I kept doing all these sketches. They documented life at the GSD, and the delightful absurdity of some of the things that took place at the GSD. I also took issue with some of those cerebral ways of designing that characterize us architects. For instance, when MOS Architects won MoMA’s PS1 competition in 2009 they had to suffer my take on it throughout several cartoons.


Design Strategies: Michael Meredith on PS1, March 2009 © Klaus


At some point I thought that, perhaps, I should go beyond the GSD looking for easy prey, and at that time we had two issues happening simultaneously: Rem Koolhaas was becoming God and Barack Obama wanted to become the president of the USA. Rem Koolhaas is such an interesting character, always generously providing me with material for cartoons. Once I had done the first cartoon, I just went for the easy thing and kept going, because I don’t have that many ideas and, well, it is fun too.


On Starchitecture, April 2009 © Klaus



In the end I became a satirist so I made fun of architects and architecture as well. But the thing is, in the end, making fun of architecture allowed me to draw architecture. First, it allowed me to represent buildings, which is something that I love. But it also allowed me to flex my architectural muscles and represent fictional spaces, dream of special configurations and, in the end, design on the page. Playing with these buildings, interpreting them, and twisting them in the realm of the cartoon gave me so much pleasure. In the end, it allowed me to play with architecture in a way that I couldn’t in my day-to-day practice.

Caricature or even copying can be very creative. Once talking to Jimenez Lai, we joked that if you copy something poorly enough it becomes its own thing. By copying, you can end up creating something new. Caricature is even more creative; it is doing this on purpose. You only have to be a little bit of a bad person inside. Caricature can also be a very interesting tool to produce new things. I mean, look at Rem Koolhaas. He did a caricature of Ville Savoye and built it in Paris.

I started using my cartoons as a way to vent my architectural frustrations and design things that were perhaps absurd but which gave me a lot of pleasure, perhaps even more than traditional practice, which is usually burdened by too many constraints. From that point onwards I turned every commission I had into an opportunity to speculate on architecture. Sometimes it would be something very simple, stupid even. Sometimes it could be something that was totally absurd and impractical. Whatever I was commissioned I could use it as a way to vent my design frustrations. As an architect, I need to design. If I can design and draw things immediately, I can get an instantaneous reward, something that I have been embracing all these years. I take any opportunity to rethink things, to do these instantaneous projects that last as long as the drawing takes to be finished.



If we had Jimenez Lai here we could discuss how the medium of comics is also very interesting as a tool to produce and to investigate space. On the one hand it is a drawing so it is a two dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space. There is always a conflation of space there. The beauty of drawing is what happens when you make this translation. It starts bringing up new ideas. In the case of comics you also bring another aspect to the equation, which is the concept of time. In comics time is attached to a space. It is a topological system where time depends on the position of the elements on the page. I can look at a story by Jimenez Lai and see him experimenting with new ideas about space as he develops his narratives. Sections become panels, panels become cross sections, and cross sections become plans. In my case I don’t have the patience to go through all this. I don’t have the discipline to do a long-term comic as Jimenez does. I understand the mechanics of narrative and how comics can help play with non-Euclidean configurations of space because of the contiguities of elements in the panels, and I can make my own take on Jimenez’s stuff—and on Jimenez himself—, but not for a long time. This is something that happens in comics, but I would argue that this thinking-outside-the-box can happen in a drawing as well.


Antonio Galli Bibiena, Design for a stage set with a ‘palace hall leading to another huge arch to a garden, (c1727)


For instance, let’s go back to theater design and let’s look at the drawing above by Antonio Galli Bibiena titled Design for a stage set with a ‘palace hall leading to another huge arch to a garden (c1727). When you design architecture a theatrical set, you do it in a different way than if this was a space that was supposed to be experienced by people. This is something that has been designed to be looked at from a very specific point of view. In order to achieve the maximum effect, you use all the tricks in your bag to create it such as forced perspectives, lighting tricks, etc. You design it so that the experience from the point of view of the viewer is the best it can be. The same applies for a design done in a flat drawing. [Shows Giambattista Piranesi’s Parte di ampio magnifico Porto all’uso degli antichi Romani, ove si scuopre l’interno della gran Piazza pel Comercio (1749-50)]. In this case this is not a representation of a real building. This is a composition where everything, every architectural element, has been placed into it so as to produce a greater effect. If we tried to reconstruct it perhaps the resultant building would be absurd. But the interesting thing is that by doing it just as a drawing you make decisions, and consequently, find things that you wouldn’t if you were thinking of it as a whole, three-dimensional element. This is what, in a way, I do when I produce my drawings. I experiment with things that most probably could not be reconstructed because they are surely breaking many rules and entering the realm of impossible spaces a la M.C. Escher. But they still allow me to explore certain effects in a way that I couldn’t do in my current—or past—job.


