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Women in Architecture: Amanda Williams

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series at Optima, we’re taking a look at another spearheading female figure: Amanda Williams. Similar to many of the women in this series, she is a pioneer in her field. Trained as an architect, Williams blurs the line between visual arts and modern architecture. Learn more about her remarkable life and work below. 

The Life of Amanda Williams

Amanda Williams was born in 1974 in Evanston, Illinois. However, she grew up in Chicago’s Southside Gresham neighborhood. She graduated from Cornell University in 1997, where she studied architecture and was a member of one of the nation’s most prominent honor societies. After graduating, Williams moved to San Francisco and worked for a commercial architecture firm for six years before returning to her hometown to focus on her love of painting.

Back in Chicago, Williams discovered The Center Program. The Hyde Park Arts Center’s capstone program is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for groundbreaking artists. While in the program, fellow artist Trisha Van Eck challenged Williams to take her talents a step further and paint on a larger architectural scale. Her response led to some of her most recognized and celebrated work today. 

Throughout her practice, Williams uses vibrant color to draw attention to the complexities and intersections of race, place and value within cities. Her paintings, sculptures and installations are all created to examine how the mundane can be viewed through a new lens and question the state of urban space throughout the country. 

Flamin’ Red Hot, Color(ed) Theory, 2014
Flamin’ Red Hot, Color(ed) Theory, 2014

Notable Work

In 2015, Williams debuted her most famous project, Color(ed) Theory at Chicago’s Architecture Biennial. The critically acclaimed exhibition, featured in The New York Times, examines race and space on Chicago’s South Side. With the help of family and friends, Williams repainted eight abandoned houses in the Englewood neighborhood between 2014 and 2016 as part of the exhibition. Each house was decorated with specific colors Williams found in products targeted towards Black consumers. Still standing today, the eight eye-opening houses continue to push for further discussions on the complexities of race and space Chicago and around the world.

Chicago is home to another one of William’s most well-known pieces. Located at The Arts Club of Chicago, Uppity Negress was a site-specific exterior installation created in 2017. The work investigates the claim of courtyards as either public or private areas and addresses the vast roles that gender and race play in urban accessibility. 

While much of Williams’ work is located in or near Chicago, her aptitude for creation has led her across the United States. In early 2019, Williams was chosen alongside acclaimed artist Olalekan Jeyifous to design Brooklyn’s newest monument dedicated to Rep. Shirley Chisholm, part of a larger city-wide initiative known as She Built NYC. The monument is soon to be completed and will sit at the Parkside entrance to the neighborhood’s Prospect Park. 

A rendering of Williams and Jeyifous’ Shirley Chisholm Monument
A rendering of Williams and Jeyifous’ Shirley Chisholm Monument

Alongside her transformative work, Williams has been a recipient of many architecture and art awards as well as achievements throughout her career:

  • Chicago’s 3Arts Award, 2014
  • United States Artists Fellow, 2018
  • New Generation Leader, Women in Architecture Awards, 2021
  • Obama Presidential Center Design Team

Williams has lectured at esteemed schools including Washington University, California College of the Arts, Illinois Institute of Technology and her alma mater. Today, she continues to forge a lane of her own and blend traditional visual art techniques with the complexity of architectural design.

The New York Times Style Magazine’s Modernist Beauties

The New York Times Style Magazine released an article in early August compiling a curated list of twenty-five of the most significant works of postwar architecture. Of the buildings selected, three hold deep connections to Chicago and the city’s architectural legacy; The Farnsworth House, Amanda Williams’ “Color(ed) Theory,” and the Johnson Publishing Company Building.

A black and white photo illuminates the interior of a modern mid-century style home.
Farnsworth House interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1945-1951

Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House, considered one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpieces, sits on the isolated floodplains facing the Fox River in Plano, Illinois. Designed in 1945, the house was used as a retreat from the urban world for Edith Farnsworth, a native Chicagoan. The Farnsworth House was brought up repeatedly by the New York Times Style Magazine jury as many of its members admired the discipline displayed by the house’s design.

A vibrant blue house is surrounded by leafless trees and a blanket of white snow.
Color(ed) Theory: Ultrasheen, Amanda Williams, 2014-2015

“Colored(ed) Theory”

Chicago based artist, Amanda Williams’, “Color(ed) Theory” series was also selected as one of the most significant postwar pieces of architecture.

Williams spent two years on the South Side of Chicago painting abandoned and condemned houses based on colors she found in products targeted towards Black communities. The series provokes observers to think about the many complex forces that shape cities and their relationship to color. Using vibrant violets, teals, and turquoise, Williams metamorphosed the almost destroyed houses into works of art. The eight illuminating houses continue to encourage future discussions on the complexities of race, place, and value in Chicago today.

Bright sunlight illuminates the front of a modern designed building.
Johnson Publishing Company Building, John W. Moutoussamy, 1971

Johnson Publishing Company Building

John W. Moutoussamy’s 1971 Johnson Publishing Company Building located in downtown Chicago also made the New York Times Style Magazine list. The eleven-story building housed the offices of iconic magazines including Jet and Ebony, which represented the culture and style of America’s black community in the late nineties. The interior of the Johnson Publishing Building is filled with an art collection as well as opulent colors and textures reflecting the decorating styles of the 70s. Even today, the Johnson Publishing Company Building is one of the few urban skyrises designed by a black architect.

The entirety of the article can be read here.

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