Proximity 009

An essay on Chicago’s culture of design







The ninth issue of the publication Proximity includes an essay by Iker Gil titled “A Culture of Design.”

Edited by Ed and Rachael Marszewski, this issue of Proximity includes texts from Logan Bay, Halle Butler, Jim Duigan, Laura Fox, Iker Gil, Michelle Grabner, Rachel Hewitt, Marguerite Horberg, Jason Lazarus, Eric May, Bill Mackey, Paul Nudd, Jonas Ohlsson, Michael Pecirno, Allison Peters Quinn, Caroline Picard, Sandy Voratanitkitkul, Lavie Raven, Zach Rockhill, Shushma Sheth, Sean Starowitz, Bert Stabler, Shannon Stratton, Mike Wolf, Michael Workman, and Rebecca Zorach.

You can find Iker’s essay below.

A culture of design

It was almost by coincidence that I ended up in Chicago nine years ago. While studying architecture in Barcelona, there was an opportunity to apply for a scholarship offered by the Illinois Institute of Technology. I was interested in a change, in trying something new, and a year in Chicago sounded fantastic. I have to admit that I did not know a great deal about the city apart from the architecture that I had studied in school designed by architects such as Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Bruce Graham and Bertrand Goldberg … and Michael Jordan. In case you didn’t notice, the most current thing that I knew about Chicago on that list was Michael Jordan, with most of the architecture referring to buildings from before the 50s, 60s and 70s of the last century.

That year in Chicago was fantastic. It was a year that showed me that Chicago was a city full of opportunities with a rich urban and architectural history. After a brief stint back in Barcelona to receive my architecture license, I decided that Chicago was really the place where I wanted to try to do all the things I wanted to do professionally. It was, after all, that city full of opportunities.

Fast forward to 2011. It has been 6 years since I moved back here and that thought remains the same: Chicago is a city full of opportunities. I actually thought that by now I would be saying that Chicago is a place where great things are already happening, where those opportunities actually translate into great actions that change the way we think and behave. Where the most relevant thinkers, artists and designers come to show and discuss their best work, their most innovative ideas. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that this is yet the case. Obviously, there are fantastic people in Chicago that are active in the design community who are pushing to establish the same city I am envisioning. There are also recent signs to believe that the city is starting to move in that direction. Earlier this year, the Architecture and Design Film Festival was successfully hosted in Chicago for the first time and this fall, we will have the first ever Chicago Ideas Week. Those are fantastic efforts, but when you talk to people beyond our city limits, they are still not aware of most of these things. They are paying attention to what other cities are doing, primarily located on the east and west coasts, or other international cities.

I think the difference is that while in Chicago we have design and designers, we, as a general public, do not have a culture of design. We need to create a culture of design in Chicago. And it is difficult to achieve that if we don’t have cutting-edge international festivals, if we do not have design bookstores, if we do not have design publishers, and if we have limited arenas in which to discuss critical design issues. New York is a city with design events happening continuously, overlapping, competing and, in the end, benefiting tremendously from each other. And so is Barcelona, or London. Even Rotterdam, an industrial city of 600,000 people, became THE architectural reference internationally during the 90s with leading architecture offices (OMA, MVRDV, West 8…), institutions (NAi), events (International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam) and design publishers (010). If other cities, many of them smaller and with fewer resources than Chicago, can achieve this, why can’t we?

As I said before, there are a lot of great people already doing fantastic things in Chicago. If there is the desire to do it, the rest is sure to follow. I grew up in Bilbao and I saw what can be done if there is the desire (and it that case, the need) to change. From a hopeless city to a thriving one in 25 years. And Bilbao’s metropolitan population is nine times smaller than Chicago. If you haven’t noticed it yet, Chicago has immense economic resources (some public, mostly private) as was demonstrated by the money that was raised to compete for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Maybe what we need is a defined design goal to chase. If what we need is a goal and a deadline, why not try to be the World Design Capital? It will show to the world that Chicago wants to lead and not to follow. Later this Fall, the World Design Capital for 2014 will be decided (for which Bilbao is one of three finalists). Shouldn’t it be great to go after that honor in 2016 to fill the Olympic void? If all we need was an excuse, now we have it.

It doesn’t seem to me that Chicago is a city that shies away from any type of challenge. It has been demonstrated many times before, but not in design in the last decades. For God’s sake, we even reversed the flow of the river! So this is the challenge that I am proposing. Can Chicago become the World Design Capital? Can we do it in 5 years? Can we set a defined goal that can help support, fund, and broadcast the best ideas and projects? It is ambitious, but so is the character of this city. It is also a goal that I am completely confident Chicago can aim for successfully. It is about time we become an international reference in the design world. Wouldn’t it be great to hear in another city that what is happening in Chicago is pushing the design disciplines? And more important, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have all these events and debates in your city? I believe you also think so.

Type: Publication
Editors: Ed and Rachael Marszewski
Publisher: Public Media Institute
Size: 28 x 20 cm.
Pages: 160
Year: 2012
Status: Published


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