AIA convention Chicago
Photo © Architectural Record
Theaster Gates addresses the crowd at the 2014 AIA Convention in Chicago.

The internationally-acclaimed artist, potter, educator and breaker of rules, Theaster Gates, addressed the 2014 AIA Convention in Chicago today and argued that his role, as well as that of artists and design professionals, is to push the envelope.

“I don’t feel constrained by being trained as a planner,” Gates said. “As a result I’ve been breaking a lot of rules. In some ways, I know that my amateur tactics don’t seem to be transformative at a city level, but architects, designers and planners can make the baby steps that lead to policy changes.”

As a case study, Gates outlined one of his projects: Black Cinema House, a two-flat rescued by Gates at 69th Street and Dorchester on Chicago’s South Side. It is now a theater hosting "screenings and discussions of films by and about people of the African diaspora, and offers video classes to neighborhood youth, teaching the next generation to make their own films and tell their own stories," according to the website. “As the seasons of economic downturns were happening, I was able to acquire it very affordably,” Gates said. “It had been, not only an eyesore, but also an emotional sore in a neighborhood where wonderful people were living their lives and doing wonderful things.”

Once acquired, however, Gates had a problem: no money to rehab it. So he pitched officials associated with a regular arts festival in Kassel, Germany, to fund the removal of the guts of the two-flat. Then he reinstalled them in a historic, but deteriorating building in Kassel.

“In some ways, Kassel has the same problems that neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago have,” Gates said. Gates used materials he described as, “lathe,” “cheap drywall,” and “pissy carpet” to create the installation abroad. He treated the materials as he would a brush or clay. “There is a way in which I was imagining architectural practice not as a practice in itself, but also art,” Gates said. “Architecture was a raw material and that idea would allow me to deploy architecture as I would a brush.” And back in Chicago, Gates was able to transform the two-flat into Black Cinema House.

“The building has been an amazing asset to the South Side and has attracted people to a two-flat, from all around the world, to watch movies,” Gates said. “And it’s really cool.” Today, cities need this kind of pushback from artists and design professionals, he argued.

“The biggest part about artistic practice is that artists have been given permission to do things outside of the rules,” Gates said. “If there is an existing housing policy or zoning codes, then I’m more likely to fight longer to see if those things can be stretched.”