Candice and I arrived at the American Academy in Rome on Monday morning to begin my six-week sabbatical. We suffered through the usual jet lag (and a bit more…but that would be TMI) and quickly settled in to our cozy apartment. Over the course of the first few meals we were welcomed by dear friends of Tom (recent Rome Prize winner from the National Trust) and Rod’s (his husband); joined a talented graphic artist and his wife at the bar when we both realized we were there for our first night (and then later realized we had met a decade ago when he designed the branding for The Glass House); were connected to some new acquaintances through long-time colleagues in the U.S.; and simply met a host of welcoming fellows and “fellow travelers.”
Once the jet lag wore off, we began to explore the neighborhood of Trastervere which lies at the foot of the hill from the Academy (down some 70 steep steps…but that’s another story.) Our focus was the Basilica di Santa Maria, where the basic floor plan and wall structure dates back to the 340s, and much of the existing structure to 1140-43. The interior features wonderful 13th century and 17th century mosaics in the apse. We also wandered through the streets, getting lost on more than one occasion but in the process discovering open air markets, cafes, and shops where we wanted to return when we had more time.
It was clear from our arrival that we would have many opportunities to look both back and forward. Bryony Roberts, the Booth Family Rome Prize Fellow in Historic Preservation and Conservation, gave a shop talk on Wednesday entitled “Projected Histories” which did just that. Bryony is an architectural designer and scholar who designs transformations to historic buildings. We had a chance to chat before her talk and share our experiences with connecting landmark buildings to new audiences.
In a fascinating overview of her work, Bryony discussed recent projects, the first of which was a preservation-based plan for the rebuilding of the modernist Oslo government center damaged in the 2011 terrorist bombing that also claimed the lives of 80 individuals at a youth summer camp. What I found fascinating from that presentation was that she and her students at the University of Oslo had presented a forward-looking alternative based on the historical context of the center in a way that respected the mid-century modernist structures, but also added appropriate new buildings that appeared – from the plans – to improve the urban feel of the city.
Much of her work focused on less permanent engagement with existing architecture through performance and art. We all experienced one small example as we entered the main AAR building each day, where the patterned floor was transformed with new shapes and colors that played off of the circles and diagonal patterns of the McKim, Mead & White original.
Clearly the installation that captured the most attention from those in attendance was the “We Know How to Order” performance with the South Shore Drill Team during the most recent Chicago Architecture Biennial. This group of young African-Americans from Chicago’s South Side, many of whom had never been to the Loop, collaborated with Roberts in a performance that engaged – in totally new ways – the Mies van der Rohe precision of the Federal Center. Here is the project description:
The project ”We Know How to Order” for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial magnifies systems of ordering bodies in contemporary Chicago. This site-specific performance brings together the Federal Center by Mies van der Rohe and the South Shore Drill Team, which performs high-energy drill routines infused with street choreography. Conceived by Bryony Roberts, and choreographed by Asher Waldron of the South Shore Drill Team, this collaborative project responds to a space of federal government and the architecture of Mies van der Rohe through dynamic physical movement.
This engagement works for me on so many levels, but especially on the political. As Bryony mentioned several times in her talk, it was the political nature of preservation that drew her to the field. She discussed the various dimensions of this political nature in the Q&A segment and in a follow-up private conversation. I’ve spoken a good deal recently about the political nature of preservation – how we have to get the public to support our work – as a factor that seems to be missing from the purely academic approach to the field. Here you have young people – whose lives have been impacted by the decisions made over many decades by the federal and local government to separate African-Americans in the South Side of one of America’s most segregated cities – responding through art to that government and the order it imposed. We also have good contemporary art that will help show a much broader audience the relevance of this space to their lives today.
At dinner, a new friend asked how the presentation would be viewed at the National Trust. Knowing of our work to engage new audiences through art at The Glass House, the Farnsworth House, Shadows-on-the-Teche, the New York State Pavilion, and so many other sites and treasures, I said I was pretty sure it would be very well received.
Enjoy the five-minute video of “We Know How to Order” for a look forward at one future of preservation.
More to come…