Interview with Marshall Brown
WASH: Firstly, we would like to know, whose literary work has influenced your work the most?
Marshall Brown: The painter Gerhard Richter, a really famous German painter, wrote this book that I think is a great book for any creative practitioner to read. It’s basically a collection of his writings from earlier in his career I think, until the late 80’s or 90’s or something. It’s called The Daily Practice of Painting. It’s a really fantastic book. I read that I think for the first time when I was in graduate school, and it influenced me a lot. The writings of Henri Lefebvre. I quoted him at the beginning of the movie. There’s a great collection of his writings on cities. Speaking of French philosophy, a particular essay by Derrida called Differance, where he’s talking about this word: difference (but spelled with an “a” in French). It’s a written version of a lecture that he gave. You have to imagine he’s giving this lecture about the difference between “difference” and “difference”, so about the two different spellings of this word, and how the silent “a” in there exposes something about language, philosophy and meaning, the problems of written language versus spoken language, and how that silence between the two spellings of the word becomes a space. It’s an essay you can read one hundred times but still it’s so difficult, it’s like poetry. I’ve read the Plan of Chicago several times now. I never imagined that that book would become so influential for me, but I think that’s an important book. Everyone talks about the Plan of Chicago but nobody actually reads the whole thing, but if you read the whole thing it’s really interesting.
Is it still the official plan of Chicago?
Actually it was never the official plan of Chicago. It was created by a private group of businessmen, so it was never officially adopted by the city. What’s interesting is that (Daniel) Burnham died three years after it was published, so he never got to see any of it happen. But it still became part of the mythology of the city, and so people always talk about it. Anything relating to development and planning of the city of Chicago, people are always evoking Burnham, so it’s just part of the culture of the city. So, in many ways it never had to be official, because everyone knows it and thinks about it. But I’m not a Beaux Arts architect by any means, and I don’t necessarily agree with the way that Burnham thought about cities. But it’s such an amazing master work of architecture, and for an architect to take on so much responsibility creating such a comprehensive vision, is an amazing thing to see. The drawings are beautiful too, and it’s just a beautiful document. Princeton Architectural Press, back in the 90’s, reissued the original publication. That’s influenced me a lot since I moved to Chicago. When I was in school I did my master’s thesis about three books: The New Vision by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (one of the first Bauhaus books that basically describes the curriculum of the Bauhaus); Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. I was reading them all against each other, and they were all three books that kind of set up the parameters for my practice. So, I was thinking about how this kind of writing creates this space for practice and the possibility for architectural works.
Do you also use writing as a tool?
I do, I mean, I’ve published some stuff. I’ve written some pieces about practice. I wrote a piece about the metropolis for the Obama Presidential Library a few years ago. I write papers for some academic journals. I write about my own work.
So, did you ever write your own Manifesto?
Like a comprehensive one? I think the closest thing to it, is probably what you heard about at the end of the lecture this evening. I’m still getting there I think. Most of the writing I’ve done so far has been sort of situational. There’s this thing—this one piece that I’m writing about. What I often tend to do, is I make work and then I write about it; whereas some people write out a theory, and then they make the work to kind of prove their theory. I tend to make the work and then write about the work, what the work says, and then talk about it. Although not strictly, I also write while I’m designing, so writing is part of the design process. If you look in my so-called sketchbook, there’s no sketches in there, it’s all just notes.
Obviously, a lot of your work is visual, so we would imagine that a lot of your design process is mainly graphically based rather than writing based?
There’s both. I also write fictions, that’s actually the new thing. I’m writing these stories about the future. I’ve been doing a lot of that. That’s really fun and it’s opened up a lot of possibilities. I started that about six years ago, writing these fictions, because I was trying to figure out and project myself especially about these urban projects that always exist thirty years in the future or something like that. But the future is full of uncertainty, so I started studying techniques of scenario planning, and in scenario planning they use these future histories as a way of constructing conversations, but also as a way of imagining conversations. So, I started writing these stories, and in this way, the writing sometimes proceeds the design, where I test the idea, by writing a story about the future of Chicago, and then design projects that could exist within that imaginary world.