Hypertourism in the XXIII Century, I(N)FORMA #6: Tourism, 2011 © Klaus


Brutalia, Arquinoir, 2016 © Klaus


In my cartoons I can fit all my interests. For example, in the cartoon above depicting “Brutalia,” a fictional and absurd theme park that features all these beautiful concrete buildings that have been torn down in the last few years and that I love so much. In another cartoon I may play with the architectures created in the photomontages by Filip Dujardin. They allow me to explore space in a way that I couldn’t do in a normal practice. They finally allow me to come to terms with my obsessions, the past ones that got me to architecture in the first place and some of the new ones that I have come across through all these years in contact with architectural history.


Arquinoir, 2017 © Klaus


Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago, 2018 © Iker Gil


Stewart Hicks © Iker Gil


Stewart Hicks

I am extremely excited to be in the company of these folks and this conversation. It is very rare that I am the most capital A architect-y person out of a panel. Usually I am the outlier. As proof that I am the most architect-y, I am going to show you where my office is, which is in the Monadnock Building. The word that I am using as a category to link the conversations today is “world building.” I will try to center my talk on how world building was thought of in architecture in the past, how we thought about it, and show the inklings of a project that maybe fell out of that interest.



My first realization moment that I was interested in world building was in an interview where I was talking about the Monadnock Building and why I liked it so much. The current state of this building is completely in debt to one man, Bill Donnell, who owns the building. He is probably the world’s worst developer because he wanted to own lots of buildings but this is the only building he owns. He actually went to architecture school in order to be a good steward of this building. It is amazing because when you step into it, you feel the fact that somebody has curated every single moment that you experience in it: from the materials and the fixtures to the shops. There is probably the world’s last travel agency in this building. It is a nostalgic world gone by, but I think it is more than nostalgia. He even bought the tools that were used to make the molding for the doorways so he could have the tools to make new moldings like the old ones. It goes that deep. You feel that depth of the world building when you come into here. But it is not a theme park and it is not fragile. You can enter this world and you can participate in it. I think that that is part of why we love it so much.

When I think of more obvious examples of world building in an architectural context I think of modernist utopias. They are extreme examples of when architects think so highly of themselves that they think they can imagine an entire reality and design that reality. A clear example is Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City. Broadacre City presents a future landscape of democracy, of self-sufficiency, and individual liberty. It is a world where every citizen receives an acre of land, a world that includes a host of buildings and institutions, all designed by the master Frank Lloyd Wright.



I am always skeptical of showing a masterwork and then trying to pair that to something we have done in our own practice. In Culture Sampler we tried to make an analogous model or an analogous world. Rather than trying to design a top down solution where we as Design With Company designed every single aspect of this world, we were interested in constructing a world out of bits that we found from around us. What we did was to make this model that is sampled from all of the averages of the United States.



It is broken up by the Jeffersonian grid and it has the average land use patterns, so it has the right amount of agriculture, the right amount of city, and the right amount of suburbs as the representation of the United States. What it starts to approach is something like the Midwest, something that we automatically think of as an average of the United States. In that sense, it is a model of the Midwest but it is also an average of an average model of everywhere USA. But instead of the adjacencies being determined by functional speculations on how a society might work more democratically, we started to arrange those land uses according to a narrative and metaphor. The kind of space that we were trying to explore is the space of narrative. The way that that plays out is that Chicago’s corncobs [Marina City] sit among Cornhenge in a cornfield next to the world’s only Corn Palace. The things that we sampled were not only the land use patterns but also man-made constructions that tried to produce an identity where there was no identity previously. It tries to do that through narrative, by making things like corn and making them big, celebrating everyday pieces.

