J’ai rencontré dans la rue un jeune homme très pauvre qui aimait : son chapeau était vieux, son habit était usé ; il avait les coudes troués ; l’eau passait à travers ses souliers, et les astres à travers son âme.
(I have met in the streets a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat worn, the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul)
-Victor Hugo ; Les Misérables (1862)
If you were to walk in the alley behind the Alliance Française, you would notice an odd amount of moss on the ground and red dots painted on the wall without explanation. If you were to be curious, like myself, you might find yourself talking to one of the many people watering the moss or painting these red circles. And if you aren’t the talking to strangers type, you’re in luck because I already did all of the detective work and will let you know what is happening. Free of charge.
The buzz in the alleyway has to do with the upcoming vernissage of Superfluous: An Architectural Project. This project is an effort to use “architects as social agents” and to “trigger [people] to think about shelter”, as Odile Compagnon, a professor of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, describes it. Odile encourages her students to use their skills and talents as architects to make social change and this has brought her and her students to the Alliance Française de Chicago.
Pretty cool, right? But you’re still a little confused as to what the project is, aren’t you? Don’t worry, not even some of my coworkers knew what this project entailed and that is why I put pen to paper (well, rather finger to keyboard) to open their and your eyes to the magic that is happening in the alley of the Alliance.
Let me key you in to some connections as this story unravels. Odile points out, that this project is both a way to “open the Alliance to the community” as well as to “make French more accessible”. You know, French doesn’t always scream “language of the people” (insert pretentious French stereotype here), but it truly is. Odile and her students are helping to highlight that.
Well, okay, that is cool, but what does that have to do with architecture and the students at the Art Institute of Chicago? Let’s travel back in time to the famous Victor Hugo for our answer. (That Hugo quote at the beginning of this post is now making sense, huh?)
Hugo, infamous writer, inspiring leader, speaker for the people wrote Les Misérables and tore down the barrier between poverty and luxury by illuminating homelessness, wealth and the disparity in between. Many French writers, not just Hugo, and artists have been captivated by the superfluous and consequently what it means to have nothing but still be someone, an individual. Odile is simply keeping this conversation alive through architecture. Eleven of her students created models for projects that could be built in our courtyeard and her student Nicolas Dessotel’s project, named Clairvoyance, was chosen. Nicolas is the blonde student in the photo below cheesin’ hard because he gets to see his project come to fruition.
Clairvoyance was chosen because it breaks down the wall between the private and public spheres, the wanted and the unwanted and spills out into the ally of the Alliance. I mean, literally there is a hole in our courtyard wall. “His project is transporting you into a world that you may not be comfortable with,” says Odile as she admires the installation go up. While I am very excited for you to experience this world growing in and challenging our alley, I won’t tell you more about the physical nature of the project because a) I can’t spoil it for you and b) Nick and Odile can give an explanation more justice than I could.
So, please, I implore you to come and experience Superfluous: An Architectural Project for yourself on September 14th (register here). Engage in the conversation about homelessness and the superfluous, see the other contestant project models, learn how French literature inspires architecture, and enjoy the exhibit. The exhibit will run during our business hours until October 16.