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Emanuel, Gates, Gang: A Mayor and His Design Stars

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced next year’s inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, and two designers that are helping maintain his city’s presence as an iconic design destination

By Mike Singer

“The idea of rethinking your space is essential for a city today,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as he opened AIA Convention 2014.

“People from around the world are now migrating back to cities,” the mayor said. “In the same way that 100 years ago Chicago was at the epicenter of modern architecture, we are now at the epicenter of rethinking livable, sustainable, and beautiful cities—and your work is essential to think through that effort.”

In this opening keynote session, Emanuel joined two of his city’s design stars—Jeanne Gang, FAIA, and artist Theaster Gates—in underscoring how and why Chicago is still at the forefront of American architecture today.

The mayor referenced the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, a significant international forum for the exploration of new ideas in architecture that he announced earlier in the week. Emanuel said the 2015 biennial will capitalize on Chicago’s unique place in modern architecture, and is expected to be the largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America. He noted that Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, home to three schools of architecture, and provider of such major architecture prizes as the Pritzker Prize, the Burnham Prize, and the new Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize for Emerging Architecture.

“No other city has that kind of deep connection with architecture,” Emanuel said.

Architecture as raw material

Internationally acclaimed artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, creative director of the Rebuild Foundation and the director of Arts + Public Life at The University of Chicago is one of the artists the 2015 biennial will work with to develop installations and public programs in some of Chicago’s most distressed and impoverished neighborhoods.

Mayor Emanuel, underscoring how cities must rethink urban space not only for downtowns but also for neighborhoods, announced that Gates has been selected to develop artwork for Chicago’s 95th Street train station, the second busiest in the city. The city has instituted a new public art program to match city-wide upgrades to its railway stations, matching pubic art with public transportation improvements.

Gates used a recent South Side Chicago project to focus on how his own artistic practice is connected to the field of architecture. He described a project for the dOCUMENTA(13) festival, where he transferred elements of an abandoned house from the South Side of Chicago to a 19th century house in Kassel, Germany that had stood vacant since being bombed during World War II.

Gates called it the Huguenot House, and he turned it into a new performance and cultural venue. Subsequently, the original Chicago house that Gates disassembled was restored back in Chicago into Black Cinema House, now a popular performance venue. “I used this as a way of documenting what actionable architecture could look like,” Gates said. “What I wanted to do was figure out not only architecture as space, but also think about ways in which people can have significant impact on the use of those spaces.”

“If we would use these spaces smartly, people might get more excited and more attracted to the spaces and other types of new activity might happen. Architecture in a way was raw material to me, and that raw material would allow me to deploy architecture in the same way that I would use a paint brush or a hammer.”

Spatial change and social change

The first architect to win a MacArthur Fellows Program “genius grant” in more than a decade, Gang gained international acclaim from the Aqua Tower, an 82-story high-rise draped in undulating concrete balconies near Millennium Park. Since it was completed in 2010, Gang has secured a place on the shortlist of the most vital and influential American architects practicing today. Her care for and craft of building materials shines through on projects like Aqua, the Brick Weave House, the Nature Boardwalk Pavilion at Lincoln Park, and the SOS Children’s Villages Community Center.

Gang elaborated on the convention’s theme of “Designing with Purpose” when showcasing her firm’s plan for turning the former site of the Meigs Field airport into recreational areas in Northerly Island, a man-made peninsula along Chicago’s lakefront. “It’s an amazing space for escape and learning about nature right in the city,” said Gang. “It’s a place for people, a place for habitat. It’s now the largest urban aquatic restoration project in the country.”

But beyond the details of any individual project, Gang said that it’s not the what of design that unites architects, but instead the why of design. "It's not only what we design in any given city, because we're all doing great design," she said  "It is what we know, it's what we say, it's what we take part in that frankly helps drive change. Purpose is the process. We are all in the process of aligning global issues with the opportunities available to all of us in design. "

Taking advantage of these opportunities requires architects to have an understanding of the often circular the relationship between social change and spatial change. Citing mass urbanization and climate change as key issues impacting how an architect today “designs with purpose,” Gang said, “Social change is reliant on spatial change, and spatial change is dependent on social change to realize itself.”

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“In the same way that 100 years ago Chicago was at the epicenter of modern architecture, we are now at the epicenter of rethinking livable, sustainable, and beautiful cities—and your work is essential to think through that effort,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. All images courtesy MattMartin.tv.

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“Architecture in a way was raw material to me,” said artist and designer Theaster Gates, “and that raw material would allow me to deploy architecture in the same way that I would use a paint brush or a hammer.”

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“Social change is reliant on spatial change, and spatial change is dependent on social change to realize itself,” said Jeanne Gang, FAIA.

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