A Receding Coast
Essay and photographs by Virginia Hanusik
Founded on the deltaic plain of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has been described as the impossible, yet inevitable city because of its complex geography that tests the boundaries of human engineering. Hurricanes, floods, and sinking land have forced structural innovation and adaptation in the city and its surrounding coastal communities. As a result, a distinct sense of place has been perpetuated through the built environment.
Louisiana is experiencing a land loss crisis more severe than any environmental disaster in the state’s history. Aerial photographs of the coast and national media coverage of the “first climate refugees” have told a piece of the story of what it means for a physical place to disappear. However, this type of exposure is one small part of a larger picture. A long-term Slidell resident whose home, newly rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, now floods with every hard rain; a fisherman in Plaquemines Parish whose livelihood is being threatened by river diversions; the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw whose ancestral home is dissolving into the marsh: these powerful stories, when paired with in-depth research, serve to educate the public around the relationship between nature and architecture in this vulnerable region.
Particularly given the fraught political moment we all find ourselves in, this project seeks to convey a collective vision of place through architectural portraits that describe the history of building practices in Louisiana. Ultimately, this knowledge can be used to inform future design in the age of climate change. I believe the best way to do this is to combine the accessibility of visual art with academic research in climate adaptation. In doing so, the opportunity to connect Louisiana’s environmental challenges and architectural history to other communities around the world may assist in the fight against climate change.
The time to act has never been more urgent. The Louisiana Office of Community Development is currently outlining the state’s resettlement plan that dictates which communities are able to be saved from encroaching water and which are not. Those who are unable to remain on the land that has been passed down through generations must re-create their lives elsewhere. The built environment, both architecture and infrastructure, are the tangible symbols of this change and deserve to be looked at in depth as a means of understanding the future of human settlement.
With funding from the Graham Foundation, I was able to research throughout South Louisiana by visiting the architectural archives of Tulane University and conduct interviews with residents in coastal communities. The portfolio presented here seeks to capture the complexity and precariousness of the built environment at this moment in time and engage the viewer with daily life on the frontlines of climate change. Rather than photographing scenes of disaster or aerial footage—which allow the audience to dissociate—these images present the everyday landscape.
This project seeks to position itself as a means for connectivity, awareness, and empathy across communities with the aim of thereby strengthening our collective environmental stewardship.
Virginia Hanusik is an artist and architectural researcher whose work explores the relationship between culture and the built environment. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and featured in publications such as Domus, Places Journal, NPR, Fast Company, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, among others. She received her B.A. from Bard College and is currently working on a project about the architecture of climate change in South Louisiana with support from the Graham Foundation. She is a member of the Climate Working Group at New York University and was ranked as one of Planetizen‘s Most Influential Urbanists in 2017. She lives in New York City.
www.virginiahanusik.com | @virginiahanusik
Essay and policy proposals by Future Firm included in their book Rebel Garages published by the Chicago Architecture Center.
GARAGES: EACH TO OUR OWN HETEROTOPIA
The ethos of the rebel garage is more than a secondary use: it reflects and produces a completely different and unique way of seeing architecture in Chicago, one that depends on both the physical parameters of a building but also the specifics of time, use, and engagement with its surroundings. In his 1967 lecture, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault defines the idea of heterotopia as sites defined by their otherness: spaces of crisis, juxtapositions of incongruous uses, and territories that are temporally rather than spatially delineated.  A boat, separated from the world, running under its own rules that circumnavigate land-bound realities, or a motel room where two lovers meet, temporarily constructing an alternate life—these are Foucault’s heterotopias par excellence.
We understand the rebel garage as Chicago’s own ubiquitous and quintessential heterotopia: an architectural condition not defined by the lines and materials notated on an architectural drawing, a Department of Buildings permit, a zoning ordinance, or an owner’s use on any given day but rather a combination of all these parameters, including the myriad uses that transpire every day and every night. The rebel garage allows what Foucault describes as “deviant” uses, broadly understood. It is a space where the activities that cannot take place in the house, the office, or the street, but require certain conditions of both privacy and publicness, begin to flourish. It’s a space which allows those activities—a side business, a private hobby, or a dream of an alternate lifestyle—to grow. It is a space whose openings and closings are precisely orchestrated by the closing of the garage door and the illumination of a single overhead light. The garage can be completely transformed by these simple operations: think, for example, of the complete otherworldliness of a punk garage band playing live at full volume. 
Unlike, however, Foucault’s heterotopic cruise ships, psychiatric hospitals, or prisons, which are singular spaces, constructed as communities isolated from the rest of the world, the rebel garage is both individualized and distributed. Chicago’s mundane garage, when considered as an ecology of interiors, can be read as a system (rather than singular example) of heterotopic otherness that is, in fact, often legally required to be delivered along with your place of residence. The way that the garage becomes a potent site for heterotopic conditions, simultaneously personalized and yet also ubiquitous, reveals our collective need for secondary spaces—“other” spaces for both private and public pursuits.
The idea of a heterotopia that is both personalized and distributed occurs everywhere, in different forms. In Tokyo, Japan: consider photographer Noritaka Minami’s work, documented in his book 1972, on the Nagakin Capsule Tower.  The apartment tower, designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, was intended to be a prototype for a new, customizable, and mobile form of modern life. Today, these early dreams have calcified: yet in their wake, each living unit has become increasingly eccentric, unique, and architecturally transformed by its inhabitants.  In Barcelona: consider architect Andres Jaque’s project, IKEA Disobedients, which critiqued IKEA’s marketing campaign describing one’s home as a personal “kingdom.”  Jaque visited, photographed, and interviewed Barcelona residents who use their houses and apartments as businesses, LGBT support group headquarters, farms, video studios, and more. Or, lastly, in New York: consider the provocative series of Manhattan Mini Storage ads, one of which featured an image of a man in drag surrounded by a wardrobe of clothing in a storage unit, titled: “I like my wife and kids, but I love my storage room.” This ad featured in a series of others in which the storage unit might be used to grow hobbies (“I like film festivals, but I love…”); avoid pet hair (“I like pet adoption, but I love…”); or nerd out (“I like special issue no. 364, but…”). All over the world, contemporary urban life produces, in parallel to more generic architectural building types, these odd personalized spaces of eccentric pursuits: a storage locker or garage where one can engage in and imagine alternative presents and futures.
What do you do in your garage other than park your car? What rules and status quos—architectural, economic, social, or cultural—do you break or slip around in your garage? Who do you break those rules with? Understanding the ethos of the rebel garage is to understand it not just through the physical characteristics of its size, or materials, but also as a condition situated in the gray areas of both time and culture. Temporally, it opens when the door closes and the light turns on, and closes when you pack up your hobby or side business for the night. Culturally, it holds space in gray zones: in territories of behavior, business, and desires which cannot exist in the main home or in the street.
Imagine lights on in a network of garages in the city at night: the tens of thousands of seemingly mundane architectures, each with its own unique yeasty interior of otherness, incubating the B-side cultures that are inevitably produced by the exhaustively routine conditions of everyday life outside.
1. Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Spaces of Visual Culture, 2006.
2. For more on garages and garage bands, see: Fischer, Marc, and Public Collectors. Hardcore Architecture. Chicago, IL: Half Letter Press, 2015.
3. Minami, Noritaka, Julian Rose, and Ken Yoshida. 1972 – Nakagin Capsule Tower. Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2015.
4. For more, see: Koolhaas, Rem, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks… Edited by Kayoko Ota and James Westcott. Köln; London: Taschen, 2011.
5. For more on this, see: Andres Jaque, “Politics Do Not Happen in Squares,” in Urbonas, Gediminas, Ann Lui, and Lucas Freeman, eds. Public Space? Lost and Found. Cambridge, MA: SA+P Press, 2017.
NINE POLICY PROPOSALS
What is a “garage” in the eyes of the law? Today, a variety of intersecting regulations in Chicago’s Municipal Code, Building Code, and Zoning Ordinance regulate the architecture, location, and use of garages in the city. Here are nine policy proposals which aim to provoke conversations about the rights and restrictions which govern our garages today, and the ways that these frameworks might evolve in the future to accommodate or inspire change.
#1: REBEL BLOCKS
ORGANIZE AND LIMIT “REBEL BLOCKS” AT THE CITY SCALE
The Chicago zoning ordinance currently has a regulatory mechanism called an “overlay district.” The ordinance describes this regulation as a tool for “special situations or to accomplish specific city goals that cannot be easily or efficiently addressed through the use of base districts.” Currently in the city, thirteen zoning overlays exist which add either additional rights or restrictions to a certain area. This proposal introduces a “Rebel Block district overlay,” which would allow more creative uses of garages, while also opening the opportunity to set new limits on heights, areas, and signage. These “Rebel Blocks” could allow the rebel garage ethos to be limited to areas where an entire block of Chicagoans have decided together to allow the following transformations in their alleys. The overlay district would also allow the city overall to regulate the locations of rebel garage alley blocks—for example, in consideration of existing base districts, nearby other incentive programs such as transit-oriented development, or in partnership with city programs, such as the Dollar Lot Program which is already often used by Chicagoans to create suburban-style garages and driveways. This overlay district would allow for an urban-scale calibration of the following proposed changes, as well as a time-based approach which might introduce prototype or pilot-versions of these code revisions over a longer period of time.
