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ARIA Curates a Civil Rights Law Office

Jessica Walker floor rendering

This summer, an integrated studio of third- and fourth-year Interior Architecture students proposed an adaptive reuse of the Windsor Building (1964) in Montgomery, Alabama. Kevin Moore, Matt Hall and Rebecca O’Neal Dagg led the studio and accompanying courses in History/Theory, Research and Professional Practice.

While the client was hypothetical, the size and focus of the law practice was based on the Equal Justice Initiative [EJI] in Montgomery. Founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson is a well-known public-interest lawyer, and his recent book, Just Mercy, is the Auburn University Common Book for 2016-2017.

The reuse of the building required carefully curating furniture, lighting, objects and interior and exterior surfaces. Curation—collecting, selecting and assembling items—adds value without resorting to wholesale invention. Rather than starting with a blank canvas, curation assumes selecting from a profusion of options is a creative act.

Focusing on curation, students traveled to New York to study the work of Philip Johnson (1906-2005). Considered by some a dubious architect, Johnson was at the vanguard of every major shift in architectural style during the 20th century. Grumblings over his talent often mask deep resentment for the guiding authority he exercised over American architecture for almost 75 years. He seems not to have invented much, but he meticulously curated everything: paintings, sculpture, architecture, architects, and the perpetual reinventions of himself. Some of his interiors, including the Glass House and the Four Seasons restaurant, are considered masterworks of Modernism.

The trip to New York allowed the studio to study a substantial body of Philip Johnson’s work including the New York State Theater (1964) and Avery Fisher Hall (1976) at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden (1953) at the Museum of Modern Art; the Glass House (1949-2005); and the Four Seasons (1959) before its furniture and fittings were dispersed by auction in July 2016. Through careful observation, the studio better understood the range of Johnson’s work from landscapes and urban spaces to public and private interiors.

While Johnson’s work is often sumptuous, his work suggests curation is a practical method to coordinate choices of furniture, objects, lighting and surfaces. The work of the studio outlines what choices may be appropriate and meaningful for a civil rights law office with a public dimension. An exhibit of student work from the studio was on display in the Dudley Commons Gallery in August.