Architect and artist Amanda Williams is best known for her bold public art project, Color(ed) Theory, produced for the 2015 architecture biennial in her native Chicago. Williams and a team of volunteers painted seven houses that were slated for demolition in the city’s predominantly Black Englewood neighborhood. Each building was coated in one color chosen from a palette Williams developed of culturally resonant hues for the surrounding community: Pink Oil Moisturizer, Ultrasheen, Harold’s Chicken Shack, Flamin’ Red Hots, Currency Exchange, Safe Passage, Crown Royal Bag. The vibrant paint conferred new life and meaning to each house, even as the dilapidated structure remained underneath.
A graduate of Cornell’s “extremely theoretical and conceptual” architecture program, Williams practiced for several years before yielding to a lifelong desire to pursue visual art full-time. After experimenting with abstract art, she eventually made her way to the intersection of art and architecture with projects like Color(ed) Theory that explore color and race and their relationship to space and value. Here, in lieu of her Open House Lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design on April 2, 2020 that was cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Williams takes a moment to reflect on her work, purpose, and path, each of which has straddled multiple divides.
What drew you to architecture?
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago; the city is historically very segregated and continues to be. Before I had language for what was going on, I understood that there were inequities in space as we would move daily from Auburn Gresham—a predominantly Black and working/lower class neighborhood at the time—to Hyde Park, where I went to a private school. Seeing that shift piqued my interest about why and what was possible. I knew something wasn’t quite right.
At the same time, I loved art, drawing, color. There was a love of making things, of imagining people and how they would interact. I would draw houses or structures as a way to narrate stories. As I progressed, architecture seemed like the vehicle for exploring both. And when I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, my mother said, “Artists who can make a living are called architects.”
What prompted your move away from architecture in a strict sense of the discipline into visual art?
There was a long moment where my love of theory and the conceptual, and of thinking about architecture speculatively felt like a luxury I didn’t have because there was a need to actually change things. There was a bit of guilt that I could make these beautiful things and have these conversations with classmates and colleagues that I knew would be completely foreign to the environment that I had grown up in. So I practiced for about six and a half years in San Francisco during the height of the dot-com boom. We did interesting industrial projects, schools, and other civic buildings in addition to large-scale master plans for corporations. But I asked myself: Is this what you’re supposed to be doing? That transition into art full-time was that ideal moment when you could go from something you love to something you love more. Also, I really wanted to come back to Chicago and reinterrogate those early thoughts about my relationship to my creative self in the city that I love.
You’ve said that color, race, space, and value are the four things you’re constantly preoccupied with in your work. Are there patterns to how these four things interplay?
Yes. I would say that recently the idea that I can always lead with a color—and that it will have a spatial and racialized spatial corollary—is really strong. I didn’t see that early on. Color(ed) Theory led me to that: redlining, green books, gray towns, high yellow. Now I can see a whole kind of color palette that’s synchronous with color theory.
Is your exploration of color as a medium a way to get around gridlocked discussions about race? Or is it another way into those conversations?
My interest in the color gray is potentially a way to explode the kind of dead ends that we tend to fall into [around race], especially in Chicago. But the idea of race as just Black and white, for example, completely ignores the Asian community, Latinos.
When I was an artist-in-residence at Smith, I took much of the summer to think about this. What came to the fore is this idea that black and white can be combined into gray, but I also thought about other ways that you can get to gray. Another way is this tertiary—or what they call chroma—gray, where you make three colors turn into gray. That seems very powerful also as a metaphor for complicating the ways we tend to want to talk about race: if gray is not black and white but actually at least three things, then it not only expands how we have to position it, it also opens the door for trans and immigrant and others. You won’t end at the same place because now you’ve introduced a new element. People won’t be able to do what they usually do in discussions about race—ignore it and reduce the conversation. And it can help bring about potential strategies for getting out of this never-ending system that exists.
You bring art and architecture together to talk about larger social and economic and political issues. How do they serve one another?
In my mind, the art is leading. But I would say that in most people’s minds—both the everyday person and also those in the contemporary art and architectural worlds—the architecture is leading. There tends to be much more interest in the spatial implications of my work or the fact that this is a very different way of talking about space than people are accustomed to. And the artistic realm is not used to architecture being a medium as opposed to a functional thing. (I’m being very general and broad.)
Personally, I find agency in the art; there doesn’t always have to be a rationale. There’s room to think through it, to not have a conclusive answer, whatever the final product. Whereas there is an expectation that traditional architecture writ large actually needs to function: it has to stand up. People have to be able occupy it. There are rules about how it needs to operate.
There is a very distinct kind of discourse around contemporary architecture and art. They have their overlaps and there are people who have straddled those before me. But there’s not a synergy in the way one might imagine. So I’m always leading with the question, and the question is always spiraling around those four elements. I’m not thinking ahead of time what that matrix is, but it always seems to end up with those. And then if there were some kind of spectrum, you could think about whether one would initially label the final work art or architecture.
Amanda Williams was invited to lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on April 2, 2020. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, public programs at the GSD were cancelled, including Williams’s Open House Lecture.