This is not a calling out. This is a reckoning.
Really for me more than anything else.
This is the break up text no one asked for.
Disclaimer 1: Before anything, I should apologize to Anne Dessing because this really is not about you, or your work. You’re just a perfect foil. This is really about me.
For context, Dessing was the 2018-2019 Garofalo fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A highly competitive, highly-coveted fellowship that comes with a year-long teaching position in the architecture department, an exhibition, and a presentation at the Graham Foundation.
The exhibition*, which sits adjacent to UIC’s faculty office, consists of a series of large-format, Ruscha-esque pictures of windows and mirrors, reflecting images of the sky, other buildings, or their own architectures. Summarily and literally, its self-reflective.
The title of the exhibition is a Sun Ra quote: “And then when I went to Chicago, that’s when I had these outer space experiences and went to other planets.”
The quote/exhibition title, the only text in the entire space, is printed and hung as large as the images. It is unattributed. Dessing is a white women from Amsterdam.
I came across the exhibition with a colleague after sitting on undergrad studio reviews. My colleague, a white man, acknowledging the source of the exhibition title, poignantly noted, “I could never get away with that.”
Disclaimer 2: The work presented in the studio reviews we both came from was funny, interesting, and well-executed. It was clear that the studio was organized and taught with excellence in both practice and pedagogy. I have great respect for my colleagues at UIC. They are some of the smartest and most creative people I know, and the school consistently puts out great work.
Disclaimer 3: I might never be invited back for another studio review. That’s ok.
Before I go on, ‘unpack’ this, I have an invitation: Anne, come have a psychedelic experience in Chicago. Come eat mushrooms and ride the Lakeshore. Come eat acid and get lost on the West Side, in a neighborhood you know and have lived in for over a decade. Come to a rave and end up in a pile of people at sunrise who you love and who love you–half of whom you know so intimately they feel like home, and half of whom you’ve never met, who also feel like home. Come. You’re invited.
These are sacred experiences.
Tell me about how much ownership you feel over a quote by a black man, migrating to Chicago from Alabama in the 1940s, finding and creating community through music in spite of the sea of structural and systemic forces of racism of inequality.
Otherwise, please now take that Sun Ra quote out your mouth.
It doesn’t hurt that Dessing fits the part. Tall, well-kept, pretty, but not in a threatening way, warm, and unambiguously white. My colleague noted, unprompted, that she has a nice smile. (This is not a critique of Anne Dessing’s appearance as a woman. This is a critique of an industry that rewards women who look like her).
For comparison, I’m a scraggly-ass, ethnically-ambiguous Jew with kinky hair. Reserved, but I take up space. I have curves no shift dress or oversized sweater can hide. And I like to play them up. I don’t smile unless I’m happy and I tend towards wearing black. But not in the sharp, architect way. In the bothered, goth way. At my one job at an architecture firm, I was told in a performance review to be more ‘cheerful.’ I hate that word. It sounds like Christmas. I asked him if I should wear polka dots and the color yellow. That didn’t end well.
I make the men who reward, award women like Anne Dessing uncomfortable. And I enjoy it.
But again, this isn’t about you. You’re just taking the opportunities that come. And, as a professor once said to me, after appropriating my ideas for his own work, “All in the spirit of generosity.” You can understand that.
The exhibition presentation is, in one kevlar-coated nut, a perfect last straw man. Why I am done with architecture and fux with art. I literally cannot think of a single art space (the most white man-run and commercially-focused included) that would let this shit fly. Because the culture around them wouldn’t let it fly.
That’s why I am publishing this in an arts publication, not an architecture publication. Because I’m done talking to men, especially white men, who don’t give a shit about what I have to say. And architecture is nothing if not a room full of mostly white men who don’t give a shit about what I have to say.
That is not to say there are not problems all over the arts. Of course there are. (Museums full of colonially-stolen artifacts, hello). But there is at least awareness, effort, conversation. There is some modicum of accountability.
I could take space here to spout off statistics about the inequity within architecture. The sharp drop-off rates of women and POCs from undergrad to grad school, and from grad school to the profession. But that’s not necessary. We all know these things.
Notice I didn’t say diversity. I said inequity.
But let’s take note of the fact that not a single person of color has been awarded the Garofalo Fellowship. Let’s take note of the fact that architecture counts its progress by the number of white women in positions of leadership. Period. Let’s take note of the fact that an architectural journal making an issue about queerness is actually an appropriation of queerness and not a making of space for queer people within the walls of its institutions or professional offices. Let’s make note of the fact that neither the academy nor the the profession has been willing nor capable of doing the work to catch up with Culture.
Let’s, for the sake of this exercise, and my own indulgence, remember the moment at the last Chicago Architecture Biennial when Peter Eisenman literally pulled, “I have a binder of women,” when asked why the panel was stacked with exclusively men (all but one white). And no one said shit.
Let’s take note of the AIA.
And really, at the end of the day, it’s not about statistics. It’s about people. It’s about culture. A culture that is so resistant to catching up with the rest of us. So unwilling to do the work. So afraid, and frankly, unable to consider things like identity, or experience, or godforbid, feminism, or the environment, lest it complicate (read: threaten) the sacred pillars of the discipline (read: the white men and women who don’t want to deal with it). And good design is not political, right? Lol.
Architecture exists in this tiny, insular bubble. A bubble building with shiny windows, pink and cartoony, sure. An increasingly more esoteric echo chamber of self-reflective lines, curves, and corners, and the semiotics of it all.
For a discipline and profession so inherently optimistic with ideas for building futures, new worlds, architecture is so disappointingly stuck in an old status quo. Reinforcing systems and structures of power, within its institutions, offices, and the literal, physical worlds it builds.
I don’t want buildings that reflect the same old stories back on themselves. I want buildings that tell new stories, of new worlds. Made by people who look like me and who look nothing like me. Who are thinking critically about the way we live and how the spaces we make for that living can support us, individually and as a community. I want to think about community. Because that’s what this life is about. And it’s the only chance for survival for most of us in this cold, crooked, beautifully psychedelic world.
Dessing’s exhibition is a crystallization, a distillation of why I am done with architecture. No, it’s a crystallization, a distillation of how architecture has and continues to make itself irrelevant to Culture. It’s a bright ass yellow canary in the cultural coal mine of architecture’s irrelevance.
And really, Anne, it’s not your fault. My frustration is misplaced. Because how could you know better? You came over here, like your forefathers, not knowing the landscape. You should be given guidance, feedback, criticism by seasoned and studied scholars and practitioners. They should know better. They should know this shit doesn’t fly here.
So where y’all at? How’s this shit fly here?
And actually, thank you.
Thank you for this blatant, visible wrongness. Because all the other microagressions I’ve witnessed and experienced in this field have been just that, micro, hard to point to. I’d sound like a whiny bitch if I listed them. That’s not the kind of bitch I am interested in being. But this I can point to. This can been seen.
And I know I’m not alone in any of this. There are so many murmurs. Conversations even. I’m just in the unique position of having a platform and no longer giving a fuck.
And I’m done wanting more and being disappointed.
*This is not a review of Anne Dessing’s exhibition.
Chelsea Ross is an artist, curator, and writer. She holds a Masters Degree of Arts in Design Criticism from the Department of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And a mass of student loan debt.