The studio of Marshall Brown is located on the South Side of Chicago in the Overton Hygienic Building, built in 1922. One of Chicago’s many early-20th-century brick and terra-cotta modest masterpieces, it has survived the tides of development and disinvestment that have washed over this part of the city. It was a hub for African-American businesses in one of the pre–Civil Rights era’s great black metropoles: the neighborhood of Bronzeville. On the second floor, Walter Bailey, Chicago’s first black architect, had his own studio.
The studio of Marshall Brown Projects, also located on the second floor, is spacious and raw. The presence of history is there, but it’s not pristine or reverent. The same can be said for Brown’s exhibit for the second Chicago Architecture Biennial—“The Architecture of Creative Miscegenation”— about images that shape our expectations of how architecture is created.
“Even in a highly customized work of architecture, 99 percent of what we use as architects comes off a shelf,” Brown says. “The work of an architect is about taking the found and assembling it in a new way.” Making this process explicit is the goal of a series of large-scale collages, and a set of smaller ones he calls “Chimeras,” after the mythical beasts that are part lion, part goat, and part dragon or snake.
Each Chimera has a cool, aloof, abstract image with references to its context, scale, or source. Taken together, Brown’s Chimeras possess an intentional logic for why he chose them. One consists of a wedge of clerestory windows parked next to canted concrete, topped by triangular refractions of blue skies and clouds that appear as architectural elements unto themselves. It almost looks buildable—a new creation, formed from shards of the past, that could exist for some functional purpose.
As for the larger-scale collages, one combines the Lloyds of London building in London designed by Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris designed by Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, and Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., in a meditation on the role of institutional and religious architecture. Another mashes up canonical buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, two distinct and hefty branches departing the same trunk of Modernism.
Reading buildings in the most publicly explicable sense—as formal objects surrounded by clear formal precedents—is something of a cursed language within the practice. Despite the potential to communicate a vision to the public, architects prefer that each idea is translated directly from their own swirling unconscious onto a visionary napkin sketch. But evidence of the former process is everywhere.
In Chicago, to Brown’s eyes, the celebrated Aqua Tower from Jeanne Gang, FAIA, is a synthesis of Mies’ glass-and-steel precision with Bertrand Goldberg’s proto-biomorphic Marina City. Zaha Hadid was a visionary who applied the ideals and forms of Soviet Constructivism to her own desire to innovate. “Most architects are loath to call out their references explicitly,” Brown says. “but architecture that we value tends to carry heavy references to other architecture.”
“ ‘Audacity’ is a really good word to describe Marshall,” says Laura Miller, an architecture professor at the University of Toronto who has known him for 20 years, first teaching him as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, then as a graduate student at Harvard University. “He’s able to ask those questions that are, in a way, uncomfortable.”
Miller first recognized Brown’s potential to disrupt assumed notions during a studio at which she asked students to find or assemble three artifacts that could be considered as “material evidence” culled from the city, and then build a container for them—addressing notions of curation and context, and staking out a position, through architectural construction, that framed questions about their reading of the city.
Instead, Brown “made himself the artifact,” she says, creating and affixing objects including a cast-plaster weight and shackles to his body, making broad critiques of race and agency. He “became a character in his own series of interrogations into what the urban realm was, [and] what his role was or should be.”
As part of the U.S. pavilion design team at the 2016 Venice Biennale, Brown was asking the same sorts of meta-disciplinary questions that defined “The Architectural Imagination” that served Detroit’s identity while suggesting broader applications in other cities. And despite his presence in a Chicago biennial committed to a vision of design as a tool for remedying inequity, Brown has a moderate stance on architecture’s social utility. “Architecture is immersed in social conditions,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily produce them.”
For a designer who rejects the “napkin-sketch auteur” vision of practice, Brown still creates a lot of work by hand. He embraces seams and the imperfections that come with paper and an X-Acto knife. Unlike Photoshop, “There is no ‘Undo’ [button]. There’s no ‘Ctrl-Z,’ ” he says.
His Chimeras are made by hand, using images of only three buildings each. It’s a breezy, informal process. “It’s more like a card game,” Brown says. “I’m rifling through the magazines, and whatever comes up in the deck, I try to figure out how to play it.”
It’s a playful approach, but Brown sees it as a continuation of Mies’ and the Bauhaus’ own experiments with collage. Though he seldom saw architecture as anything close to a card game, Mies’ collages do share with Brown’s Chimeras a richness of expression achieved through a minimal number of elements, like his rendering of a new Chicago convention center in swirling green marble, a honeycomb network of ceiling trusses, and a sepia-toned sea of conventioneers cut from newspaper photos.
Brown’s collages are distillations of Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic directors Sharon Johnston, FAIA, and Mark Lee’s vision for the event’s theme: “Make New History.” It’s not about any wholesale re-evaluation of the postmodernist tradition, or a reverent look at Craftsman-style homes. The new history Johnston and Lee are looking for—and have found with Brown—is a more freehand alchemical look at dead ends, orphans, and moral victories that become doomed experiments. Brown isn’t trying to make buildings more like collages. He’s trying to get us to acknowledge that buildings are collages, and that the future of “making new history” comes from reassembling the pieces of the old.