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Getting inside architecture with Drawn In, at 209/9 Gallery.

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I'm in love with process, and one of my favorite processes is architecture. Drawn In, an exhibition at 209/9 Gallery, explores how the art of architectural practice uses design to investigate social issues. Including the work of 23 architects, from the highly conceptual to real applications, it's an incredible show.

Unlike many architecture shows, Drawn In moves beyond the esoteric, and brings the viewer -- whether novice or connoisseur -- inside the world of architectural practice. Hand drawings, sketches and digital renderings suggest how ideas inform architecture.

Drawn In, presented by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, truly blurs the line between art and design. The curator is Felecia Davis, an architect and an assistant professor at Cornell University who has selected work by African and African-American architects from across the U.S. and from countries including Nigeria, Ghana and the Netherlands.

While the designs do investigate how people occupy space, many of the works are vehicles for social critique. Oakland, Calif.-based Amanda Williams' "Blackness Study," for instance, is a map, hand-drawn on the wall, that literally charts the route to freedom -- defined by Williams as "financial stability, social and physical mobility[,] as well as the luxury to imagine and live a self determined existence."

The work is an ongoing investigation -- "experiments," says Williams, with architectural scale and perspective and the ways in which places and spaces construct our personal identity, sense of place and freedom. The map includes a "You are here" box, located by a seated male figure; from there, a line traces toward the floor, where appears the phrase "You are already free." Williams seems to suggest that because ideas about what "freedom" means can change, the quest is necessarily never-ending.

"Occupation," by the New York-based team of Deontaye Adams and Zena Rhoden, also addresses such existential questions. The five-minute animation depicts human figures moving through a rapidly changing series of spaces. Meanwhile, a series of statements, rendered in text, ask questions like, "Where are we?" and "Where are we going?"

Olalekan Jeyifous' "Merciful Deeds: Split-Brain Process," a series of five prints, is a complex conceptual work. It's hard to discover, in the images themselves, evidence for what accompanying text describes as an examination of the relationship between myth and reality. But these drawings, which suggest computer renderings, can be appreciated as wonderful abstracts.

Another Jeyifous piece, the beautiful "Liquid Durban" (co-credited to Emmanuel Pratt), is a large-scale print investigating one South African city's attempt to address global consumption while adhering to its history and culture. Against a topography-map background, a photographic montage offers a fragmented view of Durban, with beach and tourist scenes juxtaposed with the density of urban life. With its axis line labeled "urban" above and "rural" below, it suggests the tension between tourism's growth and the city's residents, who are subject to rules restricting beach access.

Meanwhile, other works in Drawn In reflect attempts to solve real-life architectural challenges. These include designs for the African American Museum in Baltimore, by North Carolina-based Phil Freelon (who also designed San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora), and designs for Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture, by Allison Williams.

In 2004, the San Francisco-based Williams won the competition to design the Wilson Center. Her four sketches take us through her process, beginning with the iconic symbol of a ship and evolving toward a space ready for programmatic use as a cultural center.

What makes Drawn In exhilarating is its balance of design (sketches, paintings, collage) with such cultural issues as race, gender, history, population growth and urban life. Yet perhaps what's most pleasing about this show is how it embraces diverse forms without the imperative to unite. There is no sense, the show seems to say, in arguing for an African/African-American aesthetic or style. Rather, Drawn In presents architecture as a profession, reminding us, "be who you are and let your experiences speak."

Drawn In continues through April 28. 209/9 Gallery, 209 Ninth St., Downtown. 412-258-2700

Abstract reckoning: Detail of Olalekan Jeyifous' "Split-Brain Process."
  • Abstract reckoning: Detail of Olalekan Jeyifous' "Split-Brain Process."

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