Architecture Performing Live

September 13, 2021

This essay by Joseph Altshuler and Zack Morrison celebrates and speculates on new forms of theatrical, bodily, and athletic performance for architecture, with a special emphasis on architecture performing live to engage diverse audience types, especially those communities that have been systematically excluded throughout history.


I never practice, I only perform
–Chance the Rapper1

What if architecture performed live shows? Whether hanging from its rafters, opening its doors wide to new audiences, or pirouetting into the public way, architecture’s liveness and liveliness offer its practitioners, teachers, and everyday users important tactics to resist the oppression of the status quo and remake the world according to liberated dreams and animated desires.

Whether we are paying attention or not, architecture is a starring performer in our everyday lives. It acts out cultural signifiers and power structures. It shapes our routines and provokes surprises. It frustrates us and it makes us laugh. It plays the role of the backdrop and the main actor, the show, and the audience. By explicitly designing and heightening the live(ly) performance of architecture, we might help reveal the underlying connections, overlaps, and solidarity among ourselves, others, and the built environment.

Mainstream understanding of architecture’s performance remains almost exclusively technical, with “performance” commonly referring to environmental building systems including HVAC efficiency, envelope responsiveness, or attributes of building materials. While the quantitative, thermodynamic performance of architecture is important, the qualitative, psychodynamic performance of architecture offers new potential to animate its cultural relevance and expand and diversify its audiences.2 If architecture, as both a human community of practitioners and a nonhuman community of physical structures, hopes to build new audiences, perhaps it can learn from other cultural outlets that are particularly adept at engaging spectators and fans, such as theater, performance art, and sports. Could architecture inspire audiences to laugh hysterically, boo in disgust, applaud in standing ovations, or rush the court, and if so, what does that mean in an architectural context? This essay celebrates and speculates on new forms of theatrical, bodily, and athletic performance for architecture, with a special emphasis on architecture performing live to engage diverse audience types, especially those communities that have been systematically excluded throughout history.

In the Western/Eurocentric tradition, architecture is both conceptualized and constructed as a fixed, static, and permanent entity that is literally or figuratively planted in the ground as it transfers its “dead loads.” This “groundedness” suggests structural stability, moral integrity, and material and cultural permanence.3 We believe this worldview helps reify authoritarian qualities of the built environment and belies the living qualities of all buildings—which in reality constantly breathe, consume fuel, emit exhaust, shift in their structural live loads, and reconfigure themselves over time in cooperation with human and nonhuman agents. While all buildings exhibit these vital, performative qualities, we also believe it is instructive to distinguish between buildings’ ongoing dynamic life cycles from the charged, live performances that architecture might also enact in specific moments in time and cultural contexts.

Art that is “live” can be distinguished from art that is part of an idea of the “practice of everyday life” in terms of ordinary actions or interventions that are pedestrian and sometimes participatory. The latter approach has what might be described as a softer tone than that sense of charge implied by the “live.” … “Liveness,” in sharp contrast, carries an intensity of being in the moment, a mutual presentness, even an element of physical risk.4

We are eager to amplify architecture’s liveliness. Unlike many other “live art” and cultural practices that enjoy explicit venues for public performance, participation, and entertainment, architecture is all around us all the time. Without a proscenium, screen, or other “narrative frame” to contain it, the stuff of the built environment is often taken for granted as a given reality, obscuring the imagination and ideology that underpin any construction. Live performance tactics offer an opportunity to enact the human body in specific spatial scenarios that call attention to architecture’s sometimes invisible politics and cultural imaginations. It pushes us to de-familiarize our everyday buildings and environments and rehearse new ways of living together.

