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An orange, net-like, public seating structure placed outside, in front of a brick wall. Illustration.

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The architect who uses performance to open up public space

Through site-specific installations, Bryony Roberts addresses democracy, spatial justice, historic preservation, and identity

The orderly and predictable rhythm of the street grid dominates downtown Chicago, and Federal Plaza is perhaps one of the best examples of the city’s organizing principle. Built in the 1970s with urban renewal funds, it’s lined with square white granite slabs and is empty except for an enormous vermillion sculpture by Alexander Calder. It’s surrounded by towering modern skyscrapers, all with their own monolithic, rectangular grids.

So when Bryony Roberts, an architect based in New York, and Asher Waldron, a choreographer with the South Shore Drill Team, flooded this space with young, African-American performers for the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, it was a profoundly subversive act.

The group—dressed in white shirts, black skirts and pants, and emerald sequins—entered the space in orderly lines, hewing to the grid around them as they twirled ceremonial white rifles and flags and marched in steady cadence. Soon, a military-style drumbeat transitioned into rhythmic horns, all but drowning out the thrum of South Dearborn Avenue, and the performers’ choreography loosened into grooves that riff on HBCU marching bands and hip-hop. Federal Plaza was transformed by the bodies inhabiting it in their own defiantly distinct way. The unrelenting grid momentarily took a back seat while some of the city’s most marginalized bodies commanded attention.

As a performance, We Know How to Order is celebratory and exuberant and commands attention. In the context of Chicago’s deep segregation and legacy of inequitable civic investment, it takes on even more weight. We Know How to Order is a statement on spatial justice masquerading in spectacle, and this performance is precisely the type of work that makes Roberts one of architecture’s most exciting rising stars.

Working primarily in the public realm, Bryony Roberts Studio is a collaborative practice focused on how cultures, histories, and systems of power and politics are represented or erased in space. Through site-specific performances and installations, Roberts addresses themes of democracy, spatial justice, historic preservation, and identity in a way that’s widely accessible to the public.

Using play and entertainment as devices, she raises questions about how bodies inhabit space and how they might do so differently, and perhaps more justly, in the future. Roberts’s work is urgent at a time when the politics and sensibilities of public space are under more scrutiny.

Members of a drill team, dressed in black and white, waving white flags, on a patio with tall grey city buildings behind them.
The South Shore Drill Team’s performance in We Know How To Order in Chicago, IL.
Photo by Andrew Bruah

“I think of play as this sort of sneaky tool,” Roberts tells me during a visit to her studio in New York City’s Garment District—a space she shares with costume designers and graphic designers that’s filled with vintage posters, cabinets brimming with oddities, and a shuffleboard court painted on the wood floor that peeks out from underneath desks and tables. “You pull them in with play, and then you offer some more complex, nuanced layers of history. I like that method because it’s so important that the material is accessible, that the nuance becomes accessible. Otherwise it’s just alienating and not usable by anybody.”

Originally from Los Angeles, Roberts is based in New York City, where she teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning. While trained as an architect through and through—Roberts is from a family of architects, and she earned her B.A. at Yale and M.Arch from Princeton—her work isn’t what typically comes to mind for the profession. That’s partly because of her upbringing: “I grew up in an all-white modernist house, so I’ve always seen softness as a weapon to create sort of my own spin and my own pleasure within that environment.”

Discontent with modern architecture’s traditional focus on abstraction and form, divorced from the messiness of the real world, Roberts often uses tools that are taught in urban planning: community engagement, ethnographic research, and data-driven approaches.

Inspired by practitioners like Andrea Zittel—who uses architecture to investigate human nature—and Gordon Matta-Clark—who subverted architecture for social critique—she doesn’t design traditional buildings; rather, she’s interested in themes that modern architecture has often ignored.

“I was always frustrated with architecture being a very elitist field—that’s always bothered me,” Roberts says. “I’m so interested in all the things that are outside of what’s allowed in architecture—things that are explicitly bodily, that are about entropy, that are about the formless. All the things that can’t be easily contained in architectural representation, or that are not easily built and replicated.”

We Know How to Order is one project that engages with the fraught political and spatial landscape of Chicago. In a 2018 collaboration with the historian, curator, and architect Mabel O. Wilson called Marching On, Roberts explored similar themes of protest, celebration, cultural expression, and the right to public space with a drumline, drawn from the traditions of HBCUs, that performed in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. In the 2019 research project and museum installation Strong as an Acre of Garlic, Roberts explored the culture of female cattle ranchers in Texas.

A drumline, performance, in a park, with women dressed in white and capes of multicolor design surrounding them.
Marching On performance, Harlem, NY.
Photo by Jenica Heintzelman

This summer, Roberts installed her highest-profile project to date, Soft Civic, in front of Columbus, Indiana’s city hall. As part of the city’s annual Exhibit Columbus event, at which architects design site-specific projects in response to a prompt, Roberts partnered with two local organizations, Bartholomew County Indivisible (BCI), a grassroots organization advocating for progressive policy, and the Council for Youth Development of Bartholomew County (CYD), an advocacy group that advances the health, education, and safety of young people.

