Beyond Objects

by Chao-Wei Su

I was introduced to Professor Craig L. Wilkins during a short, but satisfying trip to Detroit during my first graduate semester at TCAUP, University of Michigan. Craig’s insightful talk on the issues surrounding his role and beliefs helped gauge a general understanding of predicaments we face as young professionals. I am grateful for Craig taking a little moment of his time to talk in detail about architecture.
--Chao-Wei Su

Chao-Wei: Tell us a little about yourself; who you are and where you came from.
Craig: I did my undergrad in the University of Detroit. I then went to Washington D.C., worked for about five years and went back to get my graduate degree at Columbia University. I left there, worked for a couple of years, started teaching and found out that I had some skill at teaching. I decided that if I wanted to teach, I might as well do it the right way, so then I went back and earned my Doctorate Degree from University of Minnesota. I’m originally from Chicago. I left to go to college when I was sixteen, sometimes going back to visit family. However, my mailing address has not been in Chicago since 1978. In between then and now I have visited 116 cities in the world, 14 I’ve lived in.
Chao-Wei: What spiked your interest in architecture and urban planning?
Craig: That’s interesting because they both pursuits didn’t flourish at the same time. I came to it in a back-ended way. I went to a public high school in Chicago, but it was a magnet school. Back then, these schools were called ‘college prep’. There were only two in Chicago, one of them located on the South and the other on the North side. Even now, Chicago is still one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. The one on the South was primarily for students of color, the one on the North side was not. However, the curriculum was the same and for the first two years you had to take drafting. It was just required, not sure how that would get you into college, but it was simply required. The third year was an optional year. It was called architectural drawing. I was very good at drawing, specifically free-hand drawing. I also won an award in school. When I decided to attend college, I chose a college that had an architectural and baseball program. I ended up attending Arizona State University.
Chao-Wei: For the better weather? (laughs)
Craig: No, I was there for the baseball team. Architecture was something I was going to do in-between playing baseball. But it turned out I wasn’t as good at baseball as I thought I was and stopped playing on the field. Two years later, I directly went on to pursue architecture in one way, shape, and form ever since.
Urban planning came later after I finished my graduate degree at Columbia University. I lived in New York for a while and was asked to teach an urban planning course at Pratt Institute. It was a last minute thing. Shortly after, I was co-teaching with someone else right after finishing the urban development program at Columbia. Since then, I’ve been more interested in integrating urban spaces along with buildings, while prior to that, I was interested only in buildings. There was no grand scheme; both interests slowly melded into each other. Now, I can’t think and see the environment in any other way.
Chao-Wei: They’re married to each other.
Craig: They’re fused together. I can’t separate the two of them. (laughs)
Chao-Wei: What’s the connection between you and present Detroit?
Craig: The connection? In what sense, I’m not sure.
Chao-Wei: What I mean is: how did you find that particular place—how did you get there and become involved with Detroit?
Craig: After my first year here (University of Michigan) as a Visiting Professor. The former Dean Douglas Kelbaugh told me that the school was planning to open a design center in Detroit. Because I’ve worked for design centers before, he wondered if I could offer any insights in the conceptualization of the new design center. Eventually, we came to realize that it was a good fit for me and Taubman College. He then asked me to take on the position of Director of the Design Center. I replied, “Absolutely.” When I graduated from the University of Detroit in 1985…
Chao-Wei: One year after I was born…
Craig: (laughs) I feel so young now, thank you very much. I never expected to be back in the area (Detroit)—so many places to go, so many things to do. It just never crossed my mind to be back here again. It was a surprise for me to be back in Detroit. You never know where life will take you. (long pause)
Chao-Wei: In the present context of discourse, we’ve seen architects from different aspects of the industry obsess over how cities can be revitalized and reformed, almost as if architecture has an ailment and it can be cured. What is your particular opinion of this?
Craig: Well, I don’t think architecture has an ailment. I think the architecture profession is ‘ill’ and is in the process of self-diagnosing itself when it should really be asking for help. And in my sense, there are many things (we can do as) professional architects, professional in the truest sense of the word—I would recommend people look up that term for what it means. It doesn’t mean you are paid for what you do. A profession is a special type of practice. The more we understand that, the more we understand that the practice of architecture is not a right, but a privilege, the better off we are as practitioners. That aside, I think the profession could use (sigh)…there is a lot of things we could do with our talent that we allow ourselves to do. Either that is because of a certain amount of willful ignorance on our part, a refusal to situate ourselves in the world, or our desires to be an artist above all else whiles the rest of (society) is beneath the attainment of the perfect object. I don’t want to hazard a guess which one it is. It probably is a combination of all three and some others. But the result is, we don’t allow ourselves to do as much as we can possibly do with our skills, and that is unfortunate. One of the problems with that is we perpetuate the impression that architects are elitist and only work for a particular kind of client and who are only interested in a particular kind of thing, when in truth we have the ability to work with anyone, anywhere at any time. It’s unfortunate that we don’t do so.
Chao-Wei: That was a little different from what I was expecting.
Craig: From me? Okay. (chuckles)
Chao-Wei: Well, in comparison with anyone else in the profession. It’s not something that I’ve been hearing in today’s age when technology has become the dominant means in parts of the profession. (pause)
Chao-Wei: You’ve probably heard the phrase constantly in the profession that architecture is a service and an applied art. Based on your experiences, how would you define architecture?
Craig: How would I define architecture?
Chao-Wei: It’s a broad question.
