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Students, scholar turn shipping container into innovative space for ceramics
DoVA collaboration with Lect. Amber Ginsburg creates teaching space and gallery
A nondescript shipping container sits just to the west of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, painted black and framed from 60th Street by flora and trees.
A modest structure compared to its 10-story neighbor, this 380-square-foot building is more than meets the eye: It’s KilnHouse, a project designed in partnership by Woodhouse Tinucci Architects and UChicago’s Department of Visual Arts. Home to three kilns that can be seen from either end through floor-to-ceiling windows, KilnHouse serves as a resource and pavilion for DoVA students working with kiln-fired ceramics.
But KilnHouse wasn’t just any architectural commission, planned behind closed doors and erected solely by contractors. It was the product of a series of classes taught between Woodhouse Tinucci and DoVA lecturer Amber Ginsburg, working in tandem with a series of students to bring the project from idea to reality.
The concept came forth in 2014, when DoVA expanded its curriculum in ceramics. “In practical terms, this project arose from the lack of kilns at the University of Chicago,” said Ginsburg. “Initially, I worked on designs to add them to the Logan building. However, it became very clear, very fast, that that was more complicated than expected.” Ginsburg then suggested to Eric Eichler, senior project manager for the Logan Center, and Bill Michel, associate provost and executive director for UChicago Arts and the Logan Center, that they build something with students to house the kilns.
“With a certain amount of naivety, I thought it would be easier than adapting [the Logan Center],’” she said. “While it turned out to be long-term project—five years, with plenty of hitches—it was the teaching component that drove my interest and constancy.”
Working alongside David Woodhouse and Andy Tinucci, as well as Nathan Bowman and Chris Cordell, KilnHouse was realized over the course of four academic quarters across four years. Classes followed an architectural studio model, and coursework focused on the building design process by covering programmatic mapping, code compliance, aesthetics, materiality, mechanical and electrical systems. The three design courses led into the build course in which students participated in the construction of the building in collaboration with WoodTin Build, the contracting arm of Woodhouse Tinucci. Now, KilnHouse is in its first year of use.
Ginsburg said she’s already been able to teach two ceramic-based courses in the space, which can also function as a gallery, and that it is “beautifully considered and designed for critique, performances, and large-scale video projections.”
The building also has caught the eye of the design community in Chicago. This past October, the structure was awarded the 2018 Design Excellence Award from the American Institute of Architects Chicago at Designight 2018, the organization’s 63rd annual Design Excellence Awards.
“AIA Chicago recognizes design excellence in projects of all sizes—large and small,” said Zurich Esposito, Hon. AIA, Executive Vice President of AIA Chicago. “The jury particularly loved how architects at Woodhouse Tinucci collaborated with students and faculty on the project. The jurors called it ‘a remarkable collaborative effort.’”
Cecília Resende Santos, AB‘18, took one of the KilnHouse design courses and the build course, which shifted her thinking about built environments, exposed her to the pragmatic and legal aspects of building, and made clearer the socio-institutional interactions in architecture.
“I focused on architectural history as part of my art history major as an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago,” Santos said. “I was particularly attracted to trying out architectural design; the practical knowledge and skills, what they could add to my study of architectural history, theory and criticism, and to be part of a project that would exist and have a legacy beyond the classroom.”
During the build course, she began to discuss with Ginsburg ways she could document the project’s process to share with present and future users of the Logan Center.
“While participating in the building course, I noticed pieces of material, debris and parts of the building that were soon to be hidden—the site itself, original container walls, wall frames and more—that I found interesting and attractive,” Santos explained. “I realized that the process itself of designing and building the KilnHouse produced certain outcomes or “sub-products” that deserved to be shown, and that revealed the history, the concept and the physical components of the building.”
Santos’s first inclination was to design an exhibition that would take place at the KilnHouse, featuring materials found at the construction site and produced during all four courses. The display would inaugurate and demonstrate the building’s function as an exhibition space. This idea grew to include an oral history of the project so as to, as Santos said, “construct a memory of the building and its process, first by sharing “process products” and components, and then by creating a record that could be shared.”