Responding to the prompt of “Good Design and the Community,” BCI wanted to host a bipartisan rally for Columbus. (The groups had previously hosted rallies, but weren’t reaching beyond the same group of progressives.) Roberts proposed an enormous structure for seating, performance, and play: A bright blue sculptural frame, based on Roberts’s meticulous studies of City Hall’s underlying geometry, held neon orange woven netting fabricated in collaboration with the Textile Workshop at Powerhouse Arts by a team led by Kelsey Knight Mohr and Kiah Vidyarthi.

The structure instantly counteracted the modernist design tendencies of Columbus, where Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, I.M. Pei, and Robert Venturi all designed buildings, and where City Hall itself is a low-slung, SOM-designed, 1980s brick box.

Roberts’s installation was also an instant hit. “We were still tying stuff on and these three kids come running out of nowhere, and fling themselves on it,” Roberts recalls. “They were posing and dancing and climbing all around it. And the parents were like, ‘Uhh, is this okay?’ and I said, ‘Yeah! Bring it on.’ It’s just the best validation for a project if kids want to go nuts on it. That’s the best feeling.”

During the rally, speakers discussed the power of democracy, read quotes from activists, and reflected on current social justice issues. Because the rally was affiliated with Exhibit Columbus and involved an artistic installation, BCI was able to draw new attendees to the rally and celebrate and validate a progressive voice that was marginal in the community. Meanwhile, City Hall shed its typical stoicism and became a lively place for the people. Even though the installation is temporary, it forever changed residents’ perception of City Hall from a walled fortress into something softer and more welcoming.

“Temporary projects change people’s expectations for what they are allowed to do there and what’s possible,” Roberts says. “Representation is really powerful, and it’s something that Mabel and I talked a lot about with Marching On: The way that young black people are represented, the way that people in public space are represented—it evokes possibilities of liberation expression that might feel otherwise forbidden or discouraged. Even with when the [Columbus] City Hall installation comes down, you have all the people who will say: ‘We used to play there, I wonder if we should do that again?’”

Children play on an installation of sculpture for sitting and playing that have a bright blue frame with orange woven netting fabric. They sit on a large green field.
Soft Civic, Columbus, IN.
Photo by Hadley Fruits
A detail of an exhibition shows intricate knots and long strips of soft red and yellow felt and slick nylon rope woven into intricate knots.
Soft Schindler exhibition at the Schindler House, Los Angeles, CA.
Photo by Bryony Roberts

While working at the scale of public space is Roberts’s main interest—“it’s one of the few things we can do as designers that can really change people’s experiences,” she says—her most recent project is much smaller and more intimate: a series of small woven objects for Soft Schindler, an exhibition at the Schindler House, in Los Angeles. It’s composed of intricate knots and long strips of soft red and yellow felt and slick nylon rope woven into intricate knots.

“I had been jokingly describing it as ‘the repressed unconscious of Soft Civic’ because there was a phase where I wanted to make the project more droopy and tentacly, but at that scale and being outside I had to be a little more restrained,” Roberts says. “Touch is a really powerful sense that we underestimate. And I think the subversive, playful thing about using touch is as a way to kind of disarm people’s expectations about how they should behave or interact.”

The pieces sit in a chair Rudolph Schindler designed for the house and look like little toy creatures you’d want to pick up and hold or play with. They perfectly encapsulate what Roberts’s work embodies.

“Roberts is one of the few practitioners I know that balances between the formal and informal, and questions of the social and questions of the discipline,” says Mimi Zeiger, an architectural historian and critic, and curator of Soft Schindler. “When we meet up, we have long conversations about how the architecture discipline needs to embrace these other vocabularies. She’s guiding architecture through questions of choreography, of performance, of movement, and expanding into questions of materiality. All of which she manages to do well because she ties it back to questions of form. She’s taking on a very difficult question and really trying to make work out of it. Not trying to solve it, but make work from it.”

In the future, Roberts would like to design a permanent public space, ideally in any of the places she’s created temporary works or in overlooked spaces in cities, like abandoned industrial sites. But her work in architecture is at least as much about ideas as it is about structures—it’s about proposing a new way architects can work, one that is collaborative, that doesn’t assume that an individual knows all the answers, that is deeply responsive to the particular conditions of a place.

“Even though the projects I do all look very different, they are all trying to start from specificity and the stickiness of an existing world—really throw myself into the mess of it and from that extract a sort of way forward,” she says. “And that, in my mind, is an inversion of what I was taught to do. It requires a different way of drawing and planning a project, a different approach to collaborators and clients. I’m trying to figure out that inversion. That’s the project.”