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