IIT’s landscape architecture school is offering new programming to celebrate Caldwell with a series of performances and archive workshops.
By Zach Mortice
“The house is not a machine for living—it is the man’s sense of himself,” Alfred Caldwell once said. And in designing his own home and farm compound in rural Wisconsin, Caldwell forged a bridge between Jens Jensen’s Prairie style and International style modernism, an intersection of design currents that never solidified as much as its forebears. His most cherished project might be Chicago’s Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, where whorls of meandering paths orbit and shield views around a pond and an earthy, horizontal pavilion. But he was also one of the first American faculty members hired by Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and his lush landscape at the architect’s austere Lafayette Park neighborhood in Detroit provides a poetic counterpoint to van der Rohe’s crystalline rationality.
The landscape architecture school of the IIT is offering a multidisciplinary slate of programming through winter, “Alfred Caldwell and the Performance of Democracy,” which will harness the midcentury landscape architect’s legacy and character into a series of performances and archive workshops the school hopes will bring both greater public appreciation and study within the discipline.
Funded by the Graham Foundation, the series began in March with a lecture by Thomas Dyja, the author of The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, about Caldwell’s relationship to his Bristol, Wisconsin, farm and compound. It’s as autobiographical a work as can exist in the design of environments, and his most personal and intimate work. Caldwell plotted it, planted it, designed it, and built it with his family. The farm became both a metaphor for Caldwell himself and for humans’ place in the world.
Dyja’s lecture is an apt introduction to Caldwell, who existed at the disciplinary and geographic intersection of Mies van der Rohe, Jens Jensen, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The latter two were his intellectual and philosophical mentors, the first his most consistent collaborator.
Caldwell thought of Jensen’s Prairie style as “being a uniquely American expression of landscape, with the implication that it might also be a democratic expression,” says Ron Henderson, FASLA, the director of the Landscape Architecture + Urbanism program at IIT. Caldwell wrote poetry about democracy, conservation, and the “role that landscape and natural systems play in freedoms of people. He was a vocal advocate for the role that landscape architecture can play in a democracy,” Henderson says. Throughout, there is Caldwell’s idealized, Jeffersonian vision of the farmer–architect, advancing radical democracy and self-determination through landscape. Caldwell worked on his farm till he died in 1998.
An archive workshop on October 8 at the Caldwell farm will further illuminate the arc of his career. Henderson and the IIT architecture librarian and Director of the Graham Resource Center Kim Soss will lead IIT students and members of the public in creating a bibliography of Caldwell’s personal library and in documenting changes to the farm’s landscape since Caldwell purchased it in the 1940s. Another archive workshop on January 24 at the Graham Resource Center (which serves the IIT architecture school) will focus on Caldwell’s microcassettes and drawings.
On November 5, Soss will deliver a lecture at IIT’s Carr Chapel, exploring how Caldwell’s background and philosophical approach to landscape resonate through the social history and context of one of his greatest works, Promontory Point on Chicago’s South Side.
Situated on a small isthmus in Lake Michigan, deep into the South Side, its proximity to the leafy academia of Hyde Park’s University of Chicago and the home of so many African Americans made it a meeting place for disparate groups. For her lecture, Soss is collecting oral histories that unfold conflicting narratives of this place. There were the “dope-smoking teenagers,” she says, discussing the Vietnam War with soldiers through the security wire at the air defense radar towers that used to occupy the point. The site was also an LGBTQ gathering place and a zone for inclusion and conflict across racial lines.
Dyja says Caldwell grew up poor on Chicago’s North Side, scavenging bits of coal from the side of railroad tracks so that his family could have heat. He felt a sense of solidarity with any underclass, and used landscape to offer a refuge from judgment and a beacon of radical empowerment. “Promontory Point [was] envisioned in much the same way,” Soss says. “Because of its place geographically and sociopolitically in Chicago, it has been a strange liminal zone for various communities to interact.”
Oral histories will inform the next “Performance of Democracy” event featuring saxophonist Fred Jackson Jr. at Promontory Point on September 27. Associated with Chicago’s storied improvisational music collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Jackson’s sunset performance is thematically appropriate for Caldwell, who was a powerfully performative lecturer who spoke about landscape as if delivering a sermon.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to the Graham Resource Center as the Graham Resource Library. It has since been corrected. The story has also been updated to add Kim Soss’s role as the center’s director in addition to being its architecture librarian.
For more details or to join the archiving workshops, contact Ron Henderson at email@example.com.