#2: DIVERSIFY BUSINESSES
STARTUP DIVERSE BUSINESSES IN YOUR GARAGE
Imagine an alley where you can buy fresh eggs, have your fortune told, and get your oil changed—all by your neighbors. Currently, Chicago businesses that operate out of residents’ homes are regulated by the Municipal Code. This code limits what kinds of businesses can be located in a domestic space. However, the landscape of small businesses is transforming in the context of the sharing and “gig” economies, freelance labor, and the increasing number of individuals pursuing self-employment outside of 9-to-5 jobs for economic or personal reasons. Additionally, commercial space in Chicago can often be difficult to secure for new businesses, especially women and minority-owned businesses with less access to initial investment capital, as they are often restricted to longer-term leases in the 3- to 5-year range. Recent trends in “micro-retail,” such as small commercial spaces and pop-up shops, have started to address these issues through new building types. In contrast, this proposal takes advantage of existing small buildings by expanding the range of businesses that can be operated out of one’s own home—including the garage—to construct an infrastructure for small-scale entrepreneurship.
#3: BIGGER HOME BUSINESSES
TAKE OVER THE GARAGE WITH YOUR HOME BUSINESS
Steve Jobs famously started Apple in his garage. How many other significant businesses may have started in the unique space of the garage: out of the traffic, bustle, and quotidian burdens of the main house? Can we describe the Chicago garage as a possible space of dreams? Currently, the Municipal Code regulates how garages can be used by home occupation businesses. The code dictates that a garage cannot be the primary site of your work: according to the code, the garage can only be used to store extra papers and documents for business. This proposal allows the main work of home businesses to expand into garages and also removes the overall square footage restriction that limits the size of home offices to 300 square feet. This change, which has also been proposed by Chicago’s Small Business Advocacy Council, reflects how many Chicagoans already see the garage as an architectural type which can incubate, foster, and provide the unique necessary conditions for starting something new.
#4: HANG YOUR SHINGLE
DESIGN GARAGES TO REFLECT HOW THEY’RE USED
Two vanguards of architecture’s post-modern movement, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, famously described two ways that buildings can be designed to convey (or “signify”) their uses to the public: “the duck” or the “decorated shed.” “The duck” uses its shape or figure to convey an idea, such as the basket-shaped headquarters of a basket manufacturer. The “decorated shed,” in comparison, is a simple, utilitarian building with a large exterior sign; in this case, Venturi and Scott Brown were inspired by Las Vegas roadside motels and convenience stores. In Chicago, the Municipal Code currently restricts home occupation businesses from displaying signs, having dedicated entrances, or using shelves to display wares. This proposal argues that the “decorated shed” is an economically efficient and symbolically powerful way to transform simple garages into vibrant spaces open to the public. While preserving the residential character of a main street has a certain value, this proposal speculates that the alley sides of Chicago homes can become a little more flexible.
#5: EVERYONE’S INVITED
WELCOME OTHERS: MORE CLIENTS, EMPLOYEES, AND DELIVERIES
Any small businesses owner will tell you their business is a network of connected people, not individuals: they comprise communities of clients, employees, supporters, investors, friends, and colleagues. Currently, the Municipal Code restricts the amount of people who can visit, be employed in, or make a delivery to a home business. Building on the goals of Proposal #3—which allows more areas of accessory building to be dedicated to businesses—this change suggests increasing the limits on daily visitors to a home business. Garages and alleys in Chicago are already bustling quasi-public spaces. In our interviews, we learned that alleys are often transformed into social areas for different groups: from kids playing between a block’s backyards, to residents fixing cars with the garage door open, to teenagers playing an alley-long game of street hockey, to a space of exchange driven by the daily passage of scrappers, trash pick-up, and Craigslist swaps. By extending the limits on the number of visiting clients, non-resident employees, and daily deliveries that can visit a home business, this change reflects the existing productive bustle and opens alleys to further commercial traffic.
#6: LEGALIZE COACH HOUSES
BUILD NEW COACH HOUSES
Would it be convenient to have a guest house or a roommate’s unit in the backyard? How about extra rental space which would generate extra monthly income? Or a space for in-laws upon the arrival of a new baby? When Chicago’s alleys were planned at the turn of the century, they functioned as access lanes for horse-drawn carriages. The small buildings flanking these alleys were used to store coaches after returning home. Since the car replaced the horse-drawn coach as a primary means of transportation for Chicagoans, new small buildings along the city’s alleys are designed for the size of the automobile. However, coach houses that remained have been transformed for new uses by their owners—many of them into dwelling units with a bathroom and kitchen. Looking into the future, with ride sharing and autonomous vehicles on the horizon reducing the need for private cars—and increased concerns about combustion engines’ negative effects on public health and the climate—this proposal anticipates that alleys will transform once again. Currently, Chicago’s zoning ordinance only allows certain structures in the rear setback (the area between a house and an alley) of a building’s lot. Allowances today currently include: garage, shed, and shading structures like pergolas. This proposal suggests bringing back the “coach house,” with limits at three stories and up to 1,200 square feet.
#7: GARAGE FIRST, HOUSE SECOND
DEVELOP GARAGES AS INVESTMENT STRATEGIES
In the current zoning ordinance, garages are categorized as “accessory buildings,” which is defined as a structure that is secondary to a main house. By defining garages in this way, the code also restricts owners from constructing them before the main building. This change proposes that garages should be allowed to be built first. In this way, garages might function as early investments, fiscal collateral, or the first step in phased construction. The Cook County Land Bank (cclba) currently holds 4,000+ lots, all of which have been cleared for back taxes and are made available to the buyer at sub-market prices. However, in order to purchase a lot from cclba, one is required to show the financial means to develop the site. If accessory buildings were built first, this may allow a broader populace to begin to invest in vacant lots. An auto-mechanic, for example, might build a small garage and relocate his business there—over time, he may eventually build the main structure. A new family might build a coach house structure to live in, while saving the funds to build a main house, eventually transforming that accessory structure into a rental unit for extra income. With this change, the city’s numerous vacant lots, currently untended or being tended at a cost to the city or county government, could be re-distributed to residents more quickly by re-defining the “accessory structure” as a cautious, but hopeful, architectural investment.
#8: NO PARKING
REDUCE PARKING REQUIREMENTS
In Chicago and other U.S. cities, there are currently stringent parking requirements for dwelling units. These requirements emerge from a post-war ideal of nuclear families organized around an automobile-focused life. This proposal reflects the way in which the landscape of 21st century domestic space and transportation is more complex, diverse in its forms, messy, and nuanced than the post-war ideal. While some Chicagoans may continue to need space to park a car, many others prefer to use that space for secondary uses such as the ones described in the Rebel Garage Archive. Additionally, we argue that the conditions of contemporary transportation are moving away from privately owned cars—just as it moved away from the horse-drawn coach a century ago. For example, major cities such as Oslo are banning cars from their downtowns and others, such as Paris, are banning combustion engines entirely in the coming decades. Additionally, in recent years, Chicago’s Department of Transportation has been investing in urban streetscape upgrades for bikes and pedestrians; in parallel, private corporations are leading research toward shared autonomous vehicles. By reducing parking requirements and providing the option to use accessory buildings for creative secondary uses, this proposal argues for a change in regulation to both reflect and incentivize these broader changes in transportation.
#9 GARAGE STARCHITECTURE
LET GARAGE ARCHITECTURE SHINE
Chicago garages are currently uniquely limited in their architectural expression—both by regulation and by cost—in terms of building systems, materials, size, and form. With increasingly diverse uses occurring inside garages, this proposal would allow for garage architecture to begin to reflect the plethora of activities that are going on inside them. This proposal also expands on current limitations in order to open up possibilities for unexpected future activities. Could a garage be used as a drone landing pad, a political organizing space, a kombucha production kitchen, or another activity we have never seen before? Second, Rebel Garages argues that the alley may be a productive space for architectural experimentation off of the main street. While consistent character of residential streets has a certain value, we believe that the small scale and relative affordability of accessory buildings might help cultivate a potent testing ground for new building technologies. A garage or accessory building may be a good site for architects or designers to test new energy-efficient roofing details, or unconventional exterior walls, using experimentation to drive architectural innovation in Chicago. Already, alleys are sometimes known as spaces of vice or quasi-legal activities, this change proposes that the code make allowances for rebel or experimental architecture, as well.
