Darren Polanski 

DARREN POLANSKI, BFA, 2001, PAINTING
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY TIMOTHY HEATON

From top left to bottom right: 7 Ave C-Train +15 ©RLemermeyer 2011
Highwood House
7 Ave C-Train +15 ©RLemermeyer 2011
Highwood House
Green Line

TIMOTHY HEATON: When did you graduate ACAD?

DARREN POLANSKI: I think it was 2001.

HEATON: And what was your major?

POLANSKI: Painting.

HEATON: What is your current employment?

POLANSKI: I’m an architect, I work at Sturgess Architecture.

HEATON: A lot of graduates use the ACAD degree as a stepping-stone, so what do you do? How has your career evolved since graduation?

POLANSKI: It’s gone through a couple of twists and turns but more or less stayed on a creative path. When I first graduated, I was doing work that was digital but then I would take that digital work and manipulate it then output it and actually make physical paintings with it. This was during the first dot-com boom. By learning how to use these digital tools, I picked up how to do websites and Flash. Before I graduated I got an internship at a marketing firm then afterwards I became a graphic designer at an advertising agency.

HEATON: Just using your experience and internship?

POLANSKI: Yeah, just using my experience. And that was great, so I did that for a couple of years. I was doing that 9 to 5 and I was painting on the side. I was always interested in architecture, studying it, understanding what it was. I was becoming more interested in doing bigger, more permanent projects. So I thought, I’ll give graphic design a couple of years and if I want to try something bigger and better I’ll try architecture school. Even though I liked what I was doing, I went to the U of C to do the master’s program of architecture. That was a four-year program and it’s been about nine years since then. So for the last nine years I’ve been doing architecture as a creative career.

HEATON: I was wondering, when you said you were doing digital work and then making paintings from it, was it actually 2D paintings?

POLANSKI: I was experimenting. Back then Flash was this crazy new tool, so I did some interactive pieces but I didn’t find them that successful, and I always liked physical paintings and drawings. For a lot of the work, I would output some manipulated imagery, then silkscreen on different media and manipulate that, and do different layers over top of it in a collage type manner. 

HEATON: So what insights did your four years at ACAD give you when looking at things? Why does what you learned at ACAD matter?

POLANSKI: People often ask me that question when they ask me about architecture school. They ask me, did your fine art background give you a leg up in architecture? My ACAD background encouraged me to think outside the box, to think more unconventionally which is something I run into everyday in architecture. It definitely changed how I thought. It technically gave me the tools and abilities to visually communicate ideas better than a lot of other people. I’m still a visual communicator above all other forms of communication.

HEATON: Would you say that you applied what you learned in painting to architecture on a formal level?

POLANSKI: Yes, and what’s interesting is that if I were to go back to making art again, architecture would inform painting in a similar way. For example, I’m very hands-on with the graphic presentation material so a lot of my architectural graphics have a painterly look to them. Conversely, I learned a lot about art in architecture school, like how to manifest your concepts in your practice. I learned how you take a concept and manifest it in the best possible way.

HEATON: What would you like to be recognized for?

POLANSKI: I’m a modest person, I don’t like to be recognized for much at all. I’d probably want to be recognized for making small contributions to bettering the urban environment with what I produce, what I make, and what I design.

HEATON: After graduation, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you overcome them?

POLANSKI: After I graduated I was working as a graphic designer for marketing and then I went freelance for a good year and a half. Trying to manage the business aspect of a creative career was one of the early obstacles. I’m still navigating that path – like how to deal with money, with clients, and with representing myself.

HEATON: What was your time at ACAD like?

POLANSKI: It was good, thinking back, having access to anything you want really is something you shouldn’t take for granted. Having access to all the equipment like printmaking facilities, drawing material, access to professors and feedback.

HEATON: What was the student body back then like?

