Renovation as art

Few outside the world of contemporary art will have heard of Theaster Gates but this Chicago native has managed to fuse together art and building renovation.

Included in the Art Review’s ‘Power 100’ list of most influential artists of 2013, Gates’ has made a name for himself as a socially aware artist-cum-property developer. The roofer’s son has made it his mission to leverage his artistic influence in order to regenerate one of the most deprived and violent areas of the US – Chicago’s Southside.

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates

Money from artworks created from bits of salvaged hose pipes, floorboards and other objects (often fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars) are reinvested into the renovation of dilapidated buildings for the neighbourhood’s benefit. As Gates said in an article last year, “I feel like the work that I do is ‘neighborhood.'”

The ‘Dorchester Projects’ consist of three abandoned properties that have been turned into African-American cultural venues: Black Cinema House; Listening House, whose walls are lined with old soul records unsold stock; Archive House, filled with books and magazines from an old local library.

Black Cinema House, Dorchester Avenue

Black Cinema House, Dorchester Avenue

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 as part of its ‘Zeitgeisters‘ series, Gates sums up the project:

“The houses are functioning as cultural institutions, high acts of sculpture, the creation of temporary monuments and potentially instigators in the transformation of policy around how buildings work…One way of re-imagining the city – re-purposing, re-tooling the city.”

Not only that, but their renovation provides jobs and skills for locals. The Dorchester Projects, then, bind together notions of art, community and the built environment.

Archive House

Archive House

That Gates views buildings and the act of renovating them as art, is hardly surprising given that he is a qualified urban planner, who lectures at the University of Chicago. It is perhaps this pedigree that has enabled Gates to get the City of Chicago to embrace his brand of urban rejuvenation through culture and the arts.

Gates is clearly no outsider – he is part of the academic and arts establishment, but he brings an artist’s eye and passion to the renovation of old buildings and the regeneration of old places. It is an artistic sensibility and appreciation of old buildings as beautiful objects in their own right, which is perhaps too often lost in planning offices, architectural studios, and building sites.

Listen to the Zeitgeisters interview.

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