Future Firm designs spaces, big and small, for people to come together in new ways. Founded by Craig Reschke and Ann Lui in 2015, the Chicago-based architecture practice spans diverse scales: from pop-up exhibition spaces, to residential and commercial buildings, to urban and territorial speculations. Future Firm’s work has been exhibited at Storefront for Art & Architecture, New Museum’s Ideas City, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation and published in MAS Context, The Architect’s Newspaper, Chicago Architect, and Newcity. Future Firm also currently operates The Night Gallery, a nocturnal exhibition space on Chicago’s south side, which features video and film works by artists and architects from sunset to sunrise.
www.future-firm.org | @FutureFirm
Visual explorations of our daily environment
Visualizations by Scott Reinhard
From the ground, the scale of our landscape is slightly too large for us to comprehend its full character. Sometimes the features are too subtle, too substantial, or obscured by fixed elements. It can be difficult to understand the larger systems at play. That valley, the ridge, the shape of the mountains, the walk up the hill. They seem fixed and forever.
Mapmakers use caution when representing the topography of the Earth. There are other pieces of information to convey in a map along with physical geography, and besides, the range of elevation is quite small compared to the radius of the Earth. But unconstrained by formal training in cartography, and empowered by curiosity and the tools to process and review geographic data, I turned everything up to 11. At the graphic extremes, patterns emerge: glaciation, collisions, erosion, deep time. In its elevation lies the story of the land.
Working with geographic data also presents a new graphic medium to play with. These visualizations push representation in many directions—from hyper-detailed and realistic 3D renderings derived from LiDAR data to heavily abstracted and barely legible formal experiments. I don’t have an end goal, one map leads to the next, and there is an endless pool of data and tools to work with.
You can purchase a selection of maps by Scott Reinhard at www.scottreinhardmaps.com
Scott Reinhard is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer. He works at the New York multi-disciplinary design studio 2 × 4 and was formerly a Senior Designer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and VSA Partners. Scott has taught in the Graduate Communications Design program at the Pratt Institute and holds a Master of Graphic Design from North Carolina State University.
www.scottreinhard.com | www.scottreinhardmaps.com |@scottreinhard
MAS Context Fall Talks 2018
Video shot and edited by Axel Olson.
Lecture by AGENCY principals Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller as part of the MAS Context 2018 Fall Talks in Chicago. The lecture took place on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 at Perkins+Will.
AGENCY principals Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller presented recent work that reveals emerging–and often invisible-forces which erode public space and degrade democracy. AGENCY is a design and research practice which leverages spatial design and spatial information to counteract nascent forms of global and urban insecurity. From the practice’s position on the US/Mexico border, which provides a base of operations and context for discrete interventions, AGENCY’s work reveals and enacts emerging publics. Working in protracted, conflictual contexts, the practice consistently shifts the narrative, developing targeted methods to identify, appropriate, and subvert subperceptual urban and atmospheric phenomena.
Kripa and Mueller are the authors of FRONTS: Security and the Developing World (Applied Research and Design, forthcoming), which uncovers a growing geography of codependence between the global security complex and the urban morphologies of the developing world which it increasingly incriminates. Kripa and Mueller will elaborate on their work to: expose hidden geographies; countermap targeted communities; uncover the infrastructure of secretive detention networks; reveal the shifting space of sovereignty at the border; forge postnational assemblies from shared urban metrics; and exploit airborne vectors of cultural and biological exchange.
Thanks to the Perkins+Will for hosting the event.
Ersela Kripa is an Assistant Professor at Texas Tech College of Architecture and a founding partner of AGENCY. Ersela is the recipient of the 2018 Emerging Voices award from The Architectural League of New York, the Rome Prize in Architecture from the American Academy in Rome in 2010, and residency fellowships at the MacDowell Colony in 2009 and 2013. Ersela was named a Fellow of the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2010. Her work has been published in Scapegoat, The Architect’s Newspaper, MONU, Volume, Domus, Texas Architect, and others. Ersela teaches in the El Paso campus of TTU–a vibrant architectural program steps from the US-Mexico border, where she focuses on curriculum directly related to binational relations as they affect infrastructure, public space, and migration. Ersela holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University.
www.agencyarchitecture.com | @AGENCYARCHITECT
Stephen Mueller is a registered architect and a founding partner of AGENCY. Stephen is the recipient of the Rome Prize in Architecture from the American Academy in Rome in 2010, and the Emerging Voices award from The Architectural League of New York in 2018, among other honors. Stephen is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, with a co-authored, recurring feature highlighting architectural, infrastructural, and technological agents impacting the built environment in the borderland. Stephen holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Distinction from the University of Kansas, and a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Stephen has taught at a variety of institutions, including Washington University in St. Louis, and the Texas Tech University College of Architecture – El Paso program, a school uniquely situated on the US-Mexico border.
www.agencyarchitecture.com | @AGENCYARCHITECT
Envisioning New Spatial Organizations
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, geometrygames.org, 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.
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.
www.klaustoon.wordpress.com | @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.
www.designwith.co | @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.
www.williamchyr.com | http://manifold.garden |@WilliamChyr
Room at the Top?
Sexism and the Star System in Architecture
Essay by Denise Scott Brown
Most professional women can recount horror stories about discrimination they have suffered during their careers. Mine include social trivia as well as grand trauma. But some less common forms of discrimination came my way when, in mid-career, I married a colleague and we joined our professional lives just as fame (though not fortune) hit him. I watched as he was manufactured into an architectural guru before my eyes and, to some extent, on the basis of our joint work and the work of our firm.
When Bob and I married, in 1967, I was an associate professor. I had taught at the universities of Pennsylvania and Berkeley, and had initiated the first program in the new school of architecture at UCLA. I had tenure. My publication record was respectable; my students, enthusiastic. My colleagues, mostly older than me, accorded me the same respect they showed each other, and I had walked the same corridors of power they had (or thought I had).
The first indication of my new status came when an architect whose work I had reviewed said, “We at the office think it was Bob writing, using your name.” By the time we wrote Learning from Las Vegas, our growing experience with incorrect attributions prompted Bob to include a note at the beginning of the book asking that the work and ideas not be attributed to him alone and describing the nature of our collaboration and the roles played by individuals in our firm. His request was almost totally ignored. A body of theory and design in architecture apparently must be associated by architecture critics with an individual; the more emotional their criticism, the stronger is its focus on one person.
To avoid misattributions, our office provides an information sheet describing our preferred forms of attribution—the work to our firm, the writing to the person who signed the article or the nook. The result is that some critics now make a pro forma attribution in an inconspicuous place; then, in the body of the text, the design of the work and the ideas in the writing are attributed to Robert Venturi.
In the Japanese journal Architecture and Urbanism, for example, Hideki Shimizu wrote:
A review of his plan for the Crosstown Community suggests that Venturi is not so much affording his theory new development as giving the source of his architectural approach clear form in a fundamental attitude toward city planning …
Venturi’s position in relation to city planning is the thing that enables him to develop his basic posture in relation to architecture. The Crosstown Community reveals a profound mood of affectionate emotion. 
This would be fine except that the Crosstown Community was my work and was attributed as such in our book; I doubt whether, over a period of two years, Bob spent two afternoons on it.
When Praeger published a series of interviews with architects, my name was omitted from the dust jacket.  We complained and Praeger added my name, although objecting that this would spoil the cover design. On the inside flap, however, “eight architects” and “the men behind” modern architecture were mentioned. As nine were listed in the front, I gather I am still left out. 
There have been exceptions. Ada Louise Huxtable has never put a foot wrong with me. She also works hard at reporting our ideas correctly. A few critics have changed their methods of attribution in response to our requests, but at least one, in 1971, was on the warpath in the opposite direction, out to prove that Great Art can only be made by one man, and that Robert Venturi (read Howard Roark) is led astray when “he joins his wife Denise Scott Brown in praising certain suburban practices.” And the consort and collaborator of a famous architect wrote to me that, although she sees herself in his work, the work owes its quality to his individual talents and not to her collaboration. When real architects collaborate, she claimed, their separate identities remain; she gave as an example the lieder of Schubert and Goethe. We countered with the Beatles.
The social trivia (what Africans call petty apartheid) continue too: “wives’ dinners” (“we’ll just let the architects meet together, my dear”); job interviews where the presence of “the architect’s wife” distressed the board; dinners I must not attend because an influential member of the client group wants “the architect” as her date; Italian journalists who ignore Bob’s request that they address me because I understand more Italian than he does; the tunnel vision of students toward Bob; the “so you’re the architect!” to Bob, and the well-meant “so you’re an architect too?” to me. The head of a New York architecture school once reached me on the telephone because Bob was unavailable: “Denise, I’m embarrassed to be speaking to you because we’re giving a party for QP and we’re asking Bob but not you. You see, you are a friend of QP and you are an architect, but you’re also a wife, and we’re not asking wives.”
