Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.
A school at the University of Chicago is opening itself up to the South Side through public policy and architecture, with help from Theaster Gates.
The newly renovated Keller Center, home to the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy on Chicago’s South Side, is crafted from a 1963 building designed by the architect of New York’s Radio City Music Hall and D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Edward Durell Stone. On the outside is a colonnade of delicate columns etched with a hexagonal motif. Stone’s original interior sported wood paneling, pea-green paint, and purple carpet—the sort of swinging-’60s vibe where you’d expect to be greeted by a door person dispensing cigarette holders.
Now, there are burly concrete slabs and columns, and a monumental staircase sheathed in black steel, surrounded by break-out spaces, glass-walled classrooms and meeting rooms, and open-office workstations. It could be a coworking space, or tech office, or a library lounge—it’s largely a neutral container.
Until you get to its core. The building’s four-story atrium is dominated by terraced stair seating created in the shop of renowned Chicago artist Theaster Gates. The medium-hued wood—milled from ash trees in the city that were destroyed by the emerald ash borer—has a mild echo of the rich, tactile materiality common to Gates’s work, often harnessed through repurposing grubby, devalued matter (like tar and roofing tiles) into sculpture. Gates’s stair warms and defines the building’s heart as a social condenser.
The Keller Center, which reopened in January, attempts to address the University of Chicago’s storied town-gown divide with both public policy and architecture, and looks to Gates—a faculty member at the Harris School—to help with both.
Gates is one of the most visible representatives of what’s called social-practice art: art that carries with it explicit critiques of existing social institutions and structures. His work has mostly been located in the South Side’s Grand Crossing neighborhood, where he has renovated disused buildings into hubs for African-American art and film. As the Great Recession scarred the South Side with more foreclosures and vacancies, he saw these hubs as places that can preserve black cultural space because no one else would. He told the New York Times, “I started to recognize that if there was not direct intervention by normal people, black space in the United States would not be saved. It would simply spiral down, without a whole lot of investment from outside.”
Architecturally, this adaptive reuse of Stone’s building (it was originally a conference center, then student housing) makes it more open to the surrounding neighborhood. Much of its limestone façade was replaced with glass, making it visually more accessible. “They [originally] designed this building like a wall,” said Gabe Wilcox, of Farr Associates, the architects who designed the renovation.
“Public policy is fundamentally an externally engaged enterprise,” said Harris School Dean Katherine Baicker. She says faculty and students come to the school—which is fast-growing, having more than doubled its student population over the past five years—to situate their work in a community that grapples with the litany of ills inflicted on Chicago’s South Side: poverty, gun violence, healthcare disparities. “The idea that you can stop all of that, go to school for two years, and then jump back in is not the way they want to approach things,” Baicker said. As such, the conference rooms, faculty, and students at Keller will all be open to collaboration with community groups.
Taking a devalued material like ash trees killed by pests and elevating them in a new context, like a $55-million school at an elite university, is Theaster Gates 101. Gates said he hosted the renovation architects at his studio, steeping them in his aesthetic and being an “indirect design influence.”
But inserting a bit of his art practice within this institution is different from placing art objects in a gallery, or re-formulating spaces on his own, such as the Stony Island Arts Bank, where Gates rehabilitated a shuttered and crumbing neoclassical bank to be a center for African-American culture and art.
Gates’s ash stair is expertly milled and glossy, tasteful and neat. “You imagine that it should live in a white world,” he recently told the hosts of the Archinect podcast. The board-feet were milled by local residents, “a guy named Damon and a guy named Carlos,” Gates qualified, but this sort of origin will be easy to miss for any international student or faculty member, and many locals too.
Gates’ trademark aesthetic is diluted by this context, and seems in some tension with a school whose reputation with its poorer and predominantly African-American neighbors has run from well-meaning to antagonistic. In the run-up to the Civil Rights Movement, the University of Chicago financed lawsuits that worked with restrictive homeowner covenants to keep sections of surrounding neighborhoods white. As urban renewal reshaped many Chicago neighborhoods in the mid-20th century, the university became one of its strongest engines. And in backing the winning bid for the Obama Presidential Center, the university offered up public park space it did not own for the complex, and has resisted signing a community benefits agreement that would codify ways the school could pay back the debt on its discriminatory past.
At the Harris School, Gates has the title of “senior advisor for cultural innovation” and leads Place Lab, a Knight Foundation-supported program that convenes social scientists, architects, creative professionals, and business leaders to promote “ethical redevelopment” and spatial equity in cities.
Gates said in an interview that his art aims for “generous pluralism. What I hope would never happen is that the work would only exist for one kind of people.” At the Harris School, though, he has a certain audience in mind. “Policy, law, economics—we tend to think about these things as being neutral, and I’ve learned over time that policy ain’t neutral,” he said. “Law isn’t neutral. Business isn’t neutral. So it feels very much like if I am armed with the right philosophical sensibility in the instruction, then I might be able to train generations of policymakers to think differently about what policy can do, and for whom.”
Few artists have bounded across the borders of art and architecture with as much wind at their back as Gates. He started his art career as a potter, but his career has progressed steadily upwards in complexity and scale, moving into sculpture, buildings, pieces of entire neighborhoods, and eventually (with Place Lab) the policies that govern these places. And with two degrees in urban planning, he knows how large systems work. “I do what I can as a faculty member, and I do what I can as an artist,” he says. “These things start to look like an armada of impact. I like that.”
As Gates moves along this trajectory, the question becomes, does all of this armada fly under the same banner? By locating some of his art practice in an academic policy shop, Gates seems to be betting on his own gravity as an art-world institution to push other institutions into new territory, and that close proximity won’t push him somewhere else.