Toloudi discusses vision for teaching and new public spaces

by Kaina Chen | 1/24/17 1:50am

Public space is an age-old concept, dating back to the agoras of ancient Greece, yet artists continue to reinterpret this concept through their pieces. Assistant professor of studio art Zenovia Toloudi explored the ability of architecture to make a space “public” in her exhibit “Speak! Listen! Act! A kaleidoscope of architectural elements for public space,” which was on display in the Strauss Gallery at the Hopkins Center for the Arts during the fall term.

The exhibition included a collection of 20 projects, some designed by Toloudi and others by her students. These projects varied in design but featured the same visual format. Each project included a design in white overlaid on a black square that was subtly illuminated so viewers could see positive and negative space, highlights and shadows. According to the Strauss Gallery’s press release, the collection emphasized three themes — “the presence of adaptive structures, the actualization of tectonics of democratization and the materialization of playful micro-tectures.”

With the advent of new technologies and the new dimension to public space in the form of the Internet, Toloudi believes that public space has become less open. Furthermore, these changes have moved public space further away from its original role as the center of democracy, Toloudi wrote in her article “Are we in the midst of a public space crisis?,” published on Jun. 7, 2016 in the open-source journal The Conversation.

In her article, Toloudi concluded that the key difference between public space and the competing virtual space is that online platforms offer users the ability to filter the voices that they hear, creating an “echo chamber phenomenon” where diversity of thought can be absent.

Combating the “echo chamber” is where much of Toloudi’s work comes into play.

“We typically do not see the people who aren’t on our social media feeds — being in the same physical space allows us to encounter people with much different opinions and interests,” said Orkan Telhan, assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. “The kind of artwork that catalyzes public space is usually the artifacts that challenge us to interact with those who are not from our class or familiar circles. Those works remind us about our civic duty of respecting others.”

In her article, Toloudi also emphasized that public space should exist for the entire public, both those who are privileged and those who are marginalized. She added that today, however, there are very few public spaces that prioritize this mission.

For Toloudi, architecture is a way to make the public space a space for everyone.

“I believe a lot in the power of architecture,” Toloudi said. “Architecture projects can inform certain actions — communicating, sharing, interacting, negotiating and speaking.”

In the context of her exhibit, “adaptive structures” serve as user-driven structures that have the capability to transform based on people’s needs and desires, accommodating a wide, diverse audience. “Tectonics of democratization” directly address the intersection of public space and democracy. The works are created to spur discussion and negotiation, with interactive elements to allow users to interact with the art. “Micro-tectures” emphasize the “public” aspect of public space, typically attractive to the community as it fosters a space to facilitate participation and performance.

Toloudi is careful to note the projects are tailored to specific communities and specific issues.

“The projects are brought together by the problems they try to address, which wasn’t a given,” Toloudi said. “Every project brings a different action.”

Telhan was also struck by the scale of Toloudi’s works.

“What I find profound is that her work uses small scenarios, instead of being big provocative action plans,” Telhan said. “They are very modest and tactical.”

Addressing this same concept on a larger scale, Toloudi said that her ideal architectural project would create an exciting environment that evolves over time, much like an “organism.” This project would have interdependent qualities and space to interact with its visitors in different ways.

“I would like to see, maybe in a building or on a campus, exciting social and public spaces, designed and built not for the sake of productivity but for our soul and well-being,” Toloudi said. “I feel that a lot of people are stressed out even in a beautiful environment, and I think architects can do more for the well-being of the individual and the whole society.”

“One of the things that really impresses me about her is how she pushes boundaries,” said Kim Poliquin, executive director of SHIFTboston, an organization established to promote interdisciplinary design. “She’s much more willing to explore facets that are other people are not willing to explore.”

This aptitude for exploration translates into the classroom, where Poliquin remarked how Toloudi uniquely engages with students. Noting that there are many professors and leaders in architecture who tend to keep students on a directional course, Poliquin said that “[Toloudi] nurtures explorations and is bold, daring in allowing her students to go to some really interesting places.”

Phoebe Novello ’17 was a student in Toloudi’s class on public space and said the content challenged her to “think of public space in a very different way.” She learned that public space does not fully appeal to the idea of being public.

Hoping to change her audience’s perceptions about Islamophobia, Novello focused her final project on the topic. She structured this project as layered benches that are seemingly tangled, a “cross between an adult jungle gym and a stadium.” As viewers climbed to the top and looked down on the structure, however, they could see an Islamic star.

“I wanted it to be an aha-moment, not just a ‘gimmie,’” Novello said. “You have to climb, engage with it and have an experience with it.”