These experiences have caused me to fight, suffer doubt and confusion, and expend too much energy. “I would be pleased if my work were attributed to my husband,” says the designer wife of an architect. And a colleague asks, “Why do you worry about these things? We know you’re good. You know your real role in the office and in teaching. Isn’t that enough?” I doubt whether it would be enough for my male colleagues. What would Peter Eisenman do if his latest article were attributed to his co-editor, Kenneth Frampton? Or Vincent Scully, if the book on Newport houses were attributed to his co-author, Antoinette Downing—with perhaps a parenthesis to the effect that this was not intended to slight the contribution of others?
So I complain to the editor who refers to “Venturi’s ducks,” informing him that I invented the “duck.” (He prints my letter under the title “Less is a Bore,” a quotation from my husband). But my complaints make critics angry, and some have formed lasting hostilities against both of us on this score. Architects cannot afford hostile critics. And anyway I begin to dislike my own hostile persona.
That is when self-doubt and confusion arise. “My husband is a better designer than I am. And I’m a pretty dull thinker.” The first is true, the second probably not. I try to counter with further questions: “How come, then, we work so well together capping each other’s ideas in both design and theory? If my ideas are no good, why are they praised by the critics (even though attributed to Bob)?
We ourselves cannot tease our contributions apart. Since 1960 we have collaborated in the development of ideas and since 1967 we have collaborated in architectural practice. As chief designer, Bob takes final design responsibility. On some projects, I am closely involved and see many of my ideas in the final design; on others, hardly at all. In a few, the basic idea (what Louis Khan called the what) was mine. All of our firm’s urban planning work, and the urban design related to it, is my responsibility; Bob is virtually not involved with it, although other architects in the firm are. 
As in all firms, our ideas are translated and added by our co-workers, particularly our long-standing associates. Principals and assistants may alternate in the roles of creator and critic. The star system, which sees the firm as a pyramid with a designer on top, has little to do with today’s complex relations in architecture and construction. But, as sexism defines me as a scribe, typist, and photographer to my husband, so the star system defines our associates as “second bananas” and our staff as pencils.
Short of sitting under our drawing board, there is no way for the critics to separate us out. Those who do hurt me in particular but also others in the firm, and by ignoring as unimportant those aspects of our work where Bob has interfaced with others, they narrow his span to meet the limits of their perception.
Although I had been convinced with my role as a woman years before the rebirth of the movement, it was my experience as an architect’s wife that finally compelled me to act. In 1973 I gave a talk on sexism and the star system to the Alliance of Women in Architecture in New York City. I requested that the meeting be open to women only, probably incorrectly, but for the same emotional reasons (including hurt pride) that make national movements initially stress separatism. Nevertheless, about six men came. They hid in the back and sides of the audience. The hundred or so women identified strongly with my experience; “Me too!” “My God, you too?” echoed everywhere. We were soon high on our shared woe and on the support we felt for and from each other. Later, it struck me that the males had grown glummer as we grew more enthusiastic. They seemed unable to understand what was exercising us.
Since then I have spoken at several conferences on women in architecture. I now receive inquiries of interest for deanships and department chairs several times a year. I find myself on committees where I am the only woman and there is one black man. We two tokens greet each other wryly. I am frequently invited to lecture at architecture schools, “to be a role model for our girls.” I am happy to do this for their young women but I would rather be asked purely because my work is interesting.
Finally, I essayed my own interpretation of sexism and the star system in architecture. Budd Schulberg defines “Star Quality” as a “mysterious amalgam of self-love, vivacity, style, and sexual promise.”  Though this definition catches the spirit of architectural stardom, it omits the fact that stardom is something done to a star by others. Stars cannot create themselves. Why do architects need to create stars? Because, I think, architecture deals with unmeasurables. Although architecture is both science and art, architects stand or fall in their own estimation and in that of their peers by whether they are “good designers,” and the criteria for this are ill-defined and undefinable.
Faced with unmeasurables, people steer their way by magic. Before the invention of navigational instruments, a beautiful lady was carved on the prow of the boat to help sailors cross the ocean; and architects, grappling with the intangibles of design, select a guru whose work gives them personal help in areas where there are few rules to follow. The guru, as architectural father-figure, is subject to intense hate and love; either way, the relationship is personal, and necessarily one-to-one. This accounts for the intensely ad hominem stance of some of “Venturi’s” critics. If the attribution were correct the tone would be more even, as one cannot easily wax emotional over several people. I suspect, too, that for male architects the guru must be male. There can be no mom and pop gurus in architecture. The architectural prima donnas are all male.
Next, a colleague having her own difficulties in an American Studies program brought the work of Lionel Tiger to my attention. In Men in Groups, he writes that men run in male packs and ambitious women must understand this.  I recalled, as well, the exclamation of the French architect Ionel Schein, writing in Le Carré Bleu in the 1950s: “The so-called studio spirit is merely the spirit of a caste.” This brings to mind the upper-class origins of the American architecture profession, the differences between upper-class and middle-class attitudes to women, and the strong similarities that still exist today between the architecture profession and a men’s club.
American architectural education was modeled on the turn-of-the-century École des Beaux-Arts. It was a rip-roaring place and loads of fun, but its organization was strongly authoritarian, especially in its system for judging student work. The authoritarian personalities and the we-happy-few culture engendered by the Beaux-Arts stayed on in modern architecture long after the Beaux-Arts architectural philosophy had been abandoned; the architecture club still excludes women.
The heroically original modern architectural revolutionary with his avant-garde technology, out to save the masses through mass production, is a macho image if ever there was one. It sits strangely on the middle-aged reactionaries who bear its mantle today. A more conserving and nurturing (female?) outlook is being recommended to the profession by urban planners and ecologists, in the name of social justice and to save the planet. Women may yet ride in on this trend.
The critic in architecture is often the scribe, historian, and kingmaker for a particular group. These activities entitle him to join the “few,” even though he pokes them a little. His other satisfaction comes from making history in his and their image. The kingmaker-critic is, of course, male; though he may write of the group as a group, he would be a poor fool in his eyes and theirs if he tried to crown the whole group king. There is even less psychic reward in crowning a female king.
In these deductions, my thinking parallels that of Cynthia F. Epstein, who writes that elevation within the professions is denied to women for reasons that include “the colleague system,” which she describes as a men’s club, and “the sponsor-protégé relationship, which determines access to the highest levels of most professions.” Epstein suggests that the high-level sponsor would, like the king-maker-critic, look foolish if he sponsored a female and, in any case, his wife would object. 
You would think that the last element of Schulberg’s definition of a star, “sexual promise,” would have nothing to do with architecture. But I wondered why there was a familiar ring to the tone—hostile, lugubriously self-righteous, yet somehow envious—of letters to the editor that follow anything our firm publishes, until I recognized it as the tone middle America employs in letters to the editor on pornography. Architects who write angry letters about our work apparently feel we are architectural panderers, or at least we permit ourselves liberties they would not take, but possibly envy. Here is one, by an English architecture instructor: “Venturi has a niche, all right, but it’s down there with the flagellant, the rubber-fetishist, and the Blagdon Nude Amateur Rapist.” These are written by men, and they are written to or of Bob alone.
I have suggested that the star system, which is unfair to many architects, is doubly hard on women in a sexist environment, and that, at the upper levels of the profession, the female architect who works with her husband will be submerged in his reputation. My interpretations are speculative. We have no sociology of architecture. Architects are unaccustomed to social analysis and mistrust it; sociologists have fatter fish to fry. But I do get support for my thesis from women architects, from some members of my firm and from my husband.
Should there be a star system? It is unavoidable, I think, owing to the prestige we give design in architecture. But the schools can and should reduce the importance of the star system by broadening the student’s view of the profession to show value in its other aspects. Heaven knows, skills other than design are important to the survival of architecture firms. The schools should also combat the student’s sense of inadequacy about design, rather than, as now, augmenting it through wrongly authoritarian and judgmental educational techniques. With these changes, architects would feel less need for gurus, and those they would need would be different—more responsible and humane than gurus are asked to be today.
To the extent that gurus are unavoidable and sexism is rampant in the architecture profession, my personal problem of submersion through the star system is insoluble. I could improve my chances for recognition as an individual if I retuned to teaching or abandoned collaboration with my husband. The latter has happened to some extent as our office has grown and our individual responsibilities within it take more of our time. We certainly spend less time at the drawing board together and, in general, less time writing. But this is a pity, as or joint work feeds us both.
On the larger scene, all is not lost. Not all architects belong to the men’s club; more architects than before are women; some critics are learning; the American Institute of Architects (AIA) actively wants to help; and most architects, in theory at least, would rather not practice discrimination if someone will prove to them that they have been and will show them how to stop.
The foregoing is an abridgement of an article I wrote in 1975. I decided not to publish it at the time, because I judged that strong sentiments on feminism in the world of architecture would ensure my ideas a hostile reception, which could hurt my career and the prospects of my firm. However, I did share the manuscript with friends and, in samizdat, it achieved a following of sorts. Over the years I have received letters asking for copies.
