Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

First published in the exhibition catalogue for Vacancy: Urban Interruption and (Re)generation, edited by curator Neysa Page-Lieberman. (You can download a PDF of the catalogue or order the hard copy through the Glass Curtain Gallery.)

I. Gray

“(Note to self: also called Gray Towns)” reads an email that Amanda Williams forwarded to me. I had inquired about her practice and influences; one of those big, loose questions that are both impossible to answer and where any answer is all right. I avoided asking, “How does it feel to be a female, Chicago-based, African American artist participating in the Chicago Architecture Biennial?” because that question hovers over everything anyway.

She described a history of black bodies being censored or erased from public space and cities that banned blacks after dusk—these curfewed “sundown” towns existed well into the 1960s. Glendale, California, a city just a ten-minute drive from my L.A. apartment, was one. Guidebooks were published to help African American motorists navigate the boundaries of segregation.[1] The Green Book, published by Victor H. Green, mapped Gray Towns. But how does one reckon with the territory?

Williams, with collaborator Tatyana Falalizadeh, and fellow artist/architects Emmanuel Pratt and Andres L. Hernandez make work within a territory that architecture culture has struggled and even resisted mapping: site-specific, community-engaged, participatory, activist, driven by social concerns. Certain twentieth century practitioners might assemble into a piecemeal cannon for those looking to challenge architecture’s isolationist tendencies: Ant Farm, Archigram, Archizoom, Gordon Matta-Clark. Yet the work of those architects and artists resist cohesion by most categories other than historic period. They remain individual by location, formal expression and end goals.

The parenthetical aside, Williams’ private reminder that I’ve now made public, intrigued me with resonate descriptors, that might prove useful to unpacking the tension between what we might call social practice (for lack of better terminology) and the architectural discipline. Self. Gray. Towns.

Self: The understanding that many of these projects not only come from issues relating to identity, but also are often manual undertakings that require any number of personal resources—time, labor, capital.

Gray: There’s a gray fog hanging over community-oriented or social-impact design that tends to obscure all but the most formal design projects.

Towns: These types of projects are decidedly urban, figuratively and literally.

And Williams’ annotation provoked one of my own.

(Note to self: Chicago’s White City.) The main court of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was called the White City. It was a neoclassical affair, equal parts amusement park, dreamland and tribute to all civilization. Major buildings by Richard Morris Hunt; McKim, Mead and White, and Henry Van Brunt and Frank Howe were dressed up in white plaster facades, stagey approximations of the democratic orders afforded to a few, but touted as a solution to the sordid blight plaguing American cities: industry, density and poverty. Conversely, Adler and Sullivan’s Transportation Building was polychromatic—a blend of color and technology in the face of backward looking designs by his colleagues. Whiteness was old-fashioned; color was the future. Eventually, however, Modernism would return to black and white. And now? Is the future of architecture in color or flat gray?

II. Field Conditions

Curator Neysa Page-Lieberman asked me to reflect on the exhibition title—Vacancy: Urban Interruption and (Re)generation. Vacancy. The loaded term flashed in my mind like a flickering neon motel sign. Is it a welcome or a warning? Vacant room, vacant storefront, vacant property, vacant stare. For each of the artists the word is a radical provocation—reclamation of territories lost in urban renewal, economic downturns, or gentrification. Hernandez sees promise in unused spaces. “If we take time to reflect, not on what is absent, but on what opportunities are provided through absence, we position ourselves to be radically creative in re-imagining our communities for the greater good,” he writes in an email. “My work considers how we might move thinking about the urban context as an absent presence to a strategic, present absence.”

The oscillation between present and absent, the gray zone of occupancy, triggered a memory of a poem that crept into my consciousness while an undergrad at Cornell. Mark Strand’s Keeping Things Whole continues to haunt, in that good way that words haunt psyches, by pushing out data and facts and replacing them with resonances. The first stanza begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.[2]

General analysis of Strand’s poem takes field as a field of wheat or corn or tall grasses. I’ve always thought of it abstractly, as color field, field condition, or expanded field. And it’s with a similar temperament that I meditate on vacancy. It is both a real circumstance in the built environment at local and systemic scales—an undeveloped lot, a food desert, or the lack of health services, for instance—and its an abstraction—Google Earth imagery and GIS mappings of demographic data.

In an interview between the curator and the artists, Pratt notes that the time we live in is “a constructed ecology of absence,” a phrase that bridges between two field conditions, locality and abstraction.[3] Indeed, Pratt’s Sweet Water Foundation with its focus on urban agriculture couldn’t me more homegrown, yet the aquaponics system he uses to grow food within the gallery setting is placeless, a tool of global production. Williams’ Color(ed) Theory operates similarly, but is inverted. Her tools are basic: house paint, rollers, abandoned residences, but in painting the houses a single color she creates an abstracted object. By erasing the details she produces a catalyzing absence.

III. Figure/Ground

I mentioned that I read Strand’s poem at Cornell because the three artists and myself were architecture students there in the 1990s. Although we didn’t really know each other and we graduated in different years, we shared a common pedagogy. The architecture program at the time was between the teachings of the legendary Texas Rangers and the burgeoning discourses associated with deconstruction and cultural theory.

As a student I couldn’t have articulated this observation, but this tension played out in studios and seminars. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City was an inherited text. One more absorbed than analyzed. And because of Collage City we looked to Nolli Maps, Giambattista Nolli’s black-and-white figure/ground studies of eighteenth century Rome, to understand context.

The maps drew attention to the city’s public spaces, its streets, piazzas, courtyards, churches, and other vacancies in the urban fabric. Rowe’s emphasis on bricolage supported an argument against modernism’s tabula rasa urban planning, the impact and influence of which was seen in the Cabrini-Green housing project that Hernandez unpacks with his work Cabrini-Green and Other Urban Legends. Rowe’s text, which is more pluralistic than those before, still set forth a formalist agenda that favored historical and figural interrelationships. Celebrating the dialectic, Rowe described Rome as a “resilient traffic jam of intentions, an anthology of closed compositions and ad hoc stuff in-between.”[4]

Today, one of the biggest frustrations I see within architecture is that while camps of practitioners address each pole of the dialectic: the social, ad hoc practice on one side and the formal object on the other, there’s resistance to using the dialectic itself as a site of operation. And, perhaps, this is where there’s the biggest vacancy within the art and design disciplines and perhaps where there’s the biggest chance to engender change. It is a space of production that is simultaneously figure and ground, black and white, but never gray.

[1] Kelly, Kate, “The Green Book: The First Travel Guide for African-Americans Dates to the 1930s,” Huffington Post, January 6, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kate-kelly/the-green-book-the-first_b_4549962.html (Website accessed August 28, 2015)
[2] Strand, Mark, “Keeping Things Whole” from Selected Poems, 1979, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.
[3] Neysa Page-Lieberman, Director of the Department of Exhibitions at Columbia College interviews artists Andres L. Hernandez, Emmanuel Pratt, and Amanda Williams.
[4] Rowe, Colin, and Fred Koetter. Collage City. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1978. P.106.