Context + Background: The Imagine Chair

World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities is the culminating programming for a two and half year cycle of work funded by the University of Minnesota’s Imagine Chair in the Arts, Design and Humanities.  Since 2014 an interdisciplinary group of faculty from the University of Minnesota (organized by faculty from the School of Architecture and Department of Landscape Architecture) have hosted a number of symposia, workshops, speakers and related coursework themed around ideas of infrastructure, resiliency, resource extraction/manipulation and climate change.  These events have included assisting in the hosting of Dredgefest Great Lakes in August of 2015 (, sponsoring a design workshop lead by Leah Buechley (MIT) + Diane Willow (UMN), conducting interdisciplinary coursework in the Iron Range and Northern Minnesota ( inArchitecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning,), co-ordinating a series of workshops on envisioning information, on visualizing landscape conditions as well as developing and running a speaker series that that included Professor Shannon Mattern (Media Studies, New School, New York), Professor Dilip Da Cunha (Architect and Urban Planner, Penn Design, Philadelphia) and Professor Karen Lewis (Designer and Architecture faculty, the OSU).

This cycle of programming for  the Imagine Chair in the Arts, Design and Humanities is co-lead by Professor Karen Lutsky (University of Minnesota, Landscape Architecture) and Professor Ozayr Saloojee (Carleton University, Architecture). Professor Saloojee, as the 2014-2016 Imagine Chair, is helping complete this series of events that begin with a graduate workshop (by Professors Buechley and Willow) and the sponsorship and hosting of Dredgefest Great Lakes at the University of Minnesota in August of 2015.  The 2016-2018 Imagine Chairs in the Arts, Design and Humanities at the University of Minnesota are Professors Arun Saldanha (Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Department of Geography, Environment and Society) whose project is titled “Prince from Minneapolis: A Symposium at the University of Minnesota” which  will combine outreach with teaching, research, and scholarly debate to conclude in April 2018 and Professor Tracy Deutsch (Department of History) whose Imagine Chair project focuses on food, its narratives of production, identity, mobility and justice.  You can see a timeline of Tracey’s anticipated projects here.

World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities began in 2014.  The initial vision was to connect multiple modes of inquiry, research, creative practice, teaching and public outreach themed around the title of “Resilient Infrastructures: World of Matter”.  The application was framed as follows:

The purpose of the project is to engage in cross-disciplinary exchange with academics, artists, researchers, designers, community members, public and private stakeholders that will concentrate on exploring the spatial, artistic, socio-cultural and geopolitical implications of the processes that are involved with resource extraction – and in particular with:

(A) Extraction – whether as physical material (as in the case of ore-mining on the Iron Range Mining, moving villages due to mine encroachment)or ephemeral (as in notions of loss of identity, of language and history, of displacement, of memory due to evolving post-industrial landscapes, rapidly changing cultural demographics… ) and;

(B) Resilience – either as the capacity of a system or group to maintain boundaries through durability, change and stasis (as is the case of infrastructural interventions to mitigate climate change or storm events such as dams, spillways, locks…) or as the potential of an ecology (whether human or not) to be resilient through kinetic change, dynamic equilibrium and flux (adaptive building surfaces, landscapes and flexible socio-cultural and economic systems…

This proposal seeks to explore how a varied group of stakeholders can help generate new methods of dialogue, exploration and representation to foster critical, critical and cross-disciplinary discourse that may help us re-frame contemporary discussions of resiliency, community and extraction is a more broadly connected human ecology. This project aims to investigate how we may investigate these particular notions through lenses that are both conceptual and physical, grounded and speculative, academic and civic, at scales both small and large.

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The diagram of the initial workflow, intersections and programming overlaps of our proposed program for the 2014-2016 Imagine Chair Submission – including additional grants, teaching, research and outreach opportunities.


In March of 2015, we sponsored a week long workshop – a Catalyst – in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota.  This ‘vertical’ studio combined first, second and third year M.Arch students into a single cohort to explore and investigate Ephemeral Facades. Lead by  Leah Buechley, a designer, engineer and artist who taught at the MIT media lab where she founded and directed the “High-Low Tech Group (and is also the inventor of the Lilypad Arduino toolkit) and Professor Diane Willow, a multi-modal artist who works at the nexus of art, technology, media, architecture and science (also an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota).  Their workshop invited participants to:

…imagine resilience as a temporary modality and facades as elements that transform, leaving only traces of their existence. This matter of resilience might ignite when charged with electricity, melt upon the accumulation of solar energy, deflate when pressures abide, or shift surfaces through dynamic changes in transparency, texture and color, or rattle and fragment in response to low rumbles or high pitches. While exploring environmental and social conditions that shape ephemeral facades we encounter as well the ones that preclude or conclude their material existence. A life cycle perspective in this context does not anticipate how best to sustain an enduring facade, rather it attunes us to how a façade might emerge and then become immaterial. What does this intentional transformation offer and how might it influence our experience of facades. Inspirations for this matter of resilience include cultural traditions that involve fire, wind, and water, strategies for adaptation among plants and animals, and the capacity for response, reaction and interaction when materials, computation and electricity unite.