The environment of Broadacre City is comprised of carefully adjusted land uses and assigned particular zones and areas to fill the land. Institutions and government buildings are dispersed so as to not create a center. When everyone is all spread out, there is need to create new types of institutional buildings that can accommodate this spread out land use so as to not allow for any centers of power. In our world, institutions don’t come from the traditional government agencies. They regulate the aspects of architecture that produce a sense of place. Frank Lloyd Wright relies on yet-to-be-developed technologies that allow for efficient movement to overcome the problem of distance. The fictional world that he is developing provides a context to point to the possibility and need for some of these technologies. It starts to hint at the power of world building for architects because it is transmedia. By thinking of the act of the architect as world building you can go from model to drawing to building and, in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, thinking of how a building’s role is situated within a much larger context all the way down to something like the scale of a chair or a stool.



As I mentioned earlier, we sampled important moments within the man-made landscape of the Midwest, man-made objects that produce identity and place. We tried to understand how they operated. In the case of the Leaning Tower of Niles, it is about a 50% scaling down of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. What we found was that whenever the Midwest tries to appropriate things from outside to produce identity they scale it down. But then when they take things from within the Midwest and the everyday, they scale it up or they have way too many of them. Another example mentioned earlier was the Corn Palace that has onion domes and murals made out of corn. These are the things that started to populate our new version of USA in that one-mile by one-mile model. This is a close up of one of our institutions, which is dedicated to the way that this land works. It is in a style that comes from the territory. It uses unexpected quantities of scaled everyday parts, such as pitches, punches, porches, and patterns.



World building allows for transmedia explorations. With our project we accompanied the model with a book called Misguided Tactics for Propriety Calibration. In this book we speculated on the existence of another book called Midwestern Standards for Propriety Calibration, which is a book that doesn’t exist. But we are arguing its presence because it is the rule book for how to create identity and place in places like the Midwest where everything seems average and people build structures like the ones that we found to produce a sense of place.

The punch line of our book is that we never actually show you what’s inside of the book. Instead we hint at the evidence for its existence. We construct a narrative for how and why it came to be. The format of the book is a collage fiction which pairs collage images with short bits of text. Something that we are also interested in these transmedia explorations is how there is a loose fit between them. In our case, there is a loose fit between the text and the images they describe. In this sense, there is a tonal counter point. If there is a dry bit of text, there is maybe a funny image that accompanies it or vice versa.



The story begins: “The eventual publication of the Midwestern standards for propriety calibration has its humble beginnings in the combination of three independent institutions: the Midwestern Casting Agency, The Institute for Reduction and Enlargement, and the Redundancy Assurance Company Co. Each institution is devoted to tallying and standardizing the Midwest through the precise measurement of its geography. They use the latest techniques and they love the grid. The Midwestern Casting Agency drew and redrew the boundaries of the Midwest. No one can decide on the best shape. And the Institute for Reduction and Enlargement measured deviations within the one-mile squares. The Redundancy Assurance Company Co counted and classified the squares trapped within the web of the Jeffersonian grid. The three institutions initially didn’t think to communicate with one another, and thusly the definition of the Midwest was constantly in flux, determining the most appropriate definition of the territory with the topic of conversation at all of the most lavish parties. Emotions were mixed among the natives over the confusion about the constitution of their homeland. And in order to find a solution the three institutions eventually united to create a full scale standard square mile that they called the culture.” This one-mile area squared contains everything it means to be the Midwest. It is the one to one square sampler of the Midwestern geography and its settlement patterns that is the model that I showed you earlier.

This alternative reality is also the one that I want to use as a means to consider the Harold Washington Public Library that you might be familiar with. Most people hate it. I won’t take a poll to see who hates it in this room but it will probably be a high percentage. That is likely due to its garish and fortified exterior as well as its circuitous entry sequence. There are as many versions of hating this building as there are people who look at it. The building was the result of a 1987 competition where developers were paired with architects to come up with schemes for the site and the one that is across the L, which you can see here an is an empty park. There were five total entries that the jury was meant to debate. Each entry was put on display for the public to be able to comment on as well.



