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UIC’s Instagrammable Moment

Architect Magazine Ι Aug. 31, 2017 

The piñatas that hang over a wide, terraced stairwell are distinctly biomorphic but don’t resemble any earthly species of fauna. There are bulbous limbs and neon colors, but these David Cronenbergian monstrosities are rendered in papier-maché. Antonio Torres, the architecture professor whose studio created them, says the project was about “articulating bellies and using appendages to protect the most succulent parts of these bodies.” Which is another way of saying, good luck to the stick-wielding children trying to score some candy.

Welcome to Cinco de Mayo at the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), which also happens to be hosting the reception for its year-end show on the same day: a triumphant roundup of the students’ best work. A mariachi band in black jackets and red ties marches through the school’s Art and Architecture building, a singular species of split-level béton-brut designed by legendary Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partner Walter Netsch. Small children suddenly materialize from the standard-issue thin-tie-wearing design crowd; most of them are the offspring of the faculty. There are shrieks and squeals as the piñatas in the end prove no match for the kids, who batter them open with wood rods, raining down neon crepe paper on the stairs.

Not for nothing has UIC developed a reputation for its playful and transgressive approach. The school has emerged as a hotbed for exploring how the rise of the internet and rapidly shifting visual media are shaping ideas about buildings. “There’s a new medium,” says assistant professor Stewart Hicks. “Instead of paper and the drawing as the primary mode of architectural ideas, the screen is the medium.”

Or, as graduate student Tyler Ohnmeis puts it: “We’re making architecture specifically to be posted on Instagram.”

For the year-end show, the students haven’t fashioned speculative projects for clients so much as they’ve envisioned speculative ways of seeing the world. Undergraduate Julia Lobdell’s project, for instance, repositions going to the bathroom as a provocatively semi-public act, elevating fuzzy pink rectangular bathroom enclosures on a stage-like platform. “Since everyone can kind of see you—your head and your feet—you’re kind of performing,” she says.

Robert Somol, the school’s director, “has made [UIC] into a place unlike anywhere else in the country,” says Mark Lee, principal of Johnston Marklee. As curators of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, Lee and his partner Sharon Johnston, FAIA, selected 10 UIC faculty members to participate: about the same number as from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. UIC, which has just 40 faculty and gained accreditation in 1969, is wielding its influence beyond Chicago. Last year, Ania Jaworska, a visiting assistant professor, was a finalist for MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program; another professor, Kelly Bair, participated in the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Jimenez Lai, Somol’s most successful apostle, taught at UIC for six years before leaving for UCLA in 2014. Lai came to UIC because he wanted to be part of a movement, and he believes his former boss will soon occupy an exalted position in Chicago architecture: “The first and second decade of the 21st century will probably have a face, and I think that face is Bob Somol.”

The Reign of Somol

Somol has a long history at the school. In the 1990s, he taught there when Stanley Tigerman was director. In 2007, he returned to assume the lead role, with the goal of re-establishing the intellectual and disciplinary rigor that had characterized Tigerman’s tenure. Somol has a degree from Harvard Law School, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the history of culture, and no architecture degree. “My interest in architecture is really the fallout of my interest in art and politics,” Somol says. “To think about the aesthetic and the political for me, a perfect halfway-house was architecture.”

Something resembling Somol’s manifesto appears in the first issue of Flat Out, a magazine of architectural criticism edited by his wife, UIC associate professor Penelope Dean: “Architecture is a plastic practice, exactly positioned to enact alternatives: to produce holes in the world, stage breakouts, and release the virtuality captured in the real. The world as it is never constitutes a sufficient condition for architecture.”

The embrace of outsider aesthetics at UIC can be viewed as a response to how some faculty see the previous generation as having sold out. Ben Van Berkel is designing shopping malls. Rem Koolhaas counts China Central Television as a client. “The most successful firms that came out of that period tended to end up just becoming market-oriented architects. A lot of the cultural ambitions to the work just didn’t seem to be there,” says professor Grant Gibson, AIA. It’s time for a new architecture, he says, one that isn’t “easily co-opted by corporate capital forces.”

Hence UIC’s embrace of the internet, which is ideal for ripping things out of their context and reorienting them, obscuring sole authorship in ways architecture has long resisted. The school has adopted many of the composition techniques on the internet—aggregation, remixing, collage—often in a flat, graphic presentation. One studio run by Jaworska consisted entirely of a deep deconstruction of the corner as a concept, a series of virtual essays scaled to appear on an iPhone screen: rectilinear, curvilinear, tied in knots, sliced in section and plan, rendered in black and white.

