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« Uneven growth: tactical urbanism | Main | Theaster Gates: Dorchester Projects, Chicago »
Thursday
Feb052015

Dorchester Projects Archive House, Chicago

(c) 2006-2014 - Theaster Gates. Archive House Past (2009) and Present (2013) photos: Sara Pooley

Dorchester Projects, a cluster of houses and storefronts on South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago, includes this house, before and after.  Gates' explanation is that he 'purchased the neighbouring two-story vacant house [next to the storefront he was living in] and initiated a design project to restore and reactivate the home as a site of community interaction and uplift'.  There is a gallery of photos on his website which show how the interior has been largely stripped to structure and resurfaced with floor to ceiling bookshelves, slide trays, recycled board sheathing.  Despite the street-front propriety of the house in 2009, it was abandoned and must have been unuseable inside for such a massive re-configuration of surface to have occurred.  

Unuseability is not just cosmetic: the hierarchy of spaces in a prairie four-square house is also without utility.  Of course anything can occupy and make do with any kind of space if it has to, but the project here is not just to move into an old house because it is all you can afford, but to make that old house spatially part of the community.  The slide room is itself, not a previous bedroom: the present bears no relationship to the past.  This is the difference between repurposing and renovation. Gates bought a structure and stripped away everything that did not apply to his project of community building, replacing it with salvaged materials that come with no evidential history.  

Nor are the collections of music and books cast-offs, discards: the front of the store is a listening room for the 8,000 LPs from a former local record store, Dr Wax Records that went under in the economic downturn in 2010.  The back of the store is a reading room for the Johnson Library: the Johnson Publishing Company's in-house editor's library and the Ebony and Jet magazine archive.  Johnston Publishing is the largest African-American-owned publishing house, and was founded in Chicago in 1942. The Dorchester Projects grounds these African-American histories in buildings whose purpose is to keep them alive, rather than locking them into some sort of museological archive.  This is yet another part of Gates' project – to keep history close.  

The sink, below, properly plumbed in but without a cheap vanity from Home Depot holding it up: this is like cooking with completely unprocessed foods. Given the pre-processed and over-manufactured rubbish that appears in building dumpsters, no doubt a cheap or even a good vanity could have been found, but the 'vanity' comes with so many bourgeois associations of, again, propriety where the facts of plumbing have to be hidden, that it becomes a negative force in the house.  An assemblage of beams, frames and trims to get the sink to a useable height has no references: the material was free, it fulfills a need.  This isn't art, although it is arty enough, this is identity politics.

Theaster Gates Studio

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