An image features a woman and child in a village in northern Thailand (1989).
Photo courtesy James Warfield
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Architecture professor and world traveler extraordinaire James Warfield returned briefly to the Illinois campus in January following the opening of his “Roads Less Traveled” photography exhibition in Shanghai. He stuck around long enough to unpack his suitcase, do laundry and re-pack before embarking on his next journey: a return trip to Rajasthan, India.
Such are the rhythms of Warfield’s life. A world traveler since his student days, the architecture professor has for the past four decades made a career of traversing the globe in search of stellar examples of vernacular architecture – and documenting the structures and the people who inhabit them through photography, drawings and journal entries. The professor describes vernacular architecture as “non-pedigreed” – buildings built by the people, without the involvement of architects or contractors.
Warfield’s lifelong pursuit and documentation of such dwellings was the focus of the recent exhibition, which closed this week at Z58 – a celebrated building designed by another architect with ties to Illinois: the world-renowned Kengo Kuma. The Japanese architect, a former Plym Distinguished Professor, has been a frequent visitor to the UI campus.
The exhibition grew from a more ambitious project – a new book by the same title, published by Time+Architecture, China’s leading architectural journal. Warfield said the book features 400 color photographs representing 34 distinct “culture areas,” with each of its 34 chapters presented in three parts: “full-page color photos documenting rich, textural ‘places’; a gallery of portraits, ‘faces’; and a series of travel journal entries selected from spontaneous accounts written on site in each culture area, ‘words.’ ”
Both projects represent a collaboration between the UI professor and Gao Bei, the chief executive officer of UN+Architects, a major Chinese architectural firm. The firm provided the design resources and services for the current book, which includes both English and Chinese text.
When Warfield first met Gao, she was a Ph.D. student at Tongji University, where Warfield has directed a study-abroad program for UI architectural students since 1987. Gao also curated “Inalterable Dreams,” an earlier exhibition of Warfield’s work in China.
Warfield describes his Chinese colleague as “an enigma – “a scholar-artist, poet and socialite who could as easily be a fashion model as a book publisher.”
Besides the dual-language publication of “Roads,” the book’s overall presentation is somewhat unorthodox. One might expect a chronological structure, but Warfield said it was purposely designed for readers to open to random pages, and hopefully be drawn in. Each chapter is color-coded, he said, so readers can immediately know which images and text go together.
The book also is highly personal, even poetic, functioning more as a memoir than anything else. In places, it even comes across as something of a love song to Warfield’s wife, Chelle. Throughout, Warfield and contributing essayists – who include UI anthropology professor Helaine Silverman and geography professor John Jakle – portray her not only as a frequent co-traveler and lifetime compadre, but also as a colleague and muse.