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Who Builds Your Architecture?

I recently attended a lunchtime tour where we discussed the special exhibition Who Builds Your Architecture?, an installation that presents research related to migrant workers and the global construction industry. It is part of a series through the museum’s Architecture and Design department that enlists architects and designers—in this case, a New York-based group also called Who Builds Your Architecture?—to organize exhibitions that investigate critical issues within their practices.

The tour I attended, called Intersections, focused on the visibility (and invisibility) of labor, and as we discussed important topics like the exploitation of labor that goes into constructing some of our most beloved buildings and spaces, a fellow visitor asked: why is the Art Institute of Chicago talking about this today?

I'm not sure anyone on the tour responded to the question directly, as it was asked with only a short amount of time remaining, but it got me thinking. It’s a complicated question with answers that are connected to the world beyond the walls of the museum, but foremost, the purpose of the Intersections program is to act as a catalyst for conversations about urgent social issues and current events. As people today are challenging themselves to learn the complex realities of our everyday world, the program makes the Art Institute a space not only to display art and history, but it also turns the museum into a platform in which people can connect and relate their own experience to what they encounter within it.

One visitor, who had an architect in their family, first thought the exhibition was too onerous for architects, but eventually recognized that it showed just how complex the practice of architecture is. Another visitor felt concern that packing away works that express outdated or antiquated ideas according to contemporary eyes could take away the opportunity for a broader conversation.

The question brought up a lot more questions than answers. And I imagine I was among others who didn't have a chance to fully clarify my thoughts in the short amount of time we had left. As a fellow visitor, I'll try my best to articulate my personal response here.

I think it's important to realize that whether the museum chooses to ask questions like the one this exhibition does, people are already wondering about these sort of things. As a person of color who visits museums, I often wonder: who were the invisible hands that made iconic works possible? Whose lives have been erased by time? I think about this with regard to contemporary works as well as classical, architecture as well as sculpture and paintings. The ecosystems around art making are so big and far reaching. So many people are involved in creating materials, from harvesting the plants and minerals used in paint to farming the cotton to create canvas to rearing and trimming the hair off animals for the paint brushes to whittling wood down to a brush handle. Who were these people? What were their lives like? What were their struggles? What brought them joy?

The labor issues that Who Builds Your Architecture? sheds light on aren't unique to architecture. Indeed, they're reflective of a systemic problem: the exploitation of workers in an increasingly globalized world. Similar critiques can be made of mobile devices, jewelry, agriculture, toys, clothes, and a number of other things we use every day. As people who use and appreciate buildings, arguably "consumers" of buildings, I believe we have a responsibility to know the conditions in which things were made. Consumers in the U.S. have a long history of demanding just working conditions for the people who produce the things we use, from efforts to end child labor in the early 1900s to the movement against sweatshop labor in the 1980s.

I appreciate the opportunity to think about this aspect of the creative process. As both a museum employee and an engaged visitor, these are important questions that are central to my experience with art. And I don’t think I’m alone.