In 1975, I recounted my first experience of the new surge of women in architecture. The ratio of men to women is now 1:1 in many schools. The talent and enthusiasm of these young women has burst creatively into the profession. At conferences today I find many women participants; some have ten years or more in the field.
Architecture, too, has changed since I first wrote this essay. However, my hope that architects would heed the social planners’ dicta did not pan out, and women did not ride in on that trend. Postmodernism did change the views of architects but not in the way I had hoped. Instead, the cult of personality increased. Architects lost their social concern and the architect as macho revolutionary was succeeded by the architect as dernier cri of the art world. This made things worse for women because, in architecture, the dernier cri is as male as the prima donna.
The rise in female admissions and the move to the right in architecture appear to be trends in opposite directions, but they are, in fact, unrelated because they occur at either end of the seniority spectrum. The women entrants are young; the cult of personality occurs at the top. The two trends have yet to meet. When they do, it will be fascinating to see what happens. Meanwhile, affirmative action programs have helped small female-owned firms get started but may have hindered the absorption of women into the mainstream of the profession, because women who integrate large existing practices gain no affirmative action standing unless they own 51 percent of the firm.
During the 1980s there has been a gradual increase of women architects in academe (I suspect that the growth has been slower than in other professions). I now receive fewer offers of deanships, probably because there are more female candidates than before and because word is out that I am too busy to accept. I have little time to lecture. As our office has grown, Bob and I have found more, rather than less, opportunity to work together, since some of our responsibilities have been delegated to the senior associates and project directors who form the core of our firm.
During this period we have ceased to be regarded as young turks and have seen a greater acceptance of our ideas than we would have dreamed possible. Ironically, a citation honoring Bob for his “discovery of the everyday American environment” was written in 1979 by the same critic who, in 1971, judged Bob lacking for sharing my interest in everyday landscape.
For me, things are much the same at the top as they were. The discrimination continues at the rate of about one incident a day. Journalists who approach our firm seem to feel that they will not be worth their salt if they do not “deliver Venturi.” The battle for turf and the race for status among critics still require the beating-off of women. In the last twenty years, I can not recall one major article by a high-priest critic about a woman architect. Young women critics, as they enter the fray, become as macho as the men and for the same reasons—to survive and win in the competitive world of critics.
For a few years, writers on architecture were interested in sexism and the feminist movement and they wanted to discuss them with me. In a joint interview, they would ask Bob about work and question me about my “woman’s problem.” “Write about my work!” I would plead, but they seldom did.
Some young women in architecture question the need for the feminist movement, claiming to have experienced no discrimination. My concern is that, although school is not free of discrimination, it is probably the least discriminatory environment they will encounter in their careers. By the same token, the early years in practice bring little differentiation between men and women. It is as they advance that difficulties arise, when firms and clients shy away from entrusting high-level responsibility to women. On seeing their male colleagues draw out in front of them, women who lack a feminist awareness are likely to feel that their failure to achieve is their own fault.
Over the years, it has slowly dawned on me that the people who cause my painful experiences are ignorant and crude. They are the critics who have not read enough and the clients who do not know why they have come to us. I have been helped to realize this by noticing that the scholars whose work we most respect, the clients whose projects intrigue us, and the patrons whose friendship inspires us, have no problem understanding my role. They are the sophisticates. Partly through them I gain heart and realize that, over the last twenty years, I have managed to do my work and, despite some sliding, to achieve my own self-respect.
1. Hideki Shizumi, “Criticism,” A+U 47 (November 1974): 3.
2. John W Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects (New York: Prager, 1973).
3. The architects originally listed were Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, Paul Rudolph, Bertrand Goldberg, Morris Lapidus, Louis Kahn, Charles Moore, and Robert Venturi. Also omitted from the dust jacket was the architect Alan Lapidus, interviewed with his father, Morris. Alan did not complain; at least he’s up there with those men behind the architecture.
4. Bob’s intellectual focus comes mainly from the arts and from the history of architecture. He is more of a specialist than I am. My artistic and intellectual concerns were formed before I met Bob (and indeed before I came to America), but they were the base of our friendship as academic colleagues. As a planner, my professional span includes the social sciences and other planning-related disciplines that I have tried to meld into our critique and theory of architecture. As an architect, my interests range widely but I am probably most useful at the initial stages of a design as we work to develop the parti.
5. Budd Sculberg, “What Price Glory?” New Republic 168 (January 6 and 13, 1973): 27–31.
6. Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (New York: Random House, 1969).
7. Cynthia F. Epstein, “Encountering the Male Establishment: Sex-Status Limits on Women’s Careers in the Professions,” American Journal of Sociology 75 (May 1970): 965–82.
Essay republished with permission from the Architectural Association from Denise Scott Brown’s AA Words Four: Having Words (London: Architectural Association Publications, 2009), 79–89. Originally published as “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” in Architecture: A Place for Women, ed. Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 237–46.
Denise Scott Brown is an architect, planner, urban designer, theorist, writer, and educator whose projects and ideas have influenced designers and thinkers worldwide. Working in collaboration with Robert Venturi over the last half century, she has guided the course of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates by serving on the broad range of the firm’s projects in architecture and as Principal-in-Charge of urban planning, urban design, and campus planning. Her experience in interdisciplinary work, teaching, and research has contributed to VSBA’s breadth and depth in architectural design.
www.venturiscottbrown.org | @VSBAllc
Territorial Performance and the Chamizal Dispute
Essay by Nathan Friedman
The Gila does not always run in the same bed; whenever it changes the boundary must change, and no survey nor anything else can keep it from changing…
It forms of itself a more apparent and enduring monument of the boundary than any that can be made by art. 
A 1964 El Paso Times press photograph depicts Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos and US President Lyndon B. Johnson, each standing on the domestic soil of their respective countries, stepping towards one another with open palms (fig. 1). It is the moment directly before a handshake atop the survey line dividing Mexico and the United States, an act choreographed as the symbolic end to the Chamizal land dispute in debate for over a century. Behind them stands a chrome obelisk monument on the international seam, highly polished and proudly new. It reflects the political gesture in high definition. Surrounding crowds from El Paso and Juárez, documented in the tens of thousands, saw the event doubled: four hands reaching out in mutual, amplified greeting.  A map serving as backdrop to the scene calls out the course of the Rio Grande River with dotted lines and labels land as “To Mexico” and “To United States,” signifying, with the abstract clarity of diagram, the latest division of international limits. On September 25, 1964 the United States federal government publicized a grand gesture of return, an act reported by Mexico City’s Excélsior as “the greatest diplomatic triumph in Mexico’s history.” 
The land in question, and the borderline that divided El Paso from Juárez, was disputed soon after the Treaty of 1848 specified the Rio Grande as an international boundary.  The natural element that preexisted the region’s inhabitation and motivated its settlement, chosen as a stable marker of sovereign limits, proved indifferent to politics. Between consecutive surveys in 1852 and 1873 a series of natural shifts pushed the river south, redistributing approximately 600 acres of land from Mexico to the United States.  Both countries claimed ownership of the territory. Mexico believed the original survey line should be honored, while the United States claimed the boundary shift was gradual and, in accordance with international law, the territory was theirs.  To complicate matters further, a small parcel of land nicknamed Cordova Island was recognized as a Mexican enclave north of the Rio Grande, created after a man-made channel streamlined the river in an effort to control flooding and additional erosion.
The Chamizal ceremony celebrated the signing of the Chamizal Treaty, an international agreement that honored the 1852 survey line and launched a major landscape-engineering project to redirect the Rio Grande back to its historic course. The location of this ceremony, specifically the handshake of Presidents Johnson and Mateos, is of central importance. It is a sense of location, rather than the location itself, that supports the occurrence of the event on many fronts. The public audience is lead to believe, through the inclusion of a new border monument, that the handshake was situated directly atop the international seam, the successful negotiation of which serving as ceremonial impetus. However, this reading is complicated by the fact that first, the international border between El Paso and Juárez would ultimately be defined not by a material monument on dry land but by a concrete channel for the Rio Grande. Second, the ceremony took place at a high school in El Paso that was near the border but not actually on the border. Perhaps this anxiety of location produced the necessity for a diagrammatic backdrop to underline context. Map, monument, and handshake act in unison to institutionally project a geographically specific location, an image that would be quickly disseminated across both countries by national media. 
The following analysis frames compositional fragments of the El Paso Times photograph as political props, defined as material elements that support the border as a project performed and in turn allow for the reconstitution of national limits to occur. By tracing the role and history of territory, monument, and federal agents central to the Chamazal ceremony one is able to understand the relevance of things represented and, more importantly, assert the absence of both landscape-engineering and urbanism—elements that played a vital role in the definition of the United States-Mexico border during the mid-twentieth century yet were denied visual representation.
