Contract Design Forum 2016

January 31st, 2017 |

“Many a false step was made by standing still.” – Tim Ferriss

(Photo above: view from Contract Design Forum’s opening reception held at MCASD La Jolla, by Beth Weaver and courtesy of Contract Magazine.)

I was recently invited to be on Contract Magazine’s editorial advisory board, and I reluctantly accepted: as an architect what insight could I offer a commercial interior design magazine? How much will I be able to contribute? I was quickly enlightened with my first Design Forum.

Keynote speaker Evelyn Lee used this Tim Ferriss quote in her address and I have adopted it here as the underlying unofficial theme of the 2016 Contract Magazine Design Forum. The forum was held on the beautiful grounds of the L’Auberge Del Mar in November. It also happened to be the week of the presidential election, and everyone was still shocked from confusion and disbelief. What does this mean to our respective professions? The answer came swiftly, as we banded together to figure out how to make a difference and keep this country moving forward.

We were brought to tears as the opening keynote speaker, Theaster Gates, a Chicago artist, community catalyst, and entrepreneur, gave an emotionally stirring presentation to the group. He found this audience to be more than receptive—we wouldn’t let him stop. Later, he could barely take a bite of his lunch, as we peppered him with questions, which I’m certain is a common occurrence whenever he gives a talk. What was it that we were so captivated by?

Keynote speaker Theaster Gates, photo by Beth Weaver and courtesy of Contract Magazine.


Keynote speaker Theaster Gates, photo by Beth Weaver and courtesy of Contract Magazine.

When someone asked, “What do you find more satisfying, your art, or rehabilitating an entire neighborhood with your projects?” he responded, “The art is a source of immediate satisfaction, while the projects take a long time and feel like foreplay.” Gates is a master of timing, humor, sophistication and personal connection, remarkable for someone who is a self-professed “hood rat” and “hustler.” He once sold marble “bricks” from a rehabilitated bank building as “art bonds,” saying that “they will appreciate as time passes.” They were inscribed “In ART we Trust” and sold for $5,000 each. He sold a hundred bonds to help finance the project.

He will be the first person to tell you he is not an angel, rather a very good businessman. For a project to be truly successful cities, neighborhoods, and tenants have to have “skin in the game”. It has to be the result of personal philanthropic entrepreneurship. He makes no excuses about lack of opportunity based on the color of one’s skin or ethnicity. He told the story of being criticized by some “brothers” who didn’t like the fact that he hired hispanic valet parkers at an event he was hosting. He told his critics, “I would’ve hired you guys if you wore cool vests and hustled after cars like these guys.”

He calls his work “social practice art.” Quite simply, he creates community by bringing people together. Almost selfishly, he will rehabilitate an old building to put a bar in because he wants a local place to drink. He will save an old building from the wrecking ball and turn it into a community gathering space with performances, events, and gatherings because he just liked the building and had friends who needed space.


Stony Island Arts Bank after renovation, photo © Hedrich Blessing and courtesy of Rebuild Foundation on Colossal.

His projects are beautifu. They have an understated rawness to them that draws from the vernacular and elevates it to simple sophistication. Think Samuel Mockbee but in an urban context, his work moves the social needle closer towards equity and inclusion. According to Gates, “Catalyst projects don’t need to live forever. They transform, transfer ownership, evolve to the next level.”

At lunch that day, I had the good fortune of dining with Gates. I asked him, “How can we get more involved in social justice architecture in our own communities?” He said, “Go out and meet the artists, they hold the key to change!” Then he asked where I was from. “Oakland,” I responded, and he gave me a name.… Of course he did, he knows everybody.

We are often consumed by our projects and making payroll, we can’t help it. But sometimes an event like this allows us the luxury of time to reflect on the bigger picture. After leaving the Design Forum, I felt that maybe there is a silver lining to the election results. I don’t think there would’ve been the same sense of urgency to gather and rally around a common cause if Hillary were elected. Our work can do more than just provide beautifully designed shelter and spaces for our clients and tenants, it can make a difference. We should all look for opportunities to affect change locally, giving back to our communities in the process.

Posted In: Architecture, Blog


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