The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community centre in Chicago, was once a dilapidated building lying in ruins. But that was before architect Theaster Gates stepped in. The structure was headed for demolition in 2013 when Gates convinced the mayor to sell it to him for a mere $1. The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, agreed and Gates got to work transforming the space. When it reopened in October 2015, it was a sight to behold. Using money (around $3.7 million) he raised from selling the bank’s original marble, Gates revamped the whole place, turning it into a world-class gallery and community centre. Transforming such ruins into places of artistic beauty is what drives him, the Chicago-based architect and installation artist says. “I’ve always believed the buildings that I restore, they already have stories that people don’t know about. In some ways, my work amplifies these stories,” Gates, who was in New Delhi for a talk, tells FE.
Gates addresses issues like urban planning through his work, deftly combining architecture with art. “A lot of my inspiration comes from just wanting to solve a problem. I am always looking for problems around me,” he says, adding, “When there was no Uber in my neighbourhood, I would think of starting taxis as an art project. How could we make them look better?” The architect is renowned for sculptures and artworks made using discarded materials, particularly from African-American factories in southern Chicago, which are no longer in use.
In 2009, he started Rebuild Foundation, an organisation that undertakes transformation of vacant buildings and spaces, in Chicago. “Till now, we have worked on 30 vacant buildings in and around my neighbourhood in Dorchester, Chicago. We want to work for the working-class people because they are the ones who need it most,” he says. For Gates, it’s “problem first, aesthetics second, solution third.”
On being asked if he would be interested in picking up a restoration project in the national capital, Gates says he is not much interested in the restoration of historical monuments, as everyone is doing that. “I am more concerned with working on objects and spaces that are of everyday use for common people. If their lives can’t be made better, who will appreciate the monuments? I am interested in working with the e-rickshaws that I saw here,” he says.