The fight against climate change is an indisputable moral, ethical and economic imperative. In the light of the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) largest exhibition, Exhibitions Director Eve Fineman, who co-curated Energy revolution alongside Doug Farr, talks to Newcity Editor-in-Chief Vasia Rigou about ways individuals, businesses and city leaders can work towards a zero-carbon future; innovative technologies and the gravitation towards renewable sources; and design as a catalyst for change, all in an exhibition meant to convey a sense of power, but also positivity, optimism and hope, as opposed to an “earth is burning” palette. Did we mention it has a kinetic dance floor?
Let’s talk about the exhibition and its architecture in the museum space, from the physical to the digital aspects.
Eve Fineman: We have a beautiful workspace, flooded with natural light, very high ceilings and a beautiful city backdrop. So the BOLD impact made sense as an aesthetic approach and sensibility. For example, we have three eleven-foot-tall full-size architectural models from three different Chicago schools of architecture. The space can be used to communicate and educate about architecture and the built environment at many scales and through a variety of mediums. Graphically and conceptually, we communicate important information that may seem dire, but we believe that the bulk of our information should also convey hope, optimism and energy. We used a bright, upbeat color palette with large, accessible text and images to convey a sense of power but also positivity, as opposed to an “earth is burning” palette. Finally, there was a very deliberate effort to include stories and images with people and communities at the center. Architecture exhibitions can sometimes seem inaccessible to the general public, so it was important for us to highlight the human component of the built environment and this very important subject.
What were the biggest challenges you had to face while designing the biggest exhibit ever at the Chicago Architecture Center?
EF: Climate change is a huge topic, and even though we focus on the built environment and its role as both culprit and mitigator, it still seemed too big for a single exhibit. Our decision to commit ourselves over several years to address this subject through our exhibitions allowed us to choose an area to start with, and so we chose energy.
Another challenge was the goal of reaching a much wider audience, well beyond the architecture and design community, while providing useful information to people in the industry. Covering this range was a daunting task, but we feel we’ve accomplished it, in part by giving people a variety of ways to integrate information, from tactile artifacts to stories of innovation to graphics based on the data.
Can you talk about the new technologies developed by designers and urban planners and their role in making carbon-free energy consumption a reality?
EF: Many of the innovations we represent in the exhibition are materials that contribute to the most energy-efficient building assemblies. These can be seen both in a full wall section of a new net zero building in Chicago, as well as through our materials wall, where you can see and learn about all the components. Another area called “Meet Your Electric Twin” shows how every gas-powered appliance has an electric twin, and one by one we can break our addiction to fossil fuels. Finally, we discuss many clean energy sources and their advancements, which of course includes solar and wind, but also less common sources such as coffee grounds and kinetic dance floors. Spoiler alert: we have one in space!
What kind of boundaries are you thinking of pushing to bring this exhibition to life right now?
EF: This is one of the first and largest large-scale exhibitions on energy use and decarbonization in the built environment, in which we expose startling data that will inspire architects and city dwellers to rethinking what constitutes a beautiful skyline. (An example: all-glass facades are not the right way to go.) We believe it is crucial for architects, designers and engineers to push back against default decisions, ask questions and maintain high bar. It is up to this community to change the face of what architecture can and should be.
What are some small (but effective) steps we can all take to adapt to a more eco-friendly lifestyle?
EF: This was another important aspect of the show, that we gave all visitors a sense of agency towards positive change. In fact, when the show comes out, there’s a pledge wall where people can write down the changes they plan to make once they’re gone. Some examples include driving less and biking or walking more, taking public transport, taking the stairs, switching to electric vehicles, writing to elected officials, buying local, growing food, lowering the thermostat, insulating our homes, installing new windows, switch to electrical appliances and installation of solar panels. Oh, and dance to our kinetic dance floor!
Can you talk about the power of design as a catalyst for change?
EF: Design excellence in sustainability can spark enthusiasm for new ways of building. An important point that weaves its way through the exhibition is that we don’t need to make any sacrifices to achieve a truly sustainable built environment. In fact, innovations in energy efficient materials and processes have produced some of the most beautiful new buildings. Good design at all scales can inspire people to make positive change. If you design an electric car with a unique character that sets it apart, people will covet it. It was the same for Apple products in the early 2000s. And it will be the same for the architecture of future sustainable cities.
What do you hope viewers will take away from this exhibition?
EF: I want visitors to feel empowered and to feel the urgency that this is an emergency that we cannot ignore. I would like everyone, from tourists to architects to civic leaders, to understand that they have to do their part and that collectively we can still come out of this crisis. We want people to feel like REVOLUTIONARIES, to feel excited about making change, and to feel good about doing it. To quote revolutionary activist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”
Of Greek origin, Vasia Rigou is a seasoned journalist, editor and producer of multimedia content mainly on the subjects of visual art, culture, architecture and design. She is currently the editor of Newcity, Chicago’s leading cultural publication, an editor and editor at the headquarters of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), and a regular contributor to international architecture and design magazines OnOffice and ICON. She has experience creating content for brands and writing influential conference keynotes and TEDx talks. Simply put: she is fascinated by uncovering the big stories behind the people, places and things around us, and sharing those stories with the world. When she’s not writing about art or looking at art — wine in hand — she’s making lists for just about everything, drinking huge amounts of coffee, and taking trips across the country. whenever she gets the chance.