AIA Architect Ι Nov. 13, 2015

Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank is getting top billing at this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, highlighted as one of the event’s main venues. Amid this wild omnidirectional survey of contemporary architecture, the community arts center designed by Gates and managed by his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation might seem like an odd fit. Elsewhere at the biennial, there’s a floating city–scaled island inhabitable by humans and dolphins alike, and proposals to fill in Lake Michigan with biofilter land masses to clean a re-reversed Chicago River.

Meanwhile, the Arts Bank is a Neoclassical bank refurbished with simple donated materials; in some ways, it hasn’t changed much since Gates bought it from the city for $1. Built in 1923 and shuttered for roughly three decades, its closure was just another signpost of the South Side’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood’s long decline. It’s a lonely survivor, “the last grand structure from what was a thriving commercial strip,” says Ken Stewart, CEO of Rebuild Foundation.

It’s not about form or “innovation” in any design-centric sense; it doesn’t test the conceptions of what architecture is. But it is one of the biennial’s best and most humanistic faces: a collection of used wood, steel beams, and recovered plaster that’s totally subservient to its mission of elevating African-American culture into an exhibition space that can rival any of the Loop’s wealthy institutions.

The $4 million project is an answer to a question Gates asks himself a lot: “Who has the right to amazing culture?” The Arts Bank gives Chicagoans—and specifically African-American cultural producers—a platform to practice their art, in their community, on a stage made for them. Gates took a few cues from rapper Jay Z, best known in architecture circles for being a client of SHoP Architects. “All one has to do is build the space you want to rock in,” Gates says.

So he has. The Arts Bank begins grandly, with an entrance hall and barrel-vaulted coffered ceiling. The plaster ceiling’s seams and cracks (picked off the floor and reassembled by Rebuild) tell the story of the building’s degradation and restoration. For the biennial, the Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga installed a set of cardboard columns and lintels with splotches of white paint to match rough and unfinished walls. Connected with taped seams covering crude joints, these clumsy sentries question the assumed wisdom of traditional Classical architectural forms. It sends a clear message: We’re operating from a different set of cultural blueprints. Cheap appeals to Greek antiquity authority won’t work here.

The second floor houses the arts center’s archives. The archive of the Johnson Publishing Company (publishers of Ebony and Jet) is stacked at the rear of the building on burly, double-height reclaimed wood beams with silver-dollar–sized rivets and steel plates. The library (containing volumes like The Encyclopedia of Black Elected Officials and Ralph Ellison’s complete oeuvre) overlooks the ground-floor bank hall, and works as rich visual centerpiece that grounds the open exhibition spaces in an imposing and permanent icon of black America.

Custom-built shelving for a collection of glass slides focusing on art and architecture history flank the library. Throughout, it’s a material palette of rich, dark woods, all worn through with history. Tables, for example, were made from reclaimed wood that was originally a water tower, the impressions from steel bands holding the massive cylinders together still visible.

The third floor is a teaching and exhibition space, which also contains legendary Chicago house music DJ Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl collection. Here Gates hopes to craft a salon atmosphere where neighbors discover the bank’s collections and learn about how to spread Rebuild Foundation’s ideology of cultural celebration irrespective of socioeconomic status.

Adaptive Wisdom

Gates’ work can be broadly classified as “adaptive reuse,” but it’s motivated by a desire to reconfigure assumed wisdom about how art, culture, and architecture work together.

“Is it possible that an artistic mind might have a way of imagining old political forms, old economic forms, and old architectural forms?” he asks. “Maybe all of these things are reasonable forms that can be molded and shifted like paint. For me, this is about moving paint.”

The Arts Bank comes close to retro-fetishism: your great-uncle’s study ladder, Edison bulbs—a contemporary design sensibility all its own. But Gates’ light touch with strong forms gives the building the sense that it’s been there forever and will be around for just as long. There’s a faded, proud grace in its bare walls. The raw unfinished spaces call to mind a default axiom architects often follow when designing art-maker spaces: Don’t design the whole thing; give the users something to do.

Gates’ approach seems to take this one step further. He sees the bank as a place where neighbors get engaged with the archives and then build programming around it themselves with the Rebuild Foundation’s help.

When a cultural venue’s programming comes from an unmediated reflection of a neighborhood’s priorities, there’s wisdom in designing the space from within these cultural bounds. The weathered walls and fragments of plaster tell the building’s history without heavy-handed narrative curation. It subtextually explains Greater Grand Crossing’s depopulation and the Arts Bank’s resurrection, pulling disused materials from across the South Side to build a new cultural venue. The bank has seen many changes, but it’s still—culturally and materially—what it was once was.

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