Q+A> Marshall Brown
Josannah Terry speculates about the future of Chicago with the theorist and IIT professor.
Center of the World, Chicago.
Courtesy Marshall Brown Projects

When it comes to imagining the future of Chicago, Marshall Brown reaches skyscraping heights. In his “Center of the World” project, Brown, an assistant professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), speculates on scenarios that could revolutionize Chicago. Writer Josannah Terry talked with Brown in his South Side studio. The charmingly unfinished storefront houses both his practice, Marshall Brown Projects, and New Projects, a research and exhibition venue that he co-founded. Brown explores limitless possibilities for his beloved Midwestern metropolis, including a vision of Chicago as the Holy City of Oprah.

You recently presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s “Visionary Cities: Urban and Architectural Futures” conference. Your contribution to the panel was called “Center of the World.” That is quite a bold title. What center are you referring to?

The project is a scenario plan for the redevelopment of the Circle Interchange. The premise of the project is to reimagine the center of Chicago as the center of the world.

Marshall Brown.

What recent events would you consider landmarks in Chicago’s history that have elevated its international renown?

The big one is the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, so that’s drawn a lot more international attention to the city. There was one when I arrived here four years ago: the centennial of the Burnham Plan. It was kind of an interesting moment in Chicago’s history that had us thinking again about Chicago as the great metropolis of the Midwest.

What does the Burnham Plan mean to you?

I think the most interesting thing about the Burnham Plan, or Daniel Burnham’s work on Chicago, is—and this gets back to the visionary cities idea: The plan is not so much a technical document as it is a fictional vision for the future of Chicago, one which, in many ways, is a story of the future of Chicago. And one that’s managed to hold our imagination for more that 100 years, which is a pretty amazing thing for any story.

Based on how you see Chicago on the global landscape, what are a couple of the scenarios that could move Chicago forward on the path to city domination, to claim the coveted title of “Center of the World”?

I don’t know about domination. The title is a bit tongue in cheek, but we do have these things that we call world trade centers, around the world, and each one has kind of imagined itself in its own way to be the center of the world. That being said, I am working on three scenarios, and they are all projections of the future. They all look fifty or more years down the road. One of them is political, one is economic, and the third one is cultural.

So one of the scenarios imagines a future in which Washington, DC, is no longer sustainable in its current location, and the nation’s capital has to find a new home, and it lands in Chicago.

The second is the emergence of a new stock exchange, but a stock exchange based not on capitalist enterprises, but based on more socially oriented enterprises. So it looks simultaneously at the current crisis in capital markets and at the rise of things like social entrepreneurship.

And the third one is a cultural scenario, which looks at the emergence of a holy city around the Circle Interchange.

Center of the World, Chicago.

Let me follow up on that last one; where did the idea of the “holy city” come from in your creative process?

That’s a hard question to answer. Holy cities are these very powerful urban entities that exist in different parts of the world, like Mecca or Vatican City, etc., and so it seemed interesting to imagine the creation of a new one at some point in the future. The question is, what would be the kind of spirituality or religion that would produce that?

And so I had this idea about a holy city, and then I had this entirely separate idea of Oprah Winfrey returning to Chicago to rebuild her media empire. Putting these two things together, I created this narrative, which is about a holy city for Oprah, around the Circle Interchange, which is actually quite close to her Harpo Studios, which is just north of the site.

The story is less about Oprah than it is about the idea of an urbanism based around that kind of spiritually-based power and what it would mean to do that again. If something like that were to emerge, what would it be like? What would it be composed of? And, how would it come to pass? In all of these projects, I am always trying to imagine the world in which certain kinds of architecture or urbanism can exist rather than the other way around, which is typically how we do it.

We imagine some kind of architecture or urbanism, which we, as architects, think could be interesting or important, without being able to project the kinds of forces that would make it come to fruition. I’m flipping this process on its head. I’m trying to imagine a certain kind of world of the future, and that future actually generates the architecture or the urban composition.