Live, theatrical performance as a delivery mode for architectural ideas—“performance architecture” for short—is not new. One (of multiple) origin points for performance architecture is the work of Oskar Schlemmer, an important protagonist and faculty member of the Bauhaus. Schlemmer directed the Bauhaus stage department which became an ideal venue to explore the geometric relationships between the human figure, movement, and space. His performances, such as the Triadic Ballet, straddle costume design, choreography, and architecture. By designing wearable, locomotive forms that are powered by the human body, Schlemmer’s work underscores and exaggerates the animate, lively qualities of built things. Schlemmer also created a multidisciplinary course called “der Mensch” (or “human being”), an intellectual space to speculate on a new vision for the human body in a rapidly modernizing world after the horrors of World War I. Schlemmer’s Bauhaus performances in effect become a platform to rehearse a new design for the human species alongside a companion “species” of architecture.5

Recent Resurgence

I see architecture as a performing art.
—Stanley Tigerman6

Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in performance art as a medium to deliver architectural ideas and engage with new audiences. The critic Mimi Zeiger reviewed some of these recent practices in her 2018 article “Architecture Embraces Performance Art (Again)” and attributed the growing trend to pragmatic, phenomenological, and political reasons.7 Architecture with a capital “A” is slow, exclusive, and bound up with existing power structures and capitalism. There is a desire among contemporary architects to deliver work with more immediacy than traditional building projects and to engage more directly with social issues by working more with live people and less through static representation.

Beyond the important pragmatic, phenomenological, and political motivations that Zeiger identifies, performance offers a disciplinary format for architects to take things into their own hands and test new spatial ideas among live contexts. For decades, the constructed pavilion has monopolized built architectural experimentation in western, elite settings. As a full-scale built construct that is liberated from strict functional requirements and building codes, but often still inhabitable by humans, the pavilion format provides architects with a useful outlet for experimentation and conjecture. Pavilions pervade the proliferating calendar of architectural competitions, exhibitions, and biennials accordingly.

Performance offers a compelling alternative to pavilions as a format for architectural experimentation broadly, and to bolster architects’ self-initiated agency in experimentation specifically. Pavilion architecture can easily be crafted and delivered in a vacuum, often in a closed workflow from digital model to digital fabrication technology output; they may be sited in sensitive contexts, but they easily avoid their messy contingencies. Pavilions are often aloof, otherworldly, and exclusive—their exquisite frames often remain empty and devoid of bodies. In contrast, performance architecture is prone to be intimate, interactive, innerworldy, and inclusive—its dynamic frames abound with liveliness and highlight bodily action and relationships. Performance architecture requires participation, typically by actors outside of the architect’s primary purview; this integral necessity for collaboration pushes architects into social settings and communities of diverse others, producing an array of relational feedback loops and creative displacements of labor.

We will unpack four recent performance architecture case studies and speculate on their possible futures. Each case study defines and situates a different organizational and spatial relationship between architects/performers and audiences, from remote audiences that are strategically displaced from the action to audiences invited to encounter or join the performers on “stage,” to audiences laboring to enact a performance with their own sweat and tears. We invite you to sit back and enjoy how these projects reposition and recast their participants and witness how these shuffled roles and augmented contexts might shake up disciplinary practice as we know it.

1. Remote Audience

Makin’ It—a sitcom pilot by Studio APT

Makin’ It is the 2013 pilot episode of a fictional sitcom TV series created by Studio APT, the architecture duo of Julia and John McMorrough. Architects don’t usually make sitcoms, and so it should come as no surprise that the architects reveal that they designed the set before the script.8 But by exploring the intersection of architecture and theatrical performance in an eighteen-minute-long episode (including commercials also crafted by the architects!), this project breaks new ground for architects to engage broader cultural (and comic) delivery modes to communicate spatial ideas.

