On a Sunday in the early morning during the opening days of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, crews of youth and adults were all crowded around painting, from top to bottom, a house slated for demolition. I spoke with artist and architect Amanda Williams:
Caroline James: What experiences in your life were important towards developing your approach and relationship with architecture?
Amanda Williams: Growing up, I just loved art and architecture, and it really didn’t register with me that I was a girl. And then I get to college, and the things that were being talked about didn’t jive with what I was expected architecture to be about. I was expecting architecture to be about things about urbanism and based in the neighborhoods, and at the scale of city. Instead, we’re designing wineries. These things didn’t seem relevant to architectural issues in a larger context. I went to Cornell, which is great as an environment where you can argue with people about what architecture is or isn’t. Does it have some social necessity?
When I was about to graduate, I was beginning to think about these landscapes and neighborhoods that I grew up in. Yet there’s a disconnect–even when you have the skillset, the desire and the audience, there’s not necessarily everything you need to affect change. One example of making change is Theaster–to do something so amazing that everyone gets on board. We’re not that model. For instance, I don’t want all the commitment comes with buying real estate.
CJ: Diversity of practice, tools, and what we bring to the table is a huge discussion now. What do you feel are latent and under-recognized skills that architecture education needs to emphasize?
AW: I share traits with anyone who considers their work a hybrid. Being a hybrid is part of my identity. I am black and a woman. We grew up on one side of Chicago and we went to school on another side of town. I am translator. We have people from all over the world passing through for the Biennial. And in this neighborhood, I know all these people.
Since I’ve existed in two worlds means that there’s a DNA in my work that makes sense to the people from my neighborhood. They might never have the desire to attend an architecture expo of Navy Pier not because they can’t, but because it’s not relevant to them. In that same way that my professors didn’t give a damn about lack of density on the South Side, I have the tools to translate these qualities to make architecture that’s important to me.
CJ: How do you relate to the word, “inclusion”?
AW: There’s work that forces people to operate in different worlds. I practice life of inclusion, not exclusion. While we live in a world where credentials and stardom matter, these markers are irrelevant if the work constantly undermines exclusivity. Yet, an accountability goes with inclusion, and when you bring everyone participate. If I see guy watching us work from his car, and I’m probably going to call out, “go, grab a paintbrush.”
This interview took place in October 2015. Amanda Williams continues to engage with materials, urban context and communities, bringing actors to the table in unexpected ways. Read more about her recent work: