Stanley Tigerman (1930-2019)
Architects remember Stanley Tigerman
MAS Studio & MAS Context
Architect and educator Stanley Tigerman was one of the pillars of architecture in Chicago, the backbone of the discipline and the city. For over five decades he designed and built hundreds of buildings, curated dozens of group exhibitions, and mentored generations of architects. He was always instigating discussions about architecture and Chicago, whether in lectures, interviews, essays, or informal conversations. We all grew accustomed to his presence, his energy, his honesty, his wit, and his wisdom. It felt that it would last forever. I wish it would have lasted forever. Unfortunately, it didn’t. On June 3, Stanley Tigerman passed away at the age of 88.
Throughout the years, I was fortunate to spend time with Stanley and his wife of 40 years, architect Margaret McCurry. While I had met them earlier, it was for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial when I had the chance to work with them after inviting both (independently) to participate in the exhibition I was curating. Architect Ann Lui and I later interviewed him in his office surrounded by his and Margaret’s architectural book collection for an issue of MAS Context. He discussed his education under a notoriously tough Paul Rudolph, the influential symposia he organized during the 1970s and 1980s, rewriting the established architectural history of Chicago, his role model Mies van der Rohe, ethics, and the next generation of architects. As we mentioned in our introduction to the interview, Stanley shared his central belief that vigorous debate—including harsh criticism, strong positions, and the prioritization of powerful new ideas even at the cost of one’s own comfort—is essential to the forward movement of architecture. But besides these noted moments, we got together more informally, along with Margaret, for many engaging conversations about architecture, Chicago, and just life. He was curious, generous, attentive, and always honest. The conversations resonated many days after our gatherings, and sometimes things that seemed insignificant at the moment became important over time.
He built a lot and drew even more. The Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Pacific Garden Mission, and the Children’s Advocacy Center are just three examples of what he stood for: carefully considered projects that demonstrated a deep care for social justice in general and the users in particular. Stanley and Eva Maddox founded Archeworks in 1994 “on the premise that good design should serve everyone.” It gave them a framework to explore community-based needs aided by many accomplished faculty throughout the years. It demonstrated the capacity of Stanley to rally talent around a powerful, and sometimes quixotic, idea. For the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, he designed container housing for the disabled that would allow a disabled person and a caregiver to live together with a courtyard acting as a communal zone. He envisioned a place where people, no matter what challenges they were facing, could thrive. He was excited not only to present it within the framework of the Biennial but also to explore where in Chicago he could build this development. Ideas needed to be built. Many of his renowned projects during his five-decade long career range from visionary to symbolic, joyful, and clever. They all tell a story and none of them leave you indifferent.
Along with his buildings and bringing together people, as he did by organizing several renowned symposia and the reconstitution of the Chicago Architectural Club with the “Chicago Seven,” his influence was felt in the nurturing of the generations of architects that came after him. He truly believed in passing the baton (he even organized an event to symbolize that when he and Eva stepped down as directors of Archeworks in 2008) and supporting new ideas that could move the discipline forward. He held us accountable for our words and actions, always pushing us to do better. Along with Margaret, they organized salons to make sure that young architects had a forum to discuss ideas and could have a place at the table, making introductions to those with the capacity to develop those ideas.
During one of the last times I met with him, he showed me the ink drawings he was methodically working on again to fill his sketchbook. He was excited about his drawings and knowing more about what we, the younger generations of architects, were doing. It was pure Stanley until the end.
His passing leaves a huge void in architecture, Chicago, and me. It is hard to capture his character and all that he did (his interview for the Oral History project is highly recommended to begin to grasp his rich and complex life) but what is clear is that his imprint can be found across the city. In a way, he was the conscience of the architecture discipline and was not afraid to take a position, which granted him both friends and enemies along the way. It will be impossible to find a substitute for Stanley but hopefully the next generation of architects can continue what he led for many years in some capacity. Chicago and the architecture discipline will benefit from building a strong network of support and mentors for the current and next generations.
I am extremely grateful for the conversations, support, and encouragement from Stanley and Margaret throughout the years. My condolences to Margaret, his family, and all who mourn his loss.
Stanley Tigerman asked me to take the baton—run with it, stab him with it, stab someone else with it, pass it forward and be stabbed by it—just don’t decline it. In the baton, he asked for courage, strength, diligence, intelligence, generosity, and demanded a younger generation to take care of their own time period—even if it means laying yourself down to help your peers succeed. The idea of the baton, to me, is an idea of dedication to the ongoing cultivation of the field of architecture—something that does not die with the death of individuals, but an idea that remains alive because of all our mutual love for architecture.
I will think of Stanley often as I go on with life and work. There are lessons I will continue to think about, such as the fine line between skepticism and cynicism, irony and critique, the ineffable and the fantastical… To Stanley, architecture was a way of life, and he imparted that value onto me. Stanley Tigerman was the soul of Chicago, and he made his city a better place.
Memory Card Sea Power
Cape Town-based photographer David Southwood’s work asks questions about place and its inhabitants, focusing on peripheral economies, privilege, power, and interstitial spaces along infrastructures. His project Memory Card Sea Power focuses on the Foreshore region of Cape Town’s city bowl and the Tanzanian stowaways that inhabit it while they wait for their next move.
Iker Gil talked to David Southwood to learn about the origins of the project, the history of the area, his relationship to the stowaways, and the broadsheet produced.
Iker Gil: When did you first come across the Tanzanian stowaways who live by the N1 Highway? Why did they settle in this specific area of Cape Town?
David Southwood: In 2010 I became aware of a community of men living under the bridges near the Cape Town harbor. Because these guys are masters of camouflage, the actual realization that the same group of men was occupying this littoral section of the urban plan, consistently, was a gradual one.
The short version of the very complicated story is that the Tanzanians come to Cape Town to use the port as a springboard to reach other port cities by stowing away on ships. This primary arc is underpinned by a lively heroin smuggling network, naive and youthful urges to see different lands, the old yellow brick road promise of a “better life,” and the traditional idea that strong Tanzanian men go to sea.
The stowaways occupy this particular area in Cape Town because of several reasons: it is close to the harbor; exactly who has jurisdiction over the area is unclear which leaves a regulatory void; it is inhospitable which means there are no turf wars; and it is close to the city which provides what little economic transaction the community needs for survival.
IG: The stowaways inhabit an interstitial space, the reclaimed area of Foreshore. Can you describe the history of Foreshore and its current role in the city?
DS: What is now the Foreshore area of Cape Town was established on reclaimed land in the 1930s and 1940s. Cape Town’s harbor and pedestrian zone were replaced with the commercial Duncan Dock, completed in 1945, which was designed for larger ships to attract international sea trade.
In the run-up to the actual construction, tensions between the city of Cape Town, and National and Provincial planning authorities emerged. In that sense, the Foreshore has been, and will always be, a zone in which heavily contested political decisions get made.
In the 1950s, new ideas about transport planning were channeled through increasingly racist ideas that the South African government had about separating communities, establishing networks that enhanced the ability of white people to extend their privilege.
This racist and technocratic set of values find their form in the highways extending from the Foreshore region through District 6, a formerly “colored” area which was compulsorily acquired and demolished. Through the Cape Flats, the concrete structures effectively split the city along racial lines.
The stowaways occupy a no man’s land in the sense that the area has always been surrounded by a lack of clarity and intelligibility. This has meant that it is a perfect spot to colonize because no one has their eyes trained on it despite the intense intellectual high tide which engulfs it.
The men who live under the bridges always desire to be elsewhere. Their modus operandi is to have as little to do with the city as possible, and therefore their bodies occupy the underpass world. Their minds, however, are attached to the next destination, which they seek to attain.
Some of the men that I met have their makeshift quarters between the steel barriers on the median between the dual highways. For me, this is the most profound indication of a will to exist at the interstices, at the emblem of an international nowhere.
Historically, this part of Cape Town was a place designed for embarkation. In the way that the stowaways haunt the Foreshore, they represent contemporary surrogates for the original users. They exist in the shadow of design and have worked out how to extract what they need from the various vacuums that poor planning and policing open up.
These guys exemplify the idea of hiding in plain sight. Most of their daily routine, when I first saw them, was lived-out in the bowl, which the highways at the Foreshore delimit.
When the hundreds of thousands of motorists enter and leave Cape Town, they y observe the men often at quite close proximity, but because they are moving and stuck in their vehicles, the stowaways don’t really amount to much. The tableau is both spectacularly intimate and private at some times of the day but also invisible because of the relative speeds and modes which the two communities function at.
IG: How did you first approach the stowaways? Was there a person that stood out for you?
DS: The stowaways don’t like intruders, silo their lore, and don’t speak much English, so it was challenging to find a way to engage with the community.
My first approaches were false starts. First, I simply walked up to a group of men on Saturday morning and I was met with extreme hostility. A high proportion of these guys use heroin and other potent drugs, and a thin white guy with a big grin didn’t cut the mustard. I then asked a Swahili-speaking friend of mine to come and help break the ice, but he had an approach characterized by a slightly analytic distance that also fell flat.
Finally, I met Adam Bachili, a brilliant English-speaking Tanzanian who was also a seasoned stowaway. We got along very well, and this relationship proved to be the key. It is through Adam that the entire project happened and he is Memory Card Sea Power.
IG: The project is presented as a broadsheet designed by Francois Rey of the graphic design studio Monday Design. Can you talk about the election of the format and what you wanted to convey in print?
DS: I wanted to make a low-cost object that could be circulated widely. A one-color litho broadsheet provided this opportunity. The process was not beholden to multiple suppliers and many expensive hours of post-production and color correcting.
My instruction to Francois on a Monday was, “Here are the photos and the texts, see you on Friday!” I aimed to explore print and medium territory, which I knew nothing about, and disown (briefly, it seems) the earnest formalist approach that I had become used to.
It was difficult for me to maintain a single technical approach over the years of the project’s making because different cameras suited different modes of photography and the same chemicals and film were not always readily available. Early on, I realized that a cheap newspaper would provide some sort of parity over all the varying idioms, films, and processing techniques and lend a rough, contingent quality to the final product.
Owning and sponsoring the entire process allowed me to control the means of distribution and it was imperative for me to show the work in spaces which were not bound by the self-aware, rote debates in art criticism, and the gallery world.
I sold the broadsheet to friends, had a show in the space of a prominent architect friend [Wolff Architects], and pasted the newspaper around the city, under bridges mainly. Under bridges and pasted onto concrete urban infrastructure is the natural habitat of Memory Card Sea Power.
The life of stowaways is transient, violent, unrestrained, and unpredictable, and the underpasses where they choose to live have a hazy, leaden ambience. I hope that how I force the text and saturnine photography into a violent collage gives the reader these senses. There are no page numbers on the newspaper so reconstituting the broadsheet results in chance juxtapositions and unintended narrative arcs much like stowaway life. In the same way, the community of men who I knew has mostly dissipated, and so too the flimsy newspaper will give itself up to the vagaries of life.
The decision to use a newspaper format was a decision to forget.
IG: Along with the photographs, the broadsheet includes a series of messages by the stowaways and diary entries by your collaborator, writer Sean Christie. How do the photographs and text complement each other?
DS:The relationship between text and photo is loose because when the broadsheet is put back together, after it has been laid out, and the composite photographs completed, the photo/text juxtapositions change.
The aleatoric nature of Memory Card Sea Power leads to a constant recontextualization of the photography, which is what I wanted to happen.
The bold, chunky text is transcribed stowaway Pidgin, and it is designed to be legible from a distance (motorists) and/or draw the potential reader closer. At closer proximity, the photography becomes legible, and finally, Sean Christie’s text becomes readable. What I tried to do is modulate the size of the various components so that Memory Card Sea Power functions at all distances.
Sean’s text is diaristic and offers multiple types of information: Sean’s own sensual impressions, dialogue and truncated historical contexts of Adam, the stowaway community, and the city of Cape Town. This variation makes time, and the overall story contracts, expands, and fractures, with the narrative continually coming unmoored.
Sean wrote an unbelievable book called Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (Jonathan Ball, 2016) about his experience with Adam and friends in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and traveled with these heroin smugglers down the East Coast of Africa back to Cape Town. It is an excellent, risky work, which tells a very complicated story with empathy and insight.
IG: You have worked on another series that also involves the N1 highway. Can you talk about your interest in the highway and how it relates to your work?
DS: The N1 highway links Cape Town and Zimbabwe and splits South Africa North/South. The road emanates from the harbor precinct where the stowaways live and runs for 2,000 kilometers straight up the map.
The N1 project only has two traditional “road” photographs. The rest of the body of work is comprised of random cameos, landscapes made from the road, and still lifes. I intended to construct an idiosyncratic picture of the road that negated the typical “road” photo essay.
The modalities in which N1 and Memory Card Sea Power function are very different, but share DNA in their attempt to elucidate how unintended users of infrastructural design occupy space. These unintended users are more often than not migrants and both projects try to tell migration stories in new ways.
David Southwood is a South African photographer based in Cape Town. Southwood’s contact with his subjects is carefully organized, generally protracted, and is designed to shift power away from the author in as far as possible. His corpus of work is a miscellany of personal projects and jobs each of which identifies problems and asks questions with craft, humor, and empathy. In 2000, together with some township photographers, he set up the first nonprofit organization for street photographers in the Western Cape called Umlilo. His latest book titled HUSTLES, co-authored with Local Studio, chronicles Local Studio’s first twelve built projects and five years of practice in the City of Gold.
Pittsburgh as a Project:
Reimagining the Modern
Essay by Rami el Samahy, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo excerpted from their book Imagining the Modern (The Monacelli Press, 2019).
Imagining the Modern extends from a research initiative and exhibition of the same title held at the Heinz Architectural Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2014-15. As curators and “architects in residence” for the nine months of the exhibition, Grimley, Kubo, and el Samahy were invited to unravel the city’s complicated relationship with modern architecture and planning through an archival history of the sites, actors, and voices of intervention that shaped the Pittsburgh Renaissance. The material presented in this book builds on these efforts, offering a nuanced view of this crucial moment through original documents, photographs, and drawings supplemented by scholarly essays, analytical maps and diagrams, and interviews with key protagonists of the city’s transformation. Addressing both positive and negative impacts of the era, Imagining the Modern examines what the Renaissance meant then and now, what was gained or lost, and what reengaging these histories might suggest for the future of the contemporary city. In looking to Pittsburgh as a specific case, we seek to reassess the broader narrative of urban renewal in U.S. cities, arguing for a deeper understanding of the complexities and concerns which underlay the evolution of architecture and urbanism.
We shall not be able to say that we have created a modern style until Architects cease to condemn all that is modern, or all that belongs to the past.