We really liked your use of the word palimpsest, and the idea of working with the built environment, incorporating what is already there into what you are building. We were wondering if you ever felt that there would be a situation where the already built environment is not worth adapting and not worth trying to work with. A situation where it would make more sense to scrape everything clean?
Well you can never absolutely scrape everything clean, there’s always something left. But on the other hand, I think it’s harder to design when there’s nothing there, like when there is a blank page. It’s very rarely easier. Now there is always an editing process; you can’t always preserve everything because architecture is very destructive. It’s the act of creative destruction, I mean it’s an old cliché. So the question is, being strategic about what to keep and what to remove; that’s an act of design in itself. Just like drawing the boundaries of the site and deciding which things I’m going to keep, the things I’m going to get rid of, the things I’m going to chop in half. Sometimes that alone can be the project, just like excavating, trimming things down, excavating. In that master plan for Washington Park I’m doing almost nothing. I’m just drawing lines and little bubbles around things but that’s almost it. Everything else is sort of staying still; the property lines, the buildings, the trees can all stay where they are. In that project, almost entirely, all the operations are one thing. Curbs—removing the existing curbs and putting in new curbs. New soil and moving the earth around. Curbs and earth moving, that’s the major intervention. That’s where it starts at least.
So the major physical intervention are curbs, what about the major psychological intervention which is property lines? Suddenly this is not mine anymore because a curb has been moved and it has to be a part of the collective greater good.
That to me is the most challenging part, because that’s where you have to work with other people--social workers, politicians, etc., because you have to get those people to agree to enter into this cooperative arrangement—homeownership associations, land trusts and whatever. That takes work and that takes time. That’s real. That’s the part we’re trying to figure out now—plus the money.
Could you tell us more about what it is like to first work in a large office and then transition to your own practice?
I’m very open about the fact that I was a very bad employee. In hindsight, I was a bad employee mostly because I believed too much in the things I was taught in school. In school you learn to have your own ideas about things, to work fairly slowly, carefully, and always be exploring: to believe the design is never done. But when you go into practice and behave that way, it just winds up costing people a lot of money. So its not to say I didn’t enjoy working for other people, but I realized that I just had too many ideas about things that I wanted to do. And then there was a weird thing that happened where people liked the ideas I had, but since they liked the ideas I had, I wasn’t learning the other stuff you were supposed to learn when you are in the beginning of your career. For example, no one would let me do construction documents. I never had the experience of sitting, doing the boring technical stuff, which actually, you also need to learn. So after I got nearly the amount of internship hours I needed, simultaneously, I was also starting to work on some independent things, like this master plan in Brooklyn which we were trying to hijack from Frank Gehry. It wasn’t paying me any money really but I was getting published.
So how exactly does an independent practice start? What are the first steps?
You stand up. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and I heard on the news one morning that Frank Gehry was doing a master plan for this rail yard down the street from me, with like seventeen skyscrapers. I actually am a big fan of the architect’s work but I looked at the images of the master plan and it was not a good project—it was not a good project. So I started asking people, “okay is anyone trying to propose an alternative?”—No one was, but then finally someone said that the city councilwoman was having a meeting at a church—you know, because these things always happen at churches, so why shouldn’t I go there and talk to her. I put on a suit and tie and I went there. I went up to her, you know as a smart guy, “Hi, I’m this architect, I went to Harvard, I live in your neighborhood… let me know if there’s any way that I can help you”. She took my card and said, “Nice to meet you, you’ll hear from my office.” The next morning, I get a call from her office and they asked me if I could be there tomorrow, across the street from city hall, to talk to the councilwoman about this thing. When I go there, she takes me in a room, like a little tiny room just the two of us, shuts the door and says, “Okay so what are we going to do?” (laughs) Well I got lucky because she had just taken her seat on the city council, so she was a rookie too, and she was caught like a deer in headlights. She didn’t know what to do and I was the only person that came to her and offered help. So basically, she said, “okay, do something; do a workshop, do something.” The interesting thing was no senior architects wanted to give any advice or any help because the mayor was behind it, the governor was behind it, all the money was behind it, and there were seventeen buildings in that master plan and Frank Gehry wasn’t going to design all of them. The Olympics were coming, they thought, and so people were saying, “Marshall this is great what you are doing but I cannot get involved in this, do not mention my name in connection