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Eric Cheng's Award Winning "Cemetery for the Unclaimed"

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It's tough out there for up-and-coming architects, so every few weeks Curbed will shine a spotlight on some of Chicago's architecture students and recent grads. (They're our future!) Know a young architect we should feature? Hit us up on the Curbed tipline.

It has been a little while since our last Futures feature, but alas, here we are. Our featured architect is Eric Cheng, who received his professional Bachelor of Architecture from IIT in May and is presently practicing at the Chicago office of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. For Curbed Futures, Eric shared with us his final undergraduate work, a proposal to create a cemetery in Chicago's South Loop specifically for the unclaimed of the city.

Nesting: Cemetery for the Unclaimed

1. a circular structure of twigs, grass, mud, etc., formed by birds, insects, reptiles, as a place in which to lay eggs of give birth to young.
2. a snug retreat or refuge; resting place; home.
3. an assemblage of things lying or set close together, as series of boxes or trays, that fit within each other.
4. to settle or place (something) in or as if in a nest.
5. to fit together or within another or one another.
6. to make or inhabit a nest.

Every month, about ten to twenty people die in Chicago and remain alone in death. Found on the street, in a park or in an apartment, they are held at the medical examiner's office and no one comes forward to claim the body. The project proposes to create a cemetery specifically for unclaimed.

Out of fallen sticks and saplings, "Nesting" takes on the notion of transforming these seemingly insignificant individual items, into a meaningful collective whole. The collection of sticks loosely symbolizes the unclaimed, who all once had significance in society, but are now forgotten. The cemetery of the unclaimed seeks to restore their value and identity. These nests of sticks become a metaphor as the home for the unclaimed.

The remains of the deceased will be brought to the site and stored individually in steel pipes. They will then be orderly placed in rings of a spiral and serve as the vertical members around which the nest will be woven. Collectively they create a cluster of rings that form a community.

The cemetery will be burnt annually as a community ritual every winter. Through the process of burning, the nests are turned in ashes while the gravel paving is carbonized, leaving traces of what it once was. The remaining steel pipes will then be pounded into the ground, leaving only their caps (headstone) visible and allowing the cycle to repeat.

Curbed: What attracted you to architecture?

EC: The idea that architecture is a representation of our time and culture. I guess literature and music are similar in that sense, but architecture has the physical quality that we can observe, contact and inhabit; which is why I think historic buildings like the pantheon are so powerful.

Curbed: You were one of the last classes to go through the traditional Mies program at IIT, how do you feel it has influenced your take on architecture?

EC: To be honest I didn't know much about Mies before deciding to go to IIT, but I am very glad to be part of the legacy. Mies's approach to structure, space and materiality were emphasized in the IIT program and we have design studios that specifically focus on these aspects. I myself have developed an interest in materiality through the years, having been in studios that involved a lot of material investigations. The good thing about Mies's program is that his scope of practice was very comprehensive, that his approaches remain relevant even in today's practices. This is evident when you see contemporary architects repeating to reference Mies in their practices.

Curbed: How would you define your design process? Do you feel it is more of an intrinsic quality or one molded by IIT and your time in Chicago?

EC: I think it usually starts off very intuitively, by identifying a broad direction. And from there it begins with an iteration of studies that leads to a range of good and bad ideas. I think it is important to make a lot of mistakes while designing because it is from there we explore more possibilities and learn what is appropriate.

Curbed: You have earned high praise for your fifth year work, Cemetery for the Unclaimed, receiving the 2011 Art Institute Schiff Foundation Award and having your work featured in multiple exhibitions, how has this recognition affected you?

EC: I have received a lot of feedback from people in the profession, which is invaluable as a student. It certainly brought me extra confidence and motivation in pursuing architecture.

Curbed: What value do you place on your time with John Ronan at IIT?

EC: I had John as my instructor back in 2010 and I felt that was the semester I grew the most as a student. His studio has, as he would put it, a "bottom-up" approach. That means instead of developing a concept based on site conditions or programs, we started with material investigation, and worked our way up to find what the material leads us to. Perhaps the one most important thing I learned is how to proceed from step to step, and that there is not just one way to approach design.

Curbed: Your current firm, Smith and Gill, seems like an odd fit for a student whose work focused on smaller, experiential projects. How did you end up where you are?

EC: I have always wanted to practice in Chicago and to do so in one of the top firms here is a pleasure. It is, perhaps, an odd fit when you categorize our identities with building types; but I think we share the belief and ambition of good, responsible, forward-thinking designs.

Curbed: Much attention has been spent on your firm's proposal for the Kindom Tower in Jeddah, but can those of us stateside expect any Smith Gill works soon?

EC: Yes! (checks with office) But that is all I can say until it goes public.

Curbed: The conception of recent graduates working at large firms, especially high rise firms, fair or not, is that of endless work days of stair details and plumbing plans. Any truth to that?

EC: I actually got to work on a canopy— is that better? I would say though for a building to function, the design of these elements is just as important as anything else.

Curbed: What a politically correct response, Eric.

Curbed: Now to test your political correctness— Chicago architecture firms, once at the forefront of progressive design, have recently developed a reputation of "old men with old ideas" amongst recent graduates; where do you stand on the condition of contemporary Chicago architecture?

TB: Personally I don't have a problem with "old ideas", as long as they are good. I guess here in Chicago we have such a rich architectural history that sometimes people tend to overlook our present. I was just at the Design on Edge exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which featured architects practicing in Chicago such as Jeanne Gang and Ross Wimer, and all the proposals were mostly very forward-thinking. I wouldn't say Chicago is necessarily the one place to be for architects considering we don't build much nowadays, but we certainly have a lot of talent here.

Curbed: Well said.

Curbed: Thank you for your time Eric, and the best of luck in your practice.

Eric received his Professional Bachelors of Architecture from IIT this past May, and is presently employed at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture here in Chicago.