James A. Mitchell & Dahlen K. Ritchey, 1937 
In 1946, in celebration of the year-long Diamond Jubilee of his department store in downtown Pittsburgh, owner Edgar Kaufmann commissioned the young architecture and planning office of Mitchell & Ritchey to produce Pittsburgh in Progress, an exhibition that offered a visionary projection of the city’s future. Led by Kaufmann as client and James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey as designers—all three among the principal advocates for modern architecture in Pittsburgh after the 1930s—the exhibition imagined a radically new era for a city then shrouded in pollution, threatened with the loss of its industrial base, and in need of significant reinvention following economic and physical stagnation during the Depression and the Second World War. In their accompanying publication, Mitchell and Ritchey described their ambition to provide “an exploration of Pittsburgh’s possible future” that might envision “what the city and its region can become” at the outset of the postwar boom.  This transformation, they wrote,
calls for a partnership between us and our descendants for the continuous improvement of living….
[It] has been prepared on the premise that there will be an expansion in the civilized use of intellect,
heart, science, and technology and that the atomic age will be one of construction. 
The following year, the newly formed Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD) issued a publication of similar format, titled Pittsburgh: Challenge and Response. In explaining its mission, the ACCD compared its ambitions for postwar Pittsburgh to the democratic origins of the U.S., arguing that large-scale redevelopment was both urgently needed and crucial to the city’s future. Pittsburgh’s environmental and urban problems, according to the Conference, required visionary thinking at a scale commensurate with
the genius of our country which has been its love of progress, its restless explorations, its unwillingness
to relax in the smug worship of things as they are. Each generation of Americans has gone farther, and
produced more, that than which came before it. The broad sweep of the Conference program can be found
in its profound acceptance of the inevitability of change. 
Together, these parallel documents marked out the breathtaking ends of urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh as well as the means by which this change would be effected. Both initiatives were driven by private interests in alliance with government: companies with leadership invested in the economic welfare of the city and determined to improve it. These corporate leaders sought out the talents of architects, planners, landscape architects, and engineers to help them envision a city renewed, one that was advertised to members of the public and elected officials alike as a necessary path toward a desired future. Viewed from the present, both documents reflect the great divide between that era and ours in terms of the power of architecture and planning—real and perceived—to reshape the built environment. What is today regarded as hubristic was, at the outset of Pittsburgh’s redevelopment, seen as both idealistic and urgent.
Imagining the Modern revisits the complex history of urban change that followed pronouncements like these, during the period that came to be known locally as the Renaissance and elsewhere as the urban renewal era. An ambitious program of revitalization in the 1950s and ‘60s transformed Pittsburgh and quickly became a model for other U.S. cities. Politicians, civic leaders, and architects worked together through sweeping local and federal initiatives that aimed to address the social, economic, and environmental problems that confronted the postwar city. This era of superlatives has often been identified with visionary mayors and business leaders, powerful urban planning authorities, and architects and designers of international as well as local renown.  Yet Pittsburgh’s progress also included less-well known designers, writers, photographers, and community groups who played important roles in envisioning, projecting, and contesting the modern project from their particular vantage points. The result was a contentious legacy of intervention whose social impacts continue to be debated, but whose buildings and landscapes remain among the most powerful examples of modern architecture and urbanism anywhere in the U.S.
Renaissance and Renewal
It is important to revisit the factors that sponsored the optimistic mindset behind urban renewal in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Uniquely among the protagonists of the World War II, the U.S. emerged with its physical and industrial fabric relatively unscathed, the only industrialized nation whose economic engines were not devastated, but rather vastly empowered, by the conflict. In 1950, the country, containing roughly half a percent of the world’s population, was responsible for more than a third of the world’s economic output.  By 1960, the U.S. share of the world’s production increased to 40%.  By this time the gross national product had more than doubled in the fifteen years since the end of the war, growing from $200 billion to more than $500 billion. 
In this climate of postwar prosperity, both civic institutions and private corporations shared a willingness to fund ambitious construction projects following the stagnation of the Depression and the war years, particularly in Pittsburgh, a national industrial center that was actively seeking to reshape its urban fabric and its image. At the same time, the end of the war drove a need to retool the economy, and the nation, for the imperatives of the Cold War as well as for the needs of an expanding population and a booming consumer culture.  The steel and aluminum industries, both with significant ties to Pittsburgh, redirected their production from the war effort to more domestic concerns, in the process developing new needs for their materials. These included a wide range of new building and consumer products, from the development of new structural possibilities in steel to the use of aluminum for everything from vases to facades.
At the same time, major metropolitan areas faced real and pressing challenges. The need to house returning veterans and their families dominated political discussions and led to sweeping new programs of federal legislation. The American Housing Act of 1949 widened federal subsidies for low income housing, while the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 inaugurated the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways at a cost of $26 billion, the most ambitious infrastructural project in the nation’s history. Together, these new mechanisms transformed the American landscape, nowhere more so than in its cities. In Pittsburgh, such federal initiatives were preceded by local environmental efforts to clean the city’s heavily polluted air and water and reduce traffic congestion, thereby shedding its national reputation (as well as its persistent image) as “the Smoky City.”  After the war, the city began to enforce a law passed in 1941 that required factories to use treated coal. Combined with the introduction of natural gas piped into most residential buildings and the transition of regional railroads from coal to gas, these efforts had a profound—and seemingly instantaneous—effect on the city’s air. Not least among the benefits of this transformation was a vastly altered visual landscape, from a dark atmosphere of haze and pollution to a bright setting for luminous new buildings that reflected the economic and material abundance of the renewed city.
In postwar Pittsburgh, national efforts toward urban renewal were bolstered by the unusual combination of civic authorities with a profound desire to meet basic needs and a wealthy corporate class willing and empowered to do so. Indeed, the story of the Pittsburgh Renaissance is deeply interwoven with the city’s attempt to evolve from a wartime industrial powerhouse to a peacetime corporate and civic center. These particularities of Pittsburgh’s situation led it to become one of the first cities out of the urban renewal gate, for better or worse. The city’s transformation in this period includes some of the earliest instances of successful public-private partnerships as well as grassroots efforts, both in support of and in opposition to urban renewal efforts. These complex relationships and competing aspirations were made manifest in the types of projects that were built—including corporate headquarters and suburban office parks, public landscapes, cultural and recreational facilities, university buildings, and housing districts—and in their aesthetic expression, often as a direct reflection of local means of production in steel, glass, aluminum, and brick. Meanwhile the press releases, brochures, newspapers, and magazines that narrated and promoted this construction boom were frequently filled with superlative boasts: Pittsburgh celebrated the world’s first aluminum-clad building (Alcoa), the largest retractable dome (the Civic Arena), and the tallest exposed steel structure (U.S. Steel). In this sense, the Renaissance is what we might refer to as Pittsburgh’s “Dubai moment:” an era when the world’s eyes were turned to the city’s spectacular firsts as emblems of the future metropolis.
Architecture and Urbanism
As architects and historians, our interest in Pittsburgh’s modern heritage stems not only from our appreciation of its buildings and landscapes, but from the experimental spirit that these projects continue to embody. The best products of the era share an expressive confidence that can be found in works built in other cities at the time, but there is a distinctiveness to their formal and material manifestation in Pittsburgh that makes them worthy of renewed attention. Renewal efforts in Boston, for example—also among the cities that received the largest proportion of urban renewal funds relative to their size—were dominated by governmental initiatives to remake the public sphere, often without the support of the city’s wealthy Brahmin class and expressed primarily through robust civic and institutional buildings in concrete.  By contrast, the Pittsburgh Renaissance was largely wrought in shimmering glass and metal, propelled largely through private interests in consortium with a cooperative local government.
Many of Pittsburgh’s finest buildings of this era were built as national or regional headquarters for industrial corporations. The period is bracketed by Harrison & Abramovitz’s towers for Alcoa (1953) and U.S. Steel (1971), both of which played key roles in reshaping the downtown area known as the Golden Triangle into a symbol of the city’s progress and power. Moreover, both buildings stood as essays in developing a corporate expression by pushing the boundaries of what was technologically possible for the industrial materials associated with each entity. At Alcoa, the architects deployed the company’s products to numerous ends, including the first aluminum stamped panel facade system, the first aluminum wiring and plumbing, and the first combination of acoustic ceiling panels with a radiant heating and cooling system.  Harrison & Abramovitz made similar use of U.S. Steel’s material expertise to create its corporate headquarters two decades later. Here exposed plates of weathering steel, known as Cor-Ten, snap into an exposed steel frame to create a rugged exterior that recalls the dark atmosphere formerly associated with the city’s steel industries, now chemically absorbed into the building’s surface. Situated on a difficult triangular site, the innovations of U.S. Steel extended to structure, with six massive supporting columns positioned outside the building envelope, and to systems, including the fireproofing of these external columns via a pioneering water-based solution.
Such technical achievements were not reserved for industrial headquarters alone. The external structural diagrid of the IBM Building (Curtis & Davis, 1963), clad in stainless steel, was also the first of its kind. Nor were the city’s architectural and material innovations exclusively the domain of corporations. The Civic Arena (Mitchell & Ritchey, 1961), originally conceived as a home for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Orchestra, boasted the world’s first large-scale retractable dome, comprising nearly 3,000 ton of stainless steel supported by a single cantilevered arm. Innovations also occurred on a more modest scale, as when architect Tasso Katselas designed a non-standard brick for the construction of low-income housing in East Liberty, incorporating a notch in the brick to accommodate the mason’s maximum reach and thereby save time and labor. 
Perhaps the project that best exemplifies Pittsburgh’s eagerness to innovate in this period is Mellon Park Square, designed by architects Mitchell & Ritchey and landscape architects Simonds and Simonds and completed in 1955. The project was the brainchild of Richard King Mellon, then president and chairman of Mellon Bank, who sought to keep Alcoa from moving to New York City by aggregating properties in the Golden Triangle to create a site for Alcoa’s headquarters next to a new public plaza at the center of the city. The design of Mellon Square addressed the change in grade between Smithfield Street and William Penn Place through the first integrated design of a modern park above a garage, accommodating seven floors of parking below grade and lining the exposed edge along Smithfield Street with retail to create a modernist, multi-level open space in the heart of downtown.  Significantly built through private initiative with the full backing of city government, Mellon Square remains one of the city’s most popular landscapes. 
Beyond the built legacy of the Pittsburgh Renaissance, a number of ambitious unbuilt proposals for the city continue to loom large in the architectural imagination. The most significant of these are Frank Lloyd Wright’s two proposals for the Point Park Civic Center.  Wright was approached at the behest of Edgar J. Kaufmann in the late 1940s to reenvision the Point following his magisterial design of Fallingwater, Kaufmann’s summer house southeast of Pittsburgh (1934–37), at roughly the same time that Kaufmann commissioned Mitchell & Ritchey to design the Pittsburgh in Progress exhibition.  Wright proposed an enormous corkscrew ramp, nearly a quarter-mile in diameter, that would provide access to a variety of large-scale cultural and entertainment venues, including an opera house, a planetarium, an aquarium, exhibition halls, and a sports arena. The complex was to be connected via two multi-level bridges to the North Side and the South Side, with a third connection leading to a 500-foot tower at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Following a muted reaction from the Point Park Committee, Wright proposed a second, slightly more subdued version, featuring two cable bridges hanging from a shorter 100-foot tower and retaining the mammoth ramp as a parking podium. This second scheme met with no more success than Wright’s initial design, and the project was abandoned.
Other corporate patrons commissioned visionary schemes to remake vast areas of the city for cultural and commercial uses. In the early 1960s, Harrison & Abramovitz were hired by the Oakland Corporation, a consortium of private interests, to look at the potential of Panther Hollow, a ravine in the heart of Oakland that divided the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museums from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). The firm designed a megastructure that would have filled the entire 150-foot deep gorge to the brim, a mile-long research city linking Oakland’s academic and cultural institutions and expanding Schenley Park with rooftop terraces culminating in a hanging garden at Panther Hollow Lake. In the same years Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was hired to design a center for the arts on the Lower Hill, envisioned by civic leaders as “a cultural Acropolis.”  Lead designer Gordon Bunshaft and his team proposed a vast plinth containing an art museum and symphony hall at opposite ends of a landscaped plaza that would have afforded dramatic views of downtown Pittsburgh. A large glass box encasing the symphony hall was flanked by monumental travertine columns supporting a waffle-slab portico and roof, while the three-story art museum was to be enlivened with an undulating roof structure of low vaults.
At the same time, other designers were developing counter-projects for Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods that were extremely different in their methods but no less visionary in their intended impact. In the late 1960s, Community Design Associates, led by Troy West, worked with residents of the Lower Hill to produce “Our Way,” an ambitious response to the city’s official plans for the area. The project strategically located programs in two long buildings on both sides of the existing Our Way Alley, with the larger of these two bars organized in a stepped mass containing multiple types of housing units. A superstructure covering the upper floors was to be planted to provide residents with shading and food. West’s ambitious proposal, developed through innovative methods of community-led design, synthesized concerns for housing, environmental conditions, and food production in a radically modern project that was in many ways the antithesis of the top-down planning that typified other schemes for the neighborhood.
While these neighborhood-scale projects never made it past the planning stages, they had a significant impact on the development of the city as well as on discussions of urban renewal era beyond Pittsburgh. These proposals often helped galvanize support for subsequent plans that did come to fruition, in some cases leading to the critical rethinking of designs that were ultimately built. Moreover, the national attention garnered by these proposals affirmed the importance of Pittsburgh’s transformation as a touchstone for postwar debates on architecture and urban planning, one that provided architects with new models for thinking about large-scale solutions to contemporary urban problems.
Pittsburgh’s postwar architecture and urbanism represented a transformative moment in its history. At a point when the city is currently experiencing a new resurgence in energy, Imagining the Modern is especially relevant to those who seek to understand an era when Pittsburgh was at the center of the world stage. Using the city as a case study, this book frames questions that extend beyond the region, reassessing this important period in twentieth-century architecture at a time when many of its products are under threat across the nation.
A compilation of built, unbuilt, proposed, and demolished projects provides a rich history of the city’s transformation during the past century. When overlaid with traces of what was and what might have been, a map of Pittsburgh reveals that the concentration of the era’s efforts was localized to six areas of the city. In each of these neighborhoods, differing circumstances and constraints resulted in urban interventions that varied widely in their methods of planning and execution, as well as in their perceived success or failure.
The building texts in this section were written by Adam Himes, Phillip Denny, Martin Aurand, and Rami el Samahy.
The aptly named Point, where Pittsburgh was founded and the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers converge to form the Ohio River, developed into a major node in the city’s industrial network. By the 1930s, however, pollution, abandoned railroad structures, underused warehouses, dilapidated housing, and periodic flooding had brought the Point to a state of disrepair, and it soon became a focus for government and business-led redevelopment efforts. Following a number of studies, including two bold designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and a Robert Moses plan that placed the Point at the center of an automobile-driven metropolis, civic leaders proposed Point State Park and Gateway Center. The former, a state-designated 36-acre parcel, was designed by an impressive group of local, national, and international landscape architects, architects, and engineers, including Ralph Griswold and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Gordon Bunshaft. Point State Park, which opened in 1974, features an iconic fountain at the Point’s tip. To the east of the park, Equitable Life, a New York-based insurance company that was committed to large-scale investment in Pittsburgh, developed twenty-three acres of land. Gateway Center became a commercial and high-end residential development that epitomized modern life through its architecture, landscape, and planning. Its distinctive modernist buildings included three cruciform towers, the IBM Building with its “diagrid” facade of diamond-shaped panels, and the massive Westinghouse Building. Gateway Center was considered a huge success, and became a model for urban renewal throughout the nation. The Point’s revitalization embodied hopes for a competitive business climate for Pittsburgh and increased employment in the city center, and the potential spread of this growth to other parts of the city.