The architect and eventual winner, Thomas Beeby, had a thesis for the building. His argument was that Chicago wasn’t very good at making civic architecture. What Chicago knows how to do is to make commercial architecture. So he was trying to find a new language for civic architecture that tried to pull lessons from commercial buildings, office buildings, specifically the Monadnock Building which is the one we talked about earlier. The flared base, the arched openings… things like that. He would marry that with the planning strategy of a shopping mall. His argument was that he was going to try to import some of Chicago’s important architectural inventions into creating a civic architecture.

In an episode of Nova dedicated to the competition and shown on PBS, Stanley Tigerman was quoted as saying, “By selecting that scheme it sends Chicago backwards away from its future precisely the way the Chicago Tribune competition and the Columbian exposition did. Because it is a building that is a study in dissimilation that feigns to be something of a time that is not ours that uses as a role model the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris and by Henri Labrouste. That is the problem with the kind of thinking that uses a context to establish authority and uses verification of an earlier time to get over the insecurities of the natives of a city trying to seek authenticity.”

Clearly, Tigerman didn’t like this design very much. He thought it was purely looking backwards and that it was a means to placate Chicagoans with a building that looked familiar and already had a sense of authority to it rather than using architectural design to establish new ways of creating a civic architecture. So, when looking at this building, we asked ourselves, is that true? Is that all there is, a feigning of time gone by? This is Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève that Stanley Tigerman was talking about on the left. And a fragment of the elevation of the library on the right.



What we wanted to do was find a way of liking this building. Find a way that maybe we could find its redeeming qualities. Maybe that is possible by actually situating it within this world that we had constructed earlier. One critic of the library said that its design elements are brazen imitations of features of Chicago landmarks which themselves sport details derived from old world European buildings. Nothing is subtle about the library’s references. The illusions look comically oversized as if to beef up these largely European motifs as one with cars or sandwiches from Midwestern Americans. It’s boiling down of history’s simulacra, it’s endless pastiche.



We will argue that a better reference is maybe not the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris but instead maybe the world’s only Corn Palace, which was designed in 1922 by the Chicago architects Rapp and Rapp, who are known for their theater designs, notably the Chicago Theater. This idea of putting the land and everyday objects on display like a piece of theater I think serves as a model for the building that we are looking at below. We went through the archives for the competition and we found 1,000 different public statements where people were talking about this building. That is what we were interested in getting: boiling down to how we delaminate all of the narratives that are present both within the architecture itself as well as the ones that are laid upon it by the ones who are judging it. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and some people have some pretty insightful comments to make about the building. We combed through all of them and we tried to create reactions to as many as we could. We ended up creating twenty-four reactions, twenty-four different design alternatives that either took seriously some of the comments that were made or they took seriously some of the critiques that people made of the building. For instance, the escalators are horrible, making you take three different escalators just to get to the books. So we speculated about what if we made the whole library out of escalators. If you took something that was negative and turned it into a positive.



Or what if we took the best part of the library, which is those big green owls on the corner, and made the entire library just out of owls? Or how could we use it as a civic scale and start to say Navy Pier just redid their Ferris Wheel, maybe we could borrow that? Or any other speculations on current city situations and ways of understanding that building. We also treated it to the Stanley Tigerman treatment of The Titanic by sinking it. By wrapping it in signage maybe we could sell the façade so that people could make money. Maybe we can just build it out of Prentice Hospital, which was torn down, and it could be reused in some way. We created these fictional alternative futures for the library in isolation but then we thought about potentials for how they might start to stitch together. In the library itself these all coexist so what we tried to do is parse them out, treat them in isolation and then combine them into novel combinations that would tell other types of stories by using the stories that already exist.



That became all glued together in one model that is at the exact same scale as the original competition models from the original 1987 competition. You can start to read all of those narratives coming together. How we saw value in the project is by looking to existing narratives. We also constructed our own stories about potential futures for this building and wrote them on the wall for people to read if they wanted to. But we also had them as a model for people to read their own stories into it.

This is how we tried to take the lessons of our utopia. It is not a utopia but our world building exercises that we tried to use as a means to understand the world in a different way.


Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago, 2018 © Iker Gil


William Chyr © Iker Gil


William Chyr

Before I start I should mention I don’t have any architecture training. I usually give talks to game developers. That means two things: one is that I’m probably going to say a lot of stuff you already know; and two, I’m going to be butchering all the architecture terms.

