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Must an Architect Build Buildings?

Young Chicago architect Marshall Brown translates a collage into architectural folly—for art’s sake.

Marshall Brown and one of his building collages   Collage: Marshall Brown; Photo: Molly Hayes

Does an architect have to build things? Marshall Brown, a young Chicago architect who teaches at Illinois Institute of Technology and consulted on the new Navy Pier redevelopment, blends art and architecture in a way that makes the question moot.

Brown’s projects live happily in the concept stage, on sketching paper, or in the mind. His proposals are either so ambitious—like the 2.7-million-square-foot utopia he proposed for Detroit—or otherworldly—like his abstract, cut-up collages of buildings shown at Western Exhibitions last month. Both genres mean there’s a slim chance the buildings will ever become a reality.

Brown is OK with that, for now. “Everything real was once a dream,” he says, a phrase he hands out so often that it has become like his slogan.

As a trained and licensed architect who doesn’t have a conventional practice, his work is accepted just as well in the art world as in architecture circles. “Art and architecture have a lot in common,” says Brown. “In both, we make things with our hands; both use drawing.”

While showing his models at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, he finds inspiration among his artist friends. “There is a freedom in the art world that I find really appealing,” says Brown. “Of course every architect wants to build things, but it’s more important for me to achieve, like artists, greater levels of creative freedom.”

He points out that the Iraqi-born starchitect Zaha Hadid, whose buildings have revolutionized the field, was also once considered a “paper architect” for many years before her radical designs could be funded and engineered.

What will it take to get Brown’s abstract structures off the page and into the world? The garden sculpture “Ziggurat” is a good start. Commissioned by the Arts Club of Chicago, Brown’s sculpture (on view through August 6) looks like a tree house designed by Picasso. The deconstructed structure is meant to provoke ideas about how buildings shape our experience of the city. In fact, the building is translated from a design that Brown collaged from cut-and-pasted photos of buildings he found in architectural magazines. The collage is displayed at his gallery show in the West Loop.

“It’s weird being an architect,” muses Brown. “There are so many stereotypes about what we do,” he says, but, like his Cubist collages, he’s working to smash apart the fixed order of things.

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