Curtis & Davis, 1963
Formerly the IBM Building, and now fittingly the headquarters of the United Steelworkers, this gem of a building beautifully expresses the structural potential of steel. Each exterior wall is composed of a diamond grid of steel infilled with alternating bands of opaque and transparent glass. Five varieties of steel are used to accommodate differing loads, which are brought to the ground via two concrete pylons on each side of the building. The structural facades free the interior from all vertical supports except the central core, eliminating 200 tons of steel when compared to typical frame construction. This approach met IBM’s desire for flexible office space in the six floors it leased from the Equitable Life Assurance Company (the building being the fifth in the latter company’s Gateway Center development). The regular grid also enabled the prefabrication of large portions of the facades off-site, simplifying on-site construction. Here and elsewhere, IBM cultivated a modernist architectural image under the leadership of designer Eliot Noyes. Curtis & Davis, a noted modernist architectural firm from New Orleans, designed the Pittsburgh building. Structural engineer Leslie E. Robertson, of Worthington, Skilling, Helle & Jackson, designed the exoskeleton, a technical precursor of his designs for the World Trade Center in New York City and Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Tower.
The Golden Triangle
Pittsburgh’s downtown Golden Triangle is in some respects the most visible aspect of the effort to reshape the city during the Renaissance era. Lead by civic and corporate leaders, this effort included a series of new towers that served as the corporate headquarters for Pittsburgh-based companies and showcased the materials that led to these companies’ successes.
Among these are the Alcoa Building and two U.S. Steel buildings, each designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, then the architects of choice for corporate America. The Alcoa Building used aluminum in new and innovative ways, from the cladding to the insulation to the wiring and plumbing. The second U.S. Steel Building is an architectural masterpiece that evokes not just the client in its bold use of material but the entire city in a formal resolution that celebrates the Triangle’s two grids.
Nearby, the modernist landscape of Mellon Square offered the city a fascinating new prototype: the underground garage disguised as a plaza.
A number of other architecturally notable parking garages were built during this period. Each celebrated the automobile—sometimes with dramatic gestures—and endeavored to provide efficient means of visiting the Golden Triangle by car.
Harrison & Abramovitz, 1953
The 30-story tower was built as an experimental showcase of the construction applications of its namesake’s product: aluminum. The first building to be clad in stamped aluminum panels, it also served as a test case for aluminum wiring, plumbing, and a combination acoustic ceiling panel and radiant heating and cooling system; even the venetian blinds were made of aluminum. Though designed for the mundane purposes of lightweight economy and ease of assembly, and to demonstrate the insulative and fireproofing capabilities of an aluminum envelope, the building’s facades achieve a high level of refinement. They are punctuated by round-cornered aluminum-frame windows that pivot 360 degrees to allow for cleaning from the interior. As a final demonstration of aluminum’s light weight, the entirety of the four-story glass entry vestibule hangs from two cantilevered girders.
Harrison & Abramovitz were tasked with studying the use of aluminum in building in 1945. They designed an aluminum-faced low-rise office building for Alcoa in Davenport, Iowa, completed in 1949, as a trial run of sorts for the Pittsburgh tower. Alcoa was looking towards a site in Manhattan for the latter; but Richard King Mellon persuaded the company to remain in Pittsburgh by offering Alcoa a prime downtown site and proposing an adjacent garage topped by a public plaza, which became Mellon Square. The square offers excellent views to and from the tower. Alcoa relocated to the Alcoa Corporate Center on the North Shore in 2001. The building then became home to government entities, regional nonprofits and small start-up companies; in 2015, it was converted into residential apartments.
City planners had eyed the redevelopment of the Lower Hill as early as 1939 with Robert Moses’s Pittsburgh Arterial Plan, which advocated clearing the area in order to develop a more efficient highway system and new housing. The site was the commercial, institutional, and cultural heart of the city’s African American community; yet it was characterized by overcrowding, poor sanitation, absentee landlords, and property values that were falling faster than anywhere else in the city.
Beginning in 1953, local architects Mitchell and Ritchey developed a master plan for Pittsburgh’s “Cultural Acropolis.” In 1956, with backing from several civic leaders and foundations, significant federal funding, and some community support, a large swath of land was cleared for the construction of the Civic Arena, displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses. Claiming the largest dome in the world at the time of its construction, the Arena was originally intended as an all-purpose facility, including a home for the Civic Light Opera and local sports teams. Because its acoustics proved incompatible with musical theater, it remained primarily a sports venue.
Subsequent plans to add the equally ambitious Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), and Washington Plaza, a three-tower luxury housing project designed by I. M. Pei & Associates, did not receive the same support. Displacement and failed relocation efforts left the local community deeply distrustful of further development, while a lack of consensus among civic leaders combined with a slow market for high-end housing in the area. Only one of Pei’s three towers was completed, and the SOM project was scrapped completely. The grand project stalled, and the Civic Arena was left stranded in a sea of parking lots for more than sixty years. With the demolition of the Arena completed in 2012, the midcentury dream of a cultural district adjacent to downtown was finally put to rest.
Mitchell & Ritchey, 1961
The Civic Arena dominated Pittsburgh’s Hill neighborhood for half a century. Initiated by Edgar J. Kaufmann, the department store magnate and patron of legendary residences by Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, the arena was initially intended to serve as a venue for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, though it was never well-suited for this purpose. Mitchell & Ritchey, the premier architects of the so-called Pittsburgh Renaissance, designed the structure. James Mitchell was the lead designer, and took out a patent on an early softshelled version of the design. After many compromises, the final design featured a massive stainless steel dome, supported by a single cantilevered arm, which provided a clear span across the diameter of the building and was the world’s first retractable roof over a major venue. A complex, automated system allowed for the roof to be opened in under three minutes.
Site clearance for the Lower Hill Cultural Center, including the arena, controversially displaced over 8,000 residents and hundreds of small businesses. Yet the Center’s planned apartments, a Symphony Hall, and other facilities remained almost totally unrealized. Variously referred to as the The Auditorium, the Civic Auditorium, the Civic Arena, the Mellon Arena, and more colloquially as the Igloo, referencing its shape and latter-day role as the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, the arena hosted an extraordinary number of concerts, sporting events, and distinguished visitors. Truly one-of-a-kind, the building’s demolition in 2012 was controversial as well.
The urban redevelopment of Oakland during this period was driven largely by educational and cultural institutions. Chief among them was the University of Pittsburgh as it transformed itself from a regional to a national university by harnessing the energy of the Pittsburgh Renaissance. Although other Oakland institutions built notable modern buildings and additions, including the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History and Carnegie Tech (Carnegie Mellon University after 1967), none rival the University of Pittsburgh’s scope or scale.
Following World War II, the university spread out along the Forbes Avenue and Fifth Street corridor, a trend that only accelerated with the selection of the ambitious Edward Litchfield as chancellor in 1955. In one of his first acts, he retained Harrison & Abramovitz to consult on Pitt’s campus growth. The university quickly committed to twelve major capital projects including the new Hillman Library, Trees Hall (which at the time of completion housed the largest indoor pool in the country), and the Tower Residence Halls (later Litchfield Towers).
When Pitt purchased the land under Forbes Field, the city’s disused but venerable baseball stadium, Deeter Ritchey Sippel produced several versions of a new Forbes Complex Master Plan, of which the Forbes Quadrangle (later Posvar Hall) was completed. Troy West’s practice Architecture 2001 led an alternative effort to repurpose the stadium structure, transforming it into affordable housing and other uses. Other unrealized visions for Oakland included Harrison & Abramovitz’s breathtaking Panther Hollow development. Designed for the Oakland Corporation, a jointly owned, Pitt-dominated consortium of seven institutions, the project proposed a built structure to fill in the entire ravine that sat between Pitt, the Carnegie Museums, and Carnegie Tech. Although soon shelved, it remains a fascinating idea as well as a symbol of the era’s optimism.
Panther Hollow Project
Harrison & Abramovitz, 1963
Stretching for nearly a mile, and filling a ravine as much as 150 feet deep and 900 feet wide, Max Abramovitz’s Panther Hollow Project envisioned a megastructural “research city” linking Oakland’s academic and cultural institutions. The massive complex would have filled the hollow to the brim, and expanded Schenley Park with a series of roof terraces and gardens. Only in the first of three phases—between the Forbes Avenue and Schenley Drive bridges—would buildings have risen above ground level. As the megastructure grew from north to south it was to expand from four to seven levels with transit and utilities buried beneath. Terraced courtyards would have provided ample light to the research facilities, commercial areas, and auditoria within. At its southern end, the megastructure was to fan out around Panther Hollow Lake, creating a public “hanging garden.”
The megastructure would have integrated services and amenities within itself and supported a series of residential developments in the surrounding area. A complex structural system would have enabled the replacement of portions of the complex so that it could remain up to date. The community consortium driving the project, the Oakland Corporation, was dissolved in 1966, and the project was abandoned due to insufficient investment.
The once-prosperous Allegheny City, annexed to Pittsburgh in 1907, featured a civic core with public buildings, a ring of parkland, and an abundance of architecturally rich neighborhoods that would ultimately be preserved and revived. But by the 1950s, the Northside, as it came to be known, experienced high crime rates, traffic congestion, derelict housing, and a population drop of nearly a quarter in a decade.
In response, the city began razing over 500 buildings in the civic core to create the new Allegheny Center, with the support of Alcoa and the federal government. In keeping with the prevailing thinking of the era, thirty-six city blocks were transformed into a new pedestrian super-block surrounded by a one-way, four-lane loop designed to facilitate vehicular traffic. The center included office buildings, mid-rise apartment slabs, townhouses, and a shopping mall with 2,400 parking spaces below. Deeter Ritchey Sippel master planned and designed much of the project. Tasso Katselas added townhouses along the edge (Allegheny Commons East), and the Office of Mies van der Rohe designed an office building (East Commons Professional Building). An international competition chose the design of William Breger, a former employee of Walter Gropius, for the Public Square at the Center’s new heart.
Despite some initial success, the plan proved ill-fated. The traffic circle cut off most of the Center’s commercial space from pedestrian reach of the surrounding neighborhoods, and it could not compete with the ease of vehicular access offered by suburban shopping centers, despite the new road network and mega-garage. As a result, most of the mall’s stores were eventually replaced by back-of-house office space, populated by businesses that did not rely on foot traffic. The housing remains popular to this day, and the public square has been rebuilt along with the surrounding public realm. New owners have injected life into the complex, upgrading systems and bringing new programs and pedestrians back to the area.
Allegheny Public Square
William Breger, 1967
In October 1963, Mayor David Lawrence launched an international competition for a new public space intended to serve as a centerpiece for the Allegheny Center development. The square was to replace the historic public square of Allegheny City. The competition jury was chaired by Hideo Sasaki, a modernist landscape architect and chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard. Other members included Henry J. Heinz II; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and Pittsburgh modernist architect Dahlen K. Ritchey.
Over 300 entries arrived, nearly a quarter from overseas; yet the jury deemed just one entry to be acceptable. “Altogether too many of the submitters felt the need to clutter up the square with kiosks, pavilions, pilons [sic] and other self-conscious architectural and sculptural elements,” they wrote. The only design “of high enough quality to receive an award” was submitted by William Breger—a former employee of Walter Gropius and the Chairman of Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture—and a team of students, James Terjesen and Warren Winter. They proposed a stark suite of concrete walls, with benches and steps that punctuated a continuous brick-paved surface and created places for walking and sitting around a slightly sunken pool and fountain.
Breger’s design was built; but the square was underappreciated and badly neglected over time. In 2007, its neighbor, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, organized another competition to usher in its removal, won by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. The new design, known as Buhl Community Park, filled in the sunken pool, softened hard surfaces with plantings, and strengthened connections with the fabric of the city.
Long considered Pittsburgh’s second downtown, East Liberty was the commercial core of the East End, historically a preferred location for the city’s upper and middle classes. As those with means increasingly relocated to the suburbs in the postwar era, local merchants and other civic leaders asked the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for assistance in saving East Liberty from through-traffic congestion, a high rate of commercial vacancies, and deteriorating housing stock. In 1960, following its successes with the downtown Renaissance and its challenges with redeveloping the Lower Hill, the URA took on its largest redevelopment project to date with an unprecedented amount of community input. Absorbing Gruen’s ideas of reestablishing human-centric social spaces in the face of growing sprawl, through-traffic was diverted via a boulevard looped around the commercial core, with surface parking lots available for those intending to shop. The business corridor was transformed into the East Liberty Pedestrian Mall, designed by landscape architects Simonds and Simonds, with wayfinding and signage by Peter Muller-Munk. Tasso Katselas was tasked to design 1,800 new residential units in a mix of townhouses, mid-rise apartment buildings and towers, including the heroic East Mall Residential Tower that spanned Pennsylvania Avenue.
Built by private developers who benefited from government subsidies for building affordable housing, the new residences changed the demographic of the area, but did nothing to stem the tide of middle-class flight. Many retailers relocated, further contributing to the downward slump. The success of the road loop hinged upon a new highway from East Liberty to downtown, which never materialized, and East Liberty Boulevard became famously known as the “road to nowhere.” Today, most of the built plans of this era have been undone. With the formerly malled streets reopened, residential towers demolished, new housing in place, and the loop road gradually reintegrated into the street grid, East Liberty is again looking at revitalization.
East Liberty Housing
Tasso Katselas, 1965, 1967, 1971
As part of the urban renewal plan for East Liberty, 1,800 new units of housing were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Designed by Tasso Katselas Architects, the mix of towers, mid-rise apartments, and townhouses changed the landscape of the neighborhood. As a result, the project inevitably came to symbolize all that was wrong with urban renewal, despite its best intentions and interesting use of basic materials in a low-budget endeavor.
The most notable element was the tower that straddled Pennsylvania Avenue, establishing a brick and concrete gateway to East Liberty, and allowing vehicles to pass underneath. This landmark was complemented by a series of low- and mid-rise apartment buildings, arranged in T-shaped plans that helped define the public spaces around them. The brick walls running perpendicular to the long facade of the building are load-bearing; protruding beyond the main elevation, they are expressed as fins that cast shadows along the length of the project. The facades are further enlivened by a playful placement of floor-to-ceiling windows. This playfulness is not arbitrary, but instead determined by the dimensions of the structural bay and its ability to accommodate one-, two-, and three-bedroom configurations.
Despite earning some early accolades from critics and new residents, the projects have been much reviled. In 2005, the towers were demolished, and several of the lower and mid-rise elements as well. Many of those remaining were given face-lifts beyond recognition. The owner recently asked tenants to vacate the premises, and it has since been completely demolished.
1. James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey, “Impressions and Reflections, Part 2,” Charette, August 1937, 2.
