“And then when I went to Chicago, that’s when I had these outer space experiences and went to the other planets”

Project

“Walls are a nice invention, but if there were no holes in them, there would be no way to get in or out; they would be mausoleums or tombs. The problem is that, if you make holes in the walls, anything and anyone can get in and out (bears, visitors, dust, rats, noise). So architects invented this hybrid: a hole-wall, often called a door, which, although common enough, has always struck me as a miracle of technology.”  

Bruno Latour

The project, developed within the context of the Douglas A. Garofalo Fellowship ’18-’19 at the University Illinois Chicago, is an investigation into open borders, including architectural borders that aren’t closed off by solid walls. The project specifically explores how segregation and inequality relate to physical architectural borders in contemporary American cities.

The work culminated in a series of big drawings, presented in the exhibition “And then when I went to Chicago, that’s when I had these outer space experiences and went to the other planets.” The title is a quote by Afrofuturism pioneer Sun Ra, whom explores how art and imagination can help people look beyond this world and into another.

Throughout the project Anne cultivated an outsider’s view of cities in the American Midwest, recasting their surfaces as fluid border conditions that continually dissolve and reassemble. The work directs careful attention to the ambiguous visual character of these places, defined through conflicting impressions of surface and depth, substance and shine, aspiration and ordinariness.

Captured within the images are unexpected hyperreal settings—environments where reality and representation are indistinguishable. The reflective, mirrored surfaces in the drawings play with light, multiplying into the space around them. At the same time, shininess renders such surfaces—and what is behind them—illegible. This quality lures but also obscures, concealing plainness more often than beauty or mystery.

Today, cities are made up of these types of flat, shiny surfaces: screens and facades of all scales. We continuously encounter various shallow worlds that dictate our psychic experiences and cultural conventions. This is even more apparent in the sprawling Midwest, where the extensive, emblematic grid and towering skyscrapers wrapped in gleaming windows stand in stark contrast, and everyday interiors—places like bars and waiting rooms—can be subtly dominated by lifeless screens, as if offering a backdrop of the outside world. Whether the glossy pages of a magazine, the filters that infuse our virtual feed, or the buildings that tower over us, our culture is infatuated with seizing and sharing attractive or compelling moments, often without thought to what gazes back or to looking beyond—to the dissolution of edges that seem clear and stable.

And then when I went to Chicago, that’s when I had these outer space experiences and went to the other planets” develops intuitive research on architectural form, scale, and material as a way to explore these pointed contrasts within our everyday fields of vision.

Interview

Could you define the term 'open border'?

With open borders I refer to all elements that divide space, with the exception of solid walls. Think of doors, windows, columns, fences, arches or gates. What intrigues me about these open borders is the duality of their physicality and their inherent themes. Open borders are subjected to many fields. Apart from being architectural elements, they can be studied in a political or philosophical sense. In architecture I’m interested in fluid border situations. We often make static designs for buildings whereas in the real world everything is always changing and in flux.

How and to what extent has you understanding and definition of this changed throughout the course of the project? / What informed Chicago and the cities surrounding it as site for the project?

It has completely changed and that was precisely my intention. I have thought long about the strategy for the Fellowship on forehand. I wanted to devote my time to the city where I would move to, but I also didn’t want to be biased and teach students my ideas about a city that I only knew as an outsider. That is why I started the assignment much more as an investigation. I began a conversation between the students. They seemed like a very multicultural group, but almost all of them were born and raised in Chicago. I asked them to show me the neighborhood they grew up in. I told them the prejudices about the city that I received through the media and we had discussions about them.
I think that it was precisely my outsiders view that has shown the students new ways of understanding how unique their city is. For example by experiencing my reaction to situations that were common to them, but foreign for me. It was often the indignation that led to inspiration for projects.
On arrival I was shocked by many situations. I found it difficult to accept the segregated city. But the longer I was in America, the more I also began to see the beauty of it. In the same period that I did my fellowship, Matylda Kryzkovski also did a fellowship at SAIC. One day, as we walked through Chicago, she described how she understood the city. To her Chicago was like a large layered pie. Every neighborhood is a cake, separated by layers of asphalt. I think this is an accurate metaphor. And because every neighborhood is so cut off, it gets a much stronger identity. Although on many levels segregation is very problematic, I think the strong identities are actually one of the biggest qualities of Chicago.

