Thomas Kelley Vows to Focus Solely on Drawing in Rome

March 20, 2014
Self-Portrait From the Hip
Preparatory Drawings and Manuscript
Lincoln Log Cabin, Exploded Elevation. From Cinque Mostre: Time and Again. Photograph by Altrospazio
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Thomas Kelley is the winner of the James R. Lamantia, Jr. Rome Prize in Architecture and a Visiting Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Partner at Norman Kelley, LLC, in Chicago, IL and New York, NY.

What part of the United States did you come from?

Home has always been a tricky place to locate. For the past four years I have been living in Chicago, Illinois where I teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture. My practice, Norman Kelley, is split between New York and Chicago. My family is split between Boston and Northern Virginia. Finally, I was born in Canberra and brought up on four continents. In short, I tend to call the most recent billing address home.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

I think Rome Prize and I see a lot of shadows. Shadows of Kahn, Venturi, Graves and more recently those of Reiser, Mayne, Williams, Tsien, and Zago to name but a few. Sometimes it’s impossible to see anything else. You need to be pushed or you run the risk of forever stalling. My push came from my close friend and UIC colleague, Sean Lally (FAAR ’12). His confidence gave me confidence when he encouraged me to apply. Moreover, my work had hit a point where being in Rome mattered. After completing the Reyner Banham Fellowship at the University at Buffalo the previous year, my fascination with optics heightened. Studying drawings, prints, and photographs no longer sufficed. I needed a physical education. Rome, the point of origin for visual practices that it is, seized my attention. And now the shadows keep on multiplying.  

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far?

It's fairly cliché at first. The poster child for my research proposal is Borromini’s forced perspective portico at the Palazzo Spada, but not for the reasons you would imagine. Thanks to Giulia Barra, I was granted access to enter the space and experience the illusion from its opposite end. At first glance it reminds you of the back of a graphic t-shirt, i.e. inarticulate, underwhelming, forgettable. After a few moments, however, you start to appreciate how its blankness and lack of a single focal point produce a more profound visual effect than its front—in essence, a reversible facade. I'm sure others have experienced it too, but as far as I know, it was never meant to be shown from that vantage point.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

It isn’t so much that the project has changed, but rather that it has been reshaped; made more robust by repetition and openness. A previous fellow gave me some good advice before I left for Rome. She said, “be irresponsible.” And no she didn’t mean I should get arrested. There comes a point in one’s work where the work is all that matters. You tend to blow off committees, dismiss conflictual opinions, and worst of all, stand your partner up for a lot of dinners. Unfortunately and in my experience, that's the ticket to making anything worthwhile. Those compromises, however, eventually wear on you, the work, and on those around you. Since arriving to Rome, however, I tend to say “yes” to most invitations. In doing so, the audience grows; you see more, share more, and openly invite resistance, scrutiny, even failure at times. That is a good thing. On any given night I am subject to defend a position like “drawing is architecture” to a composer, a fiction writer, or a religious studies scholar. More often than not they are quick to requite the gesture.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

My practice has been working on a small compendium of one-liners and drawings for Jimenez Lai’s book series, Treatise. Our volume, Eye-con, is about trickery and misquotation in architecture. If all goes well, I hope it can envelop the two- and three-dimensional eye candy of my research and experiences in Rome. Mostly, I look forward to putting a bow on it before I leave and sharing it with my friends and colleagues back in the states. Hopefully others too if they are interested.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

Over the past four years I spent substantial hours fabricating most of my practice’s built work. This year I vowed to focus solely on drawing. Though already I am realizing that the types of drawing I’m tending towards require me to take on more physicality, more action. For example, there is a large in situ drawing I am planning to do within the McKim, Mead, and White building. It is in a very awkward space and is likely to expend a lot of energy; possibly some acrobatics provided I get approval.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

How easy it is to think you are lost only to realize that you have been there before. The multiple approaches and overlapping vantage points of Rome love to toy with your eyes. It would seem that the city is constantly shifting, trying its best to disorient you. Beyond a city, Rome is a game of memory. It’s easy to forget how familiar something may or may not be. So you play and ofttimes just pretend you get it.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

Now for one of the worst pieces of advice I have ever received.  Very early in my education I was told: “don’t bring your work home with you.” Well, there are 30+ artists and scholars here who seem to do pretty well at defying that logic. You learn to accept that every experience, whether its closely related or not to your field, is bound up in value. The Academy has reinforced what I already knew and that is to never count anything out.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

It’s still too early to speculate on what this prize means. I will say, however, that it has allowed me to practice more patience when it comes to looking. Just looking. For someone who finds value in architecture’s visual games, it’s important to move beyond casual spectatorship. That patience has translated onto the drawn page and while there are still deadlines, I find myself procrastinating less with more time to dwell on a single drawing. It’s the sort of luxury to which I’m not accustomed.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? Or in Rome?

My studio’s front stoop. From its low perch I like pretending that I live in a neoclassical torretta where my rent is covered by my drawings.