MAS Context Spring Talks 2023

Couplings 2023

March 7, 2023 at 6PM

The third edition of the MAS Context Couplings series explored the influence of past projects, realized or unrealized, in shaping contemporary thinking in architecture. The event took place at Genslers Chicago office.


Mas event 2023 couplings announcement

The third edition of the MAS Context Couplings series explored the influence of past projects, realized or unrealized, in shaping contemporary thinking in a design discipline. In this edition, each of the eight Chicago-based architects participating in the event shared a project by another architect that they consider relevant for their practice today. This framework established conceptual connections between projects while providing a snapshot of the opportunities and issues at stake in architecture.

Participants included:

Akima Brackeen – IIT College of Architecture
Abigail Chang – Abigail Chang
Iker Gil – MAS Studio & MAS Context
Tom Lee – Eastman Lee Architects
Matthew Messner – Designer, Critic, Writer, Educator
Dawveed Scully – Chicago Department of Planning and Development
Brian Vitale – Gensler
Christopher Wolf - von Weise Associates

Thank you very much to Gensler for hosting this event.

Mas event 2023 couplings akima brackeen 01

Akima Brackeen, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Akima Brackeen on Nautical Dusk by Torkwase Dyson

When Iker asked me to share the work of an architect or designer that I consider relevant in my work, I realized that the work that I am most inspired by wasn’t necessarily considered architecture but rather existed within or was in conversation with the built environment. I have been inspired by the work of Torkwase Dyson, a multidisciplinary artist from Chicago who is brilliant at creating spaces with embedded narratives. I appreciate her work because it deconstructs and interrogates how we negotiate and navigate space. She looks at design and sculpture through the lens of Black and Brown people, and her work is heavily embedded with these undertones and understanding of ecology, infrastructure, and architecture.

The project that I will be presenting this evening is an exhibition called Nautical Dusk that opened in 2018 at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. The exhibition was inspired by an opportunity that Torkwase had to go through the archives of an individual named Samuel Osborne, who was a janitor for over thirty-seven years at Colby College Museum. There was an archive that was developed from the obituaries of students, faculty, and those who engaged with the museum. I believe that she was able to extract from the obituaries and put it into physical form. It raises questions of authorship and self-determination, and it was a way to consider ecosystems through metaphor. I’ve understood this exhibition in three parts: sculptural form, performance, and sound.

Shapes, lines, and angular compositions make up reflective and volumetric landscapes. The shapes that she uses aren’t arbitrary. They are used to evoke some type of symbolic or historical meaning. They are thought to have timelapse qualities. You’ll notice that in the image on the right, the reflective qualities bounce off of the images and the paintings that are on the wall. No matter how you move throughout the space, you have a different vantage point of circular forms and other geometric shapes to understand how you are moving throughout the space. Although they appear as monoliths, they are portals—a way to look through to beyond. The monolithic forms also become places to be able to engage and interact, and where performance ultimately happens. In a way, they are shapeshifting; they also are a system of movements that emerge and shape the way that we engage with them.

Another element is Dusk, which is the larger platform located in the back. It is essentially a ramp, whose form and materiality explore this idea of reflection and refraction. Abstraction of visibility is used as an exercise through this space. She has considered gravity and resistance, she has considered light, she has considered scalar space, all of which can be experienced by being in space. In a way, these forms encourage engagement between individuals and between body and object.

Another aspect of the work that we won’t be able to experience today is a live performance. What I appreciate is that there was a curated series of performances where visual art, literature, and science were included in a performance by artist Zachary Fabri, with a score produced by Chicago-based artist Andres Hernandez.

Although these are architectural interventions, it is not a building per se. I think of these as just a way to explore spatial imaginations by creating spaces for collaboration, engagement, and performance, while also telling stories that aren't often magnified or viewed in a glorifying way. I really appreciate that her work touches on the production of race, sustainability, and access to space, which is something that is really prevalent in my work today. Thank you.

Mas event 2023 couplings christopher wolf 01

Chris Wolf, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Chris Wolf on The Sea Ranch

The Sea Ranch is a housing community located on a ten-mile stretch of Pacific Coast, three hours north of San Francisco. It consists of 1,800 houses, a lodge, several recreation buildings, and a few commercial properties. The achievement of The Sea Ranch is how it synthesizes the competing forces of housing, landscape, and environment into a cohesive idea of dwelling with the land. In several ways, The Sea Ranch development was outstanding. It benefits from a stellar partnership of developer, landscape architect, architect, and graphic designer. Even though I think all the aspects of this development are great, I am going to focus on the land use concepts by Lawrence Halprin and Associates.

The development of the site began with a thorough investigation of the forces that shaped it. Here you see what Halprin calls an “Ecoscore” considering the geologic history as well as the human forces that shaped the land. This deep understanding enhances the character of the development and becomes the foundation for the land use concept that we will see next. The initial conceptual site plan developed by Halprin called a “Locational score” and shown here, sets the major planning approach for the land. It basically acts as a parti diagram for this large stretch of coast. Highlights of the plan include keeping the meadows and coast open, preserving the natural forest drain ways, and clustering houses in various ways.