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The poster for Leah and Diane’s workshop “Ephemeral Facades: The Matter of Resilience,” the first event organized through the 2014-2016 Imagine Chair in the Arts, Design and Humanities at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities Campus.

Our programming enabled us to help bring “Dredgefest” to Minneapolis and Duluth in Minnesota. After hosting two previous events – Dredgefest NY and Dredgefest Louisiana, the Dredge Research Collaborative developed Dredgefest Great Lakes, which was hosted at Rapson Hall at the University of Minnesota.

DredgeFest Great Lakes is a symposium, field expedition, and speculative design workshop about the human manipulation of sediments. It is an encounter between government agencies, designers, theorists, academics, corporate practitioners, industry experts, students, and the public.It will be held in two Minnesota cities, Minneapolis and Duluth, from August 14-21, 2015. The theme for DredgeFest Great Lakes is Shifting Baselines. The phrase “shifting baseline” was introduced in landscape architect Ian McHarg’s famous manifesto Design With Nature. It has since become a key conceptual tool in environmental circles. In 1995 a paper by Daniel Pauly showed that fisheries experts tended to think in terms of the state of the environment at the beginnings of their career. Baselines shift as new generations grow up thinking that whatever they grew up with was natural, ignoring exactly how much things has already been changed before they were born. But ‘shifting’ needn’t be a passive verb. Baselines can be shifted with care and intent. For DredgeFest Great Lakes, we propose to think both about how baselines have been shifted and how they could be shifted in the future.

DredgeFest will bring together practitioners and stakeholders from a range of groups deeply concerned about these issues and offer participants an opportunity to explore the strange current conditions and long term future of the region. This year, we are very pleased to announce that Mark Smout – of the renowned London based office Smout Allen will be leading one of the workshops. Kristi Cheramie (a landscape architecture and faculty member at the OSU) will be leading a second workshop and Matthew Spremulli (an architect from Toronto and faculty member at the University of Waterloo) & Fionn Byrne (a landscape architect and faculty member from The University of Toronto) will be leading a third. 

The first DredgeFest was held in New York City on September 28 and 29, 2012. DredgeFest NYC was organized in partnership with Studio-X NYC, an arm of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; sponsored by Arcadis, TenCate, and TWFM Ferry; and featured speakers and content from agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and New York City Economic Development Corporation. The event was covered in The Atlantic Monthly, Wired Design, Urban Omnibus,Dredging Today, Scenario Journal, Landscape Architecture Frontiers China, and Landscape Architecture Magazine. The second DredgeFest was held in Louisiana from January 11 to 17, 2014. Partners included the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, the Coastal Sustainability Studio at Louisiana State University, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Gulf Coast Public Lab, and Scenario Journal.

DredgeFest Great Lakes is organized by the Dredge Research Collaborative, in partnership with the University of Minnesota’s School ofArchitecture and Department of Landscape Architecture. DredgeFest Great Lakes is supported by funding from the University of Minnesota Imagine Chair in the Arts, Design and Humanities and and the University of Minnesota Imagine Special Events Fund.

The organizing team and the Dredge Research Collaborative secured additional funding (both internal to the University and external to it) to help support Dredgefest Great Lakes programming, and included the assistance of the College of Design, AIA-MN, MN-ASLA and others.

In the following year, we organized a series of workshops and lectures – jointly hosted by the School of Architecture, the Department of Architecture and the Department of Art. The lecture series began with Professor Shannon Mattern (Media Studies and Communications from the New School in New York City) who lectured on “Mining Spatial Practices.”  Professor Mattern also participated in a series of conversations with students and faculty on data, archives, and archival methods during design reviews for an interdisciplinary graduate studio.

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Lecture poster for Professor Shannon Mattern’s public talk on “Mining Spatial Archives”

Professor Mattern’s lecture was followed up by a workshop and lecture by Professor Karen Lewis from the Ohio State University. Professor Lewis lead a workshop on visualizing information, where students read a text by John McPhee and were required, while working in teams, to develop a set of visualizations that helped communicate the complex narrative of the infrastructural system that McPhee writes about. In addition, Professor Lewis also presented a lecture that explored her work – which works at the intersection of architectural design, graphic design and graphic communication.

