Debating Schumacher’s Chicago Biennial Criticism

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Courtesy Syracuse University

The final question of the Dean’s Panel at the 2015 ACSA Fall Conference was a doozy. The symposium took place at the Syracuse University School of Architecture and was organized by assistant professors Roger Hubeli and Julie Larsen. Syracuse SoA Dean Moderator of the Dean’s Panel, Michael Speaks asked the panelists, SCI-Arc Dean Hernan Diaz Alonso, Columbia University GSAPP Dean Amale Andraos, and Architectural Association Dean Brett Steele, to respond to Patrik Schumacher’s criticisms of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

“I would like to get your responses to a post I found online today by Patrik Schumacher,” said Speaks, “Patrik asserts that the Chicago Architectural Biennial is not architecture because it’s not buildings. He goes off on post-modernism and on social ‘do-gooderism’ and he suggests that these kinds of projects have usurped the role of a proper architecture biennial that exhibits buildings. Here is what Patrick wrote.” He pulled out a printed Facebook post by the German gadfly, and continued:

“The State of the Art of Architecture" delivered by the Chicago Architecture Biennial Exhibition must leave lay-visitors bewildered by one overwhelming subliminal message: Contemporary architecture ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, driven it to self-annihilation and architects have now en masse dedicated themselves to doing good via basic social work. A less charitable interpretation sees the hijacking of the newly created Chicago Architecture Biennial by a marginal, but academically entrenched, ideological tendency within the discipline that has abandoned their societal remit of innovating the built environment at the world’s technological frontier and instead pours its allocated resources into concept-art style documentation and agitation of behalf of underdeveloped regions and milieu. I am rather suspicious of these creative/artistic engagements with poverty. It sometimes risks to mutate into a questionable aesthetization of poverty, a questionable romance. Questionable because what the poor of this world most probably (and rightly) aspire to requires little creativity and imagination because it is already plotted out for them by the ladder of development leading up to what has been achieved in the most advanced arenas of world civilization, where—in contrast—true, path-breaking creativity is indeed called for. Even if my skepticism [sic] is too pessimistic and genuine concern and developmental help is forthcoming from the protagonists exhibited at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, one still wonders whether these laudable concerns should usurp the space that was presumably meant to be allocated to contemporary architecture.

From left to right: Hernan Alonso, Brett Steele, Amale Andraos.
 

As the audience chuckled at the bluntness and at times absurdity of what Schumacher said, the three deans had their own short pause of amusement, but nonetheless stepped up to the plate to address the debate. Steele joked that it would be bad to give Patrick the last word, which solicited laughter form the audience. The first to respond was SCI-Arc leader Alonso, who said with little emotion, “I haven’t been to the Biennial so whatever I say is without that context. I want to be very clear about this. I probably would agree with some of Patrik’s assessment.” He continued, “That doesn’t mean that I think the Biennial in Chicago doesn’t have the right to present that body of work. It’s a healthy debate. I think architecture goes in cycles. It’s not the first time that architecture has gone in this cycle and that these critiques come to the discussion. I don’t think it’s fair to paint every participant in the Biennial with that brush. For some of them, yes, they will fit that mold.“

Alonso continued, “Some of them, I know for a fact, do not fit. I think that’s the problem with all biennials, and that would be my criticism of this one and all of them: It is the format in general. Why do they need to be so big? Because the moment it gets too big, it becomes very, very difficult to create any coherency.  This is true for the Venice Biennale, for any biennial you can think of in recent times: they all suffer one way or another from lack of coherence and that is what Patrik criticizes.”

Alonso framed the debate historically, noting that narratives are written subjectively, and that they tend to be cyclical. “When I was in school in Argentina, the education was very hardcore modernist. Before that, from say 1969 to 1975, it was quite different: Students did not do a single drawing for six years in a row; six years of their architectural education was devoted to writing social essays. During that time there was a hardcore Marxist group running the universities. So it is fair to say that architecture is not the focus of this biennial. On the other hand, at this moment many people in the field have a sense of urgency to deal with social responsibility and I don’t think anybody in their right mind would disagree that these are important issues,” he said.

“My take is that people who tend to focus on social issues tend to abandon what I appreciate most in architectural design. But that’s my own take. I don’t think it needs to be one or the other. It tends to be that in our field, usually you do one thing or the other,” Alonso continued, “It’s very difficult to put them together, so I will say it this way: There is a reason I didn’t go. It’s not really my main interest though I think it’s totally fine if somebody goes or exhibits; these are important topics that need to be discussed and different people than me are doing it.”

