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A Theater of Human Drama and Urban Transformation

David Schalliol’s series (1) on the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation (2003-present) (2) deals with the literal dismantlement of the legacy of modern architecture, as demonstrated in the demolition of the midcentury social housing projects of the city of Chicago. In capturing these events, Schalliol shatters the aura of atemporality associated with modernism and the notion that it exists outside of history.

In his careful and personal portrayal of this process, which transcends traditional documentary photography to become its own genre, Schalliol captures the disassembly of the buildings in contrast to the vitality of their inhabitants. It is as if, in this approach, the architecture, a theatrical backdrop for daily life, becomes itself animated, putting forward the illusion that the buildings are receding into the mists of time as much as they are transforming to mark a new and uncertain beginning.

Schalliol’s photography is unique in that it appears to be equidistant from two of the main photographic currents of the twentieth century. If we look with some intensity at the history of documentary photography—admittedly an elastic and contended term—we quickly notice at least two differentiated and contrary lineages of photographers. On the one hand, we have the masters of reportage, focused on finding that decisive moment in which to pull the trigger in order to collapse a whole story into the surface of a single frame. This trend, best defined in both images and words by Henri Cartier-Bresson, was decidedly influenced by the humanist drive underpinning social photo-reportage of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and evolved to encompass the interest in the frail nature of human beings later explored by photographers like Diane Arbus during the 1960s.

On the other hand, we have the patient photographers of light and space, those in whose photographs nothing ever happens, yet we cannot help but read into their images the deepest resonances of our history as a civilization. Walker Evans’ images of rural churches in the American South are a paradigmatic example of this school of thought, one that distanced itself from both humanism and the social sciences and took refuge in the worlds of art and architecture in an attempt to find a deeper if only more uncertain form of truth. This trend, later adopted by some of the proponents of photo-conceptualism, as well by the whole generation of the New Topographics (3), including Lewis Baltz or Bernd and Hilla Becher, focused on the opaque evidence found in the built environment in an attempt to solve the riddle of our existence in the world.

While this differentiation, made here with a didactic purpose, is certainly coarse, it is also undeniable that one could categorize all photographers in the documentary tradition based on whether they include people in their frames or not. It is then precisely this perceived incompatibility that makes Schalliol so unique, as he has managed to resolve the seemingly irreconcilable scales and time frames of these two opposed modes of photography and their subject matters.

If I were pushed to look for a precedent for Schalliol’s documentation of social housing in Chicago, I would most likely settle for Berenice Abbott and her similarly long study of the changing landscape of the City of New York during the 1930s. With an early start in photography as an indirect disciple of Eugène Atget in Paris, and a later trajectory as part of the circle surrounding The New School for Social Research in New York, Abbott found herself in an intermediate position that very much echoes Schalliol’s equidistance between the fields of sociology and fine art photography.

It was precisely while focusing on an architectural subject matter, during a series of collaborations with the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock (4), that Abbott came to devise her distinct way to frame fragments of the city as theater sets that both prop up their human inhabitants and share protagonism with them. That keenness is due in part to the fact that in Abbott’s photographs of New York, the built environment is changing at such a speed that we can almost feel the impact of that change in the life of the characters that she foregrounds, rendering both people and buildings in a powerful state of instability.

It is precisely then by focusing on times of intense and sudden urban change that photographers like Abbott or Schalliol manage to synchronize the tempos of human drama and urban transformation, tying together these two threads into a single story, poignantly showcasing a sympathy between things and people, and presenting us with evidence of our responsibility towards the built environment and towards each other.


Photographs from the series „Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation (2003 – present)“ © David Schalliol. All rights reserved


The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) Plan for Transformation is the largest public housing reform program in the United States. The CHA has limited its role as comprehensive manager of the public housing system in favor of administering a network of private management companies. This transition is best expressed through the demolition of most of the CHA’s high-rise buildings and large-scale projects and the construction of mixed-income developments in their stead. As the organizational structure and built environment have been transformed, so have residents’ lives. While many residents report improvements in conditions, a significant number of residents struggle within the new system. This ongoing series follows the use, demolition, construction and reoccupation of these public housing projects. Source:


New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York), October 1975 – February 1976


The Urban Vernacular of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties: American Cities Before the Civil War, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Berenice Abbott, exhibition, 1934

20.Nov.2020 1759 views
David Schalliol David Schalliol

David Schalliol is an associate professor of sociology at St. Olaf College. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago. His writing and photographs have appeared in such publications as MAS Context, The New York Times, and Social Science Research, as well as in numerous exhibitions, including at the Belfast Northern Ireland Photo Festival, the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. He is the author of Isolated Building Studies (Utakatado, 2014), co-author, with Michael Carriere, of The City Creative (The University of Chicago Press, 2021), and a regular contributor to documentary films.
20.Nov.2020 1759 views
Jesús Vassallo Jesús Vassallo

Jesús Vassallo is a Spanish architect and writer. He studied at Harvard GSD and ETSA Madrid and is currently the Gus Wortham Assistant Professor at Rice School of Architecture. Based in Houston, Texas and Madrid, his work interrogates the problem of realism in architecture through the production of design and scholarship. He is the author of Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in Contemporary Architecture (Park Books, 2016) and Epics in the Everyday: Architecture, Photography, and the Problem of Realism (Park Books, 2019). His articles and projects have been published internationally.

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