James Wines, the architect, artist, and founder of SITE Environmental Design, is something of a living legend. When the idea of form for form’s sake became popular in the architectural profession in the late 1980s — a trend that’s just now wearing off — Wines and his storied 45-year practice took the long view. A champion of sustainability, environmental conscientiousness, and architecture that responds first and foremost to its context and its program, Wines and his impressive output in architecture, product design, and sculpture are being revisited with urgency by a younger generation of architects who share — and hope to build upon — the architectural concerns he began exploring in the 1970s.
And so it’s fitting that Wines is part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, an exhibition up through January 3, 2016 that focuses primarily on much younger and less-established architects — many of whom would consider him not only a forefather or predecessor, but also an icon. Wines is best known for his comical (perverse, even) 1970s shopping center designs for Best Products, a now-defunct catalog showroom company. Yet his show at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, which was timed to open alongside the Biennial as a complementary project to the main exhibition, brings to light a slightly lesser-known element of Wines’s work: his drawings. And while the exhibition of flat files closed on October 24, the projects and themes they depict synthesize some of the wide-ranging narrative arc of SITE’s output. ARTINFO sat down with Wines at his studio in New York to get the lowdown on his drawings, his interdisciplinary work in art, and his altogether unusual take on the world at large.
The drawings at Rhona Hoffman Gallery span the breadth of your career in architecture, from the 1970s to the present. What are some of the concerns you’ve focused on in that timespan?
My whole career has been a critique of architecture. It really is problematic; you can’t really do anything effectively without the so-called “capitalist system.” Was it Schwarzenegger who said, “Did you ever get a job from a poor person?” That’s true! In architecture, it’s completely predicated on — and has always been predicated on — the rich. Somebody has to feed down the money to get this thing done. And then what is done is often so obscene in terms of energy and humanity… it’s very problematic. It’s profoundly problematic in terms of the moral values that are expressed in architecture. But, you know, the capitalist paradigm is also highly questionable!
What alternatives have you developed for working within this seemingly inescapable paradigm?
A good sense of irony, from day one. I was a Constructivist sculptor — actually pretty successful — before this. But I thought, hasn’t this been done before? I was always interested in architecture anyway. Then I started looking around in architecture, and I realized that the situation is pretty sad in many ways: die-hard formalism, and it’s pretty narrowly framed in terms of what most practitioners do. They’re not brains, exactly.
How would you characterize the role of drawings in your practice — as art objects? As technical documents? As both? As a bridge that allows your practice to exist between the two worlds?
It is a bridge, there’s no question about it. Clearly, the fact that our drawings have been selling so well over the past year to major collections… somebody finally figured out that they’re probably more art than they are design. Design drawings, especially computer drawings — I mean, who wants them? They’re mechanical tools. I wonder, who’s left that knows how to draw? But I think a lot of people are interested in the fact that ideas do emerge from hand-drawing. I do a lecture on drawing, and I have this thing at the beginning about the human brain… there are like 500 million, billion connections in the human brain that make any computer on earth look like child’s play.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.