The sitcom features back-and-forth one-liners, often cheesy ones, between a fictional husband-wife architect team, Ruth and Hugh, who are struggling to find work. As possible alter egos of the McMorroughs themselves, the story perhaps plays out their own repressed desire to perform comedy, or even a more broad repressed desire for architecture to be funnier:

Hugh: “I even brought it up with my guidance counselor in high school. I said I wanted to be either an architect, or a comedian, and he advised me that I wasn’t smart enough.”
Ruth: “To be an architect?”
Hugh: “No, a comedian.”9
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Like all TV pilots, Makin’ It is a proof of concept. This pilot does not test market value, but rather, it tests the potential of format and form. Studio APT leverages the self-initiated performance as a wide-ranging opportunity to experiment in crafting a suite of design deliverables adjacent to architectural production, including script writing (akin to specifications), stage/set design (construction drawings), and film direction (project management and construction administration).

The centerpiece of the performance is the stage/set design. It plays the role of a third, nonhuman character in comedic companionship with Ruth and Hugh. Described as a “Platform for Architecture,” the stage is an abstract, rectilinear array of boxy surfaces calibrated at various heights for human activity, including sitting, standing, and using a table. The stage has no walls or backdrop, and can be approached in the round. The boxy surfaces approximate the standard dimensions of furnishings that populate typical domestic interiors, including the spatial approximations of a countertop (kitchen), a desk (office), and a couch (living room). For each act, the platform is rotated to orient a different domestic “region” toward the front. Each act also features a different camera angle that corresponds to a different architectural drawing convention such as elevation, axonometric, and perspective. In this way, the cinematography integral to the sitcom format, in tandem with the spoken dialogue, perform live to exhibit, narrate, and animate the specificity of the “Platform’s” architecture.

A live audience is noticeably absent from this act of performance architecture, a fact underscored by the inclusion of a boisterous laugh track. Because the remote audience is displaced in space and time from the actors, and is free to rewind, rewatch, and relive their favorite jokes, the audience enjoys a different kind of intimacy than would be otherwise possible in a more conventional live context. Comfortably seated in their homes behind screens, the anonymous audience does not build direct relationships with their fellow viewers; rather, by watching reruns in their pajamas, at-home viewers might cultivate an episodic fan-following of the characters and a connoisseurship of the architectural character in the starring role, the set, especially with the promise that there may be a full season of subsequent episodes.

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The specificity of an audience for Makin’ It is less relevant than an appraisal of the audience-building potential posed by the existence of the fully realized pilot. Given that the sitcom is a story about architects sitting in architecture, written and directed by architects, this performance may be an ultimate meta-act for the discipline: it is a performance intended to build audiences of architects so as to motivate said architects to build new audiences. That may be this sitcom’s biggest strength and weakness: aside from the apparent weirdness of the very idea of architecture broadcast via a sitcom, the performance remains safely within its own formatted world; it neither pushes the limits of comedy nor does it push the limit of how architecture itself might perform comedically. But as a pilot that also normalizes this new possible medium, it also paves the way for the more adventurous future possibilities.

2. Delineated Audience

We Know How to Order—Bryony Roberts and South Shore Drill Team
Marching On—Bryony Roberts, Mabel O. Wilson, and the Marching Cobras of New York

We Know How to Order (2015) and Marching On (2018) are two distinct but related performances by Bryony Roberts (in collaboration with Mabel O. Wilson on the latter) that nurture artistic partnerships with local drill teams and marching band troupes to inject movement, joy, and power into public spaces. These performances celebrate Black youth’s agency to occupy and animate public spaces in American cities through live dance and music. At the same time, these performances confront and challenge the histories of systemic racism that sought to remove and exclude Black bodies and communities from these public spaces. While the scheduled public performances that culminate each project are temporal and ephemeral, they establish lasting precedents for how architecture (as a profession and a set of spatial techniques) can participate in partnership with communities to rehearse new worlds for those communities beyond the performance itself.

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We Know How to Order, Bryony Roberts + South Shore Drill Team. Performance at the Federal Center, Chicago Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2015. Courtesy of the designers.