Michael Speaks moderates the discussion.
 

Alonso said he is not bothered by socially driven projects, but is annoyed by the more stylistic trends, “I’m less concerned with the social do-gooder and more concerned with the rise of neo-postmodernism. And that is because it’s a highly ideological, intrinsically disciplinary problem, not different from Patrik Schumacher’s approach to architecture except that it stands for values that I find a little bit retrograde, a little bit backward.”

“So that part of the Biennial—and again, I haven’t been, so all I have seen are images—seems like an incredibly weird thing. I don’t understand the curatorial strategy at all but I think that goes with every biennial.  So I wonder if it’s Patrik’s statement in general; I’m not sure if it completely applies to that particular Biennial. I think there is something about the notion. The part that I found disturbing is that in agreeing with some of his statement, it seems like I’m agreeing with his take on what architecture is, and that’s not the same thing because I would not replace the ideology that he’s criticizing with his ideology,” he continued.

However, Alonso also downplayed the significance of the Biennial, saying that, “at the same time I think we tend to over-value the roles of these biennials. I personally believe that we live in a much more material era. For example, the Biennales of Venice in the 80s when Aldo Rossi and those guys were exhibiting: They were important because there was a place and you were going to see where the discipline was moving, you could see new ideas and so on. Now you go to Venice and it’s just a party. You already saw every project that is in the Biennale; you already heard every discussion in the Biennale! So the role of biennials is becoming completely something different. To spend the time to elevate the biennial, to be the ultimate definition of what any field is or our field is right now seems a little bit excessive. It’s like believing the political party convention is the way the real political discussions happen.”

His ultimate conclusion was a more direct response to Schumacher’s criticism, saying, “I just think it’s something else and I think what we should be discussing is what is the value of these Biennials, what are the curatorial strategies. Why every time that we have a Biennial, everybody feels they have to touch on 12 subjects at the same time. Why don’t we have more tribal focus, smaller Biennials and produce more conflict and friction? And why do they seem to be a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy; they all seem to amount to the same thing which is basically, five minutes after you left you don’t even remember what you saw.”

Amale Andraos addresses the crowd.
 

Brett Steele was up next and he explained the politics and personalities behind the statement and its disciplinary ambitions. He claims that Patrik is trying stake his claim in the discipline by asking, “Why wasn’t I invited?” Steele posited that the field is constructed and curated, but these fights are important and interesting.
Tangentially, he worked through his thoughts about American architecture in general, remarking that the discipline in the U.S. had been co-opted by the AIA, and had morphed into a global machine that did not value research, only providing services. Steele contrasted this notion of architecture with a European impetus for questioning the discipline. He then pivoted to wondering if Patrik’s squabble was about his competitors, like Bjarke Ingels, being included. Steele furthered his critique of Schumacher, saying that claiming that the designs in the Biennial are not contemporary architecture is missing the point.

Speaks then asked Dean Andraos to weigh in, “Amale, You’re in the Biennial,” Speaks said.

“Yes… First of all, I don’t know Patrik and I don’t really care. The fact that he wrote this rant reassures me and confirms for me the fact that the Biennial is fantastic! I actually believe the Biennial was asking disciplinary questions, but perhaps not the ones that he would want to ask,” she said, “There was a lot of building, there was a lot of drawing; it was exquisitely created in terms of actually bringing forward very diverse voices and yet there is a kind of resonance. It’s too soon to say what the resonance is but you could feel it.”

Andraos explained her reaction to the show, “I actually thought that it wasn’t too much; there were not too many things. It wasn’t at all like Venice. It was like a great movie that stays with you for a while after you leave the theater. Later, you start to recognize things. There are things emerging today in architecture but it’s too soon to say this is neo post-modernism or this is whatever. Even thought it may look like it. It is too early to tell. It may turn out to be something completely different. So I have an incredible feeling about the Biennial. I think that Joseph and Sarah did a fantastic job and I do think that the level of the work was, for me at least, no comparison with Rem’s Venice Biennale. Rem’s Venice was the end of something. For me Chicago felt like the beginning of something else. Perhaps it is the beginning of a conversation that people like Patrik aren’t a part of.”

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