Architecture of Reparations: Interview with Riff Studio

Architecture of Reparations : Interview with Riff Studio

Rekha Auguste-Nelson, Isabel Strauss, and Farnoosh Rafaie

Riff Studio is a newly formed collective. Can you tell us about how you formed your group and what inspired the name Riff Studio?

We started working together informally in 2017 by supporting one another on our individual thesis projects in graduate school. We formed Riff Studio shortly after the third and final thesis project, Architecture of Reparations. The name comes from the fact that we are each bringing different interests and perspectives to the table, and we would like to embrace this during the design process rather than suppress it. “Riffing” involves improvisation or experimentation within an established structure and we think the idea of riffing is reflected in the way we iterate and talk to one another.

Isabel, as a Chicago native, what influenced your decision to focus on the history of displacement in Bronzeville as opposed to other neighborhoods in Chicago? Can you explain how you introduce the neighborhood to those that are not familiar with Chicago?

I moved to Bronzeville in 2016 - I had heard stories of the cultural significance of the neighborhood from my relatives and I had spent years weaving in and out of it as a kid. I started digging into the history of displacement because I wanted to understand the condition of vacant lots in between occupied row houses. There is so much life and activity in the neighborhood and the large areas of empty land don’t match the energy of the place.

Presented together in Architecture of Reparations with a series of collages and historical materials is the request for proposals (RFP) that invited designers to share ideas for restorative housing in Bronzeville. Submissions were made by architects, emerging practitioners, artists, some students, and even a physicist. How do these various perspectives inform your research? Can you speak to how you plan to engage or integrate these ideas further into your research?

We received such a wide range of submissions - it has been incredible to see so many different approaches. Some submissions consist of beautifully written reflections and essays, some outline the benefits of implementing very specific heating and cooling strategies, some create provocative spatial conditions through drawing, and others take the opportunity to connect what has happened in Bronzeville to communities outside of Chicago. Part of our exhibition for the Biennial included a large book, bound with a hanging clamp (something common on a construction site or to hold drawings for use, rather than the binding that you might find in a bookstore) and Michelle Wilkinson, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, very generously agreed to introduce the collection of proposals. She explains, “As these proposals show, the scope for an architecture of reparations is as large as the imagination and as varied as a community is, and needs. Reparation is more than remedying losses; it requires attending to past patterns, present impacts, and future potential."

The work, exhibited during the 2021 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial and now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, tells the story and traces the history of displacement of Bronzeville through historical photos, drawings, and planning documents—including photographs by Richard Nickel, poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, and promotional material from the South Side Planning Board. Can you share the importance of storytelling through your work in relation to the selection of these materials? 

The historical photos, drawings, planning documents, poems, and promotional material tell a story on their own, merely when placed next to one another chronologically (and especially when bolstered by the texts that so many Chicago scholars have already shared). Part of the goal of the exhibition was to convey the history of Bronzeville without too much commentary. The agenda of the project is written into the RFP. Visitors can engage with this material and decide what it means to them on their own terms.

The Available City was very focused on a community-led design process. What do you consider the role of an architect working with the community to be? 

For this project we are hoping to share what we have uncovered with residents and groups that may find it helpful, respectfully. Although one of us has lived in Bronzeville, the residents who live there now know what is best for their community - we don’t. What we do know is that the organizations that engineered such large-scale displacement are liable. 

Is there anything you hope a visitor will take away from the exhibition?

We hope to remind the public of the fact that erasure in Bronzeville was by design, that it is still visible today, and that these malicious strategies served as a model for “urban renewal” across the country. We are trying to imagine the forms reparations could take in the hopes that we can continue the conversation as a city and as a country.  

We also want to wish you a big congratulations on the recent grant award from the Graham Foundation. Can you tell us more about your plans for the next phase and future of Architecture of Reparations?

Our aim for this next phase of the project involves reconceiving the “case study house” as one component of proposed piecemeal reparations for the historically displaced residents of Bronzeville, Chicago. We plan to synthesize the material we received in response to the RFP into a set of more technical drawings that we hope to one day share and workshop with Bronzeville residents and Chicago city officials.