In We Know How to Order, Roberts works closely with the South Shore Drill Team to activate the static and authoritarian grid of Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago. While trained as an architect, Roberts self-describes her role in these projects as the “art director,” a role that she believes involves siting and narrative-framing, crafting a visual language, and conceptualizing a relationship to an audience.10 The siting of the performance itself performs a resonant narrative: by inviting Black youth to perform in Federal Plaza, a major midcentury civic investment in the city center, Roberts is invoking the history of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides; moreover, because Federal Plaza houses the federal court system, the performance’s site reiterates the ongoing violence waged by the judicial system to the Black and Brown people who call those communities home.

The visual language of the performance is envisioned by Roberts in collaboration with the Drill Team’s choreographer Asher Waldron, with the choreographer crafting the details of the performers’ motion within and along the gridded arrays of terrazzo pavers. Traditional drill team routines and contemporary dance moves reveal the rigid geometric patterns of the existing setting while generating new patterns of distortion and celebration. The visual language also extends into costume design where Roberts invites the youth performers to inhabit the space on their own terms, in striking white, black, and green uniforms.

Gathering an audience along the periphery of the plaza to witness Black youth reclaiming and activating the core of this charged site is an architectural act of spectacle and context transformation. The audience (organized via the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial) remains distinct and delineated from the performers but is invited to experience an extremely familiar vantage point in Chicago’s streetscape in a way that dislodges the architectural landmark from its white supremacist underpinnings.

Roberts revisited performance architecture in New York with Mabel O. Wilson and the Marching Cobras to bring a performance to Marcus Garvey Park—this time rooted in the rich history of African American marching bands as a form of political and artistic presence in American public life. Roberts and Wilson reflect on marching bands as form a “camouflage” which enabled Black gatherings to inhabit the streets at a time when they otherwise would have been prohibited. They riff on this observation by designing elaborate, two-sided costumes that borrow from the visual language of military camo patterns to provide different color schemes for different movements and voices of the performances. The dancers and drummers begin the performance adorned in two different coded sets of muted, traditional colors; they flip their capes midway to reveal a shared and more vibrant contemporary palette.

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The choreography of Marching On is more itinerant than its Chicago precedent, proceeding from the street to the park and back into the street again. In contrast to the Chicago performance in which the audience gazes from a distance at the spectacle of the “stage” beyond, in this case, Roberts and Wilson distribute the audience among more intimate pockets along the marching band’s routes, prompting more personal and companionable encounters between the audience and performers, sometimes being staged at distance of only three feet from one another. While the audience remains delineated and distinct from the performers, this evolution from the Chicago performance suggests a flatter hierarchy among participants and the ways in which everyone occupies the shared public space in a new way through the routines of the performance.

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Marching On, Byrony Roberts + Mabel O. Wilson + Marching Cobras. Commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2017-2018. Courtesy of the designers.

In both of these projects, Roberts and Wilson reach outside of the typical techniques and deliverables of their architectural training to engage with performing troupes that have long established cultural traditions and expertise in their crafts—but they still bring their specifically architectural and graphic sensibilities into these live mediums. By inserting themselves into the cultural narratives, they don’t so much enhance the act of drill teams and marching bands with their new architectural siting and fancy costumes, but rather, they participate in emphasizing a particular spatial dimension into youth’s understanding of their own performance medium and “own that legacy” with renewed enthusiasm.11

3.Participatory Audience

People Pavilion—a wearable happening by Ailie Rutherford and Laurence Payot

A collaborative and ongoing project led by the artist duo of Ailie Rutherford and Laurence Payot, People Pavilion consists of a series of “structures” created via wearable extensions of the participants’ bodies. Established in 2014 for the Warrington Art Festival, each iteration features a new set of wearable geometries that augment the human form and entice new ways of forming a temporary “pavilion” that respond to their participants and to their physical and cultural contexts.

