Exhibition studies U.S. international relations through architecture

After the brutality of World War II, the United States sought to usher in a new era of optimism in the late 1940’s through an ambitious embassy program that called on some of the greatest architects of the century to design buildings that represented a new foreign policy of openness, dialogue and progress. 

Those efforts are now the central theme of the latest exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium entitled Havana Case Study, which runs now through Dec. 15, 2017. It is one of several programs that have been organized on campus this fall in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial.  

The project is the second in a series of case studies by New York-based Canadian artist Terence Gower. Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, the series began in 2010 with a study of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. After several years of extensive research in Havana and U.S. archives, Gower’s new project explores the history and impact of the embassy, which opened its doors in Cuba in 1953.

Gower said he was struck by the contrast between the older U.S. embassies, like the one in Havana, and the bunker-like embassies that became the reigning style in the 1980’s due to security concerns.

“Back in this post-war period, the directive from the State Department was about transparency,” Gower said. “There are a couple images in the show, early shots of the Havana embassy in 1953, showing a simple staircase, no gates, no security, just this open architecture.”

That openness would be short-lived, as the embassy closed in 1961 following the end of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. But the physical structure remains standing to this day, and Gower’s show attempts to capture both the early spirit of the embassy and the future uses of it for propaganda purposes following the Cuban revolution.

The installation includes historic architectural models, as well as reprints of photographs and archival documents from 1958, prior to the revolution, overlaid with more recent photographs and newspaper clippings to show how the varied interpretations of the building played out through the century. The extensive archival research took Gower more than two and half years.

This combination of artistry and academic study was what first attracted Neubauer Collegium curator Jacob Proctor.

“I was really impressed not only by the research itself, which, speaking as an art historian, I could see was done at a very high level, but also by the incredible sophistication of its visual manifestation and presentation—a combination of formal and conceptual rigor that exemplifies a kind of artistic research that I have tried to champion through the Collegium’s exhibition program,” Proctor said.

The centerpiece of the show is a massive one-to-one scale reproduction sculpture of the controversial balcony that was built off the ambassador’s office at the embassy, which a State Department inspector criticized for its “Mussolini-style.” Gower said that design choice became the perfect encapsulation of his project.

“The balcony is an open symbol,” Gower said. “It could be used by either camp for propaganda purposes. The architects were having fun and expressing themselves, but it meant something else to the State Department.”

Gower’s sculpture, which is placed outdoors on the Neubauer Collegium’s terrace, is made entirely from rebar, one of the few building materials available in abundance in Cuba, and thus also an artistic statement on the general scarcity of goods and materials in Cuba under the U.S. trade embargo.

Gower said he enjoys the research-based nature of his artistic practice, despite the challenges presented in finding archival documentation for these projects.

“I’m always looking for the designers’ initial intentions and how those changed,” Gower said. “It’s much like being a writer. You form an argument, but instead of producing a book you produce a sculpture.” 

For his next project in the Case Study series, Gower has started research on the U.S. embassy in Tehran.