2. James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey, Pittsburgh in Progress Presented by Kaufmann’s (Pittsburgh: Kaufmann’s, 1946), 1.
4. Pittsburgh: Challenge and Response (Pittsburgh: Allegheny Conference on Community Development, 1947), 3.
5. See Albert M. Tannler, Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Notable Modern Buildings and Their Architects (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 2013).
6. Michael French, U.S. Economic History Since 1945 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997), 199.
7. Peter Dicken, Global Shift: Transforming the World Economy, 3rd edition (New York: Guilford Publications, 1998), 28.
8. French, U.S. Economic History Since 1945, 199.
9. See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). On the reorientation of architects and planners during the Second World War to the anticipated tasks of postwar renewal in U.S. cities, see Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
10. See Joel A. Tarr, Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).
11. We have elsewhere described this period of concrete construction in Boston and other U.S. cities as the Heroic era. See Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, ed., Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (New York: Monacelli Press, 2015).
12. On the material innovations of Alcoa’s aluminum facades in contrast to the glass skins typical of other postwar office buildings, see Thomas Leslie, Saranya Panchaseelan, Shawn Barron, Paolo Orlando, “Deep Space, Thin Walls: Environmental and Material Precursors to the Postwar Skyscraper,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, no. 1 (March 2018): 77–96. Following their invention at Alcoa, Harrison & Abramovitz designed similar aluminum cladding systems for corporate clients in other U.S. cities including Republic Bank in Dallas (1954) and Socony–Mobil in New York City (1954–56), though no longer symbolically associated with the products of their respective companies.
13. Rami el Samahy and Chris Grimley, Interview with Tasso Katselas in Imagining the Modern: HACLab Pittsburgh Broadsheet #3 (April 2016), 7.
14. In its combination of a surface-level urban park with a subterranean garage, Mellon Square was preceded by Union Square in San Francisco, a nineteenth-century park to which underground parking was added in 1938–42 after three years of research on the feasibility of its construction. See Gregory J. Nuno, “A History of Union Square,” The Argonaut 4, no. 1 (Summer 1993). Union Square was among Mellon’s inspirations for creating a modern landscape in Pittsburgh that was integrally designed for the first time to combine park space with shops and a multi-level garage.
15. See Susan Rademacher, Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).
16. On the evolution of Wright’s designs for the Point, see Neil Levine, “The Point Park Civic Center and Traffic Interchange for the Heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, 1947,” in The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 261–333.
17. Wright also designed Kaufmann’s office for his downtown department store (1935–37) in the same years as Fallingwater. See Richard Louis Cleary, Merchant Prince and Master Builder: Edgar J. Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright (Pittsburgh: Heinz Architectural Center, 1999).
18. William Mallet, “Redevelopment and Response: The Lower Hill Renewal and Pittsburgh’s Original Cultural District,” Pittsburgh History (Winter 1992), 182.
Rami el Samahy is a founding principal at OverUnder, an architecture and design firm. Currently a Visiting Professor at MIT, he has taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, the Boston Architectural College and Wentworth Institute of Technology. His research has focussed on a wide variety of urban issues including the contemporary Arab city, the logics of main street retail, and the legacy of urban renewal.
www.overunder.co/ | @overcommaunder
Chris Grimley is an architect and designer at OverUnder, an architecture and design firm in Boston, Massachusetts. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Rhode Island School of Design, Northeastern University, and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is coauthor of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015), and the designer and editor of Henry N. Cobb: Words and Works 1948–2018 (2018).
www.overunder.co/ | @overcommaunder | @heroicproject
Michael Kubo is Assistant Professor in the History and Theory of Architecture at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston. He was previously the Wyeth Fellow at the Center For Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art and Associate Curator for the US Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice. He is coauthor of numerous books on twentieth-century architecture and urbanism including Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015) and OfficeUS Atlas (2015), and is currently preparing a book on The Architects Collaborative and the authorship of the architectural corporation after 1945.
Liminal Frontier Climate Adaptation and the American Coast
Essay and photographs by Virginia Hanusik
When Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams made photographs of the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were trying to familiarize people with an entirely “new” frontier. Of course, this land was by no means “new” or uninhabited, but the images were used as visual propaganda for manifest destiny.
Images of land have always been used to tell us about who we are as a country and as individuals. Our national identity is tied to American landscape paintings just as much as portraits of the Founding Fathers. At this moment, we are experiencing a truly new frontier as we are re-imagining how to live along the coast and the boundary between land and water continues to shift with the impacts of climate change.
Visualizing climate change is a challenge that is evident in our collective inability to process, understand, and imagine what the future world will look like on a grand scale. We are told with more regularity than ever before that certain weather events are the most severe, the most catastrophic, and the most rare. But many of us around the world—those fortunate enough to have been spared from a terrible environmental disaster—don’t experience these events in a way that encourages, or demands, lifestyle change. Despite continuous media coverage of disastrous events such as flooding in the American South or wildfires in California, we are still able to dissociate and remove ourselves from the current situation. Because of this distance, climate change remains an abstract concept for a majority of people, even for those who actively want change.
As a photographer, I focus on daily life in landscapes most vulnerable to environmental changes or landscapes already undergoing adaptation measures. I approach scenes that are reflective of the everyday, but incorporate symbols of a changing physical world with details that become more apparent when viewed together. Architectural style and land use patterns of a region provide details and insight into the values of a certain place.
For the past several years I have been building a body of work that seeks to document the changing relationship that we have with coastal land. Liminal Frontier is an ongoing project to document, analyze, and generate discussion about the coastal spaces of the world in order to capture and learn from the current paradigm shift in development and spatial thinking. This moment in time forces us to re-conceptualize how and where we live, and to acknowledge that the right to build along the water without restrictions will likely cease to exist in the coming decades.
I have spent a majority of my time photographing the American Gulf Coast—particularly South Louisiana—and the impact that climate adaptation is already having on communities there. In the past year, I have focused more on cities along the East and West coasts in order to build a collection that compares urban and rural areas across various geographies. The photographs presented in this essay demonstrate the diversity of form and use for structures, land use patterns, and personal behavior along the water.
As conversations around adaptation and managed retreat become more common in communities around the world, it is important to understand the sentimental value we have historically placed on the coast. Documenting these spaces and learning from the mistakes of past development can assist in planning for a new system of inhabiting coastal land that is symbiotic with the natural world.
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
Atlantic City is a place where the real and the projected meet. The beach resort was founded in 1854, the year that the first train arrived from Camden, and a year after the Belloe House, the first commercial hotel, was built. The Lenni-Lenape indigenous people, grand hotels, famed boardwalk, popular entertainment, renowned nightclubs, Miss America, casino gambling, devastating storms, countless mentions in popular culture, and many other moments have all been part of its history. Promises, hopes, uncertainty, and decadence. A place, like many others, where the fate of the earnests is determined by the rigged game controlled by the opportunists.
The 2016 US election prompted photographer Brian Rose to drive to and document a city that he considers a metaphor for the overall state of affairs in the United States. The result is Atlantic City (Circa Press), a book that features over fifty photographs accompanied by his own comments, news headlines, lyrics, and tweets, forwarded by an essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger. A powerful look at the effects of unscrupulous business models and long-term urban planning failures.
Below is a conversation between Iker Gil and Brian Rose accompanied by a selection of photographs and texts from the book.
Iker Gil: What was the origin of the book?
Brian Rose: When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I saw it as an immediate crisis, a threat to our democracy and the freedoms we take for granted. I can’t put it any other terms.
That’s the origin of the book in a nutshell. I felt an obligation as an artist to address things. And as I looked around, I was disturbed to see a lot of complacency on the part of artists. If you become so cynical about politics that you can normalize Trump, we have a serious problem.
So, within a couple of weeks of the election I rented a car and drove down the Jersey shore to Atlantic City and began photographing. I knew the broad outline of how Trump had operated multiple casinos, had sucked them dry, and left the city bankrupt and worse off than ever. But the visual presence of Atlantic City, an impoverished city dotted with a dozen gigantic casinos was more powerful and shocking than I had imagined.
IG: When was the first time you visited Atlantic City? Was your experience similar or different from the one of your recent trips to work on your book?
BR: I first visited Atlantic City in 1984, just a few years after casino gambling was introduced on the premise that it would radically change the fortunes of a resort city that had been in decline for decades. I was staying at the newly opened Trump Plaza casino, working for a someone who sold poster art. We were attending a trade show at the convention center next door. I was broke, and asked my employer for some cash to play the slots. So, with a $20 limit I began slowly feeding the machine with quarters. All of a sudden, I hit the jackpot, and quarters came cascading out of the machine. About $400 all together. I took the money back to my room, and have always said that I won $400 from Donald Trump.
Like typical visitors to Atlantic City, I spent most of my time in the casino hotel. I couldn’t afford anything but fast food, which was available on the boardwalk, and I did not walk the adjacent city streets, which were scary. That hasn’t changed. The highways feed visitors directly into the parking garages attached to the casinos. There are even bridges across Pacific Avenue so that it isn’t necessary to go down to street level at all. And several of the newest casinos are located on the bayside of the city far from the boardwalk and the tawdrier aspects of the city.
IG: Some of your previous photo series, such as the ones dedicated to NYC’s Lower East Side and the Berlin Wall, focus on an area over a long period time, documenting the drastic transformations of a place. In this case, the book is a snapshot of a place at a very specific time. Can you talk about these different approaches to place?
BR: The Lower East Side and Iron Curtain projects did not start out as extended studies of transformation. In 1980 I spent a year shooting the LES with a view camera, and then in 1985 did two trips along the East/West border—with side excursions to Berlin—and then returned in 1987. It could have all stopped there. But the opening of the wall in 1989 (thirty years ago) provided impetus for adding to the project. After that, I continued going back to Berlin and focused on the former no man’s land where the wall once threaded through the city.
I decided to re-photograph the Lower East Side after 9/11. I wanted to reconnect with the city that is such an important part of my identity, that was staggered by the attack, but began, soon after, almost inexplicably to rebound. The Lower East Side, which I had always perceived as a world apart, no longer seemed as separated from the rest of the city. I did not do before/after photographs. I wanted to rediscover this place that had such historical resonance as well as personal meaning to me.
Atlantic City could turn into a long-term project, but I doubt that it will. It is so much about this particular moment with Trump having just abandoned the city after causing such destruction, and now bringing his TV billionaire act to the whole world. The fact that he was able to parlay abject failure in Atlantic City into a successful campaign for the presidency is mind boggling and deeply troubling. It’s as if facts don’t matter any more. But visual fact-finding is what I do, and I believe on some level, that hard truths still have currency.
IG: The book combines your photographs with text. Sometimes it’s a brief commentary by you but it also includes news headlines, lyrics of songs, quotes, and tweets by Donald Trump. Can you talk about the relationship between text and image?
BR: Text came in quite early. I created a website that served as a flexible book-like format that I could add to. First I put some of my own comments next to the images, and then began finding quotes from the many articles written about Trump and Atlantic City. I spent hours googling, and even dropped in song lyrics from the Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen. I noticed the other day that in one of my image folders I had included a De Chirico surrealist painting, a desolate view of landscape and architecture. It’s not in the book, but some of my pictures were obviously informed by it.
The big discovery was that Donald Trump had tweeted about Atlantic City—16 times. Trump’s voice and his semi-literate writing style are sprinkled throughout the book. Over and over he disavows having anything to do with Atlantic City’s failure, and complains that no one gives him credit for making a lot of money and getting out before things collapsed. The tweets are hilarious, but they also show Trump’s disturbed personality, which is not very funny.
IG: The book opens with a quote from the movie Atlantic City (1980) directed by Louis Malle. It points out the decadence and decline of Atlantic City, a city “once beautiful.” Where does the book fit into the history of the city?
BR: The once beautiful city was always a mirage. The idea was that the white middle class could go to Atlantic City with its fantasy architecture, dress in their finest clothes, eat in grand restaurants, and ride the wicker rolling chairs on the boardwalk. Behind the scenes, however, African Americans who had come to Atlantic City as part of the Great Migration did the serving and chair pushing. And behind the veneer of wholesomeness there was gambling, prostitution, and political corruption.
After World War II, Americans gained more mobility, bought cars, and moved to the suburbs. Atlantic City lost its unique hold on vacationers, and the city entered a long period of decline. You can see the seediness in the movie Atlantic City, which was shot on location just as casino gambling was brought in. My book was made at a similar inflection point—the twilight of Trump dominance and the increasing competition from casinos in other states and cities.
IG: In one of your initial texts, you ask, “is Atlantic City emblematic of what is happening to the country as whole?” It is interesting that, while focusing on a specific place, the book deals with larger topics familiar to cities across the US. What is the takeaway of this tale of broken promises and unfilled dreams?
BR: I worried a bit while making Atlantic City that I was indulging in a familiar photographic trope known as ruin porn. I think it’s too easy to do hit jobs on decaying rustbelt cities and hollowed out farm communities. What exactly is the point of that. Atlantic City, however with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, bloated casinos with streams of cars entering and exiting, drifting sand and drifting drug addicts, is a twisted paradigm of the American dream. People come to Atlantic City with hopes of striking it rich, not by working hard and getting ahead, but by doubling down on a losing hand. In the same way, they elected Donald Trump even though anyone with a pulse knew that he was the latest in a long line of snake oil salesmen.
Atlantic City still has the ocean, though it is fighting a losing battle with the waves. People hope for a resurgence of the city, but they can’t think beyond gambling, over-the-hill entertainers, and endless waves of nostalgia. As Lou Pascale said in the movie Atlantic City: “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”
“‘There is a lot of reason to hope that the reintroduction of two or even three casinos to Atlantic City may be a net positive for the resort’ said Rummy Pandit, a gambling and tourism expert at New Jersey’s Stockton University. ‘That is not to say that Atlantic City won’t experience some growing pains in the process. The pizza analogy is an accurate way of describing the situation facing Atlantic City: No matter how you slice it, if you don’t grow the pie, someone will go hungry.'”
– Wayne Parry, “At 40, are Atlantic City casinos healing or courting danger?,” Associated Press (May 11, 2018)
“In May, Trump told the New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: ‘The money I took out of there was incredible.’ It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed home town. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America — he’s not coming back for us.”
– Arielle Brousse, “Donald Trump’s greed helped ruin Atlantic City. Is the rest of the country next?,” The Washington Post (October 6, 2016)
“‘Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,’ he [Trump] said in a recent interview. ‘Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.'”
– Russ Buettner and Charles V Bagli, “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions,” The New York Times (June 11, 2016)
“I would absolutely consider investing in Atlantic City again, great and hard working people, but much would have to change-taxes, regs., etc”
Donald Trump, Twitter (October 26, 2014 at 1:55 pm)
“‘Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,’ he [Trump] said in a recent interview. ‘Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.'”
– Christopher Palmeri, “Atlantic City’s Failed Revel Casino Sells for $200 Million,” Bloomberg (January 8, 2018)
“I walked out on the beach opposite Caesars and Playground Pier (originally the Million Dollar Pier), and took several pictures of its huge wall signs. At my feet in the sand I picked up a cigarette carton with Russian lettering on it. I thought reflexively, ‘The Russians are coming!’ But the Russians are already here.”