The El Paso Times photograph can be read on two levels. The first reading is one of fact, or truthful representation of an event. It acts as evidence and alibi for time, place, and circumstance, elements that are not in dispute or open to interpretation.  The fixed nature of the image and its distribution by national media promotes the action as a binding legal contract.  Yet far from mutually exclusive, facts are open to interpretation. Each singular fact or description is complicated by a series of alternate realities framed by varying contexts, compositions, and vantage points, all, as sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele explains, “equally true but differently organized.”  Further, such projected narratives are constructed with motive and intention; they are anything but neutral. It is only through a close reading that one is able to extract and navigate elements unseen. Through consideration of alternative realities, a second reading of the photograph as social fiction emerges. The institutionally framed image operates on the gap between truthful description and public mass communication. 
Photographs, especially those that emanate from news media, are public artifacts to be interpreted. Often serving as secondary visual support alongside descriptive text, these images contain their own agency that expands far beyond the individual caption. Even when the image is directed by a single figure and carefully composed, ownership or authority of meaning does not exist.  While it is possible, even necessary, to consider photographs as an assemblage of components, each with their own history and relevance, an overall reading of the artifact cannot be reduced to a single element. The El Paso Times photograph can thus be framed as an assemblage of actors—including territory, monument, politicians, press, and audience. Once traced, individual threads can be reconstructed to offer new meaning.
The relationship of territorial limits to riverbed is the first thread to examine, depicted as unified—and static—vectors at the Chamizal ceremony. Such representation ignores a history of disjunction between natural barrier and theoretical boundary line that was well documented on the United States-Mexico border. Confronted with the unruly course of the Gila River, a regional waterway that designated an early portion of the international boundary, nineteenth-century commissioners William H. Emory and José Salazar reconciled the futility of their efforts with poetic reflection. The river was better suited as a monument to the evolving forces acting on the border, they would write, than as a fixed limit of sovereign territory. Any attempt at survey was inconsequential. Shifting natural boundaries were given explicit representation four decades later when a fifteen-mile stretch of the Colorado River was surveyed in 1893 by the United States and then again by Mexico one year later. “Official map No. 19” shows their efforts superimposed, revealing a tangled network of tributaries and islands formed through time, or perhaps simply by subjective viewpoints (fig. 2). All 1,255 miles of the Rio Grande could thus be conceived as a dynamic path with an internal logic of its own, redistributing national territory at will. Yet, as unsettling as the concept was to governing bodies, such acts of natural deviance were only of consequence in settled locations where built structures and populations could be quantified along with acreage lost or gained.
The boundary shifts that accumulated between El Paso and Juárez by the beginning of the twentieth century produced a thick liminal zone of contestation. An early 1909 meeting between Presidents Taft and Porfirio Díaz to negotiate the land was disrupted by a violent riot that led in headlines. “Diaz-Taft Meeting marred by Tragedy; Boys Duel Over Flags,” ran the banner of the Atlanta Constitution. The event overshadowed Taft’s visit to Juárez, reported as the first time in history a United States president traveled outside of national limits.  A year later, an arbitration proposal (mediated by an “impartial Canadian jurist”) that split disputed land equally between nations was deemed a failure.  Both the United States and Mexico rejected the compromise, concluding in a final report: “The present decision terminates nothing; settles nothing. It is simply an invitation for international litigation. It breathes the spirit of unconscious but nevertheless unauthorized compromise rather than of judicial determination.”  Not only was territory in question, which included a residential population and small industrial center of factories and warehouses, but also the fundamental relationship of sovereign limits to historic boundary markers. Cordova Island, a Mexican enclave north of the river in otherwise United States territory, exacerbated this tension. Occupying a geographic position outside the normative national bounds, the land mass became a troubled grey zone for federal jurisdiction. Nicknamed el barrio del Diablo (or “neighborhood of the devil”) it was a site noted for drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
Due to sparse historical records, largely based on personal accounts, the sole geographic reference for the Rio Grande agreed upon by both nations was the original survey conducted in 1852.  This survey line held authority for over one hundred and twelve years, cited in ongoing international negotiations and ultimately serving as the primary reference for the reconstruction of the river in the 1960s. Amidst encroaching Soviet influence on Mexico and Latin America, John F. Kennedy reopened the Chamizal case in 1962. The threat of communist infiltration through the nation’s southern edge motivated resolution with then Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos citing the dispute as the “number one problem in US-Mexican relations.”  The land was negotiated within a larger international program, the Alliance for Progress, which provided United States government aid to Latin America—publicized as support to “complete the revolution of the Americas” and ward off Soviet control.  Along with funding in support of democratic governments, education, and social housing the United States officially recognized the original survey line between El Paso and Juárez, effectively “giving back” 600 acres of land to Mexico.
A map from the city of El Paso titled “Land Affected by the Chamizal Settlement” shows the land in question as well as the location of the Chamizal ceremony (fig. 3). Grey poché fills the disputed territory, bound by the Rio Grande in the south and its future (or nineteenth-century past) course in the north. A thick dotted line labeled “relocated river channel” snakes through the center, representing the 1852 survey superimposed on an urbanism that had since grown to a half million in population. A new “border highway” is offset north of the channel, signifying dual lateral infrastructures of water and transportation that would give uninterrupted material presence to the borderline. While boundaries, acreage, and infrastructure are presented with diagrammatic clarity, the displaced residents of the Chamizal, estimated at 5,600 at the time the land was rezoned, are denied visual presence.  A speckled hatch over the contested land obscures any reading of residential side streets or human occupation.
The location of the ceremony is labeled with a number one, taking place in United States territory on a sports field at Bowie Senior High School. While ample space was a requirement for the large public gathering, it should be noted the distance the event took place from the downtown districts of El Paso and Juárez. These adjacent urban zones, connected by three international bridges linking the urban communities and labeled as “new ports of entry,” are in close proximity and linked with a continuous commercial strip. In comparison to Bowie Senior High School and the simulation of context that was constructed there, a distinctive site existed less than two miles away, operating in reality as an international joint between the two nations. When given the choice between real site and abstracted reproduction, federal administrators chose the latter.
Perhaps a generic symbol of binational cooperation was the point intended, a site that could stand in for a range of geographies on the US federal agenda. The Chamizal was just one of many locations mentioned by Lyndon B. Johnson in his dedication speech that afternoon. Johnson linked to broader territory with the phrase, “We have found peaceful roads to the solution of differences from Chamizal to Panama,” and then spiraled to address a host of global others: Africa, the Middle East, Israel, China, Japan, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Moscow, Cyprus, Vietnam, Congo, Cuba, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon.  The local history of Mexico and the United States at the Chamizal was subsumed by the larger concern of Cold War politics.  For Johnson, the event was a symbol “to all the world that the most troublesome of problems can yield to the tools of peace,” but more importantly to the Soviet Union that Mexico (and the larger frontier of Latin America) was in cooperation with the United States in the midst of the Cold War.  This promotion of the Chamizal, as a singular location symbolically expanded ad infinitum, leads to a reading of multiplicity by means of the various territories, borders, events, and monuments it was institutionally
framed to represent.
For Adolfo López Mateos the ceremony symbolized far more than the correction of a historic injustice; it was tied to the ongoing urban development of Mexico’s northern border, spearheaded through the federal program Programa Nacional Fronterizo or PRONAF.  In the year of 1965 alone, head architect Mario Pani designed “regulatory” master plan developments and architectural projects for eight of twelve Mexican border cities including Juárez. The full urban ambition for Juárez was published in the journal Arquitectura/México and featured an economic free zone, the “Zona PRONAF,” to promote United States tourism through new shopping centers and a museum in close proximity to the border (fig. 4,5).  The development plans depict El Paso and Juárez as a single urban development, connected by a network of infrastructure spanning both sides of the international boundary.
Despite a contemporary conception of the border as a geopolitical, urban zone, the Chamizal ceremony employed an anachronistic object—the border monument—to symbolize binational agreement. Historically, border monuments were positioned to correspond with a precise coordinate on the international survey line. Commissioned, inscribed and placed by both the United States and Mexico, they were unique bilateral objects operating across and reflecting on separate territories and philosophies of nationhood. The original monuments were designed in heavy cast-iron as material markers, sequentially numbered and intervisible from one lateral view to next along the entire length of the US-Mexico border west of the Rio Grande.  These artifacts of visual reference operated as a set of standardized, engineered points, placed with geographic precision and objective finality.  Their placement was inextricably linked to the constitution of sovereign limits, with the international seam bound to their exact location.
The form and operative position of the Chamizal Monument can be traced to the late nineteenth century. Measuring six-feet nine-inches tall and one-foot wide at the base, it was the same scale and proportion as border monuments deployed in a joint 1891 international survey but was of a different material and construction type. In comparison to the original material of rough cast-iron, the Chamizal Monument was one-of-a-kind and produced in gleaming chromium-plated steel. It reflected actions immediately adjacent in sharp clarity and the surrounding atmosphere with rippled distortion. One could imagine that without the context of political fanfare the monument would simply reflect its natural surroundings and effectually disappear, an anti-monument of sorts. It simultaneously represented and denied a geographically specific location. Though the artifact had binational inscriptions, it was not numbered in relation to existing monuments. It sat in obscured isolation, a single self-referential point that had no visual connection to a larger context. Further, rather than constructed or placed the monument was revealed to an awaiting audience, exposed from under a white sheet by the combined effort of Johnson and Mateos (fig. 6). At a moment when a conception of the bilateral had expanded far beyond the production of theoretical maps and monuments, the international boundary line as pure construct of the nation-state was asserted through simulacra and choreographed performance.