“Understand that our landscape allows multiple layers of experience from horizons and slopes to butterflies and mollusks.”
—The Sea Ranch Commons Landscape Committee

This attitude expressed by the landscape committee guides the residents’ interaction with the site. Here we see the principles of the “Locational score” applied to the development plan. Note the relative openness of meadows and coastline. Preserving the open land as a shared amenity and providing trails and beach access along the whole development. Also, individual houses clustered together usually along the edge of a natural or landscape feature. To maintain the rugged character of the site, there are some important regulations that individual owners must follow, which include no lawns allowed in yards, only native or naturalized trees and shrubs can be planted, and to generally avoid prettiness or manicured arrangements.

The hedgerow houses designed by Joseph Esherick are probably the most direct architectural representation of the planning concepts around the shared meadow. As you can see, the houses mediate between open meadow and hedgerow in a natural way. The forces of the place, particularly intense winds from the ocean, inform the sloped roofs and avoidance of roof overhangs that could flutter. Expansive, yet relatively low-slung windows, give ample view to meadow and ocean.

In Condominium One by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker, again, we see a cluster formed. Rather than individual houses around a meadow, here individual units are clustered around a shared court. In Charles Moore’s own words, “At once castle, compound, and promontory, it is a concentration of dwellings bunched together in the teeth of the wind.” From a land use perspective, the condominium as a second home is quite intriguing, especially if your intent is to preserve open land and shared access to coastline. Here we can understand the benefit of a denser housing typology and less road in relation to open land.

The left diagram is Condominium One, while the right diagram shows a typical development just up the coast in Gualala. Both examples are at the same scale and highlight ten residences. In fact, early site plans of The Sea Ranch show several condominium developments planned along the coast in careful relation to one another and the land, showing this was an important initial concept even if it didn’t come to fruition. In both, the examples of Condominium One and Hedgerow Houses, we see a fusion of architecture and land adding obvious richness to the development as a whole.

The place of The Sea Ranch is defined by thoughtful and deliberate ideas of dwelling within a landscape together in a community. Through the principles we have seen, such as understanding history and context of the site, maintaining the natural conditions of a landscape, and using those as a guide for development, clustering dwellings to maintain shared areas, and designing houses that compliment the environmental forces, I believe we can create more enlightened housing developments.

Rather than ending with The Sea Ranch, I want to take a minute to highlight a regional project that uses a lot of principles from The Sea Ranch and applies them to a Midwestern landscape. Tryon Farm was developed by CAPA as a community of ninety houses on a 120-acre site and former farm in Michigan City, Indiana. Similar planning concepts to The Sea Ranch include clustered houses of different typologies. There are houses built into a hill around a pond, houses on the edge of meadows, houses in the woods, and houses around a court. The development is a land condominium. Shared land is owned, accessed, and maintained by all residents, which includes hiking trails throughout. In ways that move even beyond The Sea Ranch as a sustainable development, Tryon Farm has restored wetlands and native grasses to large portions of the site. I think it is a great example of taking the long view on land use and a model for farm restoration that can be implemented in this region. Thank you.

Mas event 2023 couplings dawveed scully 01

Dawveed Scully, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Dawveed Scully on Graffiti Pier by Studio Sewde

When I started to think about a project to share today, it really got me thinking about a question I always ask myself. The question is about how we design, create place, and create community around folks who are already there, around context, and around ecology. This is something that I constantly ask myself in my work. Today I want to present a project that represents those qualities, character, and aspirations and that I think is really well done.

Graffiti Pier is a project in Philadelphia by landscape architect Sarah Zewde. There are about twenty Black women landscape architects in the United States. It is very, very, very rare to find a Black woman landscape architect but she has an amazing practice that focuses on community engagement and collectivity. She finds ways to be collaborative and communicative in a lot of different ways. Her work is inspirational.

Philadelphia has this huge legacy of rail and shipping infrastructure. I learned about it doing an Urban Land Institute advisory panel on a slip to the south of this area. The Delaware River Conservancy shared this project that they had also been working on. The project finds a way to continue the layering of history, of activity, and of events that have happened at the site while bringing a fresh, new, and innovative approach. It meshes both rewilding ecological restoration as well as the history of graffiti, which I didn’t know was invented in Philly.

Let me talk about the site itself. Philly has a series of piers that march along the Delaware River pretty much for the entire city. It is similar to areas in Chicago or areas in many cities where you have this legacy infrastructure that had its heyday decades ago. It was a job center, it was an activity center, it was a place for commerce. And then, that died off and it has completely gone back to a natural setting, becoming a setting for something else. It became a place for graffiti and art, a hidden gallery where folks could come and graffiti. I am assuming it probably was not legal to go out there, do graffiti, and hang out, but that is what happens in city.

