Photography: Carl Bower

Amanda Williams is a Chicago-based artist who explores cultural identity and the politics of race and urban space through her collaborative projects, public installations, painting, and photography. A native Chicagoan who teaches architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Williams says that while personal experiences are often our foundation for design, the ritual nature of how we move between work and home limit our possibilities for full engagement with the city.

It’s difficult for me to not think of architecture and other art forms as equal partners. They require equal investment as categories of making. Growing up, I went to school in one part of town and lived in another—and to constantly operate in different worlds is an important part of who I am. You have to, in architecture, have a rationale for what you’re doing—no matter the client or community or critic. Other art forms don’t always demand that level of justification. I don’t know if it’s generational, I don’t know if that’s just me, but in architecture what you’re doing has to mean something. Even the more conceptual work I’m doing now, which is not “functional” in the traditional sense, still has to have a sense of purpose. That, to me, represents integrity.

The project that got the attention of the biennial committee was a series of abandoned houses I painted in Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago. It was initially an internally rooted question about my own contextual approach to architecture, but has evolved into a larger, more public provocation about neighborhood and audience. That was my struggle, merging the two. My attitude was: Let’s take a zero-value landscape that has become invisible in plain sight, and let’s test out the relevance of architecture as an object that is isolated through abandonment yet integral to its context.

The goal for my contribution to the biennial is two-pronged, and it deals with a desire to tell all sides of the story-to make sure all Chicagoans understand that they should take ownership of the condition of the entire city. The audiences for the biennial are the residents of Englewood as much as visitors from Berlin. I’m trying to get people to move around as if they were actively exploring their own cities, but at the same time make it clear that engagement is reciprocal and not an anthropological tour of “the hood,” so to speak. And the question I’m asking is: What actions bring value to certain landscapes?

Amanda Williams is one of more than 60 official participants in the Chicago Architecture Biennial (Oct. 3, 2015–Jan. 3, 2016), sponsored in part by the AIA.