Via 425 Magazine: “Local Creative Pros on the Northwest Places That Make Them Swoon.” Architect Jim Graham admires how the Olympic Sculpture Park’s PACCAR Pavilion “mixes seamlessly and beautifully with the landscape.” And interior designer Kirsten Conner appreciates the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s original Art Deco design and 21st-century update (she even had her wedding reception there!).
“Butler moved here from Southern California in 1999. She bought a simple but cozy-looking house at the top of a hill and near three things she could not live without: a nearby bus stop, a nearby bookstore, and a nearby supermarket.”
“‘We discovered women artists using boxing as a shorthand for victimization or an idea of empowerment. The fact that the boxer was like a Schroedinger’s Cat… both a winner and a loser,’ is a through line of the show, said [curator Sara] Cochran.”
Despite achieving a legacy as one of the 20th century’s preeminent figures in architecture, many remain unaware of Louis Kahn’s substantial achievements across South Asia and their embodiment of his deeply held modernist artistic ideals.
On Saturday, June 10, SAM’s Saturday University Lecture Series will host curator and archivist William Whitaker for a discussion on Kahn’s many travels to South Asia accompanied by rare images and documents from the Kahn Archive at the University of Pennsylvania. In advance of his talk, SAM Manager of Public Engagement Haley Ha spoke with Whitaker to understand what made Kahn’s architectural vision in South Asia so noteworthy.
Haley Ha: You were trained as an architect and currently serve as a curator of the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. Can you tell us about your role and explain a day in your life as an archivist?
William Whitaker: I see myself, in part, as a teacher who uses collections to educate young architects and landscape architects about thinking and developing their ideas through design. Looking at the drawings of an architect like Louis Kahn can reveal much about their individual talent and way of working, but also about their collaborations with others in the drafting room, on the job site, or in conversation with their clients. The big idea is that thinking through drawings helps you to understand what is good, what is really good, and most importantly, the difference between the two. I meet with high school and college students to talk about and think through topics such as “taking notes on site.” We do this over a large table packed with archival collections: artist sketchbooks are always a favorite, but photography and other techniques also inform and reshape the understanding of place—and these techniques are not always visual! Archives provide an essential tool for understanding why things are the way they are, so incorporating the archive into public exhibitions and tours to a broader public is important to me and the work that I do.
HH: How did you first encounter Kahn’s work? What about it caught your interest?
WW: You can learn a lot from Louis Kahn. His way of working was a struggle that remains visible in his writings and lectures, as well as in the histories of the clients and staff who worked closely with him. His work was also consequential in reinvigorating architecture and its connection to history, place, and the craft of building. He brings a wonderful sense of the human element into his architecture with the expectation that places have the potential to profoundly impact the people who use them.
As an architecture student in the late 1980s, Kahn’s work was often discussed so I knew there was something to learn by looking at his work and understanding his collaborations with engineers, landscape architects, and clients. The first building I ever saw that he designed was the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1959–67). A friend and I drove through the night from Albuquerque, New Mexico to see the building and it was a life changing experience. Working toward my Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania opened up the possibility of working in the Architectural Archives where Kahn’s papers and drawings are kept. I’ve been there 30 years now and continue to learn from his work on a daily basis.
HH: This month’s Saturday University lecture presents a rare opportunity to engage deeply with Kahn’s work in South Asia. Can you tell us about his time in Asia and the lasting impact it left on him and his legacy?
WW: Between 1947 and his death in 1974, Kahn traveled extensively across the continent where he worked as an architect across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Nepal, and Israel. Meanwhile, back at the University of Pennsylvania, his “master’s studio” was comprised of 68 students from Thailand, India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. In Japan, at the Katsura Imperial Villa, Kahn experienced the deep interrelationship between a building and its landscape, including the magnificent ways the elements of nature—from light to wind and sound—are modulated to inform or shape the human experience.
HH: Kahn, unlike many of the Western architects working in Asia at the time, engaged deeply with the social and political fabric of the cities he worked in and considered their existing architecture, histories, and cultures when drafting his designs. How will these concepts be explored in your Saturday University lecture?
WW: There are distinctions to be made between buildings that serve and support a civic purpose and those conceived of as drivers of economic development. Kahn saw his work as supporting “institutions” important to the development of individuals and their ability to realize their own worth—places to learn, places to assemble, or places that honored human endeavor. It was Kahn’s search for a deeper purpose in architecture that continues to be relevant to this day and serves as the foundation of my lecture.