I have been working on my video game Manifold Garden for over five years now. I am going to spend some time explaining what the game is about and talk about how I approach level design. The game is a first person puzzle game. That’s different from a lot of other games out there but I think it’s very similar to how you design theme parks. Players are traversing through this space, they come back to certain areas but it is very much about using the architecture to guide players, to have a certain experience.

It uses impossible geometry and unusual physics. I will talk about the two key features for this in the game: Traversal, which is the ability to change gravity, and the geometry or 3D world wrapping. Regarding traversal, some of you might have seen the movie Inception and you might remember the scene where they fold Paris in half and start walking up the wall.



When I saw this I was thinking that if Leo were to drop his wallet, would it fall on this floor in the blue arrow or would it fall in the direction of the green arrow, his former gravity? Or if he were to give his wallet to someone standing on this other surface, and this person were to drop the wallet, would it fall in the direction of the blue arrow or green arrow? My illustration skills are not quite on par with Klaus. I think the movie draws a lot of inspiration from the Relativity print by M. C. Escher. Originally Manifold Garden was supposed to be just a recreation of this Escher print and in fact the original name for the game was Relativity.



To translate the image in the print into a game, to give it a mechanic, we have six directions and each surface has a color associated with it, with objects of that color falling in that direction. For example, when you are in the blue gravity, you can interact with blue objects and blue boxes and they fall in that direction. When you change to the yellow gravity, then all the other objects freeze and only yellow objects are active, and so on and so forth. Something you can do is place a red object, have it be frozen because you are in blue, and now you can put a blue object on top of that. When you switch to green, now the blue and red objects are frozen and you can place the green box on them. There are no curves or slants in the game, so everything is 90 degrees. This is just an example of how gravity change works in the game.



Now I am going to talk about the geometry in the game, which is the 3D world wrapping. In a lot of games, if I were to fall off, then the screen would fade to black and reset you. In Manifold Garden, the world repeats itself so you just keep falling forever. You have air control, so you can move while you are falling to land yourself again. I just want to clarify what I mean by impossible geometry. You often see people refer to weird geometry as “non-Euclidean geometry.” I want to take a second to explain that. It’s not as unusual as one might think. Technically, the surface of a sphere is non- Euclidean, because two straight lines on the surface aren’t parallel forever. If you were to draw a large enough triangle on the surface of the Earth, the angles would add up to be more than 180. In video games we often see 2D wrapping, which is a 2-torus. For example, when the spaceship goes off to the right side of the screen it will come back on the left side. That is actually the surface of this torus. That’s what you’d see on the screen. You are connecting each side with the opposite one.



In 3D world wrapping, we are doing a similar thing, but with a 3D cube. Instead of connecting sides, now we are connecting faces. We connect the faces with three arrows to each other, and then we connect the faces with two arrows to each other. You can’t visualize it because this is in 4D. The way I like to think of it is, in 2D world wrapping you are a 2D character on the 2D surface of a 3D donut. And in 3D world wrapping, you are a 3D character on the 3D surface of a 4D donut. One example in the game is when we drop the cube it’ll actually come down from above. I can see it beneath me and above me at the same time. We also have water in the game and you can use it to grow trees. This is a really old version so it looks terrible but when you have water that goes off the edge, it comes back from above. We don’t have waterfalls in the game, we have water loops.



A really cool book about this is The Shape of Space by Jeffrey Weeks. He has a website,, where you can check out a bunch of his e-games showcasing unusual geometry.

Gravity changing and 3D world wrapping are the basis of Manifold Garden, so I want to talk about how these ideas affect how I approach level design and how they change the player’s relationship to space. Initially, the game didn’t implement a lot of these mechanics and they came into place over time. Back in July 2013, there was no world wrapping, there was just the gravity changing. When I built a space, it had to be contained inside a massive room. There were several problems with this. First of all, it was really hard to orient yourself because everywhere looked the same. And when you fell off you landed on the floor at the bottom, which meant that you had to trek all the way back to find where you were at the beginning.

Without world wrapping players also got nervous about exploring too far, because they thought that if they went in the wrong direction, then later they would need to walk all the way back. Every step away meant two steps that they needed to take later. With world wrapping you actually solve that problem because you are never really lost. You are just in the same place. It also allowed me to have the visual impact of these cubes extending out to infinity. They are all the same instance so you can go to any of them and that is fine. In general, it is also a much more interesting level.

