A Celebration Of Architecture At COCA’s New Photography Exhibition
“The inside exactly as I envisioned it, light—day and night—perfect.” This is how German architect Erich Mendelsohn, in 1950, described the modernist synagogue he designed on the corner of Trinity and Washington Avenues in St. Louis. For over 30 years, the building has housed the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), a nonprofit offering arts-based programming to the local community.
On December 1, COCA will unveil “Architecture in Focus,” a curated exhibition of photography by St. Louis-based artists celebrating Mendelsohn’s innovative approach to architecture. We sat down with artist and curator-in-residence Yvonne Osei to discuss the exhibition’s conceptual basis, community engagement and the role of architecture in St. Louis.
What do you think is unique about the role architecture serves in St. Louis?
I think St. Louis has many historical buildings that we take for granted—and Erich Mendelsohn’s synagogue is definitely one of them—but architecture also helps us to understand the challenges the city faces. For me, St. Louis’ history is documented in its architecture. From North St. Louis all the way to South City, those challenges are prevalent in the marks that buildings quite literally bear—the burning of QuikTrip during the Ferguson protests, for example.
Architecture—both the physical structure and its social implications—documents the passage of time. In this show, I’m trying to challenge our understanding of what architecture can be. Is it just the physicality of the building, or the absence of the building as well? I think expanding our definition of architecture lies at the heart of what Erich Mendelsohn was trying to do in his time.
Tell me about the inspiration behind “Architecture in Focus.”
In its essence, the exhibition aims to highlight the significance of the building; the fact that COCA is housed in a historic building by Erich Mendelsohn is very special not only for St. Louis, but for the United States. It’s the first Modernist synagogue built in the U.S. and Mendelsohn’s first commissioned building in the country after he left Germany before WWII. We hope to celebrate the ingenuity behind the building and honor the breadth of Mendelsohn’s work in architecture.
This exhibition has been in the works for quite some time. After I joined as guest curator in October, I brought in a wider scope of works and artists to be included. But I think now is a befitting time to talk about architecture, because we’re right at the brink of expanding the building to include a new a state-of-the-art theater. We are also planning on restoring what used to be a sanctuary.
We’re also always looking for fresh ways to engage our students and the public. We thought to seize the opportunity of our expansion to commemorate the work of the architect. Bob Millstone, grandson of I. E. Millstone who commissioned the building, is actually coming here to COCA for a program celebrating the legacy of the space.
What elements did you look for while selecting works for the exhibition?
It includes pieces from St. Louis-based artists of all ages, both emerging and professional. In particular I looked for graphic-based pieces offering different interpretations of architectural spaces and landscapes. We have artists treating architecture as a formal aesthetic element; we have artists viewing architecture in relation to the body, focusing on scale and human interactions with buildings; we have artists looking at architecture as a social and political symbol, and more. We hoped to collect works that would provide a wide sense of how architectural landscapes have altered our understanding of space, and, even deeper than that, of belonging in a space. Architecture also fulfills one of our basic needs: shelter. So I am also interested in highlighting the ways that artists think photographically about the function of buildings in our everyday life.
I’m curious as to why you chose the medium of photography to throw architecture into focus.
Firstly, we haven’t delved into photography as a medium very much this year, so representing that is important. But there’s an immediacy to the medium that I found intriguing. There’s a realness to photography—a documentation of what is, the power to make a structure immediately recognizable—but also a falsehood to that realness. It’s very much about the relationship between the object and the light hitting that object in a specific moment.
How has your background as an artist informed your approach to curating this show?
As an artist, my practice enunciates the verb of art. I’ve always seen art as a way to extend the object and embody an experience. I’m interested in what photography can do in conjunction with an architectural space. I want people to think about the importance of structures that we use on a daily basis—structures that we visit from time to time, and structures that represent a particular organization or function, whether it be a police station or COCA.
This curatorial residency is very exciting to me because community involvement is at the heart of COCA’s mission. As an artist interested in how to activate community spaces, that transition felt very natural to me. I was inspired by the opportunity to channel a broader dialogue between emerging artists, professional artists and the public.
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