Irene Sunwoo

Design Miami

Get to know the visionary leader of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Architecture and Design

If you hurry, you can still catch Jonathan Muecke: Objects in Sculpture, the first exhibition curated by Dr. Irene Sunwoo since she joined the venerable Art Institute of Chicago last year as the John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design. Dominated by an architectural white volume that shifts viewers’ gestalt perceptions as they move through the gallery, the unconventional installation highlights the young American designer’s affinity for dynamic interplay between objects and space. It also aligns with Sunwoo’s intellectually driven yet sensitive curatorial style.

Installation view of Jonathan Muecke: Objects in Sculpture, part of the Franke/Herro Design Series, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, 2022

Prior to moving to Chicago, Sunwoo was a long-time New Yorker who over the last decade built a stellar reputation as a writer, lecturer, academic, and curator. Her impressive credentials include an MA in Decorative Arts, Design, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center; an MA in Histories and Theories of Architecture from the Architectural Association; and a PhD in History and Theory of Architecture from Princeton. Her dissertation focused on the underrecognized influence of architect and educator Alvin Boyarsky.

Most recently, Sunwoo was Curator of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia University, where she oversaw a rigorous, experimental, and, as has often been written about her work, “revelatory” program enlivened by innovative exhibition design. Among her projects there, Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Eternal Gradient (2018); Cooking Sections: Offsetted (2019); and Torkwase Dyson: 1919: Black Water (2019) are particularly emblematic.

Installation view of Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Eternal Gradient, 2018, Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery. Curated by Irene Sunwoo. Exhibition design by Norman Kelley. Photo © James Ewing; courtesy of Columbia GSAPP

With much excitement about the new Frida Escobedo monograph coming out in January, for which Sunwoo contributed an essay, and eager to hear what we can expect next from her AIC department, we reached out to this rising voice in contemporary architecture and design discourse. Scroll on for Sunwoo’s insights into the future of the field.


Which recent book would you recommend to non-professionals looking to understand important new directions in architecture and design?

Offsetted by Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) is an edited volume that scrutinizes how natural environments are increasingly transformed into financial assets. Incisive, deeply researched, and global in its purview, the book asks architects and designers to reflect on how their “sustainable” and “environmentally conscious” practices might in fact be contributing to this system.

Two works from the AIC Architecture and Design Collection. Left: German Barnes, A Spectrum of Blackness: The Search for Sedimentation in Miami, 2021. The Art Institute of Chicago. Architecture and Design Society Fund. Right: all(zone), The Art of Living Lightly, 2015 (video still). The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of all(zone) in collaboration with Offscene Films. Photos courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago

Are there works in the AIC collection that you have a special fondness for?

A Spectrum of Blackness: The Search for Sedimentation in Miami by Germane Barnes. My first acquisition at the Art Institute! Oral histories and radical image-making converge in this set of digital collages, which constructs twelve scenes of Black domesticity in Miami. Though he is based in Miami these days, Germane Barnes is a proud Chicagoan. (In fact, he went to school down the street from the museum.) He told me that having his work in the collection is like a “homecoming.”

Light House: The Art of Living Lightly by all(zone). Led by the amazing Rachaporn Choochuey, all(zone) produced this short film for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial (I was part of that curatorial team). Set in a near future Bangkok, the film is a speculative vignette that considers the impact of urban development on the livelihood of the city’s young adults. It strikes a tender balance between melancholic and charming, but also a cultural chord in its presentation of Asian sites, sounds, and protagonists.

Installation view of Model Projections, 2018, Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery. Curated by Irene Sunwoo and Jennifer Gray. Exhibition design by Agency–Agency. Photo © James Ewing; courtesy of Columbia GSAPP

What are your thoughts on the metaverse and its potential impact on the future of architecture?

In order for the discipline to keep up with its rapidly expanding toolbox, architectural education needs to adapt accordingly. Liam Young was ahead of the game by establishing a graduate program in Fiction and Entertainment at SCI-Arc. The student work coming out of that program is certainly spectacular, but more importantly so many projects have embraced world-building and storytelling to critically address climate change, the legacies of colonialism, and social justice. There is more to it than just fiction and entertainment.

If you could live in any architectural icon (past or present), which would you choose and why?

OMA’s Maison à Bordeaux, for its madness.

Maison à Bordeaux by OMA, 1994-1998. Perhaps best known for the large elevator platform at the heart of the house, which moves freely between the three floors, the house is an architectural composition of iconic structural and programmatic gestures. Photo by Hans Werlemann © OMA

As a newcomer to Chicago, what surprised you most about the city?

Alleyways—which means no mountains of trash bags on sidewalks! This is a revelation to a New Yorker.

Which emerging trends, approaches, or practices in architecture give you the most hope for the future?

I recently attended a panel discussion on architectural archives across Asia, organized by Ikko Yokoyama from M+ and featuring a group of young curators—Robin Hartanto Honggare, Jihoi Lee, Setareh Noorani, and Shayari de Silva—who are reimagining and implementing curatorial practices that center Asian perspectives and cultural heritage. Their presentations were truly inspiring and give me hope for the future of architectural institutions.

Himali Singh Soin, An Affirmation, 2022 (video still). Photo courtesy of the artist

What’s currently keeping you busy?

In December we are opening Static Range, an exhibition (it is really a universe) by the artist and writer Himali Singh Soin. It is a lush and poetic project about entangled nuclear landscapes and environmental catastrophe, but also about how non-human perspectives can help us see a regenerative future. Both Himali and I are also so excited to be collaborating with the Chicago-based architecture office Future Firm, who is our exhibition designer.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t be afraid to fail. ◆


Jonathan Muecke: Objects in Sculpture is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through October 10th. Stayed tuned for the museum's opening of Static Range on December 10th. You can follow Irene Sunwoo on Instagram @_rinks.