POLANSKI: Back then it was a bit divisive between the fine art side and the graphic design side. Although, my roommate was a photographer and so I hung out with a couple of graphic designers and photographers, but I was always with the fine art crew so I was running across that bridge every once in a while. There was a solid body of students, and a bunch of them became quite successful. I’m saying successful because they are making art for themselves as a living now, and that’s what a lot of people want to do after art school.

HEATON: Where does art fit into your future?

POLANSKI: I need to buy more art! That’s where it fits in. I need to buy art seriously…I’m at that point in my life where I realize I love making art but I don’t have the time to do it. I’m actually kind of turning the page. I need to start collecting art.

HEATON: Maybe that’s a good segue way to one of my next questions: are there any fine artists who have really impacted you? Who do you like?

POLANSKI: The one I keep going back to is Jeff Koons. He’s a very multilayered artist, you can take him at face value, or you can look at him as a collector and say that it’s a good investment. I was living in Houston, Texas for a while and there’s the Rothko Chapel there – it’s basically this octagonal chapel and it has Rothko’s paintings. Next door to that, they built the Cy Twombly Gallery which is a permanent building that’s made to exhibit Cy Twombly drawings and paintings. I really gained an appreciation for those two artists while I was there. I still like that level of painterly, physical, and visceral art.

HEATON: So in graphic design, what were you doing…what kind of stuff? Were you an illustrator?

POLANSKI: I was doing a lot of stuff. I was doing logo design, typeface stuff. I was doing layout for print material…brochures, posters. Some was very corporate but I was also doing marketing material for photographers and other artists.

HEATON: What made you want to do architecture? Maybe you could expand on your interest in it.

POLANSKI: I wanted to do architecture initially because I wanted to do something more permanent. I thought architecture was just designing buildings, and that’s not really what architecture is. If you go to architecture school, it’s kind of like art school in a way – but a different version of art school. It’s training you to think about concepts differently.

HEATON: Do you have critiques?

POLANSKI: Yes, very intense critiques. I actually go back to the U of C at times to crit students. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest with people. It’s not like art in that respect because you are designing something that has a responsibility to a concept.

HEATON: How does an architectural firm work? Are you the one guiding the project?

POLANSKI: Sort of. I was very lucky to work with Sturgess, they are a very design oriented firm. When I first started as an intern architect, I was doing a lot of basic design work, a lot of renders, but then as I gained more knowledge my responsibilities increased. After a while, I went out on my own, I learned more about the business aspect of it and what it means to run a practice which involves a lot of really intense legal things that you could be liable for. So now that I’m a senior architect at Sturgess, basically I guide a project. I don’t do so much of the hands-on stuff anymore, I love doing that, I still do conceptual drawings but I’ll work with another intern architect and say let’s try to get this to work. They’ll take that and evolve it. I’ll be meeting with Jeremy Sturgess and the client and explaining the project as it goes through its iterations until it’s complete. It’s a creative process but there’s also a whole lot of pragmatics to it.

HEATON: How does it go conceptualizing it? Do you come together as a team?

POLANSKI: Typically Jeremy Sturgess will do the initial conceptual work and work with a senior designer. They will examine that concept, tweak it, and evolve it a little bit. Say it’s a house, he’ll do a sketch of a house and how he thinks it should be. The designer will look at it and refine it to make sure we can fit these spaces in real dimensions and within bylaws and guidelines.

HEATON: Is there something you do best? What’s your architectural voice?

POLANSKI: I’m interested in working with difficult constraints, and creating a concept and an architecture that emerge from these constraints. My house that I’m building right now is on this crazy lot, nobody wanted to buy it – it was narrow in the front, wide in the back. It sloped this way, it’s a corner property, no developer wanted to touch it because you can’t put a cookie cutter house on it. So I’m like, oh perfect, what can I put on it? It becomes this unique form that is generated out of these unusual constraints, and in that form there’s a program that’s created, it generated a sunken courtyard, and informed how it addresses the street.