Housed by Mana Contemporary, The Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive is dedicated to the preservation of documents, blueprints, scraps and effects related to the city’s rich architectural history. They partner with this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial in the creation of an exhibit displaying recently uncovered materials. Bianca Bova, associate director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive describes the work.
How did CAPA’s collaboration with CAB begin, and what can be expected with this year’s project?
CAPA was invited to participate in this edition of the Biennial as an exhibitor within the Appearances and Erasures curatorial frame. In 2018, I was serving as a consultant at the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture, and was involved in the discovery and excavation of remnants of the Mecca Flats, a historic apartment building that once stood on the site of S.R. Crown Hall. When the excavation was complete, the college donated artifacts to a number of institutions, including CAPA. We are pleased to be able to exhibit these recovered pieces for the first time, alongside existing materials from our collection, salvaged from the building at the time of its demolition.
CAPA aims to “democratize access” to archival materials. Why is this important for the preservation of history, and how does CAPA pursue it differently?
Speaking as an independent researcher, I know firsthand how difficult it often is to obtain access to institutional archives and privately held collections. When permissions can be obtained, it frequently demands travel to a specific location to view the archival property, and the time and money necessary to undertake this effort can be inhibitive. It’s for these reasons CAPA’s model prioritizes access. We grant direct, hands-on access to materials for researchers who are able to visit us, and indirect access via on-demand digitization for anyone who is unable to come to Chicago. The overlap between existing institutional collections of architecture and CAPA’s own holdings creates a low-risk opportunity for issuing longterm and unrestricted loans for close research and exhibitions. We believe that in order for these items to achieve their full cultural value, they need to not only be conserved, but be an active resource.
What’s unique to Chicago in terms of its architectural history? Is it an especially easy or difficult city to archive?
Chicago’s architectural history runs deep. From the birth of the skyscraper to the development of what is accepted as the first uniquely American style of architecture, to the lasting influence and legacy works of Mies van der Rohe, there’s a staggering degree of significance contained in our skyline. We’ve been very fortunate insofar as CAPA is certainly not the first group to undertake the effort of archiving the city’s architectural history. A significant part of our collection comes directly from the late architectural photographer Richard Nickel. His meticulous documentation and records of the first Chicago School of architecture and the rise of Modernism have provided us a base collection and a framework to follow as we expand specific collections, and his exceedingly thoughtful and critically driven exhibitions and writings remain a guiding light. I consider my work with CAPA to be an extension of his practice by proxy.
What is in the CAPA archives and how do you attain items and materials for the archive? Is there a particular artifact or piece of information housed in the archive that Chicagoans would be surprised to know about?
We take a rather conceptual tack when it comes to our collections, and consequently our holdings range from the relatively predictable architectural salvage, photography, plans and models, to the slightly more obscure in terms of art, designed objects and personal realia belonging to architecturally relevant figures. Most of our acquisitions are via the donation of materials from private collections. One of my favorite pieces we have is a set of drawings by the late artist and musician Wesley Willis. Though they’re not what most people would consider a historically important or architecturally valuable item in the context of our collections, his distinct (and at times rather opaque) depictions of the city’s expressways, buses and skyline are iconic in their own right, and delineate Chicago’s architectural aesthetic as richly as any piece of salvage or blueprint could hope to. I was thrilled when we had the opportunity to put them on loan for an exhibition at the Lawrence & Clark Gallery last summer.