There is this visual of graffiti getting its prominence in Philadelphia and growing throughout the city. This pier became a place where artists came to make their name, to work together, to have a dialogue with one another in a public space. And then, as you see in this 2010 photo, it became sort of an Instagram space where people are coming out there to have those moments and enjoy it. The task then becomes, how do you keep the energy and vibrance of a space like this without washing it away? How do you make it into something that maybe doesn’t represent the history but could be kind of cool if you were to think of it like the 606 in Chicago? That is a complete reimagining of what this infrastructure is. How do you keep the infrastructure and bring all those other elements to it?

The thing that really strikes me about this project was the way that she engaged with the community. The question of who the community is becomes something critical in these scenarios. She talked about dealing with two different core groups: on the one hand, you have the residents who live nearby and who may use the riverfront trails, etcetera. On the other hand, you have the graffiti artists, who are also a constituency. That is something that you don’t often see. Folks who are maybe not there legally, but they have an “ownership” or a connection to a space. How do you include all these folks as a constituency? How do you interweave this complex series of ideas and interdependencies? To do that they undertook a series of engagement exercises. They created a zine that talked about best and worst things that could happen. They got these art cards where people talk about dance parties, art, and cultural activity. They explore how to continue to keep the spirit of a place, reimagine it, and address some of the critical issues around sea level rise. How do you keep it a place when it is dilapidated and falling apart structurally?

I found this diagram interesting. They took all that feedback and started to understand some of the best things and worst things, and how you balance the interest in keeping it untouched with the need for newness and freshness that comes with this place. Some of the comments are really interesting, for example to keep it a hidden gem. How do you go through a whole planning exercise and tell everybody about something but keep it hidden? What does “hidden” mean and how does that energy continue to exist in a space? There are a lot of other interesting things such as neighborhood connections and boat access, as well as things they don’t want, such as condos, gentrification, and commercialization. That exercise really yielded some core ideas and core themes that they could then riff off of in the design. They also engaged the artist community to digest these things and come up with visuals that represented the feeling of what it could be. This isn’t necessarily a design or a rendering, but more of an aspiration. An image of what the space should feel like, a feeling of being surrounded by graffiti in this complex environment, taking advantage of these key corridors, and how all that becomes part of the experience. That yielded some core principles. Some of them I found interesting, especially number three, which is antithetical: make it a space accessible without making it look safe and accessible, which I think is fantastic to think about a design problem. It is a critical understanding that this place is interesting because it feels a little dangerous. How do you keep that but make it safe so nobody dies? That is a balance that we all work through. Then they went through an exercise with artists doing these overlays that allowed folks to understand the spaces that are there, what the aspirations are for this place, and how it creates opportunities.

I remember when I first saw this project, I thought the rendering was an existing condition. Usually, when you look at this sort of a project, you expect to be some sandblasting. You expect a bit of “Oh, we are going to make this a little bit nice.” The fact that I think they listened to the spirit of the place and saw that what makes it cool is the roughness and these layers of history that have been captured in the space. How do we celebrate that? How do we add natural landscaping and keep this wild but safe environment? How do you create environments that are inspiring but also address the ecological needs of the place? A beautiful overlap of nature, culture, and community that creates a place for you to explore and find new every time.

This really is a project that inspired me. Something I wanted to share with you is that focus and that intentionality of the engagement and how that created something that is a little bit different from what you would do as an architect or a designer in school or in a firm where you are given a specific task and scope. Sometimes digging a little bit deeper yields something that is a little bit fresher and bolder. I am that being a project for a nonprofit helped in that they don’t have the economic aspect to worry about, but the beauty of the project really lies in all those elements and how they overlap together. Thank you.

Mas event 2023 couplings matthew messner 01

Matt Messner, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Matthew Messner on S-49 by all(zone)

When thinking about what I wanted to show today, I decided to show a project by all(zone), a firm based in Bangkok, Thailand. They exhibited work at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. This is when I first met the owner, Rachaporn Choochuey. She teaches in the United States occasionally, sometimes at Yale University. The reason I chose the S49 project, also known as the Shophouse, was not for architectural, formal, material or even design reasons as an influence on myself, but because there is an underlying subversiveness to the work, which doesn’t exactly come through right away through its aesthetics. But once you start to get a little bit deeper into the design, into the forces that led to the design, it made it a project that I thought was not just applicable to what they are doing in Thailand but also to what we are doing here in Chicago.

I am not an expert on Thailand, but in the last fifty years or so, Thailand has had a number of military coups. I think the last coup was in 2011 or sometime around then. With each of these coups comes a shift back and forth where academics and journalists, sort of the intelligence of the country, get pushed back and forth, sometimes dangerously so. Another result is that Thailand has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. That is something we maybe know something about here. Nowadays, we are much better in Chicago than I think we used to be, but it is something that, as Illinoisans, is on our minds. What is interesting is that the corruption that has happened in Thailand has led to a rampant corrupt building speculation throughout the city of Bangkok.

