For whom: Chicago Anthony Overton Elemantary School and Bronzeville Neighboorhood, USA
We took part at the 3rd Chicago Architecture Biennial held between September 19, 2019 and January 5, 2020 with our project named “Secret Ingredient”. In the biennial, which brought together more than 60 participants and titled “… and other such stories”, we have been part of the efforts to bring Anthony Overton Primary School, one of the vacant public schools in the Bronzeville neighborhood south of Chicago, back to the neighborhood life.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial is a third biennial yet held in North America, where capital is most concentrated. Although USA is one of the leading actors in the culture and art world, it doesn’t have a biennial tradition like in other countries of the world. Of course, there are several reasons for this. Perhaps one of most visible and predictable reasons for this is that architecture is seen as a service sector that is compressed into a professional field of activity in the North American continent. The Chicago Architecture Biennial presents a narrative to the architectural community that addresses the political and cultural positions of architecture.
The content of this year’s biennial pursues confronting the city and looking at architecture from a new perspective. The curators of the biennial, Yesomi Umolo, Sepake Angiama and Paolo Tavares think that it is necessary to look at other stories now, it brings together the new practices in architecture from all over the world and the global stories they carry with Chicago stories.
Chicago is the city with the highest crime rate in the United States. While you are walking in it you are between to be fascinated by the city and sometimes feel uneasy. Many major concerns such as wrong and discriminatory housing policies, ghettos and gangs, income distribution and injustice in regional investments, ongoing corporate racism make makes its known city’s limits visible. The urban fabric clearly reveals demographic separations. For this reason, the Chicago Architecture Biennial is interesting in terms of its relationship with the city. You are not confronted to the stories of the city with some boards or other interfaces by isolating in a place, but you are faced with an exhibition in the city itself that tries to make it possible to experience it on the spot and spread to many locations in the city. While visiting the biennial, you are also visiting the city and in fact you are becoming the spectator of a confrontation.
The main place of the exhibition is the Chicago Cultural Center, an old library. The text “You are looking at unceded land” that you encounter when you enter the door for the first time puts the confrontation we mentioned above into the viewer’s eyes it admits that it was in the land that was forcibly taken from the locals and that the city was built on this crime. This confrontation and confession constitute the general tone / mood of the biennial.
The feeling of discomfort that occurs with this mood in the whole biennial; colonization, discrimination, gentrification, and resistance to it continues and unfairness in the stories of existence continues while watching inequality and violence. Of course, these are complicated stories and as it digs only the surface. However, while waiting for an architecture biennial to tell architectural stories, architecture is the stage; you have the opportunity to see the details of the lives that were lost violently, the traces of the abandoned houses and the schools. In other words, while expecting to see architecture (this may be a tendency towards the built environment, the imagination of the future, and / or the archeology of the past) in an architectural biennial, the exhibition worries about using the tools of architecture to reveal other stories, rather than having to worry about showing itself. Our biennial participation is embedded in such a story.
IIn Revitalized Rural Schools Project, as an ongoing process for many years, we have been producing projects for the schools throughout Turkey’s different regions which have been abandoned because of the mobile education system, while developing participatory processes to convert the potential of these abandoned buildings with its local residents. We were invited to work in the public spaces of Anthony Overton Primary School, a closed public school in Chicago. Anthony Overton Primary School in Bronzeville neighborhood is an example of modern architecture designed by Perkins & Will in 1963. The three masses emerging using glass and brick are connected to each other by glass corridors and forming a school structure with as a “Mies” language. As a result, a transparent structure, with natural light and different perspectives exposed, is privatized as one of the fifty schools closed especially in black settlements in 2013. Public schools are instrumentalized to change the demographics of neighborhoods and gentrification.
Public schools that are closed in Chicago are being bought by investors, while some are demolished and transformed into housing projects, while others expect the site to gain value. Being aware of these closed schools, Paola Aguirre from Borderless Studio asked the investors of all purchased schools that she could find with her own initiative and asked what they were thinking about doing for the school. While she could not get a proper return from any of them, the investor of Anthony Overton Primary School returns and they start working together with the locals about what this school can turn into. Even if the privatization of the education cycle circle seems different, there are similarities in terms of directing local communities to larger centers in Turkey and the United States, it was one of the reasons that Sepake Angiama invite us.
In July 2019, we made a research visit to the Bronzeville neighborhood with studioBASAR from Romania and Zorka Wollny from Berlin. During this visit, we brought up the subject of food, which we worked on in previous projects, we revive it again and started collecting common stories in this neighborhood which we never met before. In addition to those modern high-rise buildings, Chicago is a city where social segregation is highly felt, this separation is felt from the north to the south of the city. Bronzeville region is also known as “Black Metropolis” since it is a region where blacks live especially. We observed that the fact that the city, which was formed with this definition, was mentioned as one of the unsafe points, was actually a prejudice when we entered in the neighborhood. Food is one of the most important components that connect the community there; called “Soul Food”, this kitchen is a survival food made by using almost all of the growing animal pieces, combining different cultures and tastes, a survival food, as the locals say. During the first visit, we gathered stories with the names representing Soul Food today, people and students living there, about the food culture and kitchen of this neighborhood, which emerged in the past when the black community’s rights and their access were limited. While doing this, we asked for recipes of the dishes and looked for ways to reveal their hidden ingredients.
After our impressions and discussions on our first visit, we decided to create units that will bring visitors together around the meal in the school’s garden. Based on the typical picnic tables we often encounter in Bronzeville, we designed large picnic tables that follow each other on different levels. We dreamed that these picnic tables turn into areas where people can come together and share their stories. We met BlackSpace Chicago team since we thought it would be important for partnership and ownership to establish partnerships from the design and implementation stage. BlackSpace Chicago is a local network and focuses on points of injustice and inequality, especially on black rights violations. They supported us with their volunteers during the installation process and for the organization of the community dinner event.
During the application process, we saw that the structure we built with the contribution of Gabriel Moreno of Arts Incubator, affiliated with SAIC, was used during the course trip by students of another nearby school. On September 21, which coincided with the weekend after the opening of the biennial, we held an event called Community Potluck. The event, where Miss Lee, the important representative of Soul Food in the Bronzeville neighborhood is cooked and where the food brought by the neighborhood is shared, free lectures and DJ performances, brought together the locals and the biennial organization, the participants and the visitors. We hope that the structure we call Collective Carpet within the Secret Ingredient project will be used with other functions in the garden of the school in the coming years and cause people to meet around their meals and memories.
At the Chicago Architecture Biennial, we had the opportunity to tell our story, which took shape in a inn room in Kadıköy and spread to different places, together with other similar stories. While we were exchanging methodology with different dynamics in another geography, we were thinking about the common points of these experiences. With the effort and support of members, users and participants from the first day, we care to find the opportunity to add and share the projects we have implemented all over Turkey and especially new ones in different parts of the world. We also thank our dear Nevzat Sayın, İsak Antika and Pulver Kimya, who supported our participation and made this exchange of experience possible at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
You can find the photo album of the process here.
Beril Sezen, Emre Gündoğdu, Erdem Tüzün, Hayrettin Günç, Merve Gül Özokcu, Sarper Takkeci, Yelta Köm