with it, etc.” I called all my friends who had also graduated from fancy architecture schools all over the place. Sarah Herda was there, she can confirm all of this. Georgine Theodore, Damon Rich, also. So I called all of them and basically what we did was we rented a school for a day in Brooklyn, invited people from the neighborhood and a bunch of architects that I know, who were like facilitators, or kind of tutors, and we sat people at tables and learned about the neighborhood. We didn’t ask people what they wanted, we asked them what they knew. And it just kind of took off from there because we stepped into a space that no one wanted to step into. So that’s the kind of short answer to the question. I think when really interesting things happen, as a designer, at least for me, it’s like in soccer you always move to the space. So as a practitioner I try to move to where nobody else wants to go. So like Washington Park, until people started talking about putting the Obama Library there, nobody cared where Washington Park was. But I went there. I went there with my students for years before working there. Nobody else wanted to take on that Atlantic yards thing, but I was interested and I cared about that space. And I think when you do that as a designer you go to places where other people are not. You go somewhere, look at what nobody is looking at and then work on it. This is how Rem Koolhaas started making a career. When he started looking at the Pearl River Delta back in the early 90’s; it was not cool yet, nobody even knew that place existed, like Shenzhen. He does that because he is a journalist, because this is what journalists do. They try to find the story that nobody else is talking about. That’s sort of what happened to me but accidentally. Then it took off from there and people really appreciated what I was doing. I always planned to teach also, so I realized when I started doing independent work that it was a good kind of springboard. Somehow from doing that master plan work, I got a commission to actually build something. What happened was, at a certain point I had a 9-5 job, but I was going from 7 to 9 in the morning to construction administration, and then from 5-10 at night, I was giving talks in Brooklyn to like 200 people. I realized that everything between 9 and 5pm wasn’t my real job anymore. So I called up one day and said I quit, then moved to Cincinnati and kind of started over.
How does teaching affect your practice? What is your relationship with it?
Oh, it does of course, there’s a lot of feedback that happens between them. But I also try to keep certain boundaries between them because I think it’s a problem when the school becomes a sort of resource for your professional practice. That’s just me personally, I make that as a choice. I’m against a literal resource—like using students as free labour in your office for stuff you are getting paid for. It gets very messy—not for me. But I have lots of colleagues that do that kind of thing. But that being said, I taught studios for example in Washington Park for several years where of course together with the students I learned a lot about the place. It was because we did those studios that I was able to then get that commission. But after I got the commission, I did my own work, I did my own research, I wrote my own reports. I did that work myself. But then that work I did outside on Washington Park is also feeding back into my teaching, so it’s like this conversation that goes back and forth, which is great. When you are a full time and tenured faculty member, that’s what they pay you for—that’s why you are there, it’s part of your job description—that you are out there in the world doing work and that it comes back into the school intellectually. It’s a good gig, it’s great.
Do you teach lecture-based classes or just studios?
I teach a lecture-based class that’s required for all graduate students; it’s called “Intro to Urbanism.” So that’s where we do the reading of the Burnham Plan, but we read about a lot of other stuff too, in parallel with it. That’s the one lecture course I teach every year. I’m not tired of it yet. I also teach studios. I was doing a lot of urbanism courses which related to my research, but now I have been focusing more on the architecture scale. That Washington park project is a little bit old now, it was already four years ago. All that other stuff, as far as the architectural scale. is new, and so I’ve been actually shifting gears in my practice, not leaving urbanism behind but refocusing myself towards designing buildings, but still with the urban context in mind. Therefore, I’ve also been shifting gears with my teaching, so now I’m teaching second year undergraduate studios, which is great. I love it. Fundamentals. It’s really fantastic.
In an urban perspective, do you also often deal with the notion of the “shrinking city”?
It’s not shrinking, it’s perforating. Because it’s spreading, it’s growing. But what is really happening, is that it’s an uneven development. So if you look at Chicago for example, in the last census, the Loop, which is its core neighborhood, grew 78% in population. This happened because there were a lot of college dorms buildings downtown and all this other stuff, and the loop never had residential space before, like a decade or two ago. There was a lot of room for growth. But while the loop was growing by 78%, and other neighborhoods on the north side grew, these other neighborhoods were reducing around it. So when you look at Chicago on a map, it’s like a sponge, right. It’s densifying here but hollowing out here. And next to it, it’s densifying again and then hollowing out again. But then also spreading endlessly. It’s not shrinking, it’s just an uneven development.
