By Vasia Rigou
Ann Lui has a busy year ahead of her. The award-winning architect, assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and founding partner—along with Craig Reschke—of Future Firm, a homegrown architecture and design research office focused on how creativity and innovation can radically transform our lived experiences, makes sure she stays curious. To Lui, this means rethinking and reshaping urban landscapes through architectural projects or experimenting with curatorial work including site-specific installations at The Night Gallery, the company’s storefront, which doubles as a space to exhibit architectural projections during the nighttime. What’s next? Lui will serve as co-curator—along with Mimi Zeiger and Niall Atkinson—for “Dimensions of Citizenship,” the exhibition that will represent the United States in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale later this year, bringing together architects, artists, designers and educators who try to push creative, social and political boundaries in order to reveal what it means to be a citizen today. As the meaning of citizenship in contemporary society becomes more blurred, this should be quite an undertaking—one worth looking forward to. Lui explains why.
Lately, you—with Future Firm—have been interested in exploring the architectural implications of night, raising questions such as: “What occurs, flickers, transpires, is built or destroyed, in the hours of darkness? Who do you break the law with? What wakes at twilight? Can night be an allegory for entering into the subconscious and uncanny territories of the built environment and lived experience?” What inspired you to pursue this and where has this journey taken you creatively and productively?
At Future Firm, with my partner Craig Reschke, we’ve always said we would never be specialists. We opened our own practice because we wanted to work on the diverse and bizarre things that interest us across scales, times, disciplines. Nonetheless, despite our best efforts to avoid signature styles or methodologies, common threads emerge. We started thinking about the night with our project The Night Gallery, which is a pop-up exhibition space in our storefront window. We show architectural projections six months a year, from sunset to sunrise. The Night Gallery brings together a lot of our interests: architecture that’s constructed based on parameters of time rather than materials; messy gatherings in public space; responsive or live-time drawing techniques. Craig is working now on nocturnal landscapes—what happens in solar panel grids after the sun sets?
Night has become an allegory for many of the important themes in our projects: from the ways Chicagoans break building and municipal codes in the privacy of their garages, in our project Rebel Garages; to the ways that night can conceal desires that are considered queer or deviant, in our project for Valentine’s Day in Times Square; or maybe our general sense of living in the twilight of ecological catastrophe paired with ominous transformations in geopolitics. Also: in general, what isn’t better in the dark?
You work at the intersections of landscape territory and curatorial experiments. Crafting your creative vision, what parameters do you take into consideration as you move from theory to practice?
It’s always been important to us that Future Firm is a building practice. Craig and I both love working on buildings, but for us, the bigger considerations and contexts—which I think you’re calling “theory” here— are always already embedded in architectural practice. Even in the most seemingly mundane or boring task of capital-A architectural practice, say, drawing a wall section detail, there’s politics, economy, ecology.
We’re finishing construction on the renovation of a century-old Chicago brick building into studios and a gallery for an artist. If you look at the wall section of that building—we can read the concerns of climate change in the thickened insulation, the relationship with the neighboring church in the dotted property line, the city’s collective and inherited fears of fire and risk in the idiosyncratic Chicago Building Code. By making these broader questions visible in the daily grind of traditional architectural work, we hope to revalue practice as a site for radical exploration of questions that matter, pointing to the existing discourse and agency embedded in the architectural discipline.
As part of the newly announced curatorial team—alongside Niall Atkinson of the University of Chicago and independent critic Mimi Zeiger—for “Dimensions of Citizenship,” the exhibition that will represent the United States in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, in what ways do you intend to turn architecture into an active agent of social change—a medium to facilitate common understanding of what it means to be a citizen today?
What it means to be a citizen today, and what architecture’s role is within that conversation, are complicated questions. We are not aiming on creating a common understanding, but actually the opposite: the curatorial project asks that we recognize the chaotic, multiplicitous, agonistic ecology of understandings that comprises what it means to belong.
We have commissioned works from seven diverse practices—diverse, not just in a traditional sense, but in terms of their methodologies, disciplines, and sites of interest. I’m excited that the work will show incredibly broad ways that architecture can be involved in questions about belonging: from issues of environmental citizenship, to the violence of discrimination and what happens in the fugitive spaces of exclusion and expulsion, to reckonings with resurgent nationalism. Amanda Williams and Kate Orff, for example, have totally different practices—Kate works with oysters and infrastructure at the scale of a shoreline, Amanda with both paint and brick as well as participation/engagement on Chicago’s South Side. But both designers profoundly challenge us to complicate our understanding of the communities and ecologies we’re part of, responsible for, complicit in.
