While working toward a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago, David Schalliol has spent several years examining the built environment of his adopted city both as an academic and an artist. In photographic studies such as his Isolated Building Series, Schalliol highlights the relationships between architecture, history, and policy, focusing in particular on the city’s historically underprivileged South Side neighborhoods.
After the break, you can read an interview we made to David a few days ago.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Sarah Wesseler
Can you give an overview of your sociological and artistic work dealing with the built environment?
I think my photography and my sociology more or less come from the same place. They come from a broad interest in inequality and in the built environment, primarily in an urban landscape, and in how we can use looking at the built environment as a way of better understanding life lived in that context. So the work that I do for the most part transcends both sociology and photography in the sense that I have these broad motivations that are aesthetic in principle, but are also really quite closely tied to a broader set of interests that I’ve also been exploring sociologically.
How did the idea for the Isolated Building Series come about?
It came about as a result of really just spending time on the South Side and the West Side of Chicago. I had been interested for a long time in abandonment and vacancy and dereliction, but instead of simply thinking of dereliction and abandonment in these purely negative terms, I was beginning to think about these absences in the environment—what is it that really goes on with them, are they truly vacant spaces? So I did some work focusing specifically on that issue, both sociologically and photographically, where I spent about three months sitting daily on a vacant lot on the South Side. I got to know people who spent a lot of time there, and also people passing through.
I started the project at kind of the tail end of what was a major gentrification boom in the South Side of Chicago, and as I began thinking more about those issues I started thinking about the relationship between the buildings and these other spaces—places that weren’t vacant for me anymore. I started to think about the history that’s present in those things, about what used to be there, what is there now, seeking to better understand the relationship between buildings that are present and those sites of abandonment.
A lot of your work is architectural photography in the sense that the main subject is a building or buildings. Have you had any interaction with or interest from the architectural or planning community?
I’m involved in a variety of projects, both academically and as far as just straight photography goes. A fellow graduate student at the University of Chicago and I are working on a longitudinal study called Fast Track. The city of Chicago has a fast-track abatement program. They identify vacant properties and require owners to make adjustment to them, and if they don’t make adjustment to them then the city reserves the right to demolish the building. From the city’s perspective it’s a public service. We’re going out once a week, or every other week, and taking photographs of buildings. Part of this is this fine art context and part of it is sort of policy-world too, in the sense that we’re seeking to better understand what happens in the day-to-day life of a particular building. So obviously that work directly addresses the planning community and the way that the city relates to the buildings.
So there’s that. I’ve had a number of conversations with architects, with people who do urban planning, about what’s happening to communities and buildings on the South and West Side. I think there is a concern about how planners, and also police enforcement bodies and so on and so forth, should respond to abandonment or vacancy. I’m not formally involved through that work with that community, but my hope is that the work that I’m doing can be another way to cut some sort of inroad into discussions about urban planning and urban history and so on.
There’s been a lot of discussion of late in the architecture community about how to deal with existing building stock and how buildings should relate to their context. Most architectural photography, however, doesn’t seem to have much connection with these issues, for the perfectly valid reason that it’s generally a commercial product designed to make an individual project look as good as possible. So I think that one of the reasons that I find work such as yours particularly interesting or resonant is that it explicitly deals with these topics. That’s not really a question, I guess, but I’m just wondering how you would respond to that sentiment, both as a photographer and as a sociologist.
Obviously one of the things I’m trying to do, photographing the buildings in the way that I’m photographing them, is raise the issue that we should pay attention to what it is that we see and what’s around us already. There are a lot of different things that we get by paying attention to that. We better familiarize ourselves with our own history, our own present, but also with the possibilities for the future. And as architects embrace LEED design, or as they embrace—I don’t hear anyone these days making arguments for superblocks or something like that, for example—as architects are changing the kind of tools that they use to deal with an environment that really is largely built, there are all sorts of interesting problems that arise. Hopefully we can think about sensitive ways of dealing with the built environment, and dealing with the neighborhoods that are in them.