What compelled you to make the Circle Interchange, known more for road rage than creative inspiration, the focal point within the Chicago of your “Center of the World” project?

That goes back to the Burnham thing. The centerpiece of Burnham’s plan for Chicago was a civic center. This civic center was obviously never built, but it was to be at the intersection of Congress and Halsted, exactly where the Circle Interchange is now. I came up with this idea shortly after I arrived in Chicago, and it was interesting for me to revisit that project.

Now, Chicago already has its own civic center, so the question for me was, if it is not going to be a civic center, what would it be? And, then, what kind of programs or forces could be powerful enough to actually produce the kind of dramatic change that would be necessary to actually transform that site? Because it’s not going to be easy, so it’s going to take an incredible amount of political influence, capital, and aggregation of resources to urbanize that site and transform it from what it is today. Hence, to imagine it as the center of the world, something really powerful would have to happen there. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist and economist, talks about the idea of a “spatial moment of power.” There are certain places in the world like the World Trade Center or sites like this that are spatial moments of power, places where power takes actual physical and spatial form.

If “little” things like power and capital did not factor into the paradigm, what is the most architecturally significant idea that you have to transform the Circle Interchange?

That’s a tough one, because the way I set up the project is a scenario-planning exercise, so it’s not so much about a single idea or even a single architectural proposal. So, actually, I have three different proposals that multiply out into nine, currently. It’s not about achieving a single architectural idea. It’s about generating, actually, a field of ideas which expand the possibilities for how different people or different constituents might imagine the future of that place as something different than what it is now. There is not so much a desired future, but a range of plausible futures that might allow different groups to imagine it in different ways.

Your work and education have taken you to many world-class cities. What is it about Chicago’s architectural landscape that has motivated you to live, work, and teach here?

As far as I’m concerned, Chicago is clearly the capital of American architecture. There is more significant architecture per square foot here in Chicago than there is in either New York or L.A. or any other place. So that’s, of course, really attractive. But, also, there is a great fan base for architecture here as well. I feel like your average Chicagoan can name at least three architects, which is probably at least three more than most people in most other cities.

In January 2012, you partnered with Stephanie Smith, deputy director and chief curator at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, to create New Projects. What was the initial goal of this endeavor?

Stephanie and I have a lot of overlapping interests, even though she is in the art world, and I’m in the architectural world. What we’re trying to do with New Projects is research a few questions. One is: What are the emerging visions for the American city in the world of art, architecture, design, and all the related fields? And, also, what are the emerging practices that are occurring around all that? So we are using this space as research space to do the research ourselves, but also inviting people in who we think are doing that kind of work.

How is your plan for New Projects as a center for research on the future of cities taking shape in your first year?

We’ve run these small events that we call lyceums, which are conversations with practitioners of various kinds. So the first one we did was with Aaron Jones, a young architect from Detroit. It was called “Fun City.” We also did a mini exhibition, so those were the early projects.

Last fall, which we claim as sort of the first New Projects project, Stephanie and I did a project for the Chicago Humanities Festival titled “Minority Reports on the American City of the Future,” where we actually commissioned several histories of the future from several different artists, architects, creative thinkers, activists, etc. Basically asking them to speculate on the future of the place where they live or practice. That was an interesting project that produced some interesting products.

We are actually hosting an event with Iker Gil and MAS Context—he’s a local architect and writer and he has an annual event called Analog, which is an all-day symposium on design and architecture, and we are going to be hosting that here. So those are some of the things that we have done so far. Mostly it’s about sharing ideas, but, also, in some cases, it’s about a platform for people to produce new work.

If your architecture students at IIT were to walk away from your instruction with a sole takeaway, what do you hope it would be?

One of the ideas that I hold consistently for myself and for my own practice, but also try to communicate to the students, is that I truly believe, and I try to help them understand, that architecture is a cultural practice. It’s a discursive practice that sometimes, if we’re lucky, results in building. Exploring the implications of what that means is really important for me.

Josannah Terry