Bangkok is a dense, Southeast Asian city, and one of the most common building types is the shophouse, which is essentially a shop on the ground floor with housing for the owners above.

It is something we also have here in the city, where we have shops and housing above. But what was happening, and this was explained to me by Rachaporn at some point, was that “they are tearing down these shophouses if they go out of business or they are buying them up for cheap and putting in parking ramps.” I asked her, “Do a lot of people drive in Bangkok?” Her response was, “well, there are a lot of cars and there is congestion, but actually most people bike or walk. There are a lot of other ways to get around in Bangkok than driving.” And she said, “These parking ramps just remain empty.” If you know anything about how other mafias work in the world, building parking ramps is a thing. You can launder money through construction extremely easily because you are building the cheapest thing you can build that has no program attached to it. You can just build it and leave it. If it remains empty, it is just because nobody parks in it. all(zone) has decided to do this work in a quiet way because, if you go to their website, it doesn’t say these things. When they describe their projects, it is pretty straightforward architecture talk. When you have deeper conversations with people in the firm, they tell you what is going on.

The idea is to find a way to take these shophouses and turn them into more contemporary spaces that can be used for offices, for living, return them to shops, and sometimes combine them into more programs. This sounds very much like a third-year undergraduate project that you might take on. But for them, this is an act of subversion. This is a way to save part of the built environment, save some of these historical buildings, which keeps the density of the area, and also provide a way to make them economically viable to push back against foreign real estate speculation. Speculation is the nicest way of putting it. I think in most cases, outside forces are coming into Thailand as it is a cheap place to buy land. The US dollar, and probably other foreign currency, are very strong there. This project, on top of having that underlying story, which is the reason I picked it, is also beautiful.

Another issue is that, along with this rampant building construction that happens in a lot of places in the world where corruption rears its ugly head, is a loss of green space, which seems ironic for a tropical country. But this building is built in a different way. These are early photos when the project was originally built. I am not sure what it looks like today, but part of the design is a screen system that wraps the whole building for passive cooling. There are many other aspects that I could have picked to discuss about this project, but I just wanted to show how it influences me. I am always interested in the ways in which we can, as architects, approach a problem. This speaks to what Dawveed was saying a little bit here too. That we can approach these urban problems not necessarily with a heavy hand, not always with the big formal move, not always with the newest technology. I love all those things too. Those are great, let’s do them. But that is not always the answer. It is not always the solution. Through this project, they are pinpointing a way very much underneath the radar. They are saving buildings and providing these spaces where stuff can happen.

The other reason is that Rachaporn is just a wonderful, wicked smart person. I just like to load those people up because they are great people in the world to have and wonderful people to have in our field. You should all go check out their work. If you read the didactics for each one of the projects, you might not get this story I just told you, but I advise you to think through exactly what you are seeing. They have other projects which are a little bit where they engage the parking ramps and such, but they have a few of these shophouse projects.

Again, it doesn’t always have to be this heavy-handed approach. Some of you are thinking about the ways we can engage with our own city here, with our empty lot situation, with our two flats, and our empty storefronts, which we can see out of these windows. There are ways to work architecturally, thoughtfully, and in a beautifully subversive way. Check them out, they are amazing. Thank you.

Mas event 2023 couplings brian vitale 01

Brian Vitale, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Brian Vitale on the McDonald’s in Berwyn by James Wines

You can all probably remember your neighborhood McDonald’s from your childhood. You probably don’t want to admit it, but it was a pretty big part of our lives. You may have gone there after a soccer game or a baseball game, and a few of you may have even worked there. What I want to share with you is the story of my McDonald’s.

My McDonald’s is located in the quaint town of Berwyn. Berwyn is about eight miles from where we are sitting. It is nestled between the much more culturally significant towns of Oak Park with Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, the voice of Homer Simpson, and Riverside, the Olmsted-planned picturesque suburb. If you want to know what Berwyn looks like, it is bungalows as far as you can see. I grew up in one of those bungalows. The location of my McDonald’s is at the Cermak Plaza. The Cermak Plaza was a very significant place in the town. It was the commerce center. It was designed in the 1950s, therefore, it had a beautiful midcentury sign. It was one of the very first shopping centers. At the time when this was built, in 1956, there were less than 200 shopping centers in the country. Think about that. It was a raging success. The developer was David Bermant out of New York. He bought the parcel of land from Walgreens and they just said, “If you give us a lease, we’ll sell you the land and you can develop it.”

