A career turn to architecture from math, art

Sarah Blankenbaker

“The Garofalo fellowship is a rare opportunity to develop ideas that don’t yet translate neatly into existing outlets for architectural work,” says architectural designer Sarah Blankenbaker. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

 

Sarah Blankenbaker didn’t start college with plans for a career in architecture.

She was a student of mathematics and visual art at the University of Chicago, photographing Chicago buildings and spaces, when she discovered her new direction.

“I was interested in residential neighborhoods — not just how houses look, but how people leave traces of their lives and aspirations in the spaces outside. And some of my work was more about the visual relationships between buildings and grounds,” she said.

Blankenbaker, an architectural designer, is this year’s Douglas A. Garofalo fellow in the School of Architecture. The fellowship is named for the UIC architecture professor and Chicago architect who died in 2011.

“The Garofalo fellowship is, for me, a rare opportunity to develop ideas that don’t yet translate neatly into existing outlets for architectural work,” Blankenbaker said. “I see it as laying the groundwork for the coming years of my career.”

Blankenbaker has been on the architecture faculty at UIC for five years, teaching design studios and technology seminars. She also teaches YArch, a summer program “for people who, like me, discover architecture while pursuing other interests.”

Her fellowship project will explore how images influence spaces, from the 15th-century theories of Leon Batista Alberti, to picture windows, to digital animation. “The drawings Alberti explained in his treatise also described a space. This space found its correlate in Italian piazzas designed to be viewed as if in perspective.

“What, then, are the spaces elicited by the images we make today? I’ll explore this question both historically, through research, and through the production of artifacts,” she said.

Before joining UIC, Blankenbaker worked for Terreform in New York. At Zago Architecture in Los Angeles, she was part of a team included in the exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her writing has appeared in Log, Future Anterior and Time + Architecture.

Blankenbaker earned a master’s degree at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where her thesis, “Superposition,” was named best graduate thesis.

“It was a young, stand-alone school where people were making things in parking lots and out in the desert. I was attracted to the buzz and the hands-on work,” she said.

The nine-month Garofalo teaching fellowship has been awarded since 2013. The Garofalo fellow teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, presents a spring exhibition at the School of Architecture, conducts independent research and lectures at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

“I’ve enjoyed working with UIC students and I think they’ll be an invaluable part of the process,” Blankenbaker said.

The fellowship is funded by individual and corporate donations and grants from the Graham Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.