HH: While Kahn belonged to no particular faith, he was drawn to religious sites and left behind many sketches of ancient temples, churches, and mosques. How do you see the notion of spirituality or the “sacred” manifest in Kahn’s work?
WW: I think you can see it in his appreciation of the everyday. Kahn has an amazing eye for such moments and this is made clear in his notion that, “A city should be a place where a little boy walking through its streets can sense what he someday would like to be.” I would point to the study carrels in his library at Phillips Exeter Academy, the candle niches of the Hurva Synagogue, or the monumental steps at the Four Freedoms Park as expressions of how an individual becomes aware that they are part of something much larger than themselves.
HH: Visitors to Kahn’s works have been quoted as having something close to a ‘spiritual experience’ while occupying his spaces. Can you explain what Kahn meant when he said that the “building is a living thing” and how this may explain visitors’ experiences at his sites?
WW: Kahn based the conception of a building on human desire and providing a platform to support the impulse to express. As such, his buildings are an expression of human experiences and feelings. Here, Kahn is thinking in non-technological, non-practical, and non-physical terms–in his words this is “silence.” Those human impulses are then brought to “light” through all the circumstantial aspects of building–this is the brick and mortar, budget and code, and client and user part. For Kahn, the success of a building—what he thought of as “an offering to architecture”—was to be found in the structure’s ability to evoke an essential aspect of humanity. That he spoke to a brick is a well-known detail of Kahn’s persona (“You say to brick: ‘What do you want brick?’ To which brick replies, ‘I like an arch.’”). Behind that dialogue is an acknowledgment of human ingenuity, living traditions, working with materials, and more.
HH: Lastly, if you had to choose, which of Kahn’s sites would you recommend visiting to those who travel to South Asia?
WW: This is a difficult question to answer—it’s like asking someone who their favorite child is! It is also difficult because for various reasons, Kahn’s works are difficult for the public to access. If one can manage to access the Capital Complex in Dhaka, I’d put that at the top of any list. But I would also say that there are places where Kahn ventured–the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, the “pols” of old Ahmedabad, the Stepwell at Adalaj, or seeing the landscape of Dhaka along the Buriganga River—that can shed light on his thinking. All are well well-worth a visit.
Hear more about Louis Kahn’s travels to South Asia from William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design, on Saturday, June 10 at 10 am at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in the final lecture of the 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series. Tickets are still available—get yours now!
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
“Our approach is based on direct experience—a way of development outward from an inner core; something of the same process that nature uses in the creation of a tree.”
– George Nakashima
This Saturday, March 11, the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas at the Seattle Asian Art Museum will welcome architect and woodworker Mira Nakashima as part of the 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series. Mira, daughter of celebrated American architect, master woodworkers, and thinker George Nakashima, will discuss her father’s influence and legacy as the founding figure of the 20th century American studio art movement.
As the creative director of George Nakashima Woodworkers, Mira continues her father’s legacy by integrating his deep appreciation and reverence of nature with her own warmth, unmatchable prowess, and ingenuity in incorporating contemporary sensibility into his philosophy. In her upcoming talk, Mira will explore the development of her father’s lesser known spiritual spaces and articulate the ways in which they emphasize his philosophical and personal formation as an architect.
In anticipation of this fascinating lecture, Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, caught up with Mira to discuss what visitors can expect to see, learn, and experience this coming Saturday.
HALEY HA: You are the current creative director of Nakashima Woodworkers. Can you tell us a little bit about your days as the creative director?
MIRA NAKASHIMA: First of all, ‘creative director’ is a term I borrowed from a friend of mine who heads a chamber music group, as I didn’t know what else to call myself. When I first started in 1970, I was the general ‘gopher,’ doing everything from typing up orders to driving the truck to raking leaves, etc. As time progressed, I learned how to make the shop drawings, got to work in the shop making small objects, and accompanied my father to the sawmill. Following my father’s stroke, I began supervising the work in the shop, and after he died, I had to be responsible for conceptual as well as working drawings. There was always something to be done maintaining the buildings, grounds, and machinery, so that became a part of my job too. And after my mother died, someone had to keep an eye on the accounting. As it was a bit overwhelming for one person to do it all effectively, we hired both a manager and an assistant designer which made life more complicated, but better. As ‘creative director,’ I oversee the creation of all the furniture made here, but I am just one of the many people devoted to preserving our history and craft tradition. I usually have a hand in selecting and pricing wood for every project, create the conceptual and sometimes shop drawings, oversee the final cut lines, base and butterfly placement, and sign each piece before it leaves the shop.