The shopping center did great for twenty years until the dreaded shopping mall arrived about two blocks away. This is the North Riverside Park Mall. It was state of the art at the time. It took a lot of business, a lot of the stores, and a lot of the patrons away from the Cermak Plaza. Open air, conditioned space, bigger spaces, and it was very detrimental to the plaza. But what I failed to mention was that David Bermant was also an art collector, and what he decided to do was to commission a series of pieces of art for the plaza that would bring back prominence and bring back interest.

Soon in my neighborhood, things like the Big Bil-Bored by Nancy Rubins started to arrive. It is a sculpture of junk. Everybody hated it. It is literally a series of appliances that have been discarded that are now pointing directly across the plaza to the Sears store where all of this stuff is sold. The Yellow Pinto Pelt by Dustin Shuler, one of my favorites. It is a Ford Pinto hung like taxidermy. When you were going to the optometrist, this is what you walked past. The Good Time Clock by George Rhoads, probably my favorite as a child. This was sort of a Rub Goldberg-type machine that every minute, these metal balls would make this amazing journey. Every minute the clock would then tick and then another ball would go and do this amazing journey and keep going. Probably the most famous one was the Spindle by Dustin Shuler. It came to big prominence because of Wayne’s World. It became the symbol of Berwyn. The top car, a Volkswagen, was the artist’s car. The BMW right below was David Bermant’s car. He just gave it to them for this sculpture. This was done in 1989. None of these pieces are there anymore, which is sad. At one point, the city of Berwyn put this on eBay, and you could have bought it for $50,000. There were no bids.

What is interesting about what happened here is that it brought culture to a community where people didn’t typically go to museums. In the local establishments, and by that, I mean restaurants and taverns, you would hear people talking about the normal sports, politics, and now, the art pieces. It was weird, and this was lively debate in these areas.

McDonald’s decided they wanted to put a new restaurant right at the corner of the Cermak Plaza. It was the site of an old Yankee Doodle Dandy, if anybody is an old Chicagoan. They reached out to David Bermant and asked him, “We want to build this McDonald’s.” He said, “That’s fine, but you got to do something daring.” McDonald’s are not necessarily the daring type. For context, they got rid of their early designs, which were very futuristic and forward looking to the one that most of you probably grew up with. And the reason they did this was: one, they wanted it to be familiar so that everywhere in the world you see it, you would know it’s a McDonald’s; and two, they wanted it to better fit into the neighborhoods that they serve. We ended up with the double mansard brown brick building that many of us know. This design was so popular that they built over 8,000 of them. You can call this probably the most successful merging of brand and architecture in the history of the world. You can see they were all relatively the same, but David was not going to give up on his demand to basically have another piece of art in his plaza. He introduced McDonald’s to this gentleman, James Wines from SITE. The reason why Wines was introduced to McDonald’s is that David Bermant was a real big fan of the BEST Products Company shops. McDonald’s acquiesced, and the conversation that they had with James is up here. They said, “We hear you are very creative and you can basically be as creative as you want to be. Just don’t change anything.” He took that as a challenge.

What James did is he started looking at all the elements of McDonald’s. The double mansard roof, the brown brick, the types of windows. He started to play with them in a very different manner. He started to look at different ways to compose them. It was amazing to see the type of study that they did. What eventually happened was this, a building that was dubbed the Floating McDonald’s. You can see what he started to do. He removed the entire roof from the building and separated it from the brown brick with a clear story all the way around. The volumes that you see there that are lifted off the ground, had glass, not only above but also below them so that you can actually see the patron’s feet when you were driving by.

This building caused such a sensation. It was published everywhere because it was the first time that McDonald’s ever did anything different. This is where I spent a lot of my preteen and teen years hanging out in this McDonald’s. And you can see how it works. You see some of the glass down there where you see people’s feet, you see the roof, and that brown line represents the mask below it. That is where it is being lifted. It was on the corner of this busy intersection, and it created quite a spectacle. Models of it traveled around the country. This was really an important piece of architecture that I was eating Big Macs in.

You can see some of the section: you can see the glass at the bottom, the steel column that took everything up, the masonry, and then the glass above. You can see here the way that you would see people’s feet as you drove by, and sometimes you wouldn’t even see their heads, you would just see their feet. You can even see the way the furniture was that the children’s feet were dangling. When you did drive by and you saw kid’s feet, they weren’t even touching the ground. It looked like they were floating as well. It was a brilliant, brilliant spectacle. Underneath those bays, we didn’t have a McDonald’s PlayPlace so we just played underneath the building. You couldn’t do this with your normal building, but with this thing we could. You could go outside while your parents were inside and wave to them from down below. It was a really amazing thing.