As an ongoing artistic act, each physical manifestation of People Pavilion is unique while the underlying script remains consistent. Performers venture out into the city bedecked in costumes that augment their human bodies through geometry and color; the costumes are scripted to assemble and aggregate into various social configurations that facilitate new pockets of programming adjacent to everyday city life. Throughout the performance, the bodily extensions remain integral to the performers, such that the “pavilion” and those persons creating it coincide. For Rutherford and Payot, collaboration with the performers is a key component to determine the form and programming of each pavilion. The artists engage social tactics such as games, workshops, and prototyping with each group of participants to fine tune the specific script for each pavilion. In turn, the script operates more like an improv prompt than a comprehensive set of theatrical instructions.

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People Pavilion (Streetland), Ailie Rutherford and Laurence Payot, 2014. © Bob Moyler. Courtesy of the designers.

The costumes that construct the People Pavilion are ever evolving. In its first iteration, designed in collaboration with architecture students, each actor wore a two-tone pyramidal shell. By aggregating this simple unit, multiple performers create a rich variety of pavilion forms. For example, the units produce an emphatic line, a fortified tower, an articulated field, and an intimate enclosure that each respond to various public spaces within the city. In later iterations, fabric and pliable poles (akin to poles in camping tents) create butterfly-like arrays of circles sprouting from each performer’s backpack that quadruple the spatial footprint of any individual performer’s body. These costumes-merged-with-stage-pieces leverage translucent, soft materials to play with light and attenuate sound. Huddling together allows the performers to create both visually and acoustically distinct spaces.

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People Pavilion (Festival 2018), Ailie Rutherford and Laurence Payot, 2018. © Angela Catlin / Emma Bowen. Courtesy of the designers.

Moving collectively, the actors of People Pavilion seek to create, test, and explore various forms of social space. Often the most memorable moments of the performances occur within the temporary interiors created by aggregations that carve out enclosed pockets of intimacy from the crowded activities alongside. To program these interiors, Rutherford and Payot again rely on collaboration with the actors to craft stories, songs, and choreographies that initiate solidarity among the participants and passersby. In some instances, the action is facilitated by relationships with existing organizations, including local choirs. As singing emanates from the pavilion, it entices others from the public to join in and become part of the act. For Rutherford and Payot, creating welcoming social spaces within and distinct from the corporate and commercial hardscapes of the city advances a feminist urbanist agenda. In this way, the action and intimacy of the spaces are prioritized over any specific geometry or form.12 It is in the combination of both physical (geometric/formal) space and social (programmatic/collective) space that People Pavilion shines as an example of a welcoming and inclusive performance.

People Pavilion is a performance bolstered by audience participation. While the geometric arrays created by the costumes produces a kind of “otherness” among the primary performers, the fact that each actor retains at least some visible parts of their familiar human body prevents the performance from feeling unwelcoming or exclusive. So too, because the performances occur in accessible public spaces, they invite a shared sense of ownership and co-creation from passersby. As the performance ensues, more and more members of the audience are emboldened to participate. Ultimately, People Pavilion blurs the boundary between “pavilion” and “not pavilion” and “body” and “not body” through deliberate and calibrated acts of radical inclusion.

4. Action Audience

Bronzeville Bustle 5K—an architectural footrace by Could Be Architecture

This is where our Chicago-based design practice, Could Be Architecture, enters the story. In October 2019, we organized the Bronzeville Bustle 5K, a mashup of an architectural tour and an athletic footrace that took place in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood as a partner program of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.13 The project treats the planning and implementation of a 5K run as an architecturally performed act and involves the coordinated participation of many collaborators, community partners, and co-creative agents.

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Bronzeville Bustle 5K map, 2019. © Could be Architecture.

The script of the Bustle centers on designing the race’s route through plan drawing. While the typical 5K (3.1 miles) length is relatively small in relation to the scale of a city, we leveraged this simple spatial constraint to “connect the dots” among the largest number of architectural attractions between predetermined start and end points (established by engaging community partners that generously allowed event participants to access parking and bathrooms).14 The result is a meandering, circuitous line that makes it difficult to achieve a record-breaking finish time due to the number of turns, but that enables the greatest interface with the architectural character (and characters) of the neighborhood. Landmarks along the route are selected based on their curb appeal and capacity to prompt further investigation or a second look during or after the race. The banner graphics identify the names of buildings alongside abstracted elevations drawings of the architecture that they point toward. In this way, the scenography exhibits a “split screen” quality: the runners visually experience the architecture via the perspective of the actual buildings and the elevational abstraction of the graphics simultaneously.

