Sociology grad student taking photos of Chicago’s demolished buildings

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting profile of a sociology graduate student who photographs buildings that the city of Chicago is about to demolish:

Since January, Schalliol, who is working on a sociology doctorate at the University of Chicago, has been documenting the city’s demolitions with photographs…

But even the worst houses, the ones that aren’t worth the work to keep, give Schalliol pause.

“There isn’t a time,” he said, “when I look at a building that I don’t think, gosh, this is a waste.”

He feels that most acutely in wealthy neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park and Lakeview, where nice old homes that in a different place or era would be coveted as vintage jewels are routinely torn down merely to make space for mansions and big condo developments.

He photographs them all with equal care, with appreciation and attention to detail, the way you might dress a corpse for burial.

“I want to respect the people who made the building,” he said, “who maintained it, who lived in it. I want to see the building not just how it is, but how it was.”

I wonder what Schalliol will do with all of this, particularly if it is for more academic purposes. I think there is a lot of potential here: buildings are a kind of collective memory. Styles of architecture, the people who live, work, and meet in them, and the collection of buildings in a neighborhood constitute particular social worlds. When the buildings disappear because of old age or disrepair, that social world disappears as well. For example, the demolition of the public housing high-rises in Chicago and many other American cities may be beneficial in reducing concentrated poverty but it also helps remove the concepts of poverty, race, and related issues from the immediate reach. (To be clear, this is likely exactly what some wanted – get rid of the high rises so the problems aren’t so visible. Unfortunately, this doesn’t deal with the root issues.) It can be easy to simply build something new in place of something old but this does help cover up what came before.

At the same time, I also don’t believe that all buildings should simply be preserved because they are old. Should Brutalist buildings be preserved to remind us of a particular architectural moment? Deciding what buildings should stay and go is a complicated process but at the least, I approve of people at least recording by photograph what buildings used to stand in particular locations.

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