Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building
Hyde Park, St. Louis
Summer 2011

"I want to question, not by petitioning or organizing in the stereotypical activist way, but by building and making good use of the things forgotten." —Theaster Gates, Jr.

Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building, a project of CityStudioSTL, was informed by the words and practice of visiting artist Theaster Gates, Jr., who was in residence at the Sam Fox School  and in partnership with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. During this intensive, 3-week design/build course, students worked collaboratively with Gates on a site-specific project—the transformation of a dilapidated mixed-use building into a small art center for students at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School in St. Louis' Hyde Park. The project combined conversation, construction, and community engagement. The cultural constructs of ritual, community, and race informed all work, inspiring work that echoed the history of the site while addressing the needs of the community through architecture, the arts, and social science. Students gained an understanding of design methods that arise out of cultural research while learning to translate small-scale design investigations into real, inhabitable spaces.

Somethingness included 12 undergraduate and graduate students representing art, architecture, social work, and other disciplines.

Project Overview

Gates' work as an artist, urban planner, and community organizer set the tone for this immersive studio in St. Louis' Hyde Park neighborhood. Students explored the physical, cultural, and spiritual characteristics of the site, focusing on the current condition of the location while learning to embrace the concept of missing elements and their impact on the design process. Emphasis was placed on the importance of a site's history, and how that history impacts the current community.

Working with Gates, master builder John Preus, and Belinda Lee, students began by interviewing Holy Trinity students and other local residents. They then developed a series of design proposals and, ultimately, constructed a small amphitheater in the rear of the property.

About Theaster Gates, Jr.

Theaster Gates, Jr. is director of arts programming and lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. His creative practice encompasses a broad range of topics, including installation, site specificity, appropriation, and master planning. Using art as a tool for social change, he presents communities with new ways of confronting challenging issues by presenting them as invitations to engage difficult information creatively.

As a 2010-2011 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Gates concentrated on cultural development in underserved communities and how relationships between museums and other local cultural institutions can advance cultural activities in communities. His work has recently been shown in the 2010 Whitney Biennial; the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Museum of Contemporary Craft.


Support for this project was provided by the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts Endowment for Joint Projects with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Through this partnership, the Sam Fox School and the Pulitzer Foundation offer the opportunity for interdisciplinary research and collaboration among students, practicing artists, architects, curators, designers, and other professionals, while furthering community activism and involvement through art, architecture, and design.

Additional Coverage

View images from the course on Facebook>>

Work from CityStudioSTL project Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building included in U.S. Pavilion at Venice Biennale>>