Serving Up Architecture

June 12, 2006 · by Cindy Coleman

On the evening of January 25, 2006, Chicago's Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts opened its doors to a diverse crowd for an open dialogue about what's at stake in making the subject of architecture more accessible to the public.

On the evening of January 25, 2006, Chicago's Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts opened its doors to a diverse crowd for an open dialogue about what's at stake in making the subject of architecture more accessible to the public.

The foundation sponsored the event to coincide with Dialogue + Heritage: Contradiction, an exhibit of student work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, where Neil Frankel, a Distinguished Visiting Design Critic for the School of Architecture, led a graduate and advanced undergraduate design studio through a project that explored the democratization of architecture. Frankel and his students accomplished this through a semester long project that focused on a theoretical redesign of the Graham Foundation from their current home at the Madlener House, in Chicago's Gold Coast, to the first two floors of retail space within the Rookery building, in Chicago's Financial District.

John Russick, curator, Chicago Historical Museum moderated the panel discussion between: Carol Ross Barney, Principal of Ross Barney + Jankowski Architects; Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune; Lynn Osmond, President, Chicago Architecture Foundation; and Robert Theel, Regional Chief Architect, General Services Administration. "Each panelist was invited because they all cross the line and face the responsibility of bringing the dialogue of architecture to the public on a daily basis," says Frankel.

The debate centered on the subject of balance. All participants agreed that it is important to keep the public engaged in an ongoing architectural dialogue, citing positive examples of when it works. Ross Barney's own design of the replacement building for the Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, was one such example. Because of the emotionally charged nature of this project, the community was brought in to help define the project brief. "It's the ideas and the process that make it democratized," states Ross Barney, explaining that today we need to expand the idea of who comprises the client. "The client-as-bill-payer isn't enough. Today, the client includes everyone who is touched by the building, and their voice counts," she adds.

What is certain from the audience's questions and comments is that the public cares deeply about their environment and they'd like their neighborhoods and buildings to reflect their values. But, the panelists were on the side of creating a comfortable balance, one that separates involvement from interference. Someone from the audience crossed the line, in the form of a short question, "Shouldn't architecture be a subject for vote?" The panelist' response was equally short: No.

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