Eric Bennett turned his truck onto Eggleston Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, pulled up to where Amanda Williams was standing and asked the question that had been perplexing him for weeks:

Why had that house been painted purple?

There it stood behind Williams – a lone abandoned house painted bright purple, the splash of colour nearly vibrating against the green grass of the vacant lots surrounding it.

Everything was painted purple. The windows were purple. The satellite dish was purple. It looked as if the colour had been poured over the house by a giant.

Bennett, who used to live on the block, was eager to find out why – “I thought Prince was coming here,” he says.

Prince is not coming here, but architecture fans and critics from around the world might.

The purple house is part of the Colour (ed) Theory project in which Williams, an artist and architect who teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has been painting abandoned homes in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood in vivid colours.

It is included in the first Chicago Architecture Biennial, a three-month international architecture event that opened on Oct 3 and focuses on how creativity can transform the way people experience their world.

The transformations in Englewood arose from Williams’ desire to combine her interests in art and architecture by painting at the size of architecture.

“Really quite selfishly I thought, ‘Where could I paint at that big of a scale without spending a lot of money or getting into trouble?’” she says.

Driving with her husband through south side neighbourhoods to visit their parents in the Auburn Gresham neighbourhood, where both grew up, she saw her answer: abandoned buildings.

Amanda William's Colour (ed) Theory project in Chicago that got people from the community together to paint abandoned houses. Photos: Screengrab from www.chicagomag.com

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Coming together: Amanda William’s Colour (ed) Theory project in Chicago got people together to paint abandoned houses. Photos: Screengrab from www.chicagomag.com

The images they evoked of vacancy and abandonment intrigued her. And one neighbourhood in particular drew her.

“Englewood for me feels like the poster child nationally for everything dangerous and bad,” she says. “It kind of gets painted in a very specific light.”

She figured she would paint it in another.

She decided to paint the buildings in bright colours drawn from her memories of growing up African-American on the south side – the yellow of currency exchanges, the turquoise of Newport cigarettes, the purple of the drawstring bag from a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey.

Intending the works to be extremely temporary, she chose buildings slated for demolition.

To make sure a property was truly abandoned, she says, she checked delinquent property tax records and reports. She drove past to see if grass was being cut or snow shovelled.

“I’m a scaredy cat,” she says. “I didn’t want to get arrested.”

Early one Sunday morning, she and her husband and some artist friends showed up at the first house with several gallons of paint, industrial-size rollers and 20-foot extensions.

“We had no permission; it was not sanctioned,” she says. “Initially, this was a test: if I start, will somebody stop me or question who I am and why I’m doing this?”

Once someone did try to stop her. In the 6000 block of South Carpenter Street, a man told her that a friend of his was paying taxes on the building, she says, and called the police.

She considers the damage negligible but has offered to repaint the building.

Elsewhere, she says, the project has been welcomed. Indeed, on South Eggleston, one of the few remaining residents of the block is a fan.

“It’s much better than what you see on the other side,” she says, nodding at the unpainted wall where the crew ran out of paint.

Williams says the buildings were painted in 'colours unique to the south side; colours with a strong psychic memory'.

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South side hues: Williams says the eight buildings in her project were painted in ‘colours unique to the south side; colours with a strong psychic memory’.

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On more populated South Carpenter, however, some of the reviews are stinging.

The yellow paint draws attention to the presence of abandoned houses, says Jenelle Gavin. “It makes the neighbourhood look worse than it already did.”

“Would you have that in your neighbourhood, a big yellow house?” demands Rosie Curry. “It’s like they’re singling us out.”

Williams was surprised to hear of the anger. “When we were doing it, a lot of people walked past and said, ‘Thank you – it’s so much better than it was’,” she says.

But she is glad that the project has provoked conversation. She intended it as an exercise in colour and scale. As it went on, however, the project became a broader canvas.

Williams worked with the One Summer Chicago jobs programme, teaching a class in colour theory and directing of students in painting abandoned houses in colours they chose. On the painting day, she talked about her project with buildings department officials who had helped organise the event, and has found herself in numerous discussions throughout the city about the role architecture can play in housing policy.

On Oct 3, she led a community painting of a last Englewood house, with Biennial visitors and neighbourhood residents invited to participate.

That last building was to be demolished within two weeks. But the other painted houses will be up longer than Williams intended; she has learned that being slated for demolition doesn’t mean demolition is imminent.

Standing outside the purple house, she considered the visual possibilities.

“Wait until winter,” she says, when the colours will stand out against the white snow beneath the black and white lines of bare trees. “Oh, it’s going to be gorgeous.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Barbara Brotman