This was published everywhere. It was in all the major newspapers and on television. You can see what Newsweek wrote here: “Dubbed the ‘Floating McDonald’s,’ the razzle-dazzle structure is attracting gapers and tourists. For the first time, McDonald’s is a magnet for devotees of architecture as well as hamburgers.” This was in such a prominent area and obviously visited by so many people that those conversations that were happening in the restaurants and the taverns about politics and sports, and then about art, was now changing to architecture. People were debating this building. “Was it cool? Was it not cool? Was it floating? I don’t get it.” Imagine that happening in a corner tavern in a blue-collar town like Berwyn. The most audacious part of the story was that James Wines and SITE were so bold once they finished the design of the building, they suggested to McDonald’s that they actually serve the Big Mac in a very different way. They said, “Hey, you should have a floating Big Mac be served inside the Floating McDonald’s.” They delivered these sketches to McDonald’s with their own contraption to separate all the pieces. McDonald’s rejected it.

All good stories have a tragic turn. The McDonald’s that I grew up in talking with my friends about the fact that it’s floating as we ate our chicken nuggets, was filled in about 20 years later. Collective gasp. Everything below that red line was filled in, and this was basically to pick up about twenty square feet of space. The roof was changed. It became kind of a non-descript building, but I will say it was still there. People talk about the good old days when our McDonald’s floated. At least it was a relic.

Last week I drove by it and the building is gone. It has been demolished. Now we have this, a very efficient McDonald’s that serves hamburgers very quickly and efficiently. But I can guarantee that nobody is sitting in the local restaurants or taverns talking about architecture anymore, and to me that is very sad.

I want to end with this. This is a letter that was sent to the developer about that garbage sculpture. You can see it says:

“I’m very glad you like George Rhoad’s Good Time Clock— it is surely a kind of art that appeals to almost all of us (only the pompous few question: is it art?).

I sincerely hope that there will be other art pieces you will likewise find admirable—on an equal or different level, perhaps.

But that ‘other thing,’ Nancy Rubin’s Big Bil-Bored, is not coming down—at least not until it has failed the ‘test of time.’”

They really wanted to take that piece down. It was really tough. If we come all the way down here, it says:

“And it does call attention to the unusual idea that here, in an everyday environment of a plain old shopping center, someone believes that the art of our time can be placed away from special places like museums and fancy galleries where it’s usually found.

If George’s work has made you smile or Nancy’s made you stop to think, or any of the newer ones made your day just a little better, then that is enough.

Look again!”

I can tell you that I feel very privileged that I got to spend a lot of my formative years in this building. I knew that I wanted to be an architect probably right before this, but this really solidified it. It taught me to look at the familiar in a very different way, something that we all probably take for granted, and that you can create spectacle out of anything, even a McDonald’s in a suburban strip mall. Thank you.

Mas event 2023 couplings tom lee 01

Tom Lee, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Tom Lee on Highrise of Homes by James Wines

I am going to start with two confessions. The first is that I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up in a cookie-cutter house in a cookie-cutter subdivision—it was my idea of community. My second confession is that my introduction to architecture came by way of the postmodern skyscraper in all its graphic and formal glory. I loved all of this. But the problem, as I entered practice and having practiced for a while now, was trying to reconcile these two typologies and trying to make sense of their relationship to each other.

I discovered the project that I am going to present while I was in grad school and is probably going to be familiar to you. It has helped me to reconcile or unwind my suburban/postmodern insecurities, but also has had some evolving relevance to me throughout my years in practice. I am presenting James Wines’s Highrise of Homes of 1980. It is a well-known project, so I am not going to get into the particulars of it. His initial intent was to reject what he called this lingering tyranny of formalism. And so, I came across the project in a similar way that I believe he was influenced or inspired by it.

These are two well-known cartoons that both appeared in Life magazine. The one on the left is from 1909 depicting a utopian speculation for what the new invention of the skyscraper could be. There are 84 floors but only five are depicted. Each one has a unique villa and associated life to go with it: you will see on the right that there is a donkey looking down over the edge to the floor below with a couple trying to hail an airplane. But what it was trying to say is that you could repeat that floor (or land) multiple times and that you wouldn’t actually have to have a connection between one and the other. The other cartoon that was of relevance to Wines was this drawing that appeared in Life in 1920. It was a cooperative apartment tower built based on the varying tastes of its occupants.

There is an indeterminacy in both cartoons that was very interesting to me, as you can start to see in the manifestation of Wines’s project, which is really just a very basic matrix. The intent was to create or construct a simple frame and that was the only contribution of the architect. Everything else was left up to chance. Every individual parcel, how it was laid out, and its architectural style was determined by the resident.

This is really a framework for indeterminacy, which also plays well in the fact that it is not designed for a specific site, but rather for any American city, and can take on multiple configurations. My initial interest in the project came when I was studying, and I am still mildly obsessed with this idea of how to create and foster community in tall buildings. For me, Highrise of Homes was this perfect image of that suburban subdivision imposed on a building type not really known for fostering community or neighborhood.

It took me a while to figure out all of the different configurations Wines had developed for the project. One was horseshoe shaped and it suggests this idea of community through, let’s call it, the Hitchcock Rear Window approach. Unlike in a suburban setting, you can stack multiple houses and have this voyeuristic, dare I say, Peeping Tom approach to seeing and interacting with your neighbors, but amplifying it in a way through density that can’t be done in a suburban setting.