– Brian Rose
“In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should ‘pick up a mop’ to help with flooding—a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue ‘is not a crisis’.”
– Michael Edison Hayden, “Atlantic City Gambles on Rising Seas,” National Geographic (May 4, 2016)
“Atlantic City is a dramatic symbol of American excess and decline. Once the most popular family vacation destination in the United States, the city has slid into a dystopian version of its former self, with beachfront property plummeting amid vacant lots and deserted high rise hotels garishly positioned against the coastal backdrop.”
– Ben Carey and Billy Linker, “Portrait of a Place: Atlantic City,” Nowness (March 7, 2017)
“When word gets out that a city is on the skids, people seem eager to imagine post-apocalyptic desolation, a rusting ruin at Ozymandian remove from the glory days. But American cities don’t seem to die that way. They keep sopping up tax dollars and risk capital, thwarting big ideas and emergency relief, chewing up opportunists and champions.”
– Nick Paumgarten, “The Death and Life of Atlantic City,” New Yorker (August 31, 2015)
“Now baby everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City”
– Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)
“Standing on the Boardwalk looking inland-if you leave things vacant long enough in Atlantic City it will revert back to the sandbar that it naturally is. I assume that this block-long party wall was meant to abut another casino hotel. But this being Atlantic City, windowless casino walls become virtually permanent features of the urban landscape.”
– Brian Rose
“[Reuben] Kramer shows us the shuttered Trump Plaza, which will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic City’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the Trump Plaza facade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains.”
– Matt Katz, “Trump Is Gone From Atlantic City But Not Forgotten,” WNYC News (August 26, 2015)
“As for [Michael] MacLeod, the sculptor of the elephants outside the Taj, he says his anger over the episode has faded, and he can joke now about how he once got stiffed by a famous billionaire.
Giving a slide presentation of his work to an architectural firm two days after Trump swept the New York Republican primary in April, he slipped in two photos — one showing one of the elephants, the other showing Trump’s name on the casino marquee in red lights.
‘This guy never paid me,’ MacLeod deadpanned. Everyone laughed.”
– Bernard Condon, “‘Little guy’ contractors still angry at Trump Taj bankruptcy,” Associated Press (June 28, 2016)
Brian Rose contributed to the Boundary issue of MAS Context with the article “The Lost Border”:
Brian Rose studied at the Cooper Union with photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Larry Fink. His documentation of Lower Manhattan over a twenty-five period resulted in three books- Time and Space on the Lower East Side, Metamorphosis, and WTC, a chronicle of the Twin Towers and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. His study of Berlin after the fall of the Wall led to The Lost Border, The Landscape of the Iron Curtain. His photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
www.brianrose.com | @brosenyc
En-Medio: Súper Servicio Lomas
Text and interview by Departamento del Distrito (Francisco Quiñones & Nathan Friedman)
En-Medio is produced by Departamento del Distrito in collaboration with illustrator Arina Shabanova. The interview series highlights the delicate status of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City with the evolving stories of six mid-century masterworks. Individual issues are dedicated to the Casa Ortega (1942), Súper Servicio Lomas (1948), Museo Experimental El Eco (1952), Restaurante Los Manantiales (1957), Casa Cueva (1958), and Torre Insignia (1964). Through conversations with those who have lived and worked in the projects of interest, historians who have studied them, activists who have fought for their preservation, and iconoclasts who have wished them dismantled, En-Medio drops into architectural narratives of the city, long underway, to ask what possible futures lie ahead.
Issue two features Súper Servicio Lomas, one of the first multiuse buildings in Mexico City designed by Manchuria-born émigré Vladimir Kaspé in 1948. In contrast to the residential context in which it was built, Súper Servicio Lomas employed a rationalist structure that echoed the Modernist principles of Le Corbusier, complete with pilotis, a free plan, roof garden, and horizontal strip windows. The most radical element of the project, however, was the unprecedented mix of programs integrated into the building’s interior: a gas station; auto repair shop; car dealership; retail space; dance hall and party venue; offices; and executive apartments. In 2007, then mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard, together with a series of real-estate developers, began a redevelopment campaign for the site of Súper Servicio Lomas. The first proposal, the 300-meter tall Torre Bicentenario designed by OMA in Rotterdam, was shelved after receiving harsh public criticism and government opposition. The proposal that followed soon after, the 121-meter tall Torre Virreyes designed by Teodoro González de León, was ultimately approved. Completed in 2015, the construction required a section of Súper Servicio Lomas to be demolished and the remaining structure remodeled for commercial lease. Today, the site serves as a symbol of the city government’s preference for private interests over the preservation of public space and national heritage.
The following conversation was held in March 2017 with Dr. Ramón Vargas Salguero, UNAM professor and former head of the Direction of Architecture and Conservation of Artistic Heritage (DACPAI). We met to discuss the polemic surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas and the challenges that face the preservation of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City.
Súper Servicio Lomas
A conversation with Ramón Vargas Salguero
Ramón Vargas Salguero: I was invited to head the Direction of Architecture and Conservation of Artistic Heritage (DACPAI) exactly when the controversy surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas began. It was a very interesting time, very illustrative, and I really believe I did my part to fight for the building during this difficult situation. Today, even though everyone agrees to defend pre-Hispanic or colonial architecture as icons we need to safeguard, architecture of the twentieth century in Mexico is truly unprotected. Mexican law establishes that everything constructed before 1900 must, in principle, be safeguarded. If you discover archaeological remains today they are already protected and there is no need to apply for their preservation, no need to discuss it. However, architectural monuments built in the twentieth century can easily disappear. There aren’t many people who agree to defend these works, let alone accept that architecture of the twentieth century is also a representation of our current society.
All of this is a very important philosophical topic, because one of the manifestations of postmodernity and globalization is the destruction of the past. It is clear that society must evolve, and that this process of evolution will bring with it new ways of living. Evidently, this must also impact certain buildings from the past, but I believe only when necessary and justified. This was not the case with Súper Servicio Lomas, which was unreasonably bulldozed.
En-Medio: When you arrived as the Director of DACPAI in 2007, had Marcelo Ebrard, then mayor of Mexico City, already announced the project of the Torre Bicentenario?
RVS: Yes, the polemic was in full swing. Marcelo Ebrard even dared to say the new tower would be a contribution by the government to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence!
E-M: What did you think of Súper Servicio Lomas and the legacy of Vladimir Kaspé at that time?
RVS: Kaspé taught in the second year at the National School of Architecture starting in 1943. He had come from studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he met Mario Pani, who later invited him to Mexico. Kaspé’s work, both as a teacher and as an architect, had great prestige at the school.
Súper Servicio Lomas was an interesting case in his early built work. Kaspé arrived to Mexico in 1942 and already by 1943 was building major projects. In 1948, six years after his arrival, he was also directing Mario Pani’s magazine Arquitectura Mexico, for which he first worked as a correspondent while living in France. From the very beginning Kaspé had the sensibility to understand the materials being used at the time by local architects. These materials were primarily brick and concrete. If one looks at his work, even now, one goes, “Wow! It’s very well executed.”
Súper Servicio Lomas was an important architectural work, but not a masterpiece. The building was interesting because it housed various architectural programs under one roof, which everyone was fascinated by. It was also featured in movies—the ramp was especially popular because it was very plastic, very aesthetic, and had angles that looked great on film.
E-M: The ramp was, without a doubt, the most iconic part of Súper Servicio Lomas. Did you have the chance to visit the building in its early years?
RVS: Yes, in particular to the terrace on the building’s upper floor. It was a space for dancing in front of the Bosque de Chapultepec, where the famous orchestra directed by Everett Hoagland played. It was a delight; an entire era was reflected in that space.
Kaspe’s oeuvre was in general highly recognized. However, I don’t believe any of his buildings were considered a model for study until the polemic surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas arose. After it was threatened with demolition, everyone started studying it in more depth, and only then was it determined to be well-resolved. The building needed to be defended from a source of aggression that was truly unbelievable. Our fight was about far more than just its demolition.
E-M: What concerns were associated with the Torre Bicentenario proposal by OMA—the first scheme promoted by the Mexico City government and its partner developers?
RVS: To begin, the Torre Bicentenario project included a giant parking lot that invaded a section of the Bosque de Chapultepec. Since the site of Súper Servicio Lomas didn’t have the capacity to house the parking requirements for such a tower, it was proposed to construct a parking lot underneath the park towards Periférico. In addition, with the excuse of relieving traffic congestion in the area, a direct exit from the building to the Petróleos Fountain on Periférico was proposed. The aggression was very serious: the project not only required the complete demolition of Súper Servicio Lomas, it also proposed to alter the surrounding roadways and illegally use the site of a public park. And all of this proposed by the mayor of the city! I would ask myself, “In what country are we living? How can Marcelo Ebrard have the nerve to propose a project designed by a foreign architect and partially financed by a Spanish company to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence?”
Voices of protest initially came from within the architectural discipline—historians who wrote and theorized—because those who lived in the neighborhood did not immediately understand the great consequences connected to the Torre Bicentenario. Soon, meetings were organized with the architect who represented the real-estate developer. During these meetings there was heated discussion between those who supported the project and those who opposed it from a critical and historical position. Later, journalists gave voice to a local neighborhood population who publicly opposed the project.
It was then that various question were raised: What is architecture? What is conservation? What is preservation? To what point can one preserve the past in a society that is experiencing continuous change, and how can that form of preservation be achieved? All of these questions were used as a starting point from which to form a strong argument to protect Súper Servicio Lomas from demolition. Teresa Franco, then director of INBA, took a very firm position. She decreed the building national heritage and therefore, in theory, it would not be able to be touched. But, of course, those that were promoting the Torre Bicentenario had many connections and resources. They continued fighting for the project to move forward. By that time, however, the mayor of Mexico City packed up and cancelled the project. At the same moment, various studies and articles analyzing the value of Kaspé’s work emerged.
E-M: Not long after the Torre Bicentenario was cancelled, a more moderate tower—the Torre Virreyes designed by Teodoro González de León—was approved for the same site. Were you still the director of DACPAI at that time?
RVS: Yes, I was still the director. Unfortunately, when the problems associated with the Torre Bicentenario and its great height were removed, and the building by Teodoro was proposed in its place, all of the public outrage behind the project subsided. Those who had opposed the first project ended up accepting that the site would be developed. And, of course, Grupo Danhos, one of the real-estate companies involved in the project, went to court arguing they should be allowed to develop a property they owned in any way they wished.
The case ended up in the office of the Attorney General. The real problem started there. When the public prosecutor called on us to defend Súper Servicio Lomas we began to discuss an area of knowledge that was foreign to the context. We went there thinking as architects—speaking about the distribution of space, about how the building is well-oriented, about its circulation, about it being multiuse—but we were speaking with a public prosecutor and few people are more disconnected from such concepts. He listened to us and commented, “That’s interesting. Is Súper Servicio Lomas the only building with these characteristics?” To which we replied, “No, there are others.” And, of course, he responded, “Why do we need to preserve this specific building, and not the others? Why do you speak about the use of space and its continuity? What does that mean?” That’s when you realize that as architects we’ve created our own, insular narrative. In a fight of this kind, such arguments do not interest anyone but us.
In addition, the public prosecutor asked us, “OK, and why do you argue that this building has a very important aesthetic value? What does that mean?” That’s a very hard question! That’s a question Socrates asked himself in Greek philosophy. As you understand, starting to discuss an axiological problem with a public prosecutor—the issue of aesthetic value—is very difficult if not impossible.
During this episode, a theoretical problem about architecture emerged. It made us realize that Súper Servicio Lomas must be defended with arguments that could be understood by the general public. In that regard, Súper Servicio Lomas was very illustrative. It generated a discussion on philosophical, archeological, and aesthetic issues of architectural theory. It even made us recall Socrates, a founder of Western philosophy, who spoke about beauty as the product of utility, a thesis that we have not discussed enough. To which point can an architectural work be perfectly useful and appear beautiful? These are the kind of discussions that we must have in the classroom, in magazines, in books, in order to defend architecture.
E-M: In this case, was it possible to convey such a message? What was the outcome of your discussion with the public prosecutor?
RVS: In the end, Alonso Lujambio, then director of the Ministry of Education, authorized the partial demolition of Súper Servicio Lomas. Ironically, he was the official who should have declared the site national heritage. He authorized the demolition with the absurd belief that the building could be sectioned off in service of the Torre Virreyes and still be preserved. On top of it all, the design of the Torre Virreyes completely deviates from the ideals Teodoro once followed in his architectural practice. Beyond the pseudo-technical requirements of the building’s cantilever, the tower is generic—covered in glass like any other.
E-M: And in regards to the relationship between the Torre Virreyes and Súper Servicio Lomas—how do you view Teodoro’s approach to preservation?
RVS: I would start from this premise: If you’re going to preserve, preserve with dignity. But do not preserve by changing or mutilating and do not approach the task by thinking that whatever is there must work around your design. Teodoro had another project, Reforma 222, in which he also had to preserve a preexisting building and literally forced it into his project.
E-M: In closing, we would like to return to the struggle you described in conveying the importance of Modernist heritage to a public audience. After your experience with Súper Servicio Lomas, how would you argue for the future preservation of Mexican architecture of the twentieth century?
RVS: The work that I’ve developed over many years has the following basic motivations: To fight for a national architecture of our own and to recognize Mexican architects who have been unjustly marginalized from our professional history. In 1900, during the anchoring of Porfirio Díaz, Mexican architects raised the question of what kind of national architecture should be produced. They held a theoretical debate about the profession and to what point one could produce new architecture through understanding the work that had come before. Such debates were really commendable and have no parallel with contemporary discussions being held at that time in Europe.
E-M: It’s remarkable that these questions were posed as a collective. Nowadays, that dynamic is difficult to imagine.
RVS: That’s right, the architects functioned as a guild. They asked themselves, “What kind of architecture should we build?” Their answer was that architecture couldn’t only be modern and it couldn’t only be national—it needed to be modern and national! In addition, the moto was created in 1900 at a ripe moment to apply the criteria of a new architecture, our own, by following the precepts of a new era: that of the revolution.
Mexican architects have produced, written, and debated an incredible amount, and that hasn’t been sufficiently recognized. And it’s not only about recognizing it, but continuing to ask ourselves, “To what point is it still valid to strive for a modern and national architecture?”
1. DACPAI is an arm of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), which was founded in 1946 and currently operates under Mexico’s Ministry of Culture. The principal mission of INBA is to preserve and promote national artistic and cultural heritage. In addition, this government agency is responsible for the protection of twentieth century architectural projects in Mexico.
2. The history of the National School of Architecture, known today as the School of Architecture at UNAM, goes back more than two centuries to the San Carlos Academy. During the 1950s, and under the name the National School of Architecture, the school moved from Mexico City’s Historic Center to UNAM’s national university campus.