HH: Your father is considered one of the most celebrated woodworkers and architects of the 20th century in the US, Japan, and across the world. As a woodworker and architect in your own right, what do you consider to be the challenges and blessings of carrying out Nakashima’s legacy today?
MN: My father studied architecture at Fontainebleau, France, worked in the office of Antonin Raymond in Tokyo from 1934-38, and was sent to Pondicherry, India in 1936 to build a reinforced concrete building, so he had deep roots in many cultures and countries of the world.
His furniture practice grew in the aftermath of World War II, embracing and manifesting Japanese aesthetic ideals during a time when they were not socially accepted and slowly making his mark along both US coasts. In 1963, my parents sent me to Tokyo to attend Waseda University where I earned a Masters in Architecture. My father went on to join the Minguren group and earned the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor of Japan in recognition of his cross-cultural activities in 1983. After his passing in 1990, his work became ‘vintage’—a part of the renewed interest in 20th-century design worldwide. Auction houses began selling his work both locally and internationally, leading his fame to spread.
It has been a challenge to live up to my father’s legacy and to continue the work as he hoped we would. With his book The Soul of a Tree, originally published in 1981, generations of woodworkers have been inspired to take up the practice, and indeed, to copy his designs. We strive to preserve his original methodology and mindset by working from the pile of wood he collected during his lifetime and hiring younger craftsmen and designers to learn the Nakashima way. Fortunately, we have been able to keep Nakashima alive and well, and we will do our best to keep it going beyond my lifetime.
HH: Your family was forcefully moved alongside over 12,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans to the Minidoka Camp in Idaho when the war broke out. Could you tell us about how this period impacted your father, his work, and your family?
MN: I was a baby when we were incarcerated. My mother was traumatized by the relocation while my father made friends with a highly skilled Japanese carpenter named Gentaro Hikogawa. Gentaro taught my father many that he would not have otherwise learned in developing his craft. Fortunately, in 1943, my father’s employer in Tokyo, Antonin Raymond, had moved to Bucks County and offered to sponsor my father to work on his farm so we did not stay in the camp as long as our other relatives. While in Idaho, my father’s friend, artist Morris Graves, carefully kept our meager belongings in Seattle and returned them all to us when we moved to Pennsylvania to start our new life. My father prophetically called the move a “New Hope” and found many artists in the area to call his friends. He called the incarceration “stupid” but said that eventually, “the wounds healed over and left no scars.”
HH: As we know, your father’s sense of spirituality deeply influenced his practice. You’ve previously been quoted as saying that for him, work “was a spiritual calling, a form of prayer.” Can you tell us about a bit more about the relationship between his beliefs and practices and explain a bit more of what you’ll be focusing on in your talk this Saturday?
MN: When my father was working on the reinforced concrete building for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India, he learned that physical labor was “karma yoga,” no less a yoga than meditating, praying or chanting all day. There, he and the other workers devoted their time to creating a hitherto unimagined place of beauty and peace. When he visited France’s Chartres Cathedral in the 1930s, not only was it an astounding space because of its incredible engineering, beautiful sculpture, and stained-glass windows, but also because it was built over several centuries by people from all walks of life whose only intent was to create a sacred space for the glory of God. In Seattle, my father converted to Catholicism and developed a deep kinship with the Benedictine monks and their monasteries. He volunteered to assist them in not only designing, but helping construct their remote chapels by gathering materials, building technology, and hiring local craftsmen.
HH: While he considered his work as a spiritual calling, his reverence for materials was remarkable yet practical. For example, could you tell us how kodama—the Japanese belief of offering a second life to a tree—became a central belief to his practice and how it bore the iconic aesthetic of Nakashima Woodwork?’
MN: I do not think the concept of ‘offering a second life to a tree’ is particularly Japanese, but in Shinto, Druid, Native American, and other so-called ‘primitive’ belief systems, inanimate objects like trees, stones, and water are respected not merely as ‘dead’ objects, but as living examples of the Creator. Perhaps my father’s connection to trees was fostered by his early days as a boy scout where he spent long weekends hiking throughout the Pacific Northwest and sleeping amongst the trees. In Japan, the forces and forms of nature are respected, honored, and integrated into everyday life. So, it is perhaps this practice which found voice in the Nakashima aesthetic.