I saw an image of the stepwells in India and this was another space that became possible and also more interesting with world wrapping because we could just extend it out to infinity. In this case it’s slightly different because, instead of having each instance of the world be directly above, beneath, or next to each other, we are actually staggering it so that there is a slight offset. When you move down to the next iteration, you are actually moving down and forward.



One of the problems that the world wrapping and the gravity changing have is that it really screws up gating in the game. Often times in a game you will have a door you can’t get through so you have to look for a key and then come back and open up the door. There might be a wall to block your path, but when you have gravity changing, you can just change gravity and walk on the wall or fall to land on the other side. Things that we traditionally use in games to set the pace or block progression, they no longer work. In this example, the player wants to get to the star and in a traditional game we can just put a wall there to block the player. But with world wrapping the player can jump to the right and then come back on the opposite of the wall or they can go down and land from above.

That is something I had a really difficult time with until I played Skyrim. This is a fantasy RPG [Role-Playing Game] where you run around. There are dwarfs and elves and you save the world. The way Skyrim is designed is you can go anywhere in the world when you start. When you are outside they don’t stop you from going anywhere. You can see a mountain in the distance and go there from the beginning. The way they set the pacing is you have complete freedom when you are outside, but when you go inside dungeons it is very linear. You go into a dungeon and often times, they just make you go in a circle. Usually, there will be a locked door to your right as soon as you enter, and then you will walk around the dungeon and come out through that very door, then back out through the original entrance. Sometimes, in the very last room, there will be a boss, and after you defeat the boss, there is a very conveniently located door right next to it. We have actually taken that same pacing structure and applied it to Manifold Garden. So when you are outside you can actually go anywhere, we don’t stop you. We just embrace the world wrapping and instead of trying to gate you, we just let you go anywhere you want. When you have to go into a specific area to solve a puzzle, then it follows a very linear structure.



Another problem that we have with this game is that height is meaningless. In games what you’ll often have is something like a tower the players can use to orient themselves. A mission might be to get to the base of the tower. You can run around and not really pay too much attention to your surroundings, but you can always keep the tower in sight. Something like this in a traditional game doesn’t quite make sense in Manifold Garden because you can change gravity. The ways that you would normally use to orient yourself, they don’t apply here.

One thing that I found with Manifold Garden is that designing in a radial fashion has been much better than in a linear way. Often times, what we’ll try to do is put rooms all around a certain area so you don’t have to go in one cardinal direction. Instead, traveling in any direction will work.

I am going to talk about some techniques that have worked well when it comes to designing levels. I break them down into two categories: macro techniques and micro techniques.

Originally when I was just starting out making the game I wanted to recreate spaces seen in Escher’s prints, but these spaces actually do not work very well in the game. This is like when Klaus was talking about things that work well in an image but not so well in real life. I think this is an example of that. The earlier levels were just super messy because I was trying to recreate the effect seen in those images. When you came out to this level there were two rooms that you had to get to, but they were randomly placed in the space.

I noticed that there was a problem when people who were really good at puzzles and people who weren’t so great at puzzles spent the same amount of time outside. The beginning of the game is all indoors, and there is a sequence of five puzzles, one after another. After this sequence, the player gets out to this open space, and they have to find where to go next. I would see people who are really good at puzzles solve the initial sequence in five minutes. But then they would come out and they would spend twenty minutes out here figuring out where to go next. I would also see some people who really struggle with those initial five puzzles, taking half an hour. They would come out here and they would also take twenty minutes. What that says is that it is completely random whether you find the room or not. What you really need is some kind of logic in the way the space is organized. Instead of having this mess of structure, what I found that works much better is when you have a very iconic way. When I see the space, I immediately understand how it is laid out. That makes it much easier for me as a player to navigate. The level itself has a logic to it that the players can use to figure out where they need to go next. Because you can change gravity, the other problem you have is that you are also looking at this space from a number of different angles. By having that logic to it, it means that it is not so dependent on whether players are in the right position to see something, but that they can still piece it together.



Let’s talk about moment-to-moment techniques that we use, like stairs. One thing that is interesting with stairs in games is that when people see them they will always go up. They will just take them. Players use those architectural elements differently than they would in real life.