I have another confession or mild obsession. I don’t know if these are all confessions or insecurities, but I’ve always been interested in threshold conditions, namely between indoor and outdoor, and public and private among others. When you start to look at the floor plan and the way the spaces are laid out, it is hard to discern where public and private space start and stop. The other thing, too, is that it starts to question what the front yard really is. Is it just a balcony or a terrace? Is it something more? What does that mean for the corridor, the backyard? What does that do in terms of community? How can that start to influence housing today?

As a young practice, we are trying to figure out who we are and what our role is as architects. There are different ways of designing and approaching practice of course. Obviously, there is one of control, precision, and rigor, like Mies. I got a call from a client once asking if they could move a chair in their own house. I was like, “Where have we failed you?” Another approach embraces the indeterminacy of the life that inhabits architecture, which I find myself more in interested in over the years.

Wines will admit that he is a great fan of Mies, though his approach for the Highrise of Homes is one of indeterminacy and chance. I appreciate and admire the approach of not trying to control the outcome and that the success of the whole is really based on how unique each of the individual residents are. That if they were all the same, it wouldn’t have the same effect or entertainment value. What I also appreciate, and it was helpful to have Brian go first, is that Wines has a sense of humor. Perhaps, in a certain way, as architects we take ourselves too seriously. But the humor in the approach is probably what allowed me, this kid who grew up in the suburbs, to really understand architecture at a much different level. How can you use humor to make architecture more accessible to the greater whole?

The other final point is the notion of hand drawing. Every drawing of this project was done by hand, whether by sketching or drafting. I don’t think that you could have pulled off this project in any other way. There is a level of indeterminacy in the representation, and almost every drawing has a slightly different method, whether it is ink wash or pen and ink, that you see here. But it leaves room for interpretation and invites others to participate in what is a very theoretical project, but one that has a lot of practical relevance. Thanks.

Mas event 2023 couplings abigail chang 01

Abigail Chang, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Abigail Chang on Souffle by Tokujin Yoshioka

This is a building that is located in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo. It was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop for a luxury goods company, and it was finished in 2006. The materials and details provoke a lot of interesting relationships between the users inside of the building and how it is perceived outside. The material qualities such as reflection, blurriness, transparency, and flatness are things that I am also researching a lot. Through these qualities, the building is able to transform from day to night.

There are 13,000 stamped glass blocks used in this building that wrap around the façade. The building footprint is quite narrow. It’s about 30 feet by 170 feet, and the building rises ten stories. You can see here that the glass blocks are about 18 inches square and they shrink as you wrap around the corners of the building. As we descend, there are terraces, exhibition spaces, offices, and certainly retail as we get close to the ground. From this view, you can see from the street that the glass blocks can be read as pixels on a screen. Some of them are now replaced by these miniature shop windows, and this kind of display window is enlarged on the short end of the building. And this is actually the site for the project that I wanted to present today.

The project is titled Souffle by the Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka. You might recognize the Honey-pop chair that he also designed on the right side. These spreads and the quote that I am going to share in just a moment is taken from the text “Matter in the Floating World” where Yoshioka is talking about how he approaches design. He uses an anecdote saying that if he were asked to design a towel, how would he approach that? For him it would be less, “What is the shape? What is the color?” He would say, “Could I design a breeze?” What I translate from this into the realm of architecture is the use of nonconventional elements or the interaction of other things that exist in our environment. Here is a picture of Souffle and you can see these very large portraits of the actress Tae Kimura, and they are very zoomed into her face. Within the space of the display window, we also see floating scarves that are very iconic garments of Hermès and an air compressor hidden somewhere behind the screen. As the actress is blowing puffs of air in the digital space, it is also being translated into the physical space.

The last thing I am going to show is this video. What I want to say about it is that the relevance of this project to my own design practice, teaching, research, and writing, is how it ties together the window, the frame, and the screen, which is something I have been thinking about for a long time. This project pulls from architecture and design, but also technology, photography, and videography.

Like many architects, I think the idea of a threshold is quite interesting. For my research, the shop window here brings to mind how we see them during the day. The window is often concealing what the store has behind. You can’t really see past it. It is a very narrow, slender space that is just at the façade of a building. You see a single object that has multiple copies within. Conceptually, I think it reads as a window / screen hybrid. Lastly, and something that I am working on right now, is thinking about how the display window is something inside of a building. It is inside the envelope, but it also belongs to the street. It is accessed at all hours of the day. You see it from day to night, and I think that is an interesting quality about it too.

Mas event 2023 couplings iker gil 01

Iker Gil, Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Julie Michiels.

