The Demands Architecture Makes of Us
Plus Blair Kamin and the Storefront for Art and Architecture
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The Architecture of Disability uses the lens of disability to reevaluate received architectural histories and speculate on a more inclusive architectural environment.
by Mimi Zeiger
A shock of recognition comes early in The Architecture of Disability. Author David Gissen argues in his introduction that while providing adequate access for disabled people is necessary, making it the dominant principle by which architecture responds to impairment not only is insufficient but also reinforces alienating functionalist narratives. And then, toward the end of this initial essay, he turns the mirror on the discipline itself—to the hustles of studio, site visits, and archival work that compose common design and research practices. In short, the ways that architecture cultivates an unwritten doctrine of, as Elon Musk might put it, hard core.
Grind culture has come under fire as symptomatic of labor exploitation, but Gissen, a disabled designer and historian, expands and redirects the critique. He asks that we consider activities through the lens of disability. “Too often scholars and designers center their physical prowess as a de facto quality of insightful architectural research and knowledge,” writes Gissen. “This attitude becomes embedded in architectural writing directly and indirectly—through the ways authors position the intensity of their archival work or their physical interactions with buildings or landscapes.”
Read more about the “urbanization of disability” here.
Blair Kamin wants to be seen as an “activist.” Fine. But his “activism” is carefully modulated and deeply liberal in that it wants to preserve the status quo—in this case, a beautiful city skyline.
by Yasmin Nair
By the time I got to the last essay in Blair Kamin’s latest collection of his Chicago Tribune columns as the paper’s architecture critic, I wondered if he and I lived in the same city. Or read the same newspapers, even his own. For instance, he writes rather lightly about various tax increment financing– funded projects, barely noting that they are widely criticized (the Reader’s Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke have critically written about them for years, to wide acclaim) and even the conservative Tribune finally editorialized in 2019 that TIFs need at least a major “rethinking” because they have not been beneficial to the neighborhood forced to fund them. Elsewhere, he lauds former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s devotion to transit, pointing to the renovation of various Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) stations starting in 2012. This is inarguably bullshit: I lived near two of the “renovated” stations, Argyle and Berwyn, and neither even got an escalator or received much more than a paint job, all at the cost of millions of dollars per station. (They are only now, finally, undergoing extensive, multi-year renovations that will include elevators.)
Then there’s his uncritical reverence for Barack Obama, about whose Presidential Center he waxes eloquent, paying little heed to the massive resistance mounted against a behemoth of a building that will occupy historic Jackson Park, one of the last remaining landscapes designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. And he thinks Lori Lightfoot is a progressive. Which, well, yes, she is, and that’s been the problem for many of the city’s left and radical activists who have consistently criticized her for her corporation- and cop-loving ways and her opposition to teachers’ strikes.
Of course, we’re meant to overlook all this because, after all, the book has the word “equity” in the subtitle.
Read more about Kamin’s embrace of the E-word here.
Eyes to the Front
The Storefront for Art and Architecture once approached serious topics with buoyancy and a sometimes tongue-in-cheek attitude. What happened?
by Alex Klimoski
In recollecting Storefront’s founding mission, Public Space in a Private Time reminds viewers of the power and possibilities of community activism and unfettered creativity. Ultimately, the institution’s goal was a spiritual one: to resist dependence on the material by imagining environments that could help people feel part of something bigger than themselves. For this same reason, I left the exhibition a little crestfallen. New York has arguably always been a hostile place, but at points in its history, it offered the resources for communities of likeminded individuals to form, nurture, and grow. As the city has been privatized within an inch of its life, those resources have been stripped away or left unreplenished. Perhaps this is the reason for Storefront’s dwindling influence since the early 2000s. Or maybe it compounded problems arising from leadership changes after Park’s departure as director in 1998. Either way, current director José Esparza Chong Cuy’s decision to exclude material from the past two decades feels like a tacit admission that the organization lacks the civic gravitas it once enjoyed. Lacking that, we would be justified in asking whether Storefront has fully retreated from its initial aims.
Storefront’s rich history of social advocacy was new to me. I began visiting the gallery about a decade ago, but its seeming dedication to academic concerns and theory-driven design put me off. Directors past and present, as well as stakeholders, all run within the same elite circles of enormously endowed cultural institutions. With every passing exhibition or panel discussion, the gallery’s public grows smaller, leaving little room for concerned citizens and activists. In light of the legacy celebrated by Public Space in a Private Time, Storefront’s current iteration seems all the more hollow—how can an organization comprising representatives from primarily private institutions truly connect with the greater public on matters of the built environment?
Read more about Storefront’s devolution here.
New York Review of Architecture reviews architecture in New York. Our Editor is Samuel Medina and our Deputy Editor is Marianela D’Aprile. Our Publisher is Nicolas Kemper.
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