HH: The Nakashima estate in Pennsylvania became a National Historic Landmark in 2014. I’m envious of your beautiful home and curious to know what it is like to live in a space with such powerful intention, art, and legacy?
MN: To me, this is simply the home where I grew up and have worked all of my life. I didn’t realize it was anything special until I returned from my first trip to Japan in 1966, and not until I wrote my book in 2003 that it became clear how groundbreakingly bold the architecture was for its time. It is indeed a responsibility to maintain the property, and to allow limited access so that it does not suffer from too much traffic, while encouraging and educating people about its history. I do not live on the original property, but in a house across the road that my father built for me in 1970, so it is an easy commute but also provides some distance to the place I now call home.
HH: In our ongoing Saturday University Lecture Series, we’ve been exploring the different notions of sacredness within built environments amid our ongoing climate crisis. There seems to be a sense of reverence, deeper recognition, and ecological thinking that is rooted in your father’s practice. Would you agree?
MN: My father built each of his buildings with a sense of economy and ecology that was way ahead of his time. From working in Japan, he instinctively knew the principles of kimon—in Chinese, feng shui—including the auspicious positioning of buildings and usage of the rooms according to its geography, path of the sun, seasons, and source of water on the site. He selected each site because of its south-facing slope and built most of the buildings along the brow of a hill, intentionally leaving an open slope and field in the center. All of his buildings have large expanses of glass to the south, and their carefully proportioned roofs overhang to keep the rooms cool with cross-ventilation in the summer and warm in the winter with solar gain.
On the Pool House, built in 1960, he installed a series of water pipes along the rooftop as a way to heat the shower water by passive solar energy when no one else was even thinking of that. His last building, the Reception House, built in 1975 during the first oil crisis, has a plenum and fan system behind its Franklin stove-like fireplace to heat the entire house. There is also a cook-top on the fireplace hood and an oven compartment in the wall of the fireplace like the old Bucks County farmhouses. There is even a large sunken Japanese bath with water heated by a wood-burning boiler imported from Japan. We are currently working with the University of Pennsylvania to create an overall campus plan which will minimize our dependence on fossil fuels in the future by installing both passive solar and geothermal energy sources, and of course, increasing insulation and minimizing air infiltration without destroying the original design concepts. It’s bound to be an exciting challenge!
HH: Lastly, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind to the next generations of woodworkers?
MN: Harvest materials sustainably and replant as many trees as possible. Know and respect the woods local to your area and use them whenever possible. Learn to do honest joinery yourself. Do not imitate forms, but create your own. Remember that less is more; don’t complicate things just to be different.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2022–23 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, with nine talks by leading scholars exploring the social power of architecture. Renée Cheng, Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and a catalyst for advocating diversity and inclusion in the field, kicks off the series on Saturday, September 10 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum with a discussion of cultural identities and their expression in the built environment. Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum, spoke with Cheng about her background, why equity matters in architecture, and how architecture can respond to ecological concerns.
“Space and culture are interconnected—they shape and reflect one another. When we understand the cultural messages conveyed via sacred architecture, we become aware of how those messages are heard differently depending on cultural identity.”
– Dr. Renée Cheng
Haley Ha: Tell us about your background. How did you first become interested in architecture?
Dr. Renée Cheng: I grew up in the Midwest—the daughter of a painter and an engineer—and in so many ways architecture is something of a combination of the two. I always enjoyed making things when I was a child. I did a lot of painting and sculpture, but it was messy stuff. It wasn’t like a kit of Lincoln Logs or Legos; it was clay and paint and messy things that were much more open-ended in what they would lead to. So I wouldn’t say that it was a straight line to architecture by any means. I actually considered medicine at one point, but I grew into really understanding my passion for making things and making beautiful things.
Later, I started realizing that it had to do with spaces, not objects, and my focus shifted over time to be increasingly oriented towards people and the collaborative ways that you have to work to build buildings. I became more interested in the interaction between people aligning around shared goals for occupied spaces and the use of space and places.
Ha: How would you describe your work and research to someone who has never heard of the ideas you explore?