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Bronzeville Bustle 5K, 2019. © Black Chicago Runners. Courtesy of the authors.

Because we prioritized the quantity and quality of architectural attractions over the intuition or ease of the map directions, we inadvertently neglected to design and fabricate adequate directional signage (typically a top priority when organizing a race), and rather focused on the graphic design of banners and interpretative signage that point out the architectural attractions along the route. As a result, a few runners accidentally veered off the designated course, but discovered even more architecture during their unscripted, ad-lib detours. While the oversight that spawned these deviations was not intentional, the resulting expanded route variations underscore the city’s own role in shaping our movements, especially when we are confronted with new ground and shifting loci of control.

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Bronzeville Bustle 5K, 2019. © Black Chicago Runners. Courtesy of the authors.

From an organizational point of view, constructing a 5K doesn’t differ radically from an architectural project—draw a plan, procure a permit, and you are off to the races (pun intended). But we could not have constructed the race alone. With the help of an expeditor (to secure the permit), a race coordinator (to administer the registration and racer times), and most importantly, partnerships with community running organizations (including Black Chicago Runners and Men Run Deez Streets) the Bustle served as a social condenser that brought together a diverse and collaborative group. By converging upon this single act of athletic-architectural performance, bodies and communities co-occupy the public space of the city in agential and liberating ways (that echo the presence of marching bands in the streets in Roberts and Wilson’s project discussed earlier).

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Bronzeville Bustle 5K, 2019. © Black Chicago Runners. Courtesy of the authors.

While conventional performances typically distinguish the actors and the audience as two distinct groups, the format of the 5K conflates the two: the performing runners simultaneously become a new audience for architecture and vice versa. By mashing up an architecture tour with an athletic event, the performance instigates an intersection of two audiences—fans of architecture and running as cultivated through a particular neighborhood culture—that may not have shared solidarity previously. On one hand, the architectural enthusiast experiences the urban fabric at a new speed, pace, and perspective, and on the other hand, the avid runner experiences the familiar thrill of the sport (competition, adrenaline, and fitness) from a shifted architectural point of view.

However, this neat simplification does not necessarily articulate two distinct groups, but rather, it suggests a spectrum along which participants might identify in overlapping and intersectional ways. By conflating the identities of performers and audience, the act of performance may shift any individual participant’s identity along that spectrum or open up alternative vantage points from which to experience the space of the city. The 5K likely did not convert architects into runners or runners into architects, but seasoned runners might now find new ways to curate their runs—not by pure mileage, but by visual textures, spatial agenda, and cultural exchange. Or conversely, architects, designers, history enthusiasts, and city planners might begin to envision the city from the vantage of a new user group that experiences the city at a radically different pace.

A Performative Near Future

The revolution will not be televised…The revolution will be live.
—Gill Scott-Heron

While no architectural project can be completed without collaborations (with builders, engineers, clients, etc.), conventional project delivery modes in the US privilege the architect at the center of this exchange, exercising a perceived or real upper hand. Live performance architecture suggests an alternative practice modality that plays out on a more equitable playing field (or stage) by stretching, expanding, and multiplying the roles of the social, political, and aesthetic action that is required to put on a “good show.”

Performances require actors, whether they be thespians, dancers, musicians, or athletes. By partnering with film crews, drum lines, choirs, and community running organizations, for example, performances push architects to test their disciplinary capacity to engage in interpersonal exchanges, organizational structures, relational aesthetics, and group dynamics. So too, the exchange with architects pushes performers to heighten the spatial ramifications of their artistic practices. This prerequisite for non-hierarchical collaborations opens the door for a more equitable practice and points towards speculations that could adjust future modes of operation.

