Thanks to my dear friend Lisa Yun Lee I had the opportunity to tour three of Theaster Gates’ urban building projects on the South Side of Chicago yesterday. Gates has degrees in urban planning and ceramics, and is described as a social practice installation artist. He preserves old buildings in a creative repurposing for the local community. His work is not standard preservation, but I think that is a good thing. The first project I saw was the Stony Island Arts Bank, a 1923 Classical bank I watched deteriorate for decades. He saved it.
The mixed-use plan includes an incubator for local black businesses, a performance space, and even a bar in the basement vault, which is too cool.
Apparently there are firms that specialize in restoring old bank vaults!
His approach is to save what historic elements are there, but not necessarily to replace missing pieces, an approach that reveals the layers of history, rejoices in the patina of age but also celebrates the value markers of re-use and present purpose.
For example, he will save the surviving plaster of the coffered bank ceiling but will not replicate the missing pieces, blending in plain plaster (by a real plasterer!) making past and present visible.
Original iron griffin transom above entrance which had later been covered.
Surviving third floor wall finishes that will be preserved.
Gates has created a design build not-for-profit that executes his projects, which use the city and its artifacts as a palette for an art practice that strives to provide for the community through libraries of books and records, studios and gathering spaces. Gates follows a long tradition of saving buildings, but not in an architecturally pure manner. He also saves materials and recycles them in other buildings. We visited his Dorchester Projects, started five years, ago, which have grown from two buildings to incorporate much of a once forelorn block in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.
We then visited his own studio, in an historic Anheuser-Busch building on Kimbark Avenue. I was amazed by the re-use of various features like industrial doors, including a bunch that had been made into a built-in bar, the sensitivity to layering surviving elements while signifying replacement pieces in various ways.
Gates has a great sensitivity to the richness of materials, telling me about how he would plane certain wood planks for re-use while retaining the imperfections of others, based on his own sensitivities to the material. We talked about the value of craft, about the Asian approach to preservation that focuses on process and performance rather than materiality and the paper architectural design as the original.
Gates has also preserved other things, such as the John Johnson (Ebony/Jet) Publications archive, which he acquired when the firm sold its building on Michigan Avenue to Columbia College. I shared my own connection – my grandfather was a printer who worked with Johnson when he was starting in the 1940s.
Too often preservation has gotten a bad rap because it is seen as too precious, too focused on rules and regulations. I told Theaster that one of my first blogs nearly nine years ago was called Heresy and Apostasy because I had a broad, inclusive view of preservation and was regarded by some as heretical. My view of preservation has always been that it is about a community determining what elements of the past it wants to bring into the future, and yes, there needs to be professional and creative guidance for that process, but why can’t an urban planner/artist achieve that vision as well as an architectural historian like myself? Theaster Gates has done this in a manner that promotes the ongoing creative recycling not simply of buildings, materials, and artifacts, but the city itself.
You can argue about various approaches to preservation but there is no argument that once a building is lost it is lost…