Did you choose Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright as a study because of that project?
Well what is very interesting is that if you look at the history of architecture and urbanism, when you go back more than 50 years, it was a very different conversation than today in a lot of regards, but especially in one really noticeable one, which is that most notable architects—say if you go back before 78 or something—most notable architects advocated for decentralization as the cure for all of our urban ills. Architects who didn’t agree on almost anything else, agreed on this. So whether you looked at Wright, Saarinen, Hilberseimer, Burnham, all of them talked about spreading people out more. Now there are reasons they did that, because the industrial city was super congested, polluted, dirty, smoggy, disease ridden etc. Now cities aren’t like that anymore because all the factories have moved out. My point is that they were all very convinced that they were correct about their commonly held dogma. Now today we have a commonly held dogma that good cities are dense cities, compact, high density. So that’s the new dogma. It’s not that I’m for low density or high density, I’m against dogma. Because how can we be so sure that our dogma is any more correct than their dogma. And then there’s other conceptual problems, like, in order to say that the city is good and the suburbs are bad, you have to create an artificial separation between the two places, but the fact is, that those two spaces actually grew up together simultaneously. If you look at the history of American cities and how they were born, these villages on the periphery were founded at the same time as the so called downtown, because at the time nobody knew what the downtown or centre was going to be. So there’s a sort of false dichotomy we have created over time. Charles Waldheim says, “the milk in your latte didn’t come from downtown Chicago, it came from somewhere else.” These places, the centre and the hinterland have always been connected as part of a larger economy. You can’t have one without the other. They coexist. How did I get to Broadacre City? Well I was doing all this research trying to go back to this time, so this is why I talk about the history, where there were a lot of architects all trying to create models of low density urbanism. Because, as you may have noticed, I think there are not a lot of new ideas, and if you look at history and go to the library, there are a lot of great ideas there. So I said ok, we need models for low density urbanism. When did people try to do that before? You have Wright doing Broadacre City, you have Olmstead doing Riverside, you have Clarence Stein doing Radburn New Jersey—you had all of these amazing projects trying to combine the city and the country. They weren’t trying to create suburbs, they were trying to get the best of city and of the country. There are other models I looked at too, but I live in Chicago, so Broadacre City is a kind of obvious thing to reach for, it kind of made sense. I could also put up Clarence Stein’s Radburn New Jersey as a precedent for that project, but that’s in New Jersey so it doesn’t resonate the same. You have to choose your sources based on your context. It’s also about creating a narrative and story. So when you show—“I can do this mashup between Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederick Law Olmstead”—you get something weird but you also get something that people feel like they already own, like it’s already theirs. It’s new, but it’s not new.
Do you think that it is right for a community that builds itself, to own the community?
One thing that’s an issue with all of this is that in a democratic free market society, you can never control where people decide to live. So this is one of the other things I’m trying to confront with my work. Urban planning is a new profession, it was born in the late 19th early 20th century. Urbanism like cities and things, that are now called city planning, have been around for a long time, but as a formalized profession it was born about hundred years ago. Why was it born? It was born basically out of the desire to control industrializing cities in Western Europe; in North America at first, and then it spread to other areas. So urban planning, as a discipline, is based on a model of control from the beginning. So that’s why zoning is the great invention of urban planning, because zoning was this new idea that you can say, “listen you can slaughter pigs here but not over here. You can have housing here, but not over here where you are slaughtering pigs.” That was a new idea. It was born out of a desire to control that which could not be controlled before. And that’s why fascinatingly enough, when you look at the history of urban design and urban planning, it’s mostly a history of failures. Wonderful failures, but mostly a history of failures. Successes are very rare. That’s why I like to point out Riverside. Riverside is like a shocking success that almost no one knows about. That place is still thriving and Olmstead designed it from scratch. That almost never happens. When you design a utopian village, mostly it ends in disaster—public housing everywhere—mostly, with some exceptions.