The following six tactics provide a framework for how to propagate live performance architecture in near future practices to offer new modes of spatial liberation:

1. Fabricate the Frame: performing live (as opposed to just being alive) requires a narrative threshold that separates the imaginative “fiction” of the performance from the status quo of routine life and the everyday built environment. This might take the form of conventional theater apparatuses such as stage, scenography, scenery, set pieces, or props; or augmented architectural and urban features such as brightly painted window frame, an exaggerated stoop, an artful barricade to block off regular street traffic, or an exuberant sign.

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Make an Anthropo-Scene challenges the traditional threshold between the public floor of a hallway and the closed frame of a display case, instead inviting passersby to perform live as a part of the architecture by popping their heads in, hugging, or sitting between the creaturely outlines, 2017. © Could Be Architecture.

2. Structure Spontaneity: performances require a script, stage directions, or rules (in the form of text, graphics, or other spatial delineations), and live performances specifically require this set of instructions to welcome unexpected, ad lib, improvised, or other spontaneous actions alongside scripted ones. Like in jazz, rules provide an underlying structure that emboldens improvisation. Spontaneity produces an “in the moment” quality integral to liveliness. If an audience cannot anticipate exactly what is going to happen next, it makes them eager to be more present in the now.

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Billboard Buddies are mobile exhibit display units that pop-up in parking lots for cultural programming during COVID times and empower curators to position improvisational, temporary exhibition environments appropriate for the latest social distancing guidelines, 2020. © Could Be Architecture.

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Billboard Buddies are mobile exhibit display units that pop-up in parking lots for cultural programming during COVID times and empower curators to position improvisational, temporary exhibition environments appropriate for the latest social distancing guidelines, 2020. © Could Be Architecture.

3. Assume Collective Risk: because the actions within a performance happen at a set time and place, there is a shared understanding (between performers and audience members) that live performances are an unfolding experiment that may not go according to script. Like democracy, all performances require the collective participation of all those involved to maximize the potential for impact. Live performances assume the possibility of physical, organizational, or emotional risk. Unlike a misplaced wall that is simply corrected behind the closed doors of the construction site, the possibility of an unsilenced cell phone or a missed cue occupy require real-time reactions and a collective cooperation to acknowledge the error, but make it seem as if it was an intended part of the show. Embracing the potential for things to go wrong, or even for people to get hurt, raises the stakes for architecture’s social efficacy—without risk, architecture may be able to be merely “performative” but its live performance will not deliver substantial, lasting change.

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McCormick AfterParti positions pink curtains that reenact the floor plan and mint furnishings that stage the domestic program of Mies van der Rohe’s historic McCormick House. Unlike the pristine, corded-off etiquette common in most installations in historic architecture, AfterParti assumes the risks, messiness, and maintenance hazards of inviting visitors to “make themselves at home” in the building, including eating treats in the kitchen and taking a nap in the bedroom, 2020. © Could Be Architecture.

4. Feed the Feedback Loops: live performances thrive on feedback among performers and audiences, often in real time, and at every phase of a performance’s development. Even conventional audience reactions including clapping, cheering, booing, heckling, thrusting thumbs up or down (physical and virtual), posting emoji, flag-waving, sign-hoisting, and laughing might occur more intentionally and boisterously in architectural and urban contexts in ways that feed that creative development and social enactment of spatial ideas and architectural proposals.

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Ragdale Sings is an amphitheater made out of undulating “talk tubes” that delineate five pockets of performance spaces while broadcasting sound to the perimeter. Audience members “talk back” to performers while performers can direct sounds and instructions directly to peripheral audience members, initiating live, real-time exchanges, 2020. © Could Be Architecture.

5. Magnify Mob Mentality: live performances help produce a heightened collective consciousness and shared emotion among its audience(s). By stimulating simultaneous reactions among a group, live performances initiate particular moods, emotions, and sentiments to transcend the individual and spawn a swarm. This “mob mentality” prompts decentralized decision making and the possibility for collective actions.