Dr. Cheng: I am an architect and I maintain my license, but I don’t build buildings. I don’t design buildings. I teach those that will be building buildings. I also study the field itself and look at ways that it could be more innovative and beneficial to more people. There’s a lot of the stereotype of an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright in a cape, working for wealthy clients, or even, you know, primarily working for a limited number of people. I am really trying to promote an idea of architecture that positively affects more people, the idea that a well-placed window to a view or a sequence of spaces that allow you to be part of a group ceremony can elevate the spirit. It’s something that an individual might be able to do, but working together with others, really understanding the different points of view that go into making a space that works for more than one person, creating a space that’s large, larger than what one person can build is really what I what I look at in in my work.
It was not a practice in the same way that an architect would practice in an office, where there are buildings that you can show and point to and say we did that; but it’s more of a development of programs and looking at ways that the entire discipline and profession can change. My work has been primarily US-based, but I look at a lot of international examples, often in terms of the way they incorporate new technologies or legal structures of financing that allow for different ways of working. So it encompasses more than just the practice of architecture itself.
Ha: You’re an advocate for diversity and equitable practices in the field of architecture and built environments. Can you briefly describe built environments in both research and practice? And what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play in it?
Dr. Cheng: Built environments really include all of the areas that are not natural, that are actively built by shaping of land and the infrastructure. It includes smaller-scale spaces, rooms like where you woke up this morning, with a particular light condition and orientation, or the transit you use for shopping or working. The room that you were in, the living structure, the transit, the infrastructure were all planned. It’s part of a city that was planned.
Volunteer Park was planned and laid out in certain ways to emphasize or enhance certain aspects through the choice of what to plant. Some of it might have been growing here and preserved, and others might have been added. So there’s all those aspects of what makes up our built environment. They were all planned, designed, and executed. Someone had to figure out how to pay for it, had to logistically make it happen, and get all of the permissions to make sure that it would work and function in the way that it was intended.
So, what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play, when you think of that broad definition of built environments? Historically those designers were hired by a small group of people, often very wealthy, and the input was usually fairly limited. And so in the end you ended up with some really beautiful spaces and places for sure, but also certain decisions that really negatively impact communities—often communities of color—whether it was in the placement of highways or the general economic investment in affordable housing. You had a lot of communities that were left out and negatively impacted by architecture. And so what I have worked for is to find ways to include more voices, to include more factors. When we consider what is good design and to find ways that we can accomplish them effectively, not only economically but with sustainable and good practices.
Ha: In the past, architecture has been viewed as a male-dominated field. As an Asian American architect and a woman of color, what challenges have you faced in the field?
Dr. Cheng: There is a definite stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated field and definitely the dominant culture is white males; if you look across the leaders and award winners, they tend to be white men, especially in America. In my experience as a Asian American architect, I’m the first woman dean of the college. I’m the first person of color. But I’ve also been the first or often the only designer or practicing architect in a group of academics, academic architects, or woman in a very dominant technology-related field. So, quite often these are even more white male dominated than the general population of architects. I’ve definitely experienced being the only woman in the room. This can have some positives in that you get noticed, and some negatives in that you get scrutinized, or you sometimes feel like you’re speaking for an entire group and can be tokenized.
I’ve been committed to increasing the number of women in architecture in particular since I was in school. I had an experience when I was in graduate school, where our class was composed of about 30% women who went on to do amazing things like become firm leaders, these women were just really incredible. And there was a time in our graduate studies where there were no women faculty on a fairly large faculty group. And we talked to the dean about this, and his response was: there were no qualified women to hire for teaching, and that statement was so shocking to me, and made me renew a commitment that I think I hadn’t articulated before then to change that by setting up systems and programs that mentor and initiate faster pathways through the education and the professions for women and other identities that were underrepresented in the field.
A lot of the work that I do is centered on the experience I had in graduate school, of feeling like there’s got to be another way. It’s not that there were no qualified women. It’s that they were not easy to find, or that they weren’t retained, promoted, and made visible. Because I knew that my female classmates had a lot to offer. We were probably losing a lot of amazing input as well by not having the role models to help us succeed in our field.
Ha: What are some of the biggest challenges for ecological issues of our time, and how can architecture play a role in solutions?
Dr. Cheng: Worldwide, buildings are forty percent of the energy consumption and they can make up eighty percent of what goes to our landfills through construction and demolition processes. You can say that you know buildings and cities bear a disproportionate share of energy consumption, and also they have a disproportionate responsibility of being a solution to the problem.