Iker Gil on El Peine del Viento by Eduardo Chillida Luis Peña Ganchegui

The project that I want to talk about is El Peine del Viento. It is a collaboration between the late sculptor Eduardo Chillida and the late architect Luis Peña Ganchegui. They were both from San Sebastian, a city in the Basque Country on the north coast of Spain. They knew each other but this would be their first project together. They would work on other projects together later in their careers.

El Peine del Viento, which translates to Wind Comb, is in San Sebastian, on one side of the bay. It is a project that is mostly associated with Eduardo Chillida. Since he was a child, this was Chillida’s favorite place. He was a person that enjoyed calm. This is a place that is at the end of the city, it is the connection between city and nature, between city and the sea. You could go there, be alone, and be connected to the rocks. This is a place that has always existed in the city.

Chillida started to work as a sculptor in 1952 and he immediately started working on some version of the Wind Comb. I believe he developed eight versions during the 1950s and one more during the 1960s. It was after 1966 that he would start on this specific version, and it took him eleven years to complete it. The project would eventually open in 1977. It is also interesting to think about this specific period. This is at the end of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, as Franco died in 1975. The project opened in a different context from when it started. By this time, Eduardo Chillida was well known internationally, but he wasn’t as appreciated locally.

Technically, it was a very complicated project for the 1970s. It is a project in which big sculptures, each one weighing more than 10 tons, needed to be placed on rocks in the middle of the Cantabrian Sea with very complicated working conditions. In this area, the sea can be very rough. In this photo it looks very calm, but you have to take into consideration the tides as well as the constant storms and large waves. You also didn’t have the cranes that we have nowadays. The team worked with an engineer from the local council to begin to think about how to place these sculptures on the rocks. To be able to place the sculptures correctly, they had to be maintained in a very specific position for the composites to adhere to the rock. Each one of these sculptures had to penetrate over three feet into the rocks. To be able to hold them in place was fairly complicated. They considered several ways of placing these sculptures. One option discussed was to ask the US Army to see if they could get a helicopter to hold these sculptures, but they could not hold these sculptures in place long enough. As the project is right at the side of the mountain, they also thought about bringing the sculptures down the mountain with pullies. They couldn’t do that either. Another option was to use a barge, but the problem is that this area is fairly shallow and with the rocks and waves, they couldn’t get to the location they needed. In the end, they built a temporary bridge. They worked with a local fabricator, ULMA, that now is a large company but, at the time, was just starting. They didn’t want to build a concrete bridge because they didn’t want to leave any trace in the location, so they built a bridge with scaffolding. It is kind of crazy, but it worked.

The part that is always left out a bit in this project is the role of Luis Peña Ganchegui. He was the architect that created the space that acted as a preamble to the sculptures. Again, this is a place that is at the end of the city, connected with the sea. It is an understated but very clever way of creating a public space as you approach the sculptures. He created a series of platforms using pink granite cobblestones. It organizes the different spaces, and you can rest and have different views of the city and the sea. As you can see, people go fishing there.

Chillida created three sculptures that represent the past, present, and future. The mountain and the rocks where the sculptures are located are part of the same stratum, it’s just that it has been eroded by the sea. What Chillida wanted to do is connect them. The sculpture on the left and the sculpture on the right represent the past and the present. The sculptures connect what was once connected. And the farthest sculpture is the one that represents the future. It is the horizon and the one that that you look to see what is going to come. In this photo you can see the space used by the kids. There was no official opening when it was completed in 1977, but it has become the place in the city where everybody goes to, and it represents the city.

It is a pretty calm place; you only have the sound of the sea. If you have ever gone to the north of Spain, you have seen the rough sea. In the plaza by Peña Ganchegui there are seven water sprays. There are seven symbolic holes representing the seven cultural provinces of the Basque Country: four in Spain and three located in France. When the waves hit this space, the water just goes in, it gets compressed, and it goes up through those holes, and everybody loves to play with it.

Eduardo Chillida was born 1924, so next year it will be centenary of his birthday. They have already started all the celebrations for his centenary this year. Years before he died in 2002, he bought a property with a traditional house from the Basque Country, a caserio. He turned it into a museum called Chillida Leku that opened in 2001. It is an amazing place right outside San Sebastian. I leave you with this photo of Chillida with his beloved sculpture and beloved city. He was able to leave an incredible legacy in his city.

Mas event 2023 couplings audience 05

Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Mas event 2023 couplings audience 01

Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Mas event 2023 couplings audience 02

Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Mas event 2023 couplings audience 03

Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Mas event 2023 couplings audience 04

Couplings 2023, Chicago. © Iker Gil.


Couplings 2018
Presentations by Pouya Ahmadi, Amir Berbić, Renata Graw, Jim Misener, Ashley Ryann, Cheryl Towler Weese, Enric Turull, and Alisa Wolfson

Couplings 2016
Presentations by Paola Aguirre, Katherine Darnstadt, Judith K. De Jong, Sean Lally, Ang Li, Julie Michiels, Ryan Palider, and Eric Rothfeder