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The poster for Karen Lewis’s public lecture, “The Archaeology of Movement”

The lecture series concluded with Professor Dilip da Cunha – an architect and urban planner teaching in Philadelphia where he is Adjunct Professor in the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also visiting faculty at Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, and Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. He is author with Anuradha Mathur of Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (2001); Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (2006); Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary (2009); and Design in the Terrain of Water (2014). His most recent book (in review) is titled The Invention of Rivers: Alexanders’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent. Professor da Cunha’s lecture was titled “After Rivers / After Landscape” and posited that:

Rivers are not natural entities. They are products of design that follow from the act of separating water from land with the help of a line in a chosen moment of the hydrologic cycle when water is not precipitating, seeping, soaking, evaporating, transpiring, etc. in ways that defy delineation. So today when rain from storm events, melting snow and receding glaciers exacerbated by climate change are defying riverbanks and coastlines with increasing frequency across the world, it is an opportunity to look beyond rivers. This presentation will explore design in the moment of rain when what is had is not a landscape divided between land and water but a ubiquitous wetness. 

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The lecture poster for Dilip da Cunha’s lecture ” After Rivers / After Landscape”

This lecture series programming was followed up by a workshop lead by by Michael Gordon (from AWH Architects in Minneapolis and a 2014 Jerome Fellow in Printmaking from the Highpoint Center for Printmaking) as well as the Landscape Architects Maura Rockcastle and Ross Altheimer from Ten x Ten Landscape Architecture + Urbanism (Minneapolis).  Maura, Ross and Michael lead a weekend long workshop with graduate students aimed at exploring and testing how we can represent, speculate and imagine new landscape and spatial forms and drawings from modelling exercises using concrete, plaster, paper and plexiglass.  Students who participated in this workshop were enrolled in the multidisciplinary graduate design studio titled “Design Duluth,” which featured as one of the core “vectors” in the original program diagram (at the top of this post). This workshop was also co-funded through an internal School of Architecture grant (to an additional $10,000).

This design studio has been running since 2012 and has historically focused on the City of Duluth, Minnesota, as a site for a community engaged design studio. Working closely with city officials, the office of the Mayor and a network of over 40 public, private, business and individual stakeholders, the Design Duluth Studio was awarded a $192,000 Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant to look at resilient futures for the Lake Superior city.  This project has included faculty from the UofMN’s Twin Cities and Duluth campuses and was a core component of the Imagine Chair’s programming to emphasize the University of Minnesota’s commitment as a Land Grant University but also of the creative potential of interdisciplinary faculty and students working with – and in – communities in our own backyards.  As part of the studio, faculty and students assisted in developing a series of pop-up events in and around Duluth – including linking to the history of the Iron Range with historian-lead tours of Morgan Park, current parks and city initiatives, clean-up and restoration efforts along the St. Louis River Estuary and more.

This cycle of the Imagine Chair programming linked together these workshops, lectures, public engagement efforts, teaching and research to leverage a creative and multi-disciplinary approach aimed at exploring the themes of the proposal. The first year of the programming was seen as “generative,” producing material, connections, relationships and links between people, processes and content and the final part of the program was meant to act as synthesis – pulling together these elements into a final project that fully embraces the nature and spirit of the Imagine Chair mission and its desire to catalyze research, scholarship, artistic and creative practice at the University of Minnesota.  All this builds to World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities.  We hope you see you in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota in September of 2017.


As a catalyst, the Imagine Chair has afforded the opportunity to expand this work over the past three years into a momentum that has propelled multiple initiatives beyond the end of the symposium and exhibition in 2017. These include:

  1.  Our recent designation (a collaboration between the Center for Sustainable Building Research, School of Architecture, Department of Landscape Architecture, Center of Changing Landscapes, Institute on the Environment, CURA’s Resilient Communities Project and professional partnerships with HGA Architects and Engineers and Perkins & Will Architects) as the Upper Midwest National Resiliency Studio – one of six currently in operation in the United States.
  2. Continued interdisciplinary teaching and research across the University of Minnesota with our efforts in the Grand Challenges Curriculum.
  3. National and international partnership efforts aimed at critical research, scholarship and creative practice around water and our watersheds, including collaborations with the Great Lakes Design Lab [GLDL], in development at the University of Minnesota), as well as the Carleton Urban Research Lab [c.url], at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism in Ottawa, Canada.

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