Craig: There are as many definitions for architecture as there are many people who practice. It’s the same (subjectivity) for hip-hop, for jazz, and for artists. I don’t know if my definition works for anybody other than me. Having said that, I will tell you that the practice of architecture is a privilege—something that emanates from culture and society we live in. And it should be responsible towards preserving that privilege or group. I also believe that architecture is both a noun and a verb. I don’t believe that if you don’t produce an object, you haven’t produced architecture. I think that’s a real problem for most folks. Because we are an object-oriented culture, we feel the need to produce an object every time we intervene in the world. Sometimes the best thing to do is to produce nothing at all. We have a hard time defining architecture as a process and not an object, one that is respectful of people and place. I’ll just leave it at that.
Chao-Wei: Some architects value service, while others value the rationale behind form, function, and even the question of cultural identity. What do you value most in the field of architecture?
Craig: I’m not sure how to answer that. It’s not just one thing. What keeps me engaged is not so much the pursuit of the beautiful object. I love beautiful things and hope that everything that I produce can be described in such a manner. But that’s not why I produce. I don’t produce solely because I want something beautiful. I believe that architecture has the ability to change lives. I don’t know how many professions when every day you have the opportunity to do that. And I mean you can meet someone on the street and be influential in people’s lives, and obviously you can change the lives of your family and things of that nature. I’m not talking about that. Those are things you do regardless of what profession you are in. I’m not giving favoritism for this career choice. Not everyone can be an architect, not everyone can be a lawyer, and not everyone can be a doctor. Some people do other things for a variety of reasons. But I don’t know a bus driver changes people’s lives (in a deeper sense), unless they get someone late for an interview. It has the ability to make the world a better place, and there are not a whole lot of professions that can say that. It would be difficult for me to be involved in something where that is not an option. What sustains me is knowing that the work that I do has the possibility to live beyond me, to be useful to someone other than me, and the possibility of elevating or at the very least, enhancing the lives of others. It makes it a worthwhile endeavor for me and it may not work for others or (support the reason) why they are in the profession. That is fine. There are as many reasons to be in architecture as anything else. But for me, those are the things that I important, and those are the things I try to teach. I don’t require students to buy into that perspective, but I do require them to respect it.
Chao-Wei: Respect is something that needs to be earned.
Craig: That’s true. (chuckle)
Chao-Wei: Do you believe that our status as architects has risen or declined in the last decade?
Craig: I believe it has declined. I believe that it has been declining since the ‘60s. Well, let me be more specific. I need to make a distinction. I believe the profession of architecture in general—status, has remained (short pause)…I want to be clear about this. Architects have always been held in high status. And I’m not really sure if that has changed all that much from the public’s perception. But I think it has changed not for the better…the relevance of the architect has diminished greatly. People (the general public) don’t see architects as relevant to their daily lives. What’s even more damaging is that the allied professions, e.g. contractors and interior designers. They have to a certain degree of…
Chao-Wei: More ‘ammo’?
Craig: (laughs) Well yeah, why not. They’ve become more emboldened. There are a select few of star architects who command a high amount of respect, attention, authority, and status across the board. But I think in general if you pulled architects out of the mix—honest, hard-working, design-oriented architects, you’d recognize that they have been marginalized. Not just in the public realm, but also in the process of creating the building itself. Construction managers, contractors, are sometimes much more ‘sophisticated’ about what they want, what they do, and much more information is available to them than to rely on the architect’s (diminished) expertise. We need to recognize the game has changed and begin to gather in expertise in areas that we, perhaps haven’t before.
Chao-Wei: What type of message would you give to encourage or motivate young professionals?
Craig: I think that if I need to encourage or motivate students in architecture then they shouldn’t be in architecture. I think one should be self-motivated and that motivation shouldn’t be coming from any other place other than oneself. A student should be here (architecture school) because he or she wants to be here and more importantly, the student should believe that this is the place for change. In this case, I would talk some students down…
Chao-Wei: Ouch (laughs).
Craig: …and not try to build them up. Here’s the thing, there are no architecture solutions per se because there are no architecture problems per se. Architecture is mostly tied to something else. There’s only so much you can do to with architecture. You can do a lot, but you can’t do everything. My advice would be to recognize the fact that there is only so much you can do with the practice. Definitely push the boundaries, but a building can only do so much. If one is comfortable with that, you might have a productive career in architecture. If you’re somewhat uncomfortable with that, I think you’ll have a long and great career. If you refuse that inevitability, I think you would be frustrated for the rest of your life.
Chao-Wei: Last question…
Craig: Oh, you lie.
Chao-Wei: (laugh) On a high note, who’s your favorite music artist? That’s more of a pun.
Craig: I can’t think of a favorite at the moment. But I will say this though. I find certain artists I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in and where I’m at, and I’m ok with that. Now there are some I would like to hear from others if I’m in either in a dance mood or mellow mood, but these I can listen to and be very happy. One is Gorges Arigon (spelling?), a Brazilian singer. Another is Thievery Corporation, they are absolutely stunning. Another is Miles Davis. I can listen to him on any day of the week and I’ll be a very happy man. I’m going to name a group that you have no conception of…
Chao-Wei: Before my years…
Craig: Definitely before your years. They were a marginalized group, but they were hot, Con Funk Shun—out of the Bay Area, out of San Francisco and Oakland. They are an underrated group from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. If you ask me tomorrow I might give you some others. My musical taste is very broad and eclectic.
Chao-Wei: Thank you Craig for your time. It’s been a great experience hearing from you. (shakes hands)

Image above by the University of Michigan A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

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