Iker Gil is the Bilbao-born, Chicago-based architect behind MAS Studio. He doubles as editor-in-chief of MAS Context, the magazine he founded to spark more cross-disciplinary conversations on design in the city. For AN, Kristen Moreau met Gil at his Wicker Park studio to discuss underdogs, publishing in print, and curating shows at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kristen Moreau: What process do you go through when you get a new idea?
Iker Gil: Many of the projects that we do are about exploring how we can use existing but underutilized assets of the city. Sometimes it is at the actual scale of the city, sometimes it is a very small intervention. The potential of the project is more important than the scale or the program. Once I identify an opportunity, I put together a team depending on the type of project. It is a flexible structure that allows everybody to work on projects that they are interested in. If the projects are similar in scope, we might repeat the team but we also introduce new people when we have the opportunity. It is a balance between the strengths of a team that knows how to work together and the benefits of incorporating new people that can bring new
energy, ideas, and expertise.
Do you see any threads across your range of projects?
Despite the diversity of projects, I think there are some common threads. One is rethinking the assets that cities have. I think that comes from growing up in Bilbao and working in Chicago. Both cities are, in a way, underdogs. They are not the main cities but, if you look carefully, you can find qualities that are unique to them and that can put them ahead. We also like to work with clients that are open to explore new ideas. We have been very lucky with this and the projects have been enriched immensely from this open conversation. We have learnt a lot from our clients. And another common thread is exploring ways of communicating our work or things that we value. For example, when I worked on Inside Marina City with photographer Andreas E.G. Larsson, we wanted to engage with people who were not architects. You don’t have to tell architects that Marina City is good; they all know that. We wanted to show to other people the positive qualities of a building that is 50 years old. And we did that through photographs documenting the residents of the buildings. It was about documenting and presenting—through the lens of the residents—how the architecture of the building had facilitated the presence of a diverse and vibrant community.
It’s a bit of a rarity to get a print journal like you produce. Can you talk about that decision to stay analog in the context of your global digital presence?
When we started MAS Context in 2009, there was always the idea that we would produce a print publication. As a designer, I like to think about the object itself and how it feels when you hold it and read it. We print a small number of copies per issue, so we want to make sure that they are worth the effort and the cost. And I also like that there is a sequence for the articles. It’s the difference between downloading one song and buying a full record. With the record you have to decide the sequence for the songs, and it’s the same for each issue. But we also think about our online presence. Through our website and Twitter we connect with people from all over the world that read and contribute to our issues. We’re grounded in Chicago, but the topics of our issues are not limited to this city. The ambition is to engage with architects and designers, but also with people who have nothing to do with these disciplines who wouldn’t buy an architecture or design publication.
Besides print and online, we think it’s important to organize events where people come together to discuss some of those topics. In a way, the publication of each issue is the start of the conversation, not the end of it. And we want to help build a strong environment of cultural exchange in Chicago. This spring we have organized lectures, studio visits to places such as JNL Graphic Design and Pitchfork, as well as a film screening of Josep Lluis Sert: A Nomadic Dream. With our lectures, we organize them in places that are a little bit unconventional. Last fall we organized a series at the International Museum of Surgical Science, which is a great old mansion on Lake Shore Drive. We use these lectures to make people explore new places in the city, facilitate interactions between people from different backgrounds, and make everybody feel welcome to participate in these conversations.
In the end, all those three components (print, online, and events) feed off each other and provide multiple ways of engaging with the content that we produce.
Could you talk more about your process working on the exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chatter: Architecture Talks Back?
Karen Kice, the Neville Bryan assistant curator, invited me to design and curate one of the galleries of her Chatter exhibition. Her focus was on five contemporary architecture practices exploring how each of them engage with history and technology. Building on what she was exploring, I wanted to focus on how communication can be productive in architecture, how it can go beyond a press release from an office or the perfect rendering trying to sell something. Through a selection of projects by US and international practices, my section explores how communication can be empowering, challenging, satirical, collective, diagnostic, revealing, interpretive, and constant.
Just to give a specific example, “empowering” is represented by a project by Ecosistema Urbano, the winning entry of a competition to design a plaza in Hamar, Norway. Instead of providing a finished design solution, they created a participatory and networked design process that allowed their citizens to determine the final configuration. It is a process that involves urban actions, an academic network, physical and digital labs, workshops, lectures, and engagement with school children.
Why is it important to you that this Chatter show is happening here at the Art Institute of Chicago?
The Art Institute reaches a very large audience that goes beyond the architecture and design community. It takes issues into a public setting that might normally be discussed in academic institutions or explored in offices. It is also able to bring together people from different schools and offices that might not connect otherwise. I think the public conversations held inside the Chatter exhibition are good examples about possible ways of engaging this larger audience. The key is to figure out how to engage with a diverse audience while maintaining the quality of the content. That quality will position not only the Art Institute but also Chicago as a place where current issues about architecture and design are critically discussed. It will make Chicago a reference in architecture thinking. Chicago has an incredible architecture legacy. When I was studying in Barcelona, my history classes were filled with Chicago buildings. It is important that we have the same ambitions now: We don’t want to rely on that legacy, we want to create new legacies. We have very smart people practicing and teaching in Chicago, so the pieces are there.
What would you say to emerging design professionals as they enter this complex architectural community?
Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Don’t wait for a person to call you with a project. Don’t wait for the perfect competition. If you identify something that can be better, go ahead and propose a way to improve it. The more you do, the more you learn what you are interested in, who to work with, and how to communicate your ideas. But, apart from producing, think about who could be interested in each one of the projects and contact them. You want to put your work out there, in front of the people that can make it happen. That will help you to create your own path and let other people know about the way you think. It is not quick or easy, so make sure to persevere.