If the school’s body of work is fragmented, it can also be warm and inviting. Hicks’ firm Design With Company has been among the most successful of the young faculty enterprises, and is transitioning from gallery exhibitions to pavilion-scale installations. The firm designed a temporary performance stage at Ragdale, an artist’s retreat in the Chicago suburbs, by cobbling together abstracted building forms from different historic structures on the site (pitched roofs, lintels, columns). The project was a jubilant package of formal minimalism and graphic maximalism, infused with childlike wonder.

UIC’s interest in aggregation and collage may be based on principles similar to those that gave rise to Chippendale Skyscraper tops and flattened ornament. But no one at the school refers to Michael Graves with hushed reverence; no one is interested in reviving the postmodern canon. Instead, there’s a recognition that approaching design in a more broadly postmodern way (fragmented, eclectic, neither bound by tradition nor repelled by it) is a door that once opened, cannot be shut. “There’ve been so many dead ends and forgotten things that [make] history a great repository to do things differently,” Somol says. “To use the archive inappropriately is one of our techniques.”

Take, for instance, the 2015 Chicago Biennial, when Norman Kelley, a firm co-founded by UIC assistant professor Thomas Kelley, installed a series of vinyl stickers on the Chicago Cultural Center’s windows illustrating historical window types and treatments. They included “greatest hits” (Chicago School windows), “b-sides” (Metabolist porthole windows), and, most importantly, “really banal things” (pleated curtains), Kelley says.

All this puts UIC on the outside of one the largest trends in the academy and practice: using architecture as a political tool to help solve the issues of inequality and climate change. There were no mud-hut community centers on the walls of the year-end show, let alone anything resembling an actual building.

“A Solution in Search of a Problem”

Not everyone has been charmed by UIC’s approach. “Bob values the play of ideas, and I think that’s laudable,” says Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. “But architecture isn’t a sandbox.” During the 2015 Chicago biennial, Kamin took aim at “The Big Shift,” a proposal by UIC professor Andrew Moddrell, AIA, to fill in Lake Michigan east of Lake Shore Drive with a new skyscraper district. It was a radical violation of the city’s foundational injunction to keep the lakefront “forever open, clear, and free,” and Somol’s support “revealed a sensibility that celebrated big ideas at the expense of granular human reality,” Kamin says. It was a “solution in search of a problem.”

The emphasis on speculative bombast might also seem misguided given the school’s diverse student body. Of the 312 undergraduates enrolled in fall 2016, 41 percent were Hispanic and 9 percent African-American. Which raises the question: Wouldn’t some students be better served with a more pragmatic education that would help them serve their local communities?

Kevin Meyer, a 2012 UIC graduate, doesn’t think so. Meyer now works at Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects (JGMA), one of Chicago’s most progressive young firms, where eight employees—about half the staff—are UIC graduates. He believes you can learn how to work in a firm when you work in a firm; what young architects need, he says, is “visionary exploration.”

For Gibson, UIC’s outsider status is itself a way to cultivate diversity in design. “Everyone is new here, and the work is strange to everyone, regardless of their background. That common ‘otherness’ that’s inherent to the work allows a common ground for all sorts of different backgrounds to engage one another.”

Architecture’s professional associations and design press, says Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda, often have “a kind of aggression towards the development of ideas. A school is a crucial place to do that. Because where else in the profession can you, where you don’t have the constraints of a client? [Somol] really fights for that space.”

Moving on to the Next Thing

A decade, which is the length of Somol’s tenure so far, is a short time in the history of a school. “When you look back on programs that had any historical weight, you see people like John Hejduk at the Cooper Union for 30-plus years,” says Lee. “Slowly, we’re beginning to feel the resonance of the young people Bob plucked from nowhere.”

But how long will the current moment last? Tigerman, now 80, has witnessed the ebb and flow of countless movements during his career. “Somol is having his day today,” says Tigerman. “[His] time is now, and God bless him, he deserves it. But it isn’t the future.”

Somol doesn’t disagree. As engaged as UIC has been with the mutating whirlpools of pop culture, he remains wary that today’s look is tomorrow’s fad. When Somol taught at UIC in the ’90s, Tigerman warned the faculty of “clipping coupons on yourself”; that is, always going for the easy win, the value purchase. That’s what Somol wants to avoid now: “Our job has to be to move onto the next thing, now that [the current thing] been a little bit co-opted. In a way, we’re better as an incubator of new ideas, and not necessarily as a marketer of them.”

It’s an academic ethos that reflects the architecture the school produces: Make no assumptions about how the world looks or functions. And, more importantly, remember that everything is plastic and mutable, even your own hard-earned success.

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