The first Chicago Architecture Biennial—curated by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima and staged at the Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the Windy City— opened to great fanfare October 2. The events drew throngs of architects and journalists from around the world; a formidable sampling of the Chicago’s political and social elite; and, perhaps most importantly, a strong showing from the general public. There were more events than even the most dedicated biennialist could attend, and the whole affair was without doubt a boon to architecture culture in the United States. It was also enough to make one wonder if the designers gathered to represent the titular State of the Art of Architecture might be a little too comfortable in the territory they have staked out at the fringe of the discipline.
Though the breadth of the exhibition made it difficult to determine a clear curatorial position, much of the work on display loosely clustered into two opposing camps: the snarky neo-postmodernism that has become fashionable with young American designers climbing the tenure track, and the earnest output of mostly international practices seeking to affect change in underprivileged locales around the world.
There was strong work on both fronts. Amanda Williams’s “Color(ed) Theory,” for example, advanced a subtle yet biting critique of racial and economic imbalance by painting a series of destitute structures on Chicago’s South Side in bold colors. Norman Kelly’s “Chicago: How Do You See?” drastically altered the complexion of the Cultural Center’s flamboyant Michigan Avenue facade by augmenting its fenestration with vinyl caricatures of historically significant Chicago windows. Both projects stood out by virtue of the forceful impact each made on the fabric of the city.
Too many other participants seemed content to exhaust the efficacy of their work within the gallery walls. Consider the wealth of socially motivated data gathering and photo documentation on view. Just about all of it was not only statistically but also architecturally irrelevant. Besler & Sons provided a neo-pomo complement with “The Entire Situation.” A meditation on the unconsidered ubiquity of cheap construction materials that invited comparisons to the early work of Frank Gehry, this hermetically self-contained piece had none of the punch—because its designers took none of the risks—of Gehry’s early experiments with corrugated cardboard and chain link. In spite of the interactive fun of the “StudFindr,” programmed by Satoru Sugihara and situated on the adjacent wall, the most lasting takeaway from “The Entire Situation” was the hilarious, if unintended, irony of its title.
My quarrel with the neo-pomo and “neo-critical” projects that dominated the biennial has less to do with the self-indulgent frivolity and self-righteous banality to which its authors so often succumb than with the fact that so many talented architects set their sights so low.
Such was the case with the full-scale “houses” by Tatiana Bilbao S.C. and Vo Trong Nghia Architects on the third floor on the Cultural Center. Each architect wagered on cost-effectiveness as the driving force of their design, and each delivered results that, however laudable their social aims, ultimately underwhelmed as buildings. Bilbao’s scheme, admittedly, was a prototype for projects rendered in somewhat more substantial materials (several have been completed in Mexico), but given that it and Nghia’s scheme were presented as “real projects” tackling “real issues,” their failure to compel conviction as architecture was all the more problematic. Each gave the impression of a nose thumbed at more aesthetically driven projects in the exhibition, and came off as less serious than cynical.
With “Corridor House,” the third full-scale “house” on the third floor, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS offered a canny counterpoint to Bilbao’s and Nghia’s efforts. Though the architects paid lip service to the idea of affordability and ease of construction (particularly in interviews with trade publications), they also made much of the project’s status as an oversized and meticulously crafted model. Fantastically ersatz “boulders” (stitched together from paper sheets printed to resemble stone) along with cheekily reimagined interior furnishings completed the scene. A provocative meditation on the necessary artifice of architectural design, the scheme proved far more engaging than its purportedly more engaged counterparts.
For all the tension on the third floor, the most exciting projects in the exhibition were located outside the neo-pomo, neo-critical dyad. The Swiss firm Gramazio Kohler joined forces with the MIT Self-Assembly Lab to stage “Rockprint,” a productive mash-up of robotic fabrication, material science, and a hell of a lot of gravel. Los Angeles-based Johnston Marklee assembled an arresting collection of their own photo collages and artful images of their completed buildings by photographers including James Welling, Livia Corona, and Marianne Mueller.
“In Oblicuo,” a multi-panel presentation of several competition projects in Budapest, architects Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS joined forces with Casey Rehm to produce a striking re-imagination of the border between abstraction and photo-realism. Tomás Saraceno’s nearby spider web constructions were just plain cool.
Some of the most satisfying projects were also the most straightforward. Junya Ishigami’s exquisitely spare models of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology were a case in point, as were designs for environmentally sensitive campsites rendered in drawings and an impressive model by the Canadian firm Lateral Office.
Also notable was Atelier Bow Wow’s “Piranesi Circus,” which filled the Cultural Center’s inaccessible courtyard with a series of catwalks, ladders, and platforms designed, according to the architects, with circus performers and, in another nod to postmodernist themes, “imaginary prisoners” in mind. To my eye, the scene suggested not only the collision (and collusion) of entertainment and entrapment but also, via the precarious ladder which drew visitors’ eyes up past the cornice line to the sky above, the possibility of a way out.
After several hours at the biennial, the suggestion of an exit was a welcome gesture. I, for one, was jonesing for actual buildings. The Cultural Center itself, which proved that architecture can be both frivolous and substantial, offered welcome respite, as did “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye,” the handsome retrospective assembled at the Art Institute of Chicago by Okwui Enwezor and Zoë Ryan. So too did the opportunity to duck out to revisit nearby masterpieces by the likes of Sullivan, Wright, Mies, and Gehry.
Getting out was a good thing, for it was well beyond the main venues that I found clearest presentation of the confidence and optimism I had hoped to find at the heart of the biennial. “Chicago Horizon,” the elegantly understated pavilion assembled by Ultramoderne just above the ominously churning (at least when I visited) Lake Michigan, powerfully suggested that The State of the Art of Architecture might best be sought not in the turbulent froth of a directionless present, but rather in those rare and remarkable buildings that lift us above the fray to direct our attention toward the more profound possibilities of an unknown horizon.