3. Amancio Ortega is a Spanish businessman and co-founder of Inditex fashion group, a corporation which counts among its brands the retail giant Zara. He also owns Pontegadea Inmobiliaria, a real estate company that oversees several properties in Europe, America, and Asia. Currently, Ortega is considered to be the richest man in Europe.
4. Teodoro González de León (1926–2016) is considered to be one of the pillars of twentieth century architecture in Mexico. After studying at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), González de León was awarded a grant by the French government and worked for 18 months in Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris. During this time he was involved with the iconic Unité d’Habitation housing project for Marseilles. González de León’s most emblematic projects include the National Auditorium, Rufino Tamayo Museum, and Arcos Bosques Corporate Center, all of which are located in Mexico City.
5. Grupo Danhos is a Mexican real-estate company founded in 1976. The group is largely associated with the development, operation, and management of office buildings and shopping centers. González de León collaborated with Grupo Danhos previously on the design and construction of the Reforma 222 multiuse complex located in Mexico City.
En-Medio is supported by funding from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.
For more information about En-Medio, you can watch Nathan Friedman’s lecture as part of the MAS Context Spring Talks 2018:
Departamento del Distrito is a Mexico City-based architecture practice founded in 2017 by Francisco Quiñones and Nathan Friedman. Their work lies at the intersection between politics, identity, and space. In addition to built projects, including the new technology headquarters for the Mexican Institute for Smart and Sustainable Cities and a set of apartments in the historic mining town of Real de Catorce, their practice engages archival research, writing, and speculative work. Recent projects have been supported by the Graham Foundation, Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, and the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.
Text and drawings by SIAA. Photographs by Lauro Rocha.
In 1974, the French writer Georges Perec proposed to write down every moment and action that could be perceived at Saint-Sulpice square, in Paris, over three consecutive days. All of these notations can be seen in his essay An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1982), which showed us how observation and notation are not enough to exhaust all the possible uses of a place.
Patterns can be recognized and relationships can be established, but the exhaustion of uses is impossible.
To create possibilities, which allow any interpretation, might somehow increase the vivacity and the numerous ways to use the proposed space. In this sense, the São Paulo Cultural Center presents itself as an open place, offering spaces that can engage new means to interpret and to use them in a totally different way.
Ordinary daily activities, in parallel to programmed events, are capable of bringing an autonomous life to this building. Although constantly repeated, these everyday actions are always changing and evolving. They are able to build the imaginary as a collective memory.
Based on the interpretation of George Perec’s essay with the spatial experience of the São Paulo Cultural Center, we developed some texts and drawings in an attempt to, utopically, exhaust the possibilities, to represent in a modest and sincere way the vivacity of this special place.
Continuous pathways from city into building in CCSP
“The public space is movable. The public space is scattered. The public space is empty, it’s imagination. The public space is undetermined. The public space is information. The public space is the holder. Finally, the public space is in an unstable balance. The private space is static. The private space is concentrated. The private space is full, there are objects and memories. The private space is functional. The private space is opinion. The private space is the message. The private space is, by necessity, stable.”
(Soriano, 2006 – translation by author)
Different uses in various sections of CCSP building
“We should go about designing in such a way that the result does not refer to an unequivocal goal, but it still permits interpretation, so that it will take on its identity through usage. What we make must constitute an offer, it must have the capacity to elicit, time and again, specific reactions befitting specific situations; so it must not be merely neutral and flexible – and hence non-specific – but it must possess that wider efficaciousness that we call polyvalence.”
A longitudinal section along the building
The São Paulo Cultural Center (Centro Cultural São Paulo – CCSP) is a public institution under the Culture Secretary of the city of São Paulo. Located in a 46,500 square meter building along the Vergueiro subway station, the cultural center gathers countless programs and activities that motivated its construction in the 1970s.
Its main program is constituted by the city’s collection of paintings, the Discoteca Oneyda Alvarenga, a collection of documents of Mario de Andrade folklore research mission, five libraries like the Sérgio Milliet Library (second largest public library in São Paulo), the Alfredo Volpi Library which includes numerous art, architecture, and photography catalogues, a vast collection of comic books, the Louis Braille Library for the differently abled (hearing and visual), a large reading room dedicated to children and teenagers, a multimedia archive of articles on contemporary Brazilian art, and the City Art Collection, in addition to exhibition spaces, ateliers, theater, and cinema.
Designed by the architects Eurico Prado Lopes and Luiz Telles, the building establishes a friendly relationship with the city through its multiple access points and its connection with the subway station. A special designed urban condition and its horizontal form intensifies the public aspect of this building.
Although the apparently oversized proportion of circulation area in relation to program areas, a ratio of 1 square meter of circulation to 4 square meters of program, its floors are never empty or idle. Roof garden, ramps, patios, and wide passages, all these free places disputed by its users, are often more vivid than the program areas which have specific events or uses.
The so-called cultural actions (a type of association between public groups and its administration to use the building rooms and corridors) and the spontaneous uses of its spaces along with the officially programmed routine have the capacity to keep this building active and occupied by the most heterogeneous group of people from every part of the city.
A combination of a frequent use of these undetermined spaces guaranteed by an administration which gracefully deals with the diversity of people and activities is the reason why CCSP is so present in the memory and in the everyday life of its users and its city, as a legitimate public space, frank and democratic, capable of provoking and offering the opportunity to imagine new ways to occupy and to use its openness spaces.
People are already gathering close to its doors before it has even opened.
All people are welcome. Diversity is present in colors, forms, and groups.
At 10 am, CCSP opens its doors. It connects itself with the city, with the metro station.
Sidewalks are expanded, life echoes through its emptiness.
After opening, people occupy the tables in front of the library entrance.
The place is disputed, crowded.
A three year-old girl maidenly holds her mother’s dress and looks around with an expression of astonishment.
The void’s ramps are monumental.
Her mother smiles and waves when she realizes her friend is across the space.
The sun reveals the surfaces that configure this place.
A boy plays with a ball. He kicks it several times towards the administrative block. Short passes of a lonely game.
Time passes by.
Library tables are already filled. The shelves receive numerous visits.
The Metro access square becomes a meeting point.
At the Caio Graco floor, in front of an exhibition, a woman positions a camera on a tripod and films herself talking alone. The surrounding sound doesn’t seem to bother her.
People cross the space.
The lounge area is dominated by a group of five young men wearing Japanese clothes with fans. They start to dance, to choreograph, to k-pop.
Colors shake through the space as they dance.
Music is spread through the building.
The cafeteria tables begin to be filled.
There are people eating.
Near the 23 de Maio suspended garden, a couple of elderly people sit in a bench to admire the view.
The traffic looks distant.
In one of the study tables, close to metro access, a girl sleeps over her open notebook.
In front of the administrative entrance, a significant group of young people dance hip hop, alternating in their individual performances. The sound is loud and the rhythm is exciting.
People are stopping to watch the movement.
Laughter seems to cross all these activities.
Some people enter the building just to use the toilets.
The central square is empty. A group crosses this space.
One of them takes a picture of this moment with his cell phone.
Between the Tarsila do Amaral room and the toilets, two people dance, enjoying the reflective glass which composes the frames of this place.
Children are playing with some pigeons close to the external stairs.
Board tables are crowded.
People get to know each other.
Kids run up and down the ramps.
Inside the Sérgio Milliet Library, readers try to preserve silence.
There are no tables available.
Children are playing around.
A bus stops right in front of one of the entries and a group of children heads to an exhibition. The red school uniform t-shirts stand out as they move through the space.
CCSP’s public feature is put to the test.
In front of the Luís Telles garden, two men play chess as a third one watches mindfully.
At a lounge area, a young woman dances spontaneously with her own reflection over the glass, as if there was nothing around, just her and her opposite image.
Natural light is changing, the shadows cast themselves differently.
People are gathering in the sunny area.
Others walk towards the reading room.
Some pigeons fly at the same time. At the Vergueiro suspended garden, two friends sunbathe in the afternoon sun.
The exhibitions coexists with all that.
Corridors are occupied all the time.
A popcorn seller gets closer to the foyer entrance.
Bus stops dictate the flux along the cultural center.
At the lounge area, a couple sits on a bench to watch people dancing.
A group of foreigners visits the building. They walk through its corridors impressed with this spaciality. They capture the space.
A group rushes towards the elevator that gives access to underground ateliers.
The wind announces the nightfall.
On the terrace, some people practice sports. From the lower floor, it is possible to keep up with the activities.
In front of the Adoniran room, an old man gives dance classes. Samba seems to reverberate the enthusiasm of his students.
At the foyer, some people lay on the ground scattered around the room. They don’t seem to know each other.
A line is forming. While waiting for the event opening, some people observe what happens around them.
The movie session begins and this cluster unravels.
At a restaurant table, six young people chat excitingly about something, ignoring their open notebooks in front of them.
Time is disperse.
Everything happens at same time.
Various uses coexist simultaneously.
All the benches are filled. People are sitting on the floor.
Children play on their cell phones. WiFi is free at some areas.
Close to the Flavio de Carvalho exhibition area, a girl lying down uses her PC on her lap. She seems very comfortable in this situation.
Looking towards the void of the ramps, a woman takes a picture of herself with the building as a background.
The lights are on and the night has finally come.
From the terrace it’s possible to see the lights of the cars and the filled buildings in the landscape.
People are still dancing in front of their own reflections. Various groups, side by side, don’t look bothered with the music on. They seem to be in a trance.
There are no conflicts.
A couple is inspired by the young dancers and tries to waltz with the ambient sound.
People walk towards the metro station.
There are still few people coming to the programmed events. Determined activities.
A theater play is about to begin.
CCSP is shutting down its public life. At least in its corridors.
The library is already closing. Only the employees are still working.
The cafeteria stays open because today there is a presentation in one of the auditoriums. It smells like fresh coffee.
Free spaces start to get empty.
At 8 pm, the doors close and the access is restricted.
For a few hours, everything looks so static.
But it is almost 10 am and people start to gather.
CCSP opens its doors.
The texts, images, and drawings are part of CCSP: CARTOGRAPHY OF USES, an exhibition and a catalogue organized by SIAA in 2018, an architecture office based in São Paulo. The catalogue, drawings, and pictures of the exhibition can be found at www.siaa.arq.br/projeto/ccsp-cartografia-de-usos.
This research was supported by the Municipality of São Paulo, Centro Cultural São Paulo, and the 11ª São Paulo Architecture Biennial.
Texts and drawings: SIAA
Images: Lauro Rocha
SIAA is a collective of architects with different backgrounds and experiences based in São Paulo. They value professional practice and academic research as opportunities to design and reflect on issues related to architecture, culture, and the city. Participation in competitions is treated as a continuous exercise of collective reflection and debate, allowing them to investigate diverse architectural concepts exploring diverse sites, programs, scales, construction systems, and forms of graphic representation of space. In their practice, they try to improve the transdisciplinary nature of their work, allowing them to bring other areas of knowledge closer to the strict universe of architecture and urbanism, whether in research, practice, or experimentation. Currently, the architects Andrei Barbosa, Bruno Valdetaro Salvador, Cecilia Prudencio Torrez, Cesar Shundi Iwamizu, Eduardo Pereira Gurian, Fernanda Britto, and Leonardo Nakaoka Nakandakari collaborate in SIAA.
Lauro Rocha is a São Paulo-based photographer who studied Architecture and Urbanism at the Escola da Cidade and who works as a photographer since 2006. He collaborates with publications such as Casa Vogue, Projeto, AU, Monolito, The Architectural Review, and Prisma. His work focuses on architecture, infrastructure, as well as cities and their inhabitants.
Connections: 48 Years
Lecture by artist Barbara Kasten co-presented by the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) and the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago. Introduction by Karen Irvine, Chief Curator and Deputy Director, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.
An Enrichment of Vision
Barbara Kasten (American, b. 1936) is an architect’s photographer. All of her works address the perception of space, the interplay between two and three dimensions, the physical qualities of materials, and, ultimately, how all of these aspects of her work are affected by light. For Kasten, in fact, light is a medium. Her photographs of light-saturated sculptural forms and architectural sites are geometric, colorful, layered, and almost, but not quite, abstract.
Trained in textiles and painting, Kasten began making photographs in the 1970s. Unburdened by the conventions of formal photographic training, she was passionately experimental from the start, and approached photography much as a painter or sculptor would. Her earliest photographic works are cyanotypes―a blue-hued process created with liquid emulsion on paper. Made from direct impressions of materials such as window screening on the treated paper, Kasten’s cyanotypes recall architectural blueprints. In the late 1970s, she began to design and build sets to be recorded with her camera—arranging forms made out of materials such as painted wood and plaster, mirrors, plexiglass, screens, furniture, and fibers, and then carefully, to use her term, “directing” the light onto them in order to make a dynamic composition.
Although most of her works have been studio-based, Kasten has also executed ambitious projects in the built environment, most notably her series Architectural Sites (1986–90), set in locations like office buildings and museums designed by well-known architects such as Richard Meier and César Pelli. Often working overnight with film crews, Kasten sets up elaborate arrangements of colored lights and mirrors in the spaces, transforming them into vibrant two-dimensional compositions, toying with the legibility of the original space and rendering it nearly indecipherable. She has also recently projected video imagery in museum and gallery spaces, adding movement to the experience of light and color, in sequences that transform both the sculptural forms she places in the space and the architecture surrounding them. Reminiscent of Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic Light Space Modulator (1922–30), which she cites as an influence, these installations are exhilarating and complicated. Kasten further expressed her interest in Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus Movement when she was an artist-in-residence at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2018, where she arranged steel table frames and colored plexiglass to make a site-specific installation recorded in photographs that add a chaotic and colorful touch to Mies’s austere modernism.
For nearly fifty years, the hallmark of Barbara Kasten’s work has been to mine tensions between highlight and shadow, representation and abstraction. Interested in “changing the reality of things,” she extends many traditions of the Bauhaus Movement through the interdisciplinary and experimental nature of her work. Indeed, Kasten’s works provide formal proof that, as Moholy-Nagy once observed regarding one of his own photograms: “The organization of light and shadow effects produce a new enrichment of vision.”
Chief Curator and Deputy Director
Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
Connections: 48 Years
Lecture by Barbara Kasten delivered on Thursday, November 29, 2018
For this lecture, I decided to put together my own little survey of work and show some things in my work that I think have connections to each other. I hope that you will find some other works that connect as well. It is always really interesting to put together a slide show because you see your own work in different ways. I will cover forty-eight years, from 1970, the year I got my graduate degree, until now. I took about ten years between undergrad and grad school, so I encourage students to give yourself a little time in between to find out who you are and what you like to do. I am still trying to figure it out so it does take a while.
I am not giving any chronological order to the works. I am starting with a project titled Artist/City Crown Hall that I did this past summer at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). I grew up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, and that is not too far away from IIT. I moved with my parents to Arizona when I was out of high school so I didn’t know about IIT or the people who were going to influence my life that came to IIT like Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe. But the people that have taught at IIT have really influenced my career.
The idea behind the project was to merge Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, and myself into a perspective that would be unique to me but also reflect some of the ideas that were important to them. Crown Hall is like the epitome and one of the most iconic buildings that Mies van der Rohe designed. Used as IIT’s College of Architecture, during the year the entire space is filled with worktables that the students use and those were the objects that I used to make the sculptures.
