Erin Foley’s first residency as an Urban Gateways teaching artist had a significant start date: November 6, two days after the presidential election. Foley, a recent addition to Urban Gateways’ roster, spent the first half of the 2008-09 school year participating in the New Teaching Artists Mentoring Initiative, run by Urban Gateways Artist-in-Residence for Professional Development and Curriculum, Amanda Lichtenstein. She was assigned to teach architecture and design in Ms. Spoelstra’s tenth grade geometry class for special needs students at Perspectives Calumet High School of Technology, located in Chicago’s South Side Auburn Gresham community. Along with a four-day training institute at the start of the school year, ongoing professional development workshops, and mentoring meetings with Lichtenstein, Foley’s five-week residency served as her introduction to the Urban Gateways teaching experience. Her plan: To engage students in art and important current events simultaneously by having them redesign the White House. Each student created architectural plans for a new building, striving to represent through architecture the change that a new chief executive could bring to the presidency.
Foley’s personal background made this project particularly exciting for her. After studying interdisciplinary art with an emphasis in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she went on to work for Aspen Green and as a personal assistant for artist Michael Rakowitz. After traveling to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, her art took on a new historical approach. One sculpting project, Bosporus, represented the collapse of the Bosporus Bridge in what is now Istanbul. Another piece, Green Homes Demolition, is a 1:100 scale model of urban reconstruction, examining segregation and negligence toward public housing in Chicago.
This interest in historical and social artwork led to Foley’s plan for the White House project. The introductory class sessions offered students a rich historical perspective on architecture and design: From ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian pyramids to Buckminster Fuller’s modern geodesic domes, Foley discussed architectural conventions and techniques with her students and illustrated how this history contributed to the Neoclassical design of the current White House. She even integrated Ms. Spoelstra’s geometry lessons by discussing the importance of triangles in architecture through the ages. To complete their designs students created plan, section, elevation, and perspective drawings to show their completed White House designs. Foley also asked them to include plans for renewable energy systems and green options. When all was said and done, the walls of Ms. Spoelstra’s classroom were adorned with detailed architectural sketches. The students’ accomplishments were two-fold. They not only learned an art form, but engaged with important cultural questions: What is our country’s identity? What might a new president mean for the United States? How can we as individuals represent these ideas through art? As Foley puts it, “I was really happy to incorporate architectural drawing and bring awareness of the fact that architecture influences and impacts our daily lives, and to use the discipline to design a structure that houses a person who has and will impact our future as a country.”