Do you think it works because of where it is located? If you were to take Riverside and put it somewhere else, do you think that it could work?
I think that, first, Olmstead was very talented. You have to give credit where credit is due, and he created a master plan which resulted in an incredibly beautiful landscape. The place is formally and spatially stunning so you have to give him credit for that. Second thing is, initially it was designed for very wealthy people. The original houses are very big, so it was a neighborhood for wealthy people, so that helped a lot. But Olmstead also talked about strategy. You can read the prospectus which is available online about the initial assessment he gave of the property, and one of the things he recommended to the developers was he said, “look, if you want this to work you have to build the neighborhood around families, because families are not transient.” If you have families, you have a strong social structure, and a strong social structure will lead to the survival of the neighborhood. It appears that his theory worked. Also he created a model that was so successful, that for one hundred years we have seen people making bad versions of it. It’s like if you look at the original shopping malls, they were very interesting, and then everyone that came after that was really terrible. But I just like to put that as an example, as the exception that proves the rule. Most of urban planning in the 20th century, not all but much of it, is a history of failures—with some exception—but even the failures are interesting in many ways. I think that another reason that Riverside succeeded was that it wasn’t Olmstead dictating to people, “you should move to the suburbs”. He was responding to a desire that existed, and trying to make the best possible place out of it. And that’s the opposite of what urban planners are trying to do. They’re trying to, again, dictate to people where they should live, how they should live. You should live in transit-oriented developments. You should live in tiny homes. Like this whole discussion about tiny homes—have you been reading about this? This is like a new trend with the developers; every new developer I talk to about a project, is asking if we can include some tiny homes? It’s not about giving up what people want, it’s about negotiation. Olmstead saw that people want to move outside of the city and he said, “if you’re going to do that, I’m going to raise the bar. So move out of the city but then let’s work with the landscape, let’s think a different way about how to shape the block and lot structure, let’s think about our relationship to the river, let’s build the houses up 6ft from the street so the river doesn’t flood your house.” The profession is born out of a model of control, but control doesn’t always work.
But some of the more controlled projects worked pretty well too, like Hausmann in Paris for example—
Yes, but now you are talking about Europe. This is where I try to be careful because I’ve been focused on mostly the American situation. Urbanism is tied up so much with politics, even more than architecture, because it’s about the relationship between the one and the many. So if you have a more socialist government for example, or a more centralized government, then planning works better. In France or in England it works better because there is a more centralized government and more control over these things, etc. And I bring up France as the contrasting example when I talk to students about this. I say look—in France they have “liberty, equality, fraternity”; we just have liberty and equality in the US, we forgot the fraternity part. Our founding documents say almost nothing about collectivity, almost nothing. And this is what we fight about every day. We’re equal, we’re free. So doing planning in that context is not so easy, because planning is always trying to say, “we have to collaborate, we have to agree”, but that’s not in the law. It makes a big difference.
Bringing up again the concept of the “shrinking city”, let’s refer to the books by Phil Oswald about it—books about cities like Caracas or Sao Paolo—where you have the opposite situation going on. What are your thoughts on how those two phenomena, which are quite opposite in many ways, can speak and inform each other?
That’s a tough one for me because I’ve never been to either of those places, so I’m very careful about speaking about cities that I haven’t been to. We have a global economy, so for sure all these places are connected. So the forces that are producing the kind of perforation in Detroit are for sure linked to industrialization in developing economies, that we know. So these places are linked, but they also have their own histories, their own cultures, their own politics. Again, their independent economies and so it’s a very complex process. I try not to speak too much about cities that I haven’t been to and don’t really know much about. I spent some time in North Africa in places like Casablanca and Marrakech, where you don’t have the “favela” but you have the “bidon ville”, which is similar in many ways—what people call informal urbanism. But Casablanca for example (in Morocco) was now confronted with one hundred years of issues such as unchecked urbanization, rural exodus, people coming to the city building informal settlements that become formalized over time, and so it’s just the way the city grows in many ways. There were amazing French architects that went there and tried to formalize the informal, and build these prototype housing examples which were amazing experiments. Most of them failed in certain ways but succeeded in some other. We can learn about it. So this stuff has been going on for a long time—I mean it’s all connected by industrialization, capitalism, mass migrations. None of this stuff is new, this has been going on for many years now. The same discussions people are having about China and Lagos now, they were having about Casablanca not even one hundred years ago; the exact same conversations.