Let’s use embodied carbon, for example: the carbon that is used while you produce a building, maintain a building, and disassemble a building. It’s actually a more sophisticated way of thinking, not just of the cost of your electric bill for your air conditioning. Or consider a materials decision, and how much transportation it takes to transport this piece of wood from a place that maybe doesn’t have natural forests. Would concrete be a more economic, ecologically, and carbon-reducing choice? So, it gets pretty complicated, pretty fast, but the overall impact of the development on sustainability and climate is really pretty clear. Architects, building contractors, real estate developers, and landscape architects, we all bear a disproportionate responsibility for climate solutions, because the product of our work bears a disproportionate share of the energy consumption.
Ha: This Saturday University lecture series is focused on sacred spaces in urban settings; I’m interested in the collaborative work between UW’s College of Built Environments and the Nehemiah Initiative for faith-based congregations and the communities they serve in the Central District. It seems to have been vital for these places to survive the socioeconomic challenges in the historically black neighborhood. Can you tell us more about this collaborative effort and how this initiative played a role?
Dr. Cheng: This project is a multi-year commitment to the Nehemiah Initiative, which is a group of Black churches in the Central District of Seattle who are working together to promote their beloved community. Our college hosts a series of studio classes where students work with church leaders and community members to study the potential for church property to be developed in ways that provide housing and community spaces that can support the Black community.
We have an interdisciplinary team of faculty and I teach about the intercultural aspects of working across differences. The differences that I focus on for the class include disciplinary differences in how an urban planning student and a real estate student might think about the best use of the land. It also includes how our students can work with a Black faith-based community while bringing in their own experiences and expertise in respectful and effective ways.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
Photo: Renée Cheng, dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Image courtesy of Sean Airhart, NBBJ.
In June 1920, Imogen Cunningham’s husband, Roi Partridge, accepted a teaching position in the art department at Mills College, a private liberal arts school for women in Oakland, California. With their three young sons, Cunningham and Partridge moved from San Francisco to an old house situated near campus which initially had neither plumbing nor electricity.
While in Oakland, Cunningham established herself as a well-educated woman and progressive role model in the community. She offered Mills College students uncensored advice about their professional aspirations and her home came to be recognized as a safe haven for private discussions about sexuality and family planning.
One important stream of income for Cunningham at this time was photographing Mills College student portraits, dance performances, and campus architecture. Her photograph, Mills College Amphitheater (ca. 1928), captures the curved concrete design of the college’s outdoor auditorium. The image, likely inspired by the work of American photographer Paul Strand, plays with abstract geometric forms created by sunlight and shadows.
In this audio recording from the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum, nonbinary black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford discusses the significance of this image within Cunningham’s larger body of work. She points out Cunningham’s decision to forgo photographing the amphitheater’s stage, opting instead to play with the shadows and sunlight of the empty audience.
Mills College Amphitheater, ca. 1928
Randy Ford: My name is Randy Ford. I use she/her and goddess as pronouns, and I’m a nonbinary Black transfem, just out here trying to live and make art that’s going to change the world.
Narrator: Imogen Cunningham’s photo of an outdoor amphitheater reminded Randy, a choreographer and dancer, of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle where she staged her first full-length performance, Queen Street.
Randy Ford: I’m also a Greek drama nerd, and so this just looks like a Greek amphitheater like back in the day. It looks like a coliseum.
Narrator: The photograph was actually taken at Mills College, a women’s liberal arts college in Oakland, California, where Cunningham’s husband taught. She often photographed architectural elements on campus, including the amphitheater. There is no stage in Cunningham’s abstract interpretation. Instead, we see only curved concrete rows and rectangular steps highlighted by sunlight and shadows.
Randy Ford: Cunningham was very much just like, yeah, you know, the audience is the show. It’s not always about what’s on stage. It’s kind of like what’s the environment? What’s the tone? What time of day is it? Was this right before the performance? Was this an empty show where no one showed up? Audience plays a huge role in live performance. As a live performer, I live for an interactive audience. Just let me know you’re here. Let me know you feel me because, performers are also humans.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Photo: Mills College Amphitheatre, Imogen Cunningham, ca. 1928, Gelatin silver print, Image: 8 1/8 x 12 1/4 in, Collection of Gary B. Sokol.
The teapot is a centuries-old vessel whose origins are firmly rooted in China. Features of the teapot have evolved over time, depending on the culture and period, but for the most part the vessel is a straightforward formula with certain basic elements: a spout, a handle, a lid, and, of course, a container for hot water. Tried and tested, right? Enter Peter Shire.
