Curator. Editor. Event host. Oh, and architect. Iker Gil, 35, inhabits a variety of roles. “Cut. Join. Play.,” his winning entry in the 2010 Chicago Street Furniture competition, was featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale last summer. And “Inside Marina City,” an exhibition that he collaborated on with the photographer Andreas E.G. Larsson, and that showcased Bertrand Goldberg’s landmark Chicago towers, was mounted in October at Los Angeles’s WUHO Gallery, after premiering at the Art Institute of Chicago.
There’s a weighty subtext underpinning his various projects: enlivening the urbanist discourse in Chicago. Drawing on lessons from his native Bilbao—planning and transportation initiatives helped spark that city’s transformation before Gehry’s arrival, he emphasizes—Gil has ambitious dreams for Chicago. Architect sent Zoë Ryan, the chair and John H. Bryan curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago, to learn more about what motivates this emerging voice in the Midwest.
Ryan: Let’s start by listing all the things you do: MAS Studio, MAS Context [a quarterly journal], and MAS Context: Analog, which are day-long events. You do exhibitions, competitions. How do you see all of these coming together in this hybrid practice that you’ve defined for yourself?
Gil: Basically the practice is divided into two different areas. MAS Studio is closer to what a traditional office is. We look at opportunities of different scales and we provide solutions. We team up with other people and see what we can add to the story. MAS Context is the other side of the same practice; that is a platform for others to talk about different issues. When I got out of traditional big practice, I felt it was critical to start my own office with both sides. One side is providing my ideas and the other one is facilitating the discussion with people who are looking at similar ideas.
So after you graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, you worked at Skidmore Owings & Merrill?
I worked for two and a half years at SOM. And even then I was really interested in engaging in a wider conversation. I organized an exhibition at the Illinois Institute of Technology about Carlos Ferrater, who is a fairly well-known architect based in Barcelona. He had never exhibited in the U.S., so it was an idea of featuring someone who is known and has solid work in Europe, but has never transcended Europe. So it was an opportunity to bring him here and explain some of his ideas, to start a dialogue.
At the same time, I was working on a book about the transformation of Shanghai [Shanghai Transforming], but removing the idea of the building itself, and trying to understand why that transformation was happening. I was trying to provide a fairly comprehensive view organized around four topics: social, economic, environmental, and physical. And then I left SOM in the fall of 2008, and that’s when I decided to go on my own.
Do you think that this hybrid practice was a reaction to contemporary time in any way? Not just because it’s difficult for architects to get work, given the economy. But also, is there something different about the role of architects today that has challenged you to think differently about the practice?
I was always interested in having this dialogue, even when the economy was good. So, for me, it really doesn’t have much to do with the economic crisis.
Do you think it’s about architecture having agency for change? I feel that right now we have to be so much more socially conscious. It isn’t just about this very top tier of people, but we need to think about all stratas of society.
That’s definitely a problem. The knowledge, the discussions in architecture—most of the time what happens in academia just stays there. So even though there are great ideas, great thinking, it doesn’t transcend to any other level of society. So what we’re seeing is that architecture is getting smaller in its importance, because the policymakers and politicians in the city, they are so removed from the architecture practice. There has to be a way that those ideas are brought to the table in front of those people. And I think it’s either that the decision makers don’t want to be involved or that they don’t really understand what architects do, apart from designing fancy buildings that twist. We could be looking at public housing: Why can’t we make it better? Transportation: Why does it suck? It’s not reliable. It’s bad. So why can’t we rethink why that is?
MAS Context has dealt with everything from conflict to social issues and economics. How do you choose topics? If you look at some of your own work, for example, “Cut. Join. Play.,” or some of the projects that are about public space, how do those issues move back and forth between your own work and the journal?
In “Cut. Join. Play.,” for example, there’s an aspect of ownership. Who owns that public space? Not only who holds the title to that space, but who should take ownership? Who should be using this space? And that then translates into the topic of ownership, the idea about who owns ideas. We talked to Jeanne Gang because she was doing a project for MoMA’s [“Foreclosed”] exhibit that was looking at [a Chicago suburb called] Cicero and the idea of who owns the land and reusing the [old factories there]. So we actually organized a MAS Analog event with Jeanne based on her project, but not just talking about her project, but the ideas behind it.
How have you found it to be approaching people as an architect rather than as an editor or a curator?
I think because MAS Context is the most public face, people tend to relate to me more as an editor. And they sometimes put me in these categories like journalist. I still consider myself an architect. I’m training as an architect. I did my license as an architect, my master’s in architecture, and I’m doing my Ph.D. in architecture.
What are your hopes for future projects?
A lot of the work that has been done, it was more of an investment in showing that we can think about the city in other ways, that we don’t have to have more resources to change how we understand the city. Architects here are not even addressing public housing. When you go to Spain, Thom Mayne did public housing, [Netherlands-based] MVRDV did public housing. And you see how much money they use, it’s so small. Why can’t we do this? So I think part of my work that I’m interested in is pushing ideas like that forward. I think now is a moment to begin to be more ambitious as architects. We need to lead and also to engage other people. So that’s where I am now.