Madlener House
4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Telephone: 312.787.4071


Tatiana Bilbao Estudio: Unraveling Modern Living
SEP 16, 2019 - JAN 11, 2020

Unraveling Modern Living is a site-specific installation by the Mexico City-based firm Tatiana Bilbao Estudio that transforms the former domestic space of the Madlener House to explore new forms of collectivity. Evoking the concept of the commons and rooted in storied examples of shared space—including the Greek polis, Renaissance architecture, the feminist movement, community structures, cohousing, public institutions, and appropriation architecture—the exhibition reconfigures the existing architecture to create a garden, a space for knowledge, a space for dialog, and a space for gathering.

Upon invitation to make an exhibition, Bilbao used the opportunity to experiment with making new kinds of spaces for contemporary life within existing architectural frameworks.  In the case of the Madlener House, a mansion designed for a single family in 1901, the original grand conjoined living room and music room on the first floor becomes an interior garden where users can connect with nature. This space hosts readings, children’s story time, movement classes, and an improvisational participatory performance by artist Anna Martine Whitehead, who will be in residence in the garden for the month of December to workshop her new piece, Force.

Bilbao’s interest in activating public space through this contemporary lens stems from her belief in the basic human necessity of community and the important role that these spaces serve to foster collectivity. She envisions these critical spaces as places that nurture, serve as refuge, inspire, and aid in developing identity. In light of the increased pace of modern life, the depth and complexity of human relationships, and penchant for digital over in-person engagement—particularly in urban environments—this installation provides space to nurture basic human needs, grounding this experience with opportunities to connect with nature.

Looking to the natural world to facilitate the return to direct human engagement, the    materiality of the exhibition underscores that the relationship with nature is fundamental, exists unconsciously, and enables communities to consciously relate to public space and each other. Here, the installation is activated, and content continues to build, as collaborative programming in the galleries embraces the inherent complexity of modern living to create spaces that support connection and encourage the creation of new relationships.

At the core of Unraveling Modern Living is a modular furniture system developed in collaboration with Emmanuel Pratt and Sweet Water Foundation. The plywood cubes of the system stack and fit together like puzzle pieces to form tables and shelves or stand alone as seats. The pieces create a simple infrastructure to support groups of people gathering, sharing knowledge, and engaging in dialog. In this same vein, Tatiana Bilbao Estudio designed a new 1,000 square foot garden for the Graham that features over 45 native and regionally appropriate plant species in soil amended by Nance Klehm, punctuated by large-scale volcanic boulders and intricate brick carpets that demonstrate the design ethos of starting with local knowledge, building methods, and materials that bring influences from Mexico to Chicago. Initiatives such as the perennial garden will continue to thrive at the Madlener House beyond the life of the show. Additionally, resources, including the furniture system and book collection relating to the commons, will move to Sweet Water Foundation once the show closes, continuing the community cycle.

Unraveling Modern Living is the product of Tatiana Bilbao’s 2019 Graham Foundation Fellowship—a program that provides support for the development and production of original and challenging works and the opportunity to present these projects in an exhibition at the Graham’s Madlener House galleries in Chicago. The Fellowship program extends the legacy of the Foundation’s first awards, made in 1957 and 1958, and continues the tradition of support to individuals to explore innovative perspectives on spatial practices in design culture.

This exhibition is presented in partnership with the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Tatiana Bilbao founded her Mexico City-based eponymous architecture studio in 2004. Her work analyzes site specificity and creates built environments through multidisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives. She has taught as a visiting professor at the Yale School of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design and Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Bilbao’s work has been published in Architecture + Urbanism, Domus, and The New York Times, among other outlets.

Tatiana Bilbao Estudio creates work internationally at various scales, translating vernacular social codes into architecture, to develop affordable and sustainable architectural practices. Highlighted projects in Mexico include: the Culiacán Botanical Garden; the Pilgrim Route, Jalisco; and the Biotechnological Center, Sinaloa. In 2015 the studio built the Sustainable House, a social housing prototype displayed at the Chicago Architectural Biennial. The work has been recognized widely with awards such as the Berlin Art Prize and the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture.