The project is a series of worktables stacked one upon another in different formations. To that, I interjected brightly colored plexiglass that I have recently discovered and fallen in-love with as a counterpoint to the very solemn gray, black, and white of the architecture of the building. But the building has the most incredible diffused light that I have seen in any place. In the summer, it was really glorious. I wanted to make work in that space and also comment on it, make independent sculptures, make photographs, and use the entire space as an ad hoc studio.
I had about six weeks to assemble the pieces. IIT was very generous in allowing me to use the space and all of the tables. I would go in and start with one arrangement. The next time I came, I added another one and then, the next time I came, I added a third one. After that, I started mixing them up, so they never stayed the same. It was like being in the studio. You go in, you experiment, things happen, and you are motivated to do something else. That is the way I treated the project. I made beams out of the same colored acrylic that I fell in-love with. Crown Hall’s floor was so shiny that it acted like a mirrored surface. If you know my work, you know that I have used mirrors a lot.
There were all these elements in there that I was really happy to use. I think I made a total of twenty pieces but I ended up with eight pieces that actually remained as “finished” constructions. They stayed up for a week after which we had to take it down because the students were coming back for the fall semester and all those tables had to be put back to work. None of these sculptural elements were attached. They were just there by balance, finding the right point for that to happen.
From that, I took that same concept and used it for a stage sculpture titled Intervention that I made for the marathon interviews that Hans Ulrich Obrist conducted on September 29 at Navy Pier during EXPO Chicago and as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.
There, I used the same tables. IIT allowed me to take some with me and I reconstructed and reproduced some of them because by now, I felt they were my own and I needed to have more. But I started making more beams, beams that reflected some of the real architectural and industrial construction beams, and one or two that were based on the iconic beam that holds Crown Hall together. It is a structure that has four great beams across the roof holding the open area inside up without a visible support system.
I worked on it for many weeks in my studio at Mana Contemporary and then, it went up for one afternoon in this giant space of the ballroom at Navy Pier. It had to go up in two hours and come down in fifteen minutes, and it was up for just the time of the event. I think you might be able to see something similar in March for Mies’s birthday on March 28. We will put up a sculpture and there will be a performance with a dance group. 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus which, of course, Moholy-Nagy was connected to as well and brought the New Bauhaus to Chicago.
These are forms that I made for an exhibition at Bortolami Gallery in New York last year titled Parallels. These are again, individual pieces that are not attached, but stacked one against another and held in very precarious positions by the balance and the weight of each form. The reason I ended up making these box-like forms was that plexiglass doesn’t have any strength until it is constructed into an object that holds it together. I made these boxes, which made them very strong, that could be leveled one on top of another.
At the same time, I did a series I called Progression that was exhibited at Bortolami Gallery in New York. It is an object that has a photograph as the base, a sculpture relief attached to it, and light going through it creating another level of shadows. This is the epitome of everything I have been working with, which is the illusion of photography, the sculptural identity of the work that I photograph, and light, which is an element that is essential to everything that I do.
These are unique pieces and very difficult to put together. This is a whole new process for me where first, I make the photograph. I use the same material in the photograph that I attach to the piece itself afterwards. The printed photograph is inside a plexiglass box frame. To make the design on top of it, I work with an architectural student from IIT, Devin Gora, and he puts it into a plan. Ten steps later and probably a few thousand dollars, each piece is complete. It really does match the whole idea that I have been after for years. I am really excited to be working in this physical space as well as with the illusion of the photograph, and putting it all together.
It reminded me of an exhibition I did in 1986 at Yurakucho Asahi Gallery in Tokyo. What I did there was also make sculptures of the same material that I used in the photograph. All the objects in this sculpture are independent pieces, not attached to anything and so, it comes apart. Everything I do needs to be flexible and rely on balance. All the objects that you see in my photographs from that time period reappear in newer works. I have used some of them just recently to make a proposal for a mural. I never let go of any props. I store them or reuse them.
This is me in 1972 in Poland. I was on a Fulbright grant right after grad school. At that time, I was working with three dimensional form, but in textile. I was exploring abstraction, an abstraction that relied on reality such as identifiable body forms. I hand-wove them out of sisal, big, heavy ropes that came from the ports in Gdańsk. I would unfurl, dye, and I reweave them. They were made on a tapestry loom in shapes that then I could pull together to create these forms.
This is a show I did when I came back at my alma mater, California College of Arts and Crafts [now California College of Arts] in San Francisco. You will notice that there were a few pictures on the wall. It is probably one of the first “installations” I ever did where the objects and photographs related to one another, but it is the same as I do now. They were not photographs of the sculpture. They were companion pieces that interpreted the same concept differently. These are diazotypes, an architectural blueprint process, and they were 8 x 10 contact prints on film that were made using a model. One of the only times I think I have ever photographed a human. Of course, I couldn’t let it go at that. I had to abstract it.
This is a little survey of installations from the 1980s. All my work has always been involved with three-dimensional space and making photographs of it, or just making installations. In the show, they were not installations that were photographed, but they come from the way that the photographs were made in the studio. I found fiberglass screening material that I have used ever since, and that was some of the material in this small setup at a show at UC Irvine. Photographs that were made in a similar manner were on the wall.
This is to show you the scale of where the photographs went to very quickly in 1982. I did a show called Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs at Cal State University, Long Beach. There was this 30 to 40-foot room and, on one side of it, there was an ongoing set of multiple little vignettes that I made Polaroids of. At that time, I showed sculptures in different venues but it was all much more related to the photographs than what I do today.
I was invited to the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, which no longer exists. It was a house that was a residency offered to three or four artists a year, and one would go there, live there, make work in the space and then, exhibit it in the space. It was open to the public for part of the time of the residency. Here I saw that I could incorporate this spatial placement in a home, a different type of place than a big stage or a big gallery. I wanted the human element in it, so I invited Margaret Jenkins from the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, who had her troupe down the street not too far from the house, to dance in the space, which she did. Consequently, she invited me to collaborate with her. I never made photographs there however.
The next slide shows how the elements that came from one place went to another one, and into another arrangement, into another environment in an exhibition. This is at Wright State University. I have to note that those big pyramids came from the San Francisco Opera. I like all these hand-me-downs, using articles and objects, and repurposing them for different things. These came in very handy and I used them for several exhibitions. Here is the downward view because it was a two-story gallery with a mezzanine, and on the mezzanine, I had shown some 20 x 24 Polaroids.
These are few setups of the Polaroid studio, the 20 x 24 studio that I was invited to use. I was very fortunate to be part of an early group of photographers who were invited to use this big camera that, at that time, was not available to the public. You can see the size of it. It was a very makeshift camera, but it ended up with great 20 x 24 instant photographs. Polaroid was very generous by offering the use of this camera to artists. You could work for a day or two, or however long they invited you for. In return, one of the images would have to be given to their collections. They amassed a huge collection. At that time I lived in California and they were located in Cambridge, so I had to do a lot of planning to have mirrors cut and ready for me to assemble into a stage setting that I would then photograph. It was probably the most that I have ever planned a studio photograph. Now, I rely on materials that I am interested in and find shapes that I like or make them. I have a more free-form attitude about it. But, at that time, it was much more planned and it took so much orchestration to get things ready as I only had a day or two to make photographs. I relied on mirrors and a big backdrop, and the thing that was the most important for me was the instant feedback. Coming from being a painter and not liking the darkroom, I had to find a way to visualize the work. I usually worked with one setup until I was happy with the results. Then, it came down when I went to the next setup. This is still my photographic process today.
When making photographs, I didn’t ever shoot many things at the same time. I never shot many angles. I only set the camera up and then, made changes to the set in front of the camera. I didn’t move the camera. It was a different way of working than I think a lot of photographers are trained to. I learned by doing. If I wanted to do something, I found somebody who could help me do it or tell me what to do. I only took one class in Photography at CCAC and that was it. I learned a lot about photography during a great well-paying job I had at the Presidio where they ran a photography program for the military on base, as it was a base at that time. I didn’t know what a darkroom really was. But, I said, “I know the job.” You take chances when you are young. I told them that I knew what I was doing and I bought the photographer’s handbook, talked to a lot of people, and ran the darkroom. That is one of the ways I got started. But I never liked the darkroom, it was too smelly for me. My magic comes in the studio when the light gets turned on, not when I see it coming up through the chemistry. This is a different mentality. These are the types of images I was making and the kind of things I was looking at that time: mostly constructivist painters such as Moholy-Nagy, Malevich, and Lyubov Popova, a fantastic Russian woman-painter from that time period.
I was not looking to photography as my inspiration. I knew photographers because I started a collection of photography with my husband Leland Rice who actually was the professor that taught me that one photography class at CCAC. He became my husband afterwards. You know, those romances that happen. He is the one that taught me the most about photography but mostly about the history, not about the technique. I also learned more about history by observing and seeing things firsthand, which of course in the 1970s was a lot easier to find and do than it is right now. Great photographs are much rarer to collect now than there were at that time.
This is my studio in New York. I moved to New York in 1982 from California, where I had been since I came back from Europe in 1973. I taught a little bit at UCLA, married Leland, and when I got divorced, I moved to New York. In this photo I am cheating as I am standing on the backdrop with my shoes on. You don’t do that in my photographs because you have to look down and it has to change the illusion of the space with no idea of horizon lines. I always had a sweep that is curved and I was always looking downward into that. These are some of the first images I made with an 8 x 10 camera. Polaroid Corporation had given some 8 x 10 Polaroid to my husband and he wasn’t interested in it. According to him, he gave it to me. According to me, they gave the material to me. I am not sure which is the real story but, in any case, I used it and that was really the beginning of how I used a camera. I had no reason to use a camera before as I was making photograms.
I made sculptural sets related to things that were made in the Bauhaus by set designers using a lot of found industrial materials and relying on constructivism for the imagery and the spatial ambiguity of the photograph. Again, light was the essential thing that made everything become very ephemeral and lose its reality, especially if it had mirror and those shapes bounce to other mirrors or to other walls and surfaces. It was, and still is, very magical to be there in the set and because, of the scale of most of the sets, I was really in the set. It wasn’t a matter of a tabletop where I was moving small things around. I actually physically moved around in these sets, so it had a performance-like aspect to what I was doing. I soon became very attached and involved in the spatial construction as much as what happened when that construction was transformed to the back of the view camera and it then became a flat piece of paper in my mind where shapes had to be rearranged. If I wanted a red half-circle moved up there, I got into the set and moved it up there. I was back and forth between the construction of the subject and back to the back of the camera, and saw things very differently from both points of view.
Some are titled Construct NYC. I have these codified titles that just means they were constructs and made in New York City. It is just a way of tracking it. I never went for metaphoric titles or explanatory things. I liked keeping it very clean, straightforward, “This is number one. That is number two.” Everything has a very theatrical feel to it because of the performance aspect and the whole idea of moving around in it myself.
Here are some images of the collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company that I mentioned earlier that came out of Capp Street Project. It was a real, true collaboration. It wasn’t that she danced and I made the sets separately. We actually worked together. I made the sets so that the pieces were movable and the dancers could move them from one place to another. The lighting changed so I worked with the lighting designer to replicate the colors in the way that I make photographs. The movement was really important to me because I followed the Bauhaus philosophy of interdisciplinary ways of art making like they did then. I liked the idea of adding motion to these large-scale settings. The imagery ends up looking somewhat like my photographs and I liked the idea that the lights could change and the people changed. It inspired me for many photographs that came afterwards.
In 2011, the idea of performance and a space including people came about when I got interested in video. This is a short clip from a video piece that I did in Chicago in 2011. The sound was from the Lucky Dragons. They gave me sound clips and I put together the music. They were very generous to allow me to do whatever I wanted to do with it. It was really a great environment to see people walking in and out of the changing lights. In a way, it was my own dance routine, but it was all of you involved to make it happen.
That issue of scale, the idea of being in an environment that was very architectural, inspired me on a project that was commissioned by Vanity Fair. The project was to photograph in architectural settings in New York for an article that was being written about the new architecture, the postmodern architecture of the 1980s and the big, open, glorious entryways, and atriums, that are still prevalent in many buildings. It was a huge production. It was like a movie production. I had to photograph at night because lighting could not be controlled unless it was dark outside.
I had a crew of ten twelve people including experts in lighting from the cinema world. If I thought about it too long, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it was exciting and I learned a lot. You can see all these are mirrors that are set up and that are visible in the view of the camera. I had to use a 4 x 5, not an 8 x 10 because of the lighting that would have been required for 8 x 10 film. It took a lot of pre-planning to make sure everything was in the right position and then you get one shot, that is all you get. I don’t know how many sheets of film we used just in case something went wrong when they got it developed. You don’t shoot one piece of film and spend $20,000 a night to do it.
I got into these buildings because it was Vanity Fair. You can’t just go up and knock on the door and say, “I want to use your atrium all night long.” But they were getting something in exchange, or that’s what they thought because, in the end, they never got published. I ended up being moved out by Leona Helmsley or somebody like that who had some kind of an affair, and that was the end of that. But it started me on a whole new track and it really got me excited about working in large-scale, big product, which has paid off for things that I am doing now.
This is at the World Financial Center by Cesar Pelli, across the street from the World Trade Center, so it still exists. I remember seeing a photograph of it after the Twin Towers came down and it was just covered in white. It was the eeriest thing to see. But this series was a very joyful and playful look at it, and also commentary on how our money is spent. After that, I thought, “Oh, dear. Now, what do I do? I’m hooked. Where am I going to photograph?” I used connections that I had, which were directors of museums, people who knew who I was and trusted me. I also had the Vanity Fair shots to show that I could do it. This is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta designed by Richard Meier. If you know Richard Meier, you know that all his buildings are white. He would be horrified if he saw this photograph. It is totally against his sensibility, which is something I did in the same way I did the work at IIT with Mies van der Rohe. Inserting those really lurid, huge, colorful pieces was the antithesis to what they do. In a way, this was my commentary on architecture, maybe a little too blatant, but it worked. I liked it and the imagery changes your whole perspective of the place. If you go to there now, you’re going to say, “Well, where’s the red wall?” This is what it looked like around the camera: lots of cables, lots of big lights, and a lot of people moving them around. I would do two photographs in one night, but they had to be very pre-planned. I knew exactly what I was doing. There was no, “Go in and let’s see where the camera should go.” It had to be totally orchestrated.
This was Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. I don’t like the most recent architecture of Frank Gehry. I can’t say I am crazy about his Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. But I liked this. It had a more modernist look to me and it was pre-computer architecture. Everything was pre-computer: my photographs, the architecture. This is a much more modern point of view. Then, I did Isozaki’s MOCA in Los Angeles practically the week after it opened. We had to carry lights into the museum so that the skylight could be lit with that color….traipsing by a Jackson Pollock with one of those big lights…that was a little scary but we got things in there. These men were so professional and they did it partially as a labor of love because I couldn’t pay them what they get paid for their commercial jobs. They did it because they were helping an artist make art, which is something I found really great in the world. People are always interested in helping other people make a creative gesture, and I think that is really something we have to preserve and we have to keep alive in this time that we are in right now where creativity will be the thing that gets challenged and put out of any of our minds before we know it. We just have to keep being artists so that doesn’t happen.