A series of unmarked images from the Chamizal ceremony, stored in the El Paso Times media archive, depict alternative views from that of the main press photograph.  Offering a range of focal depths and taken at oblique angles and moments throughout the day, they provide valuable information as to the federal scenic design and broader context of the event. The archival El Paso Times images, unedited and without organization, sit between the constructs of government and press to offer a distinct perspective. “Unmarked image No. 179” reveals the backdrop map to be a thin plane, reminiscent of a grounded billboard positioned within an expansive crowd (fig. 7). It is just large enough to fill the frame of a frontal photograph and block the background of buses, trees, and onlookers. An expanded view of the crowd in relation to both presidents and First Ladies Claudia Johnson and Eva Mateos is provided in another unmarked series image. Taken from above the heads of an applauding public, the composition is centered on Lyndon Johnson holding the hand of Adolfo López Mateos in the air (fig. 8). The obelisk monument that served the proud focus of the main press photograph barely registers, mirroring adjacent figures at the base only to stand out above the crowd. The alternate images make clear a construction of place that could only be represented as total environment through an equally constructed photographic image, framed by a privileged and unobstructed frontal viewpoint.
After the ceremony the Chamizal Monument was removed to make way for the reconstruction of the Rio Grande. The international boundary between El Paso and Juárez was constituted in reality not by a symbolic object but through an urban-scale landscape-engineering project. The concrete channel that redirected the river back to its historic course was 4.5-miles long, 116-feet wide, and required 78 million dollars to construct.  An aerial image from 1966 midway through construction shows the full scale of the project (fig. 9). The view looks east, laterally down the borderline with El Paso labeled on the left and Ciudad Juárez on the right. The freeform course of the Rio Grande zigzags vertically down the image, in close proximity to Mexican urban development. The nascent path of the new channel reaches to the sports fields of Bowie Senior High School, captured in this one moment as if terminating directly on the past site of the Chamizal ceremony. A comparable view from 1968 pictures the project complete (fig. 10). The straight-edged lines and tight curves of the concrete channel, rendered as an engineered super-highway, boldly upstage the last remnants of the natural riverbed. Sitting side-by-side, the new channel is a streamlined sign of the old. The formerly disputed Chamizal territory sits between, vacant and restricted from development after being designated a national park and historic site in 1966. 
If the El Paso Times photographs represent a social fiction of place and placing, then the aerial images of the Rio Grande channel provide evidence of the realized alternative. It was precisely the acts of engineering that governed the reconstitution of international limits—in relation to geographic survey and channel construction—that were denied visual presence at the Chamizal ceremony. Whereas the Chamizal Monument functioned as a symbol of binational agreement, a political prop that organized the main press image, the channel was an instrument of binational division that gave uninterrupted material presence to the boundary. Thus, as an alternative to the projected act of “giving back,” the negotiation of the Chamizal can be read as a means to assert territorial limits and spatial distance at the height of the Cold War. Abstract survey lines and the soft, shifting edge of the Rio Grande riverbed were replaced by formalized concrete infrastructure.
On December 13, 1968, four years after the Chamizal ceremony, Lyndon Johnson and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz traveled to the border of El Paso and Juárez to celebrate the completion of the Rio Grande channel. They met at the center of the newly built Santa Fe International Bridge, where the Chamizal Monument had been stripped from its base and relocated. In a repeat performance of the 1964 ceremony with modified actors, location, and marker, the two presidents clasped hands in front of the chrome obelisk and symbolically atop the survey line. Again, the ritual was documented as binding social contract and disseminated by international press.  After shaking hands, Johnson and Ordaz approached a platform with a raised red button. Their final act was orchestrated as a display of federal control over nature and the riverbed: a simultaneous compression by both presidents was rigged to detonate an earth dam a half-mile away, allowing the river behind to surge through its new course. However, the performance of wilderness tamed ended in anticlimax. An insufficient blast of dynamite resulted in a “trickle” of water to emerge instead of a mighty current.31 In a final moment of failed rupture, the federal act of engineering that reshaped sovereign limits was not even allowed presence through the choreographed act of simulation. Instead, fittingly, it was represented solely by the malfunction of a single button.
1. Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, made under the direction of the secretary of the interior, by William H. Emory. Major First Cavalry and United States Commissioner (Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson, printer, 1857), Ex. Doc No. 108, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 21.
2. Richard L. Lyons, “Peace Nears For World, LBJ Says: He Meets Mexican Chief, Dedicates Chamizal Shaft,” Washington Post, Times Herald, September 26, 1964, A1.
3. See: Excélsior, September 21, 1964, 8.
4. The earliest documented complaint is dated 1856 and described as an “anxious inquiry” to Hon. Caleb Cushin from a landowner in the Valley of El Paso, Reports of International Arbitral Awards, The Chamizal Case (Mexico, United States) June 15, 1911, Volume XI, United Nations (2006), 329.
5. Mexican surveyors stated “the destruction of the right side [of the Rio Grande or Bravo del Norte] almost wholly took place during the great swell years 1864, 1868, 1874.” Chamizal arbitration: “The countercase of the United States of American before the International boundary commission,” United States of Mexico, Hon. Eugene Latleur presiding under the provisions of the convention between the United States of American and the United States of Mexico, concluded June 24, 1910, with appendix and portfolio of maps (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911), 6.
6. Though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo specified the Rio Grande as an international boundary in 1848, the course of the river was not surveyed and documented until 1852. See Map No. 29 of the Boundary Commission, Messrs. José Salazar Ylarregui and General W.H. Emory.
7. For starters, see “Johnson, Lopez Mateos Meet at El Paso Today,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1964, 4, and “Johnson Says US Won’t Spark War: In El Paso He Vows Not to Frighten Other Nations—Meets Mexican Chief,” New York Times, September 26, 1964, 1. In Mexico, see “Eso es la Devolución de El Chamizal: Resultado de negociaciones tan honrosas como cordiales entre ambos países,” El Informador, September 26, 1964, 6-A.
8. Art historian Ariella Azoulay has theorized the medium of photography as a social contract, one that is used to both disclose and promote the negotiations of involved parties. “The invention of photography offered the gaze an absolute plane of visual immobility,” she writes, “a plane on which all movement is frozen, transformed into a still picture that can be contemplated without disturbance.” See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contact of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 93.
9. This concept was relayed literally by the Los Angeles Times. A statement, perhaps written tongue-in-cheek, read “A handshake Friday between President Johnson and his Mexican counterpart, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, will reduce the size of the United States by 437 acres.” “437 Acres of El Paso to Go to Mexico Friday: Nations to Seal Chamizal Treaty, Settling Long Dispute Caused by Rio Grande Shift,” Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1964, L5.
10. Kim Lane Scheppele, “Facing Facts in Legal Interpretation,” in “Law and the Order of Culture,” special issue, Representations (University of California Press) 30 (Spring 1990), 49.
11. This understanding is adapted from Kim Lane Scheppele’s analysis of the term “legal fiction” in her text “Facing Facts in Legal Interpretation.” It should be noted that the relationship of audience to fictional construct differs in the case of courtroom dynamics. In judicial proceedings fictions are well understood as a legal device, marked by linguistic qualifiers to alert the audience and avoid misinterpretation.
12. Outlined in The Civil Contract of Photography, Ariella Azoulay proposes a theory for reading the medium based on an “ontological-political understanding.” She details a comprehensive and inclusive approach that “takes into account all the participants in photographic acts—camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator—approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of the these.” Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, 23, 86.
13. “Diaz-Taft Meeting marred by Tragedy; Boys Duel Over Flags,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 17, 1909, C1.
14. “To Be Arbitrated: Canadian to Decide Whether Mexico or the United States owns Chamizal Tract,” Boston Daily Globe, June 20, 1910, 3.
15. Reports of International Arbitral Awards, 342.
16. It should be noted that even the original survey line was a fictional construct, a contractual negotiation between national survey teams who ran and marked the international boundary separately. In a journal entry dated September 21, 1857, boundary commissioners Emory and Salazar addressed the differences in national reports stating: “The Commissioners think it proper to state that in many details along the Rio Bravo, in Topography, and in Latitude and Longitude, there are small differences, the legitimate result of scientific operations performed under difficult circumstances.” Chamizal arbitration, 19.
17. William E. Blundell, “Chamizal Struggle: US Hopes for a Cold War Gain From Giving in to Mexico in Old Border Dispute,” Wall Street Journal, February 28, 1963, 16.