Unraveling Modern Living is activated by collaborative projects and on-site workshops. As space is limited, please complete an interest form (linked within each event) to express your interest in participating. 


The Weaving Mill
Macro Weaving Workshop

Saturday, November 16, 10 a.m.–12 p.m.

Cultural ReProducers with Christa Donner
Making It What We Need

Saturday, November 23, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. 

Cultural Reproducers with Hui-Min Tsen
Saturday, December 7, 10 a.m.–12 p.m.


Marita Gomis with MAS Context
La Ricarda: An Architectural and Cultural Project

Monday, October 14, 6 p.m.

Innovando la Tradición/Colectivo 1050º: Kythzia Barrera Suárez, Diego Mier y Terán, and María Bautista Leon
Lessons from a Learning Community of Potters in Oaxaca

Wednesday, November 6, 6 p.m.

Tatiana Bilbao
Unraveling Modern Living—From Domesticity to the Commons
Thursday, November 7, 6:30 p.m.
Presented in partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago Architecture Biennial at Rubloff Auditorium, 230 S Columbus Drive, Chicago, IL

Stefan Gruber
Commoning the City—Notes from assembling an Atlas
Thursday, November 21, 6 p.m.

Emily Frances Winter, The Weaving Mill
Wool Work
Thursday, December 5, 6 p.m.

Emmanuel Pratt
Sweet Water Foundation

Thursday, January 9, 2020, 6 p.m.


Sweet Water Foundation
Re-Root + Redux at The Commons
Wednesday, October 23, 1–3 p.m.
Hosted by Sweet Water Foundation at The Commons, 5749 S Perry Avenue, Chicago, IL

Nance Klehm
Ground Truthings: Local Soil Tasting + 3 Deep Maps
Wednesday, October 30, 6–8 p.m.

Innovando La Tradición/Colectivo 1050º: Kythzia Barrera Suárez, Diego Mier Y Terán, And María Bautista Leon
Clay, maize and tools for life
Tuesday, November 5, 1–4 p.m.

Archeworks and New Forms of Collectivity in the City
Wednesday, November 13, 12–2 p.m.

Fieldwork Collaborative Projects
Second Nature (Out of Order)
Saturday, December 7, 2–4 p.m.

Anna Martine Whitehead with Seth Parker Woods and Shawné Michaelain Holloway
Force Open Rehearsal / Jam Session

Saturday, December 14, 1:30–3 p.m.

The Graham extends special thanks to Archeworks; Colectivo 1050°: Kythzia Barrera Suárez and Diego Mier y Terán with María Bautista Leon; Cultural ReProducers: Christa Donner with Alberto Aguilar and Hui-min Tsen; Fieldwork Collaborative Projects; Stefan Gruber; Lurie Garden: Laura Ekasetya; MAS Context: Iker Gil; Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: Veronica Hinke and Michelle Pearion; Social Ecologies: Nance Klehm with Nick McMillan and Montreal Sims; Sweet Water Foundation: Emmanuel Pratt; The Weaving Mill: Emily Frances Winter; and Anna Martine Whitehead. Additional thanks to Christopher Abraham; Chris Cunningham, Loupe, LLC; Assaf Evron; Jim Fuentes, Fuentes Cabinets; Gethsemane Garden Center; Chandra Goldsmith Gray; Thomas Kelley; Mark Kuberski, Central Building & Preservation; Jason Lewis, Jason Lewis Furniture; Rock Valley Garden Center; Kyle Schlie; Brent Schmitt, Bricks Incorporated; Dan Sullivan, Navillus Woodworks; John Syvertsen; and Glenn Wexler. Finally, gratitude for Tatiana Bilbao Estudio: Tatiana Bilbao, Alba Cortés, Ayesha Ghosh, and Sebastian Vizcaíno; and the Graham Foundation staff: Vidisha Aggarwal, Ava Barrett, Alexandra Drexelius, Carolyn Kelly, Ron Konow, Jillian Lepek, Junxi Lu, James Pike, Dylan Rollo, and Alexandra Small.


Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, from "Unraveling Modern Living," digital collage, 2019