This was the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It is right next to the main part that they are now going to tear down but this will remain. This was one of the biggest events because it took two nights just to set up the lights. We were working totally at night and we were lighting only the parts that were appearing in the image. It was a huge cross-section view of the building, not just a little corner. I was lighting the front, scanning the whole front of the building.
This one is a second shot at MOCA in Los Angeles. The cinematic lights are Tungsten balanced and the film is also Tungsten so it responds to daylight in this blue. Because of needing to work very quickly, in this image I relied on the changing daylight as well as what I was coloring with gels. I had to have some knowledge of what was going to happen if exposures were made when the light was changing and it did. I have varying degrees of this blue in many pieces of film that I made as the sun was coming up.
This was at the Whitney Museum in New York designed by Marcel Breuer. The people in charge of these buildings knew who I was and I was able to convince them that I was a low security risk. But I also enticed them with a photograph for their collection and an image that they could sell as a poster in their bookstore, so they made money back from that. I had to get a little entrepreneurial and make a deal there, but they saw the value. For me, it was valuable because it was a lot more exposure than just making one photograph. A lot of people saw it and they sold out the posters.
I was invited to do the Jackson Pollock Studio, which was in Springs, New York. The floor that he painted on was covered over by Lee Krasner, his wife and also a great painter who used the studio after Pollock’s death. When she passed away, they started taking out the flooring and they discovered the painting created by drips while Jackson Pollock worked on his canvases. My work was made as a commission for a series that they offered for fundraising. I also did some work out in the real outdoors because I wanted to go back to the nature that I loved and the architecture of that was in Santa Clara in New Mexico. These are the Puye Cliff Dwellings that were shot at night, lighting them dramatically and changing it to a very eerie landscape. I did a similar project in 1992 in Tarragona, Spain, where I made a 40-foot mural that was backlit.
I am going to show another video piece that was part of the 2015 Stages exhibition at the ICA in Philadelphia when I really started getting into video. I did this piece with the help of my good friend Kate Bowen. The next iteration of the exhibition came to the Graham Foundation in Chicago later that year. There we created a different video (Scenario) because we didn’t have another 34-foot wall like the one at ICA. I constructed this set, which is an assemblage of cubes and geometric forms that are three-dimensional and then overlaid it with a video of the same cubes going through various colorations. These are some of the stills from the whole set. When the show went to MOCA in LA in 2016, we did a third video (Corner) that we fit up into this skylight corner. Each exhibition really was a whole different show. The work was all the same but it got rearranged and put into a different architecture. Each video made its own statement about the space as well as about the show. This reminded me of the very first pieces I did in 1979 on silver gelatin photograms. They were shots from the studio, then projected, and finally, the photogram on top. (Amalgam) I also painted on some of them. It just keeps coming around, the same props, the same obsession with geometry and photograms, and a concept of a similar nature.
Here is some of that same material in 2012 that ended up in an abstraction that came directly after my experience here teaching in Columbia. I wanted to make a photograph that was truly abstract, and I didn’t want to have anything identified or representational. I wanted it all to be a matter of form and light. I took away the color and I worked with the moiré. I worked with sheets of plexiglass that would stop the light and create shadows, but you could also see through and would create form. But it was the shadows that really became important to me, and that is what I looked for. These are just two or three pieces of plexiglass, but the form is really the shadow, not the plexiglass. I was really interested in that illusion and the ephemeral light. It is hard to identify what is really there, but there is form there. I chose something that couldn’t be labeled.
When I was teaching here at Columbia College, I was the first artist faculty member that they gave a Faculty Distinguished Artist award to. They gave me a studio and a couple of years release from teaching most classes. It came at a time in my life where it was very, very important to get back into the studio. I received the grant in 2006 and I worked while I was teaching. But when I retired, I was on my way to creating, having a practice that I could develop and really concentrate on. If I hadn’t had that, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to get to where I am now, and have the work that I had in order to have that big ICA survey. I have to say that I am really grateful to Columbia for this support that they have given me.
I still work with film. It’s not that I don’t like digital. There are things and qualities about digital that are very helpful. But there is something about film and the way that it records light and color that I still respond to. It is getting more difficult. I use positive film as I can’t use negative film because that means you have to transpose it. I can’t do that. I have to see what I am doing just like I have to see the sculpture, move it around, and touch it. I can’t take many pictures and edit them. It is too hard for me. I have to work in one direction.
I work with film and I work with photograms. I have done a lot of photograms in my career and these are some of the earliest. These were done using cyanotype for the photograms. Moholy-Nagy said that photogram is the most direct route to abstraction, and I believed him and I still do. I really love photograms because they relate to painting. I started it so that I could incorporate photography into my painting. It was a whole another perspective that I approached using a photogram for, and these were the results of those first things.
Again, I am enthralled with shadows. They allowed me to go to the MET in New York and photograph. I headed towards the African masks sections, as I loved all those fetishes. But when I got there, I photographed the floor. I loved what happened with the light and the shadow. The boxes, cubes, plexiglass… It is amazing how I always keep coming back to the same thing.
These are a few things you probably have never seen. They are 8 x 10 contact prints featuring very simple objects relying on light and shadow. They are very nondescript forms, very minimal, very painterly in an approach of how they are positioned and how I record them. This is a series that came right when I was on this mini grant from Columbia, and I worked with the way light interacts with surfaces, different materials, and scratch materials. I love the idea that one can see the application of the human hand and how the materials might have been cut or altered in some way.
These are some of the largest pieces I have made to date, experimenting with cardboard boxes. Simple shapes. Geometry has always been an interest of mine even from high school days. It has always been something I aim to try to solve and it is reflected in my choice of shapes and forms. It seems very natural.
This was when I decided, “Okay, I think now I’ll add a little more color.” But I needed to add it in small doses so I added shapes of gel that then got reflected and didn’t fill the frame in the same manner as it did earlier. This was the beginning of working with plexiglass and the reflection, and the reflection of light on different surfaces. I am trying to figure out how I could capture that and balance it into an abstract form. It reminds me of drawing. In making my own work, I feel like I am drawing on the back of the camera. That is how I interpret it.
It is all kind of coming full circle back to form and light. It seems like I have had a very zigzag course through my practice but eventually it comes together. Zigzag might happen with years in between but it still seems to be reliant on who I am as an artist. It keeps going back to that same message inside myself that says, “You got to do what you love to do.” And thank goodness, I have been able to do it for all these many years.
Thank you to all of you for being here tonight.
Barbara Kasten is known for photographs that transform architecture into formal abstract compositions using lighting, color gels, and mirrors. Originally from Chicago, Kasten is the recipient of many prestigious awards, and her work has been widely exhibited by major museums in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Her photographs are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; International Center of Photography, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, Lodz, Poland; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, among others.
Karen Irvine is Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. She has organized over forty exhibitions of contemporary photography at the MoCP and other institutions and written essays for numerous artist monographs and magazines. Irvine is a part-time instructor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. She received an MFA in photography from FAMU, Prague, Czech Republic, and an MA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
www.mocp.org | @MoCP_Chicago
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
In October 2018, art director and illustrator Luis Mendo and owner of ethical fashion brand INHEELS Yuka Martín Mendo opened Almost Perfect. In a former rice shop located in an almost 100-year old building in Taito-ku, they have established their house, studio, a temporary living space for creative people, an artistic gathering space, and ultimately a hub for the community to come together around events. It is a hybrid space that aims to shape the work of its residents, their guests, and the community they want to embrace. A personal investment in establishing a space where creative people have time to think, focus, make, and share.
Luis Mendo is not a stranger to MAS Context, having contributed the essay “Tokyoites” to our Communication issue and having curated the Tokyo issue that featured the work of thirteen illustrators who drew Tokyo in different ways.
Iker Gil talked to Luis and Yuka to know more about their plans for the new space, the history behind the building, and the activities they aim to host.
Why did you decide to open Almost Perfect?
Luis: We didn’t really decide it, it just happened in a very organic way. We were living in a small apartment in Shinjuku and I was coming to this area once a month because there is a shop where you can make your own sketchbooks. Every time you buy the custom-made sketchbook, you have to wait 20-30 minutes until it is made. I would take that time to walk around the neighborhood and I really liked the area. I asked Yuka to come with me to explore it and when we came, we bumped into friends who happened to live in the neighborhood. They mentioned that there was a building near their house that was empty and that it used to be a rice shop. We inquired about it but the space was a little too big for us. We just wanted a house and maybe a small studio, but we never had getting a larger place in mind. Because this building was bigger than what we needed, we started to think different ways how we could maximize the use of it.
Yuka: Indeed, it all started with the size and qualities of the building. But we were also constantly meeting visitors from all over the world, mostly friends and friends of friends of Luis that were designers, photographers, and illustrators. We always enjoy welcoming people to Tokyo. We thought about ways of combining this building and hosting creative visitors. If people come to Tokyo for a couple of weeks, they have to book a hotel or Airbnb and we thought it was a bit of a waste. Also, they never got to see what “real” Tokyo life is like. If we had a place, they could enjoy their stay in Tokyo and we could connect them to other creators in the city. They could also study and work on their different interests, from illustration to ceramics and photography. So all those ideas came together thanks to the space.
Did you have any model for this type of space while defining Almost Perfect?
Luis: We did not. What happened was: we got married in May and we got the place around June, at which point we could start the renovations. But we were going on our honeymoon, so we had to quickly brief the renovation team, which are friends of ours. We gave them the keys and briefed them with a simple: “make it nice modern Japanese and stay on budget” and then left to Majorca. While we were in Majorca, we kept thinking about how we were going to live, how we were going to decorate the space, and make something interesting out of it. It all grew in a very organic way.
Can you explain the story behind the name?
Yuka: I have a fashion brand called INHEELS. It is a sustainable and ethical fashion brand, so I focus on the environment, how it is produced, and the wellbeing of the workers. Recently I was very concerned about waste in the clothing industry. I have a tiny brand but I still produce waste once in a while. Imagine how that affects a large brand. My idea originally was to create a brand called Almost Perfect that would buy this excess of stock or something that was slightly faulty, like the stitches are not perfect. Nothing major so, if you wear it, nobody would notice. Not perfect, but almost perfect. As we were talking about this over lunch in a restaurant, Luis saw that the domain was available and bought it. My business idea didn’t really take off so we just used the available domain for the building.
Luis: But we thought that the name really suited the building. We did a limited renovation to the building so it is still a little cold in the winter, it might be a little hot during the summer, and nothing is really straight so it made sense to call it Almost Perfect.
Yuka: Luis always says that perfection is overrated.
Can you describe the history of the building?
Yuka: It is almost 100 years old, which is an old building for Japan. In general, buildings here are quite new because of the earthquakes and the destruction of WWII. It was built right after the 1923 Kanto earthquake that destroyed pretty much everything in Tokyo and killed over 140,000 people. The building was built around 1924 using timber beams that the United States had donated as part of an international relief effort to help rebuild the city. Twenty years later, during WWII, the US bombed the city and this area was badly damaged. This house was one of the few that survived. We like that the house has this history of construction, destruction, and survival.
Luis: There have been three generations of rice sellers in the building, using the downstairs to sell rice and the upstairs to live. We kept the old rice machines in place to honor its past. The building has this atmosphere of a family place, where you work and live, which is something you find a lot in this neighborhood. Many of the houses here have a small workshop on the ground floor and the residence above. You can see printers, tatami makers, craftsmen working with leather, and makers of bags, buttons, and belt buckles etc. When you walk around, you get to see people actually making things. The Township is very conscious about keeping the makers in the neighborhood and we love that. We are not so much art residents but creatives and makers.
You have already welcomed a few guests to Almost Perfect. Can you talk about that experience, the work they did, and how they shared it in the space?
Luis: Having the guests is great. We love that they are from different places around the world, from the UK, France, and Italy to Canada and Australia. We get to see very diverse people. But it is also intense because the house is not that big. It has three floors but they are small, so you live with your guests. It is not like a normal art residency where you don’t see the owner. We share the kitchen, the bathroom, the shower…. We make sure to tell the guests from the beginning that they are essentially going to live with us. They are very conscious of it and seem to like it. It is nice to see how they react to the space and the neighborhood. The first guest, Caroline Lavergne from Canada, did an amazing project where she drew the space of the makers around us. We recently had two Italian photographers, Iris Humm and Luca Campri, who also documented the area with their cameras.
Did they exhibit their work in the space?
Luis: Yes. The idea is that all the guests have to organize an exhibition, a workshop, or some type of public event in the space. We have already had exhibitions and has been very interesting because people can see what the artists do and be part of a community gathering.
Yuka: One of the concepts is to have things for the neighborhood, not only for artists. We are very careful about not being an island. We talk to neighbors as much as possible and invite them to our events. We are doing our part to contribute and belong to the community.
Do you organize events that are not related to the work of your guests?
Luis: Yes. We have done a couple of events already and we plan on doing more. For example, the Finnish Institute in Japan organized a talk by the Finnish-Swedish painter and installation artist Maria Wolfram. It was very cozy as the space can hold around twenty people seated in stools. We want to do more workshops to make things. We also have what we call a permanent collection on one of the walls that includes a series of framed prints and drawings from friends of ours. We ask them to give us one or two prints that we can sell to support their work. We try to create a sense of community as much as possible with artists and neighbors beyond our guests.
The idea is to organize inclusive events, invite the neighbors to come in and enjoy what is going on. We want everybody to feel comfortable coming in, have a drink with the artist, and enjoy the art. Nearby there is an old school that has been turned into the Taito Designers Village, full of creatives who are starting their careers. They get to rent an old classroom as a studio space for three years for a very reasonable price. As they are so close to us, they often drop by our space to see the shows, enquire about having a pop-up shop or meet the guests. We welcome these types of activities and collaborations with other creatives in the area.
Congratulations on establishing a great space for creative people and the community nearby.
After working as a graphic designer and creative director for 20 years in Europe, Luis Mendo moved to Japan where he changed his career to drawing. His eclectic approach and versatile style, combined with his art direction skills makes him a relevant addition to creative teams and projects. His work is found on websites, magazines and ad campaigns, but also in art galleries and clothing. You can bump into him in the Tokyo streets where he draws daily on his sketchbook.
www.luismendo.com | www.almostperfect.jp | www.instagram.com/luismendo | www.instagram.com/almostperfecttokyo | @luismendo
Yuka Martín Mendo is the founder of the Tokyo-based award-winning ethical fashion brand INHEELS. INHEELS produces stylish casual wear using environmentally friendly material and fair trade labor in Nepal. She is the co-founder of Almost Perfect, a 100 year-old house renovated into a creative residence/shared studio/cafe/gallery.
www.inheels-ef.com/ | www.almostperfect.jp | www.instagram.com/inheels_ef | www.instagram.com/almostperfecttokyo
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