Naturally, the Architecture of StoryCorps Tells Its Own Story

With a new physical exhibition space, StoryCorps is expanding the way it presents stories in Chicago.

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The Chicago Cultural Center, a Chicago Landmark that was completed in 1897. (Chicago Cultural Center)

There are more than 50,000 interviews in the StoryCorps archive—testimonials from more than 90,000 Americans constituting well over 34,000 hours of recording time. You may know the work of StoryCorps best from the three-minute broadcast interviews that air on NPR's Morning Edition: stories like those of Danny and Annie Perasa, Anthony and Jessica VillarrealClayton Sherrod, and welp I'm going to cry just thinking about them.

StoryCorps records the stories of thousands of Americans from hundreds of towns in dozens of languages. Since its founding in 2003, the organization has set up semipermanent recording studios (called StoryBooths) in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Nashville. The group's MobileBooth has gone even further. Ultimately, the nonprofit has recorded stories from across the nation's states and territories.

The StoryCorps MobileBooth, parked near a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan.

Chicago is one of three U.S. cities where StoryCorps maintains a physical presence. As with its Atlanta and San Francisco brick-and-mortar posts, StoryCorps Chicago invites people in two days a week to record six interviews a day—adding more than 600 audio recordings from those cities alone to the organization's archive each year. 

Now, for the first time, StoryCorps is turning one of its recording studios into an exhibition center. When it opens its expanded space in the Chicago Cultural Center within the next few weeks, StoryCorps will be set up to gather and tell the stories of the city—starting with the space itself.  

Rendering of the StoryBooth at the Chicago Cultural Center. Courtesy StoryCorps.

"I was working as an intern for the graphic design department for the Chicago Public Library in 1977 when it was undergoing a renovation," says Paul Bluestone, the designer leading StoryCorps's reboot at the Chicago Cultural Center. (The 1897 landmark building housed Chicago's central library for 80 years.) Bluestone spent five years developing a consistent graphical tone for the various programs and exhibitions taking place in the building, which coalesced as the Chicago Cultural Center in 1991.

Today, the Chicago Cultural Center is one of the city's most frequented attractions—a magnet for locals, not just tourists. So are the Atlanta History Center and the San Francisco Public Library, where the other two brick-and-mortar StoryBooth centers are located. "The location is always very central and specific to the place it serves," says StoryCorps recording and archive director Virginia Millington.

The new StoryCorps Chicago space, whose installation is underway now, will feature a number of interactive kiosks. One kiosk will feature animated stories. And a photo wall will display the pictures of the people who record their interviews at the space. It's meant, in part, as a way for Chicagoans to meet their fellow residents even as their testimony is being preserved for posterity.

"We’ve created a number of points in the space where you are face to face with the storytellers," Bluestone says. "You have some relatively intimate chances to look at them and listen to their stories."

Rendering of the StoryBooth at the Chicago Cultural Center. Courtesy StoryCorps.

While many of the featured stories that appear on Morning Edition are available online, the StoryBooth exhibition serves another purpose: It's an effort to inject the stories of Chicagoans into one of the city's most revered spaces.

"They wanted us to try to make the space feel more welcome, more informative, more intuitive," he says. This work meant carving out a more intimate space with a human scale in the palatial Cultural Center, a formal space with soaring ceilings. "We began by listening to recordings for hours and hours."

So far, there aren't any plans to turn the program's other physical locations into exhibition spaces. For now, it's a solo experiment in expanding what happens inside the soundproofed interview booths to a larger realm: the city. And as it happens, the design of the space is the story itself, for at least one person.

"I spent many, many, many late nights there," Bluestone says, referring to his first stint at the Chicago Cultural Center. "So to be working there now is a kick."

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.