Do you think that a city like Detroit could foster the informalities that you see in cities like Caracas and Casablanca?
In the US you don’t see the same kind of informal urbanism that you see in other places. Not at massive scales, nor in the same way simply because we have stronger enforcement of construction, planning, and things like that. If you just show up on an abandoned lot and build a shack, somebody’s going to come and remove it. There’s just more energy dedicated to that kind of policing in the US, so I don’t see that happening in general. Though I was in Chicago recently, and I was going on an underpass of Lakeshore drive to go to the beach, and both sides of the underpass was like six tents deep. Usually I see like one tent but both sides full—I had never seen that before. And there are some other abandoned places in Chicago that are sort of forest areas in the city where some homeless people built these small villages and other things, but you don’t see in the US this sort of informal urbanism on the same scale that you see it in the developing world. It also has a lot to do with culture, customs and beliefs about land and who owns the land. In some countries you can build and if it can stay standing for 24 hours, that’s your land now. It has a lot to do with tradition and culture.
Has your perspective on urbanism changed your understanding of how urbanism happens, or have you witnessed significant changes in the different places you have been to? Have you seen major contrasts to what you expected urbanism to be once practicing in those places?
I never set out to become an urban designer; I just wanted to become a better architect. Sometimes your work chooses you. That being said, I think I never had preconceptions about what it was going to be. I just wanted to learn, and I think that as I’ve moved to those different places my focus has changed. So the things you are concerned about as an urbanist in New York are not the same issues in Chicago, Cincinnati or Detroit. The conversations make no sense. The things I learned in New York maybe can help from a practice point of view, but spatially they don’t help you so much unless you’re working in the Loop in Chicago, and even then, the Loop is not as dense as Manhattan. So I had to almost start over. I studied urban design in Boston and urban design problems in Boston. Boston is a European city. That’s the truth. It’s a very old colonial city. The lessons you learn in Boston, some lessons, are not necessarily the lessons you are going to learn in Chicago. I guess what I’ve learned is that you have to try to address every place, especially in urbanism but also in architecture, on its own terms. Of course bringing the baggage that you have from the outside of other places can help you in the long terms. I’ve just spent a lot of time in the Midwest now in my adult life, and I’ve lived in Chicago longer than anywhere else in my life. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Detroit area, and again nobody is coming up with a lot of great ideas for making good urbanism in these places on their own terms, with the exception of the shrinking city stuff and urban agriculture. I’d rather think about Chicago and what it is, and think about that in its best possible light. Like Detroit—at no point did I think that Detroit is going to become little tiny houses stacked up next to each other again. If you actually read the history, these places were not that nice before neither.
Can we talk more about collage? We are really interested in how it’s used. When you talk about real paper collage—what if you wanted to scale something different? Or what if you wanted to change it a little bit?
Yes, but that’s a road you go down that never ends right? Everyone can do it their own way. I have my way of doing it and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, testing it out. I’ve developed certain constraints or parameters. So the reason I do it by hand as opposed to on the computer is because when I do it by hand there are these errors which occur, which, you can call them happy accidents. You can have those errors when you work on the computer too but the problem is that CTRL Z is always there. When you’re working by hand there’s no CTRL Z—you cannot uncut something. You can tape it back together, but you cannot uncut it. So you make a move and you have to accept that move. What you want matters less, and I think that’s part of the ethic of collage. Collage is about pushing you away from what you wanted or what you intended, and when you work by hand what you have is called a medium of risk. There’s these scales of media of high risk and media of low risk. Software is a low risk media because you can always CTRL Z, you can always go back, whereas iron work is a medium of high risk. So once you cut through that piece of iron, its cut; even if you weld it back together it’s never the same. Or ink vs. pencil—ink is very high risk: when you draw the ink line, it’s very hard to erase. Pencil you can erase it more. So the AutoCAD line has zero risk: you put it there and can delete it.
