Nina Cooke John on her architecture, her art and her ambitions


Nina Cooke John on winning the 2022 American Artists Fellowship

Architect Nina Cooke John and 63 other artists working in ten disciplines have been announced 2022 USA Fellows by Chicago funding body United States Artists

Architect Nina Cooke John is one of 63 artists working in ten disciplines who were recently announced as 2022 USA Fellows by Chicago’s national arts funding organization, United States Artists. The prestigious recognition includes $50,000 cash prizes for a range of creatives, and winning studios include architects Dream The Combine, Germane Barnes, Design Earth and SO-IL. Among the winners is also the dynamic young studio of Nina Cooke John, founded in New York in 2018.

Cooke John teaches and draws, and his work ranges from private homes to cultural buildings. She notably won the competition for a monument in honor of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in New Jersey, intended to replace a now removed statue of Christopher Columbus on Washington Square in Newark.

We caught up with the architect to talk about her practice, her plans for the future and what this recognition means to her.

Wallpaper* meets Nina Cooke John

Wallpaper*: Who is Nina Cooke John and what does your studio do?

Nina Cooke John: I am an architect and artist with a multidisciplinary practice. I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and my experience as an immigrant informs much of my work. My studio has primarily focused on residential architecture and has recently expanded to include public art. With art playing a bigger role in how we understand the relationship between people in space, we are able to create art and architecture that mutually inform and overlap on multiple scales. .

W*: What projects are you working on at the moment?

NYC: I am working on a house project in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the construction of which has just started at the beginning of the year. I’m glad to see him go up. I am also in the early stages of brainstorming ideas for a public art project to be installed on the waterfront in Alexandria, Virginia. Developing our proposal for the Harriet Tubman Monument in Newark, New Jersey has most of my attention right now. The project has several moving parts, as we incorporate a robust combination of community entry elements – with touch and audio components – that will be integrated into the monument. We are working with the makers on the details so that the final product is impeccably crafted and beautiful.

Architect and artist Nina Cooke John. Photography: Ball and Albanese

W*: What excites you about architecture?

NYC: As a society, we have only recently realized how powerful an architecture of tools is in shaping our lives. Architecture has the power to promote a sense of place – a sense of home – whether in private or public spaces. I am excited about how architecture can promote civic engagement. Through the power of placemaking – creating public spaces in which people engage with their community, meet neighbors, make friends and create memories – architecture can promote political action. As members of any community have the space to be seen, they connect to the place and their role as active members of society.

W*: What would be your dream project?

NYC: I just developed a folder for my students at Columbia University for a project that I would like to do myself. The studio approaches fugitiveness and sanctuary—examining both the Underground Railroad and the sanctuary movement in the Hudson Valley—through the common lens of abusive labor practices in the agricultural industry, past and present. present. Students will create a collection of spaces that will be a historical marker of the pre-war collective network while acknowledging the ongoing tyranny that keeps undocumented immigrants in a constant state of fear. So my dream project would be to design a cultural institution that acts as a memorial, museum, sanctuary, and community space that takes advantage of the natural environment, history, and current social conditions to inform how it engages the landscape and the people.

W*: Who and/or what influences you? What references do you like to use?

NYC: I often refer to city life; this urban condition where several things are happening at the same time, people from all walks of life colliding and the beauty that emerges from this intensity. I keep coming back to the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and how insertions into the landscape can transform how we understand place, both while the installation is there and after it’s gone – we see it in a way totally new just because of this disruption. I also thought of the human body; how we exist, engage and move through space individually and collectively. Sculptor Basil Watson is known for landmark pieces like the recently installed Martin Luther King Jr statue in Atlanta. I’m always thrilled to see his character designs show up in my Instagram feed. He explores the multiple expressions of the body, sometimes with agonizing contortions, (the race is an example) which reveal a human rawness that I find spellbinding.

Rendering of the Harriet Tubman Monument

W*: What does the United States Artists Fellowship mean to you?

NYC: This price is huge. It is a recognition of the beginning of my work at the interstices of art and architecture. I say “a beginning” because it will allow me to continue to develop this work in a more deliberate way.

W*: What do you plan to do with the sum of the prize?

NYC: I bought myself a new camera. My last was a Pentax K1000 which I bought in 1992 as a student. I plan to use the camera as an essential tool for observing public landscapes of various types. I plan to spend more time on non-client-focused work – experimental and exploratory work.

W*: Where do you see your studio in ten years?

NYC: In ten years, I will still have a multidisciplinary practice, equally between the worlds of art and architecture. We will have more institutional projects that engage the public around cultural programming. We will continue to make public installations of sculptural pieces that encourage engagement and interaction. We will also have expanded residential work to include more home projects that creatively engage the landscape with innovative form and detail. §


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