For decades, Los Angeles-based Shire has worked at the intersection of fine art, craft, and industrial design, experimenting with a variety of mediums and methods to produce iconic ceramic works and furniture that challenge the modernist maxim “form follows function,” first coined by American architect Louis Sullivan. The form of this ceramic teapot, titled Dog Hedge, does not immediately align with its understood function. In fact, many of Shire’s teapots (an ongoing and touchstone series in his practice), don’t pour tea properly—they are objects meant to be looked at. In the words of the artist, they are “referentially functional.”
One of the original members (and first American) of the 1980s Italian design collective Memphis Group, Shire has proven himself a master of surfaces and mimicry. Interested in the plasticity of materials such as clay, he approaches his practice with playful rigor. In this 1982 work, orange, lime green, and red geometric shapes overlap with rectilinear planes of speckled pink and blue to form a postmodern constructivist composition. The various ceramic components balance precariously, testing the limits of the teapot’s utility.
For this work, Shire found inspiration in such diverse sources as Stonehenge, aqueducts, post and beam architecture of the 1950s, the architecture of Luis Barragán, and the “anthropomorphic qualities of the [teapot’s] spout as a mouth and the lid as eyes.” In Shire’s hands, the teapot—as both an object and an idea—becomes deconstructed and reimagined on his own personal, conceptual, and architectural terms. Appearing from one angle as a dog in profile, the piece’s title also references Stonehenge—a monument whose unclear use and construction no doubt finds a parallel in Shire’s own work.
Theaster Gates’ Listening Stools, one of the sculptural forms in theexhibit The Listening Room, have helped transform SAM’s Knight-Lawrence Gallery into an open space for music and ideas. Their design may be simple and made from recycled wood, coming from the floorboards of a Chicago police station, but the stools invite visitors to sit, relax, and engage with the art, music and each other. They often lead guests to converse about a record they’re currently holding, and I can’t say how many people have learned to play their first 33 1/3” vinyl record on a turn table while sitting in one of these modest wooden chairs.
Although his artistic training is in ceramics Gates’ sculpted pieces for The Listening Room draw from his seemingly endless resources using recycled lumber as a medium that allows him to transcend artistic traditions and place focus on social engagement through discarded materials-come-art. The Listening Stools are one of these unlikely art objects carrying a history in their structure. Other lumber materials present in the exhibit are the ware board record crates (see below), the original sandwich board from Dr. Wax’s record store made to look like a Japanese Shoji screen, and the entirely recycled wood deejay table faced with a carved wooden altar screen sourced from a defunct Chicago church.
Another example of Gates’ material repurposing is his Temple Exercises (2009) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which constructed a temple-like structure from modular ware boards from the abandoned Wrigley Gum factory in the heart of Chicago. This became a site for spiritual exercises and performance by groups such as Gates’ own ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi. The same Wrigley ware boards are used in the Listening Room for the record crates that accompany the turntable in the middle of the gallery in which visitors are invited to peruse records and listen in on headphones at any time during museum hours.
“I’m one person,” says Gates, “one whole person who thinks about friendship and neighborliness and God as much as I think about object making.” His chairs achieve the sense of transformation that Gates’ work self-consciously seeks to convey. Inherent in this transformation is the vinyl vertebrae lining the back wall of the gallery: Dr. Wax’s Record Archive. Entering the gallery for the first time viewers are perhaps not expecting to see a long shelf of records and deejay table. Set into the back wall Dr. Wax’s records are joined with the musical sounds that can be heard emanating from the gallery before visitors even enter the space. They are immediately faced with the aural and visual qualities of this kinesthetic installation and find themselves asking the question “How do I engage with this art?” By the time visitors reach the Listening Stools, they have intoned through osmosis the intertwining themes of music, history, politics, and space that are addressed by the exhibit. It is the music’s audio ability to communicate cultural, political, and artistic history to a public willing and able to engage that brings meaning to the lumber-made objects present in the gallery and comes full circle to connect the archive of cultural knowledge to its listeners.
-Ryan R. Peterson, Curatorial + Community Engagement Intern
The Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas kicks off a second year of programs with a series of outstanding speakers on Sacred Sites of Asia! These nine sessions are a sampling of new perspectives and images, from the Angkor Wat temple of Cambodia, to an Australian aboriginal forest, Buddhist caves of the Chinese Gobi Desert, and Zen monasteries.