The exhibition will present citizenship as a tangle of rights and responsibilities both produced by and producing the built environment—the border wall is both the worst and most obvious example of this. It’s easy to find “in common,” as you said, a rhetoric of inside-outside, self-other: it’s important that architecture be involved in complicating these binaries.
Complicating the relationship between individuals and the state, especially in tense political climates, issues of citizenship arise, providing the perfect backdrop for artists and creatives to challenge and critique policy and politics through their practice. Why is now the right moment in time to have this conversation?
In the end, I think the question of citizenship is ancient, as well as urgent. We’ve all been asking ourselves what it means to come together by law and by choice for millennia—and what the roles of walls, bridges and rivers play, as well as pipelines, satellites or dark fiber. So while this moment can feel like a gut-punch with every hideous revelation or tweet, with “Dimensions of Citizenship,” we (the curatorial team) are hoping to ask that the discipline serve to help situate these questions both within a long history as well as in possible futures. Architecture and design, broadly writ, have the unique ability to project transformative new futures.
Mimi Zeiger and I have been very inspired by the discourses of Afrofuturism: what are the potential new worlds that can be dreamed of and drawn, when we break with the conditions, structures both visible and invisible, we’ve been taking for granted? Andres L. Hernandez shared with us Samuel R. Delaney’s claim for the “Necessity of Tomorrows,” and it’s become core for us. We find this need for design to act as resistance, and to avoid knee-jerk responses which often are inward looking, to be an important provocation.
The institutions that have been appointed as co-commissioners of the 2018 U.S. Pavilion—the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago—as well as several curatorial team members (yourself, and associate curator, Iker Gil), advisors, and participants (Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez, as well as Studio Gang), are Chicago-based, inevitably bringing the city into the spotlight. What do you think Chicago—one of the most diverse cities in the country—and the United States at large, have to contribute to the timely global dialogue of citizenship?
We are a diverse city, but also a painfully segregated one, in which many invisible systems—including real estate, architectural practice, planning—have contributed to inequality and exclusion. On the other hand, like you said, it’s a city where many people are doing important work against the grain of these bigger systems—especially in the fields of art and design. It’s a city where you can see clearly the critical role of aesthetic and spatial practices in catalyzing change, or making legible the complexities of lived experience.
It’s been very meaningful to me to work on this project from a home at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Citizenship,” understood through the lens of the citizen artist or citizen designer, has been an issue that the school has taken up enthusiastically as a site for experimentation and exploration. I’ve been very cognizant of the legacy of Dread Scott’s work in 1989, “What Is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” which was denounced by Congress as well as George H. W. Bush. SAIC has always been a place where these hard and uncomfortable conversations can take place; and while I’m sure it’s not always comfortable for the school, it’s a place which, ultimately, productively leaned into that uncomfortableness. “Dimensions of Citizenship” has received profound support from the institution. This includes the work of Paul Coffey, dean of community engagement, who has made the behind-the-scenes support for this project into a creative and critical endeavor; as well as discursive and curatorial mentorship from Mary Jane Jacob, Zoë Ryan, and of course Jonathan Solomon, whose transformative vision for the department has always been at the heart of these dialogues. I don’t mean to name-check, only to point out that collaboration occurs across scales, and that there’s a citizenship to institutional support which often can go unrecognized but is important if Chicago is going to continue to lead these kinds of conversations.
As the meaning of citizenship in contemporary society becomes more blurred— containing legal, political and social dimensions, while simultaneously being an emotional experience that extends a sense of community identity, place and belonging at local, national and global levels—you have the opportunity to work with an acclaimed team of architects, landscape architects, artists, designers and thinkers to bring this project to life. What are you hoping the viewers will take away from this exhibition?
I hope they take away the idea that architecture—understood as engagement with the built environment through research, drawing, dreaming—has agency in the conversations that matter to us as citizens. If “Dimensions of Citizenship” can show that the discipline can act as a space of congregation, a boxing ring, a sci-fi novel for what it means to belong, or be included or excluded, or be in the end more than the sum of our parts—that will be successful for me.
As an educator you always have to push your students out of their creative comfort zone. What kinds of boundaries do you feel you’re pushing bringing Future Firm into Chicago’s constantly growing creative and entrepreneurial community?
The boundary when, at the end of the night, it might just be nice to go home and crash—but instead when someone asks, you rally and go do that next thing: get another drink, break onto a roof somewhere, have a conversation with a stranger who will tell you something that reminds you that most of the things you think you know are probably wrong, jump into the lake—the boundary across which things or people have the opportunity to surprise you. In teaching, curating, practice, I’m always trying to learn how to design space for the unexpected things I haven’t designed to, in fact, occur.
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