Buitenkamer (reference)
Buitenkamer (reference)

The term border is very prominent and critical in today's vocabulary, how does your research relate to our contemporary condition?

Last year I met the professors Anurada Matur and Dilip Dacunha. I’m very intrigued by their way of thinking. After the floods of 1993 in the USA, they began studying the Lower Mississippi. In their book “Mississippi Floods – Designing a Shifting Landscape” they question the act of drawing two lines on a map to demarcate a river. According to them, this anthropocentric approach reduces a natural phenomenon, shaped by its own natural processes, to an engineered and uncontrollable system of levees and locks. They denounce this artificial land-water divide and contrasting its physical elusiveness to human efforts to falsely frame and physically confine it as a river. They argue we have to start designing for what they call an unpredictable state of ‘ubiquitous wetness’.
In many ways we can use this research as an analogy for a welcome shift in the way we understand (national) architectural borders today. Precisely by questioning the concept of borders, and understanding them as human constructs, we can perhaps break through the current critical condition?

You mention 'researching architecture through drawing', how important is the drawings as tool through which to develop the research/project?

Drawing is something that I love to do. I’m not a writer. Over the past years I found out that I can question architecture trough making visual essays. Upon till now I have communicated more about architecture through drawings than I have actually built.
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan. He proposes that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. I believe this and its fascinating to me. Thats why I currently teach a seminar on various forms of architectural drawing. We experiment with drawing space by using and questioning new techniques from the 21st century.

Badkamer Groen (reference)
Badkamer Groen (reference)
(Reference)
(Reference)

What other mediums and tools did you use throughout the project?

Models and 3d models.

How and to what extent has your way of drawing matured and developed through time?

The drawings that I made for the exhibition are larger and more autonomous than my previous drawings. I also started to think more about how the drawing hangs / stands / lies in the room as an object. Furthermore, I increasingly think of what these drawings mean in a broader sense, as I also describe above. The drawings are certainly not meant for illustration— they are a work in itself. I think I’m getting that clearer and clearer.

The project was mediated through a series of large scale drawings, at the exhibition “And then when I went to Chicago, that’s when I had these outer space experiences and went to the other planets”, what informed the scale, materiality and disposition of these?

The exhibition was a representation of an American midwest city. The facade drawings were big and hung in a grid. I wanted them to be impactful by relating the scale to the surrounded architecture and the visitors. As opposed to the big facade drawings, I made a couple of intimate interior drawings. They were small and were placed on a pink perspex frame that gave a neon glow around them.

How do these relate to the space of the white cube gallery?

I simulated the white cube in the school by completely cladding a lecture room with white wall paper and a white floor. There were almost no seams visible. I did this for two different reasons. Firstly, I wanted to enrich the experience of the exhibition by doing something very unexpected. The transition between the school and the exhibition space was very strange. It was like stepping in a cloud in the middle of the school. By doing so, the visitors entered a world of imagination. The effect was much stronger than I expected. You could hardly distinguish the floor from the walls, making it difficult to see depth in the space.
Secondly, I wanted to be able to communicate the work outside of the school. I felt that the strong architectural presence of the school building would interfere too much with the content of the work.

To what extent do you trust in the idea of an architectural continuum?

I see all architecture as seeds for a new architecture. 🙂 Try, fail, try again, fail better.

How has the work developed until now informed your way of approaching architecture?

I’m even more interested in questioning, researching and narrating architecture by making drawings and designing exhibitions, interiors and (temporary) buildings than I was before.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

Imagination

About

Anne Dessing is an architect based in Amsterdam. Her practice, Studio Anne Dessing, operates at the intersection of art and architecture. She researches architecture through exhibitions, installations, drawings, models, interiors and (temporary) buildings. Anne Dessing teaches at various academies in the Netherlands and had the position of the 2018– 2019 Douglas A. Garofalo Fellow at University Illinois Chicago.

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