The original opening of the level has two stories. You would start off upstairs, then you go downstairs and there was a door that you had to take. One thing I kept noticing was players would go downstairs. Then they would turn around and they would take the same stairs up again. I would be like, “What are you doing? You just went down those stairs.” In video games essentially what you are doing is looking at a 2D image on the screen and then piecing together a 3D space in your head. I think that is very different than when you are physically in a space. A lot of people would have forgotten that they went down the stairs. These were the exact same stairs they took down, but you didn’t actually walk down those stairs. So I ended up changing the opening level but I got the lesson of people seeing stairs and wanting to walk up them. In this earlier version of the level I have this central tower and I really wanted people to jump onto these different islands. I wanted people to change gravity and fall onto these various islands. So I put this little block here as a way for people to use to change gravity. The way you have to change gravity in the world is you have to walk up to a surface. If that block wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be anything for the players to use to change gravity but nobody used those. I got really frustrated until I replaced them with stairs. They didn’t go anywhere but people would walk up to them, they would change gravity, and then they would be looking down and they are like, oh okay. And then just fall down.



It was really important that the architecture had to communicate what it was for. Even as something as simple as stairs which is just like, walk up here. Another is using patterns. Hallways was something that I had a lot of problems with in the game early on. You can see this is an early version of the hallway. Players would often get lost because you can not only turn left or right, but you can also go up or down. A lot of times players would lose or would forget which way they were supposed to go in the hallway as all looked the same. At some point I started adding windows in the game. You would turn around and there would be these two windows, they were the same size opposite of each other in the hallway.



I had a friend play this and he was like, “I really think you should offset the windows.” This actually solved a ton of problems because what this does is that when you look down the hallway the end of it is immediately much brighter than the rest of the screen. So players are incentivized to move forward. It also creates a sense of direction. So if you look down a hallway in the correct way you will see a window at the end. If you are looking at it the wrong way then you will see a wall. In a hallway there are no arrows but you can just look at the windows and use those to orient yourself regardless of whether it’s going up, left, or right. We use this everywhere. The interesting thing with windows in games is it functions very similarly to a wall in that it is an obstacle, a barrier to prevent the player from getting to some place. But the player can see the other side of it so we often use that to tease players. At the beginning it starts off all indoors but we are teasing the player with cool stuff that they can get to eventually outside.

There is a lot more but that is five years of stuff compressed into twenty minutes. Thank you.


Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago, 2018 © Iker Gil


Thanks to the Chicago Design Museum for hosting the event.


Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist who lives in an old castle in Europe, intermittently uploading his cartoons in Klaustoon’s Blog since 2009. His work has been published in architectural publications, such as A10, eVolo, Clog, (Dis)Courses, Harvard Design Magazine, MAS Context, Conditions, Studio, Volume, Uncube, and The Architectural Review, among others. He is currently the editorial cartoonist of Arquine, where he runs the satirical section Arquinoir, to which he contributes texts and cartoons. He is not Rem Koolhaas and still owes Sanford Kwinter a cartoon. When he is not drawing he is also Luis Miguel -Koldo- Lus-Arana (Architect, MDesS, PhD), a Theory & History professor whose research focuses on the interactions of architecture and mass media, as well as the History of visionary architecture and planning. | @klaustoon


Stewart Hicks is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a cofounder of Design With Company (Dw/Co). His interests include how literature and architecture intersect in fiction, character, type, metaphor, etc. Dw/Co translates these themes into installations, speculative urban scenarios, temporary pavilions, and designs for buildings. The practice was recognized as a Next Progressive from Architect Magazine, Next Generation from Architectural Record, and a New Talent by Metropolis, and was featured in both Chicago Biennials. Stewart is also a MacDowell Fellow and former Hyde Chair of Excellence at the University of Nebraska. | @designwithco


William Chyr is an independent game developer and artist currently based in Chicago. He is the designer and developer of Manifold Garden, a first-person exploration game intended to be released on PlayStation 4 and PC in 2018. As an installation artist, he has exhibited works at the Lawrence Arts Center, Telus Spark, and High Concept Laboratories. Some of his more notable past creations include a limited-edition art label for Beck’s Beer, the crowdsourced novel The Collabowriters, and a somewhat infamous print ad. He holds a B.A. degree in Physics and Economics from the University of Chicago. | |@WilliamChyr

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