18. John F. Kennedy, “Preliminary Formulations on the Alliance for Progress,” Address by President Kennedy at a White House Reception for Latin American Diplomats and Members of Congress, March 13, 1961.
19. Charles Mohr, “Johnson Says US Won’t Spark War: In El Paso, He Vows Not to Frighten Other Nations—Meets Mexican Chief,” New York Times, September 26, 1964, 1.
20. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks in El Paso at a Ceremony Marking the Settlement of the Chamizal Dispute. September 25, 1964,” 1118–1119.
21. The speech of Adolfo López Mateos also privileged Cold War rhetoric over the local territorial implications of the Chamizal, focusing on the international relationship with the United States following WWII. See “Discurso del presidente López Mateos en la ceremonia de la entrega de Chamizal,” 195.
22. The Wall Street Journal reported on the Chamizal in relation to Cold War politics in 1963 stating, “Mainly with a push from the Communists, the Chamizal issue has been put forth in Latin countries as concrete evidence of ‘Gringo imperialism.’ For example, Cuban emissaries have used it to inflame feelings against the US in Venezuela, where President Betancourt’s pro-US regime is being pounded severely by leftists.” William E. Blundell, “Chamizal Struggle: US Hopes for a Cold War Gain From Giving in to Mexico in Old Border Dispute,” Wall Street Journal, February 28, 1963, 16.
23. English translation: National Border Program. For further reading see: Marisol Rodriguez and Hector Rivero, “ProNaF, Ciudad Juarez: Planning and urban transformation,” ITU 8, no. 1, 2011, 196–207.
24. Detailed urban redevelopment plans for Ciudad Juárez can be found in “Plano regulador de Ciudad Juárez,” Arquitectura/México, 1965, 62-75.
25. For additional information see International Boundary Commission, Report of the Boundary Commission upon the survey and re-marking of the boundary between the United States and Mexico west of the Rio Grande, 1891-1896, 3 vols (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898). A comparable Mexican report is titled: International Boundary Commission, United States and Mexico (1882–1896), Memoria de la Sección Mexicana de la Comisión Internacional de Límites entre México y los Estados Unidos que restableció los monumentos de El Paso al Pacifico; bajo la dirección de México del ingeniero Jacobo Blanco, jefe de la Comisión Mexicana (New York: Impr. De J. Polhemus y Compania, 1901).
26. “Our Southern Boundary: Report of Col. Barlow of the International Commission,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1896, 11.
27. The photographic archive of the El Paso Times contains 240 images of the event, a selection of which can be found online. The complete series was first published in 2013 after unmarked photographic negatives of the event were found. T. Long, “Archive photos: Previously unpublished 1964 Chamizal treaty settlement,” El Paso Times Media Center, September 25, 2013, accessed October 3, 2014.
28. Neil Sheehan, “Johnson and Diaz Ordaz Shift Rio Grande Into a Concrete-Lined Channel,” New York Times, December 14, 1968, 18.
29. Texas Historical Commission, “Chamizal National Memorial,” Texas Historic Sites Atlas, February 2, 1974.
30. See Sheehan, “Johnson and Diaz Ordaz Shift Rio Grande Into a Concrete-Lined Channel,” 18.
Nathan Friedman is an architect and former editor of MIT’s Thresholds, with recent research on the American frontier and history of federal construction at the United States-Mexico border. He has worked at Eisenman Architects in New York, SMAQ Berlin, and most recently the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, focusing on a new contemporary art museum in the heart of Moscow’s Gorky Park. Friedman holds a Master of Science in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art from MIT and Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University.
Living in Cabrini
James Lockhart, a former resident of Cabrini Green, shares his memories with Iker Gil about growing up in the Chicago Public Housing.
This summer, while taking photographs of buildings being demolished in Cabrini Green, I met James Lockhart, a former resident of the public housing. A few weeks later, along with my friend Andreas EG Larsson, we walked around the neighborhood to know more about him growing up there and the stories of the dissapearing neighborhood. One of the most notorious housing projects in the US, it is also full of stories of community, friendship, education, and respect. Here are some of his memories that accompany the pictures we took during this fascinating visit.
The view of building 365 wrenched with poverty and absorbed by violence is where I used to call home. Those red brick buildings were a playground, sometimes forts during wars of the rival gangs, and even a fall out shelter during a natural disaster. And although it may have been stricken by these ills, it was a nurturing place as well. Nevertheless, my mother and father taught me lessons that would keep me safe from the ravaging wolves of the streets. Although I did run with the wolves, I felt a sense of hope growing up in Cabrini Green.
Located on the Near North side of Chicago, Cabrini Green stood out like a sore thumb. As cities have their financial district, a Gold Coast and a Diamond district, Cabrini was “the Poverty district.” Lines for drugs extend from the 4th floor down to the lobby of the building; imagine walking home from school through these conditions. It always amazed me how I could walk down four blocks east from my building 365 W. Oak St. and can stand in front of Barneys New York or the Prada store. How could we be so poor and be surrounded by so much wealth? Alas!
The row house, the low-rise section of Cabrini Green is where I spent most of my wonder years. Sort of like a maze to police running after us, to the point they chopped down all the trees so they could see clearly down each row leaving only the trees in backyards; how is that for going green. Mainly kids riding bikes, girls jumping rope, gang bangers gang banging and drug dealers selling drugs but it was still
our community. I remember how they use to tell me “lil James go in the house…We bout to be shooting.”
In the row houses my address was 941 North Cambridge, I witnessed a lot of things while living there, good and bad. I remember getting sent home from summer camp because I got caught smoking weed, such a bad habit for a 12 year old right. Or the time a woman’s body was recovered from a sewer across the street from us. My nephew, age six, witnessed the entire thing, when they pulled the body out he thought it was a Ninja Turtle.
We would just sit back in amazement looking at the John Hancock building. Words like “architecture” were not a part of our vocabulary yet but we understood the building was special. We could view it right from our bedroom window; as a matter of fact we could view the entire Chicago skyline right from the projects. We did not realize how valuable the real estate truly was until the gentrification started.
Vivid memories of us hopping those black gates playing “it” a project version of “hide go seek”, running after each other. We would watch the older guys in the projects and try to emulate them from smoking weed to carrying guns. This was the cycle that trapped so many friends of mine who didn’t have parents or whose parents where hooked on hard drugs. It was very common for parents to be addicted to drugs and allow the streets to raise their children, but there were also very strong parents who were disciplinarians who raised their children to be independent thinkers.
The project’s favorite pastime seems to be basketball. I knew several friends who could’ve received full athletic scholarships to Big Ten schools and blew it because they lacked discipline. Personally, I love basketball, but my father always put emphasis on providing and maintaining my family, so instead of me waking up and running to the court to play during the summers, I had to work my Chicago Sun Times newspaper route on Adams and Dearborn, and then I could go play ball. At age 9.
St. Philip Benizi was, I believe, a Quaker church originally, but we knew the church for its Summer camp “Cycle.” Cycle provided summer jobs for teens in the community and a safe haven from the ills of the projects. There were several community centers like this in Cabrini but all seemed to disappear as the gentrification increased. Cycle was one of eight community centers in the 80’s and 90’s but by 2000
that number decreased to one. As one can see from it’s boarded up windows, Cycle is no longer a place where the project kids can come for activities.
Graffiti is something you can find in any neighborhood, but what’s special about Cabrini is that most of it is paying homage to fallen friends. Cabrini Green has witnessed a lot of blood poured into her streets, claiming its place in American history as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States, but I am evidence that it’s a place that teaches you life lessons of survival and hope.
Honestly, I feel somewhat like a veteran of war, because, frankly, I cannot recall how many friends I have lost, and to be perfectly honest, its hurts to count. For some, like B Love Ink Dog, their names have become as beloved as Jesus. And at any given moment you will hear someone swear to their names “I put that on Ink Dog” or “on B Love” similar to how someone would “swear to God” to show they are
sincere or prove that they are telling the truth. Somehow, this keeps their memory alive, and just how the young emulate the old, this is sometimes the ultimate goal of the living; to have their name mentioned in this way after they die.
It felt more like a maximum security prison than a gated community when the Chicago Housing Authority tried to beef up the safety of the neighborhood. Moreover, with the invasion of privacy by police cameras watching our every move. I guess it is true a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.
But it is also true that the poor people here in Cabrini do not produce the drugs that they shoot in their veins nor do they produce the guns that spill their blood into the streets. Moreover, the poorly funded schools and lack of education has a direct correlation with delinquent behavior. That’s why my mother emphasized education and drilled this into my head “Jay, never walk by an open door; walk through and establish yourself, ask questions and learn, your education can never be taken from you. Use it to open doors for others, but first you have to walk through.”
James Lockhart is an Anesthesia Technician at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC. He received his BS from Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA and has completed his postbaccalaureate premedical studies at Northwestern University Chicago campus. He is currently applying for Medical School to pursue a career in Anesthesia.
Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at UIC. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club.
www.mas-studio.com | @MASContext