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Crossing the (Finish) Lines proposes new routes and architectural amenities for the Chicago Marathon. The adrenaline of the race in combination with the spirit of the crowd instigates the live, performing runners to act not only as individuals, but also as a collective swarm with temporal charge of the streets, 2019. © Could Be Architecture.

6. Augment Otherness: in the current political and cultural moment, hard lines are being drawn to define and reward ideas of normalcy by spotlighting and punishing an expanding profile of “others.” Live architecture offers a celebratory medium to transform otherness into a powerful performance—not just for rethinking the status quo, but to become a platform that inspires new ways to construct what is thinkable.15 Just as our world demands nonbinary and more inclusive ontologies for relating to people’s gender, race, and cultural affiliations, so too, live performance architecture envisions a nonbinary spatial world that diffuses the oppressive distinction between subjects and objects, performers and audience, and people and architecture. In its place, we might initiate a flat(ter) ontology that welcomes, affirms, and empowers companionability among lively people, creatures, things, and buildings.

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Re-Staging Oskar Schlemmer re-stages the Bauhaus production of the Triadic Ballet, soliciting an ongoing mix-up of the animate and the inert, suggesting multiple and overlapping relationships between human and nonhuman charisma, 2019. © Could Be Architecture.

Ultimately, performance is a hinge that links disciplinary representation and action in the world. By scripting, testing, and performing relationships among bodies and the built environment, performance architecture offers an opportunity to rehearse the enactment of a more liberated world.

Architecture has left the building. Time to get to work!

1 Chance the Rapper, “Blessings (Reprise)” Coloring Book (2016).
2 Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock, Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship (Applied Research and Design Publishing, 2021).
3 Ibid.
4 Catherine Wood, “Live” in In Terms of Performance (2016),
5 Oskar Schlemmer, “Man and Art Figure,” in The Theater of the Bauhaus, ed. Walter Gropius (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961).
6 Iker Gil and Ann Lui, “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What You Do: Iker Gil and Ann Lui interview Stanley Tigerman,” MAS Context, Issue 27: Debate (2015).
7 Mimi Zeiger, “Architecture Embraces Performance Art (Again),” Architect Magazine, March 12, 2018,
8 Julia and John McMorrough, interview by the authors, Zoom, September 1, 2020.
9 The script of Makin’ It is published in its entirety in MAS Context, Issue 32: Character (2020), guest edited by Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer of the design firm Design With Company,
10 Bryony Roberts, interview by authors, Zoom, September 29, 2020.
11 Mabel O. Wilson in “Marching On: The Politics of Performance,” YouTube, Storefront for Art and Architecture channel, 5:34, April 18, 2018,
12 Ailie Rutherford and Laurence Payot, interview by the authors, Jitsi, September 10, 2020.
13 Bronzeville is a historic Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Bronzeville became a key landing ground for African Americans who moved to Chicago from the south during the Great Migration between 1910 and 1920, and in turn, it is particularly renowned for the confluence of Black culture that thrived there during that time. Bronzeville was the home of celebrated Black cultural figures including Gwendolyn Brooks, Ida B. Wells, Rube Foster, Sam Cooke, Minnie Ripperton, and many others. It remains a vibrant Black neighborhood today.
14 There is no shortage of 5K races or architectural tours in Chicago; however, almost all of the existing running events are located in the city’s so-called “front yard” including the Loop, the lakefront, and the Near North Side. Part of the ambition of staging the Bustle 5K in Bronzeville was to produce a running event in a part of the city’s South Side that is often neglected by institutional or corporate-sponsored race organizers. Similarly, most architectural tours focus on the more touristy areas of the city—especially the downtown boat tours.
15 Joseph Altshuler and Andrew Schachman, “Department of Architectural Improvisation,” unpublished essay, 2018.