We could argue that with lower risk you are more likely to push the boundaries and try things out…
Maybe. But that can also be a problem. Look I use software. I’m not some sort of Luddite. I use it a lot but I use it in different ways. I’m selective of how I use it. The idea that you would try more things is not necessarily better. Doing more things is not necessarily better either. There’s also the idea of creating what has been called “the endless production of equally useless alternatives”, and software is very good at that. But these are matters of preference and you start to get into the politics of design here. So for me it’s more effective to continue to work with my hands to a certain degree, to work with the knife, to work with the glue, because then it works more at the speed of my thought. Like at my studio, I have three tables this size set up. On one table I have the stack of magazines and I’m just pulling sheets out, things I see. Then I have another table where I’m trimming like a butcher out of the pages. Then I have another table that’s just for assembly. One of the most interesting tables is where all the cuts of “meat” are laid out, because then I can just see all of my options on that big table. But it’s limited by the frame of it, and also the table is much bigger than my laptop screen so I can lay them out in a way unlike in Photoshop where things are disappearing behind each other. So everything is at scale, and they are on the table so I can move them around, and it’s just different. But also the little collages are different from the big ones. For the big collages I am using digital media to a certain degree, because I am trying to control some things. For example, I am trying to set up the perspective, so I set up the wireframe and then I overlay that on top of the site photo, and then, cutting and pasting on top of it. So I have this library of images, of references that I scale up and down, but I limit myself. First of all they all get printed out black and white, and second, I don’t allow myself to distort them at all. I can scale them up, I can scale them down, that’s it. There’s no distortion of the perspective, there’s none of that other funny business. But for any design project or design technique, you have to set your own constraints, and it takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. What works for you in terms of what you’re trying to achieve. I’m not saying anyone else should do it this way. In fact I’m kind of not looking for anyone else to do it that way, because it’s my way of doing it (laughs). But it’s also very teachable. I’ve taught my students to do these things, but immediately once I teach them they are like “oh well I did this part slightly different”, and that’s great because then you have your own way. We all learn this from the beginning. Even if you all learned how to draw with a pencil or you all learned how to draft or do Rhino, everyone develops their own tricks. Other people do really beautiful collages in Photoshop. There’s this Belgian artist, do you guys know him? He does these impossible architectures.
Yes, he does these beautiful images. They are fantastic but I don’t work that way. He had images at the Venice Biennale this summer right? In the Belgian pavilion? They’re really great, I love them. They’re seamlessly photoshopped. But that’s not what I am trying to do, so it’s different. Monica Ponce de Leon explained it perfectly once; she said, “one of the requirements of what you’re doing is that something needs to look slightly wrong.” And yes, that’s it, slightly a mutation, some sort of wrongness. I took Miralles’ last studio he taught at Harvard before he died and he said to me in my final review, “you know the issue with you is that you don’t really believe in representation. When you’re making things they just are what they are, and then you go into the next thing—it becomes a translation. But never when you are making a model or drawing is it a drawing of a building yet to be built or something like that.” The thing is the thing and that is something that informs my work still. The drawing is the drawing, that gets translated, and then eventually it is something that gets built.
Marshall Brown is a licensed architect and urban designer based in Chicago. He is the co-founder of the urbanism, art and culture think tank called “New Projects” together with Stephanie Smith, and the founder of the “Yards Development Workshop”, the designers of the Unity Plan for the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.
His current architectural practice includes Chicago based projects, as for instance a Masterplan for the neighborhood of Washington Park or a Navy Pier Redevelopment Plan.
When studying Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University, Marshall Brown won the Druker Fellowship for urban design. He was later a MacDowell Fellow in 2010, and also was the first Saarinen Architecture Fellow at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He has numerous experiences in engaging with diverse organizations such as the New York City Council, U.S. Department of Energy, Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, OneCity, the Municipal Art Society of New York, and the Smithsonian Institute.
Marshall Brown is an associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture. Currently a board of the Arts Club of Chicago, he was also on the editorial board of the Journal of Architectural Education. He lectured at the Chicago Humanities Festival, University of Michigan, Northwestern University, the Graham Foundation, Auburn University, and the University of Toronto.
His works have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, in Western Exhibitions in Chicago, and appeared in numerous publications such as The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis, Architectural Record, The New York Daily News, Art Papers, Crain’s, The Believer and New Directions in Sustainable Design.