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Five fundamental problems with the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial

National Newsletter Review
Five major problems with the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Pictured here: J. MAYER H. und Partner, Architekten and Philip Ursprung's, Cosmic Latte: Beige Manifesto explores the color beige. (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Kendall McCaugherty c. Hall Merrick Photographers)
Five major problems with the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Pictured here: J. MAYER H. und Partner, Architekten and Philip Ursprung's, Cosmic Latte: Beige Manifesto explores the color beige. (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Kendall McCaugherty c. Hall Merrick Photographers)

The second Chicago Architecture Biennial opened last week at the Chicago Cultural Center, one of the country’s grandest interior public spaces. Artistic Directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of Los Angeles–based Johnston Marklee gathered some 140 of the world’s top designers and thinkers to address the main show’s theme, “Make New History.”

This theme had the potential to provoke designers to engage the rich history of architecture to innovate the field or imagine ways to inhabit the world at large. This biennial does not do that, and it is a serious problem for the very idea of “history” and thus contemporary architecture. What it does is offer is a strong case study for what we can do better. The following are five critiques in this vein.

1. The theme forced a generation of emerging architects into a narrow and deadening frame

Young practitioners today are certainly interested in referencing and recycling ideas and forms, but it is not necessarily “history” and certainly not just “architectural history.” There is a fairly interesting group of designers who are exploring topics like pop culture, hoarding, textures, the everyday, and other reference points in interesting ways. For example, the best projects in this Biennial were about parts, not history. Tatiana Bilbao’s tower in the “Vertical City,” as well as MAIO and Andrew Kovacs’s projects in “Horizontal City: Room of Plinths” were provocative and relevant because of their assemblage-like organization, not because they used a particular piece of history in a certain way. When the curators say, as Lee said in a recent Artforum interview, that this generation is bound by the idea that “history is a treasure trove,” and “they don’t feel shame or guilt to retrieve from it,” it is an institutional-academic co-optation of a movement that cuts and pastes everything with a digitally-enhanced and inspired slickness. This show makes it seem like another staid disciplinary project, prematurely accelerating all of the participants into what Charles Jencks would call the “Late-Mellow” phase of their careers.

Tatiana Bilbao’s Estudio, (Not) Another Tower, stands out in the center of the “Vertical City” gallery. (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Steve Hall (c) Hall Merrick Photographers)

This theme of “Make New History” made these nascent practices conform to a prompt. This is manifested formally in the arbitrary conceptual overlay for the mini-exhibition “Horizontal City: Room of Plinths” in GAR Hall, where, according to the exhibit text, “the overall plinth layout and sizes were based upon the 1947 IIT Plan by Mies van der Rohe, which we see as a sort of organizational ‘afterimage’ or a subtext in the room.” This formal move certainly did not add to the show, and no one would have known about it if it weren’t expressed in the curatorial brief. Instead, what this grid did manage to do was serve as a perfect metaphor for an empty, constricting conceptual framework in which the participants were forced to work.

So why participate? It is hard for young practices—essentially all of the practices in this show—to go against the grain of these biennials or refuse to participate, because biennials have become a sort of shadow economy where deals are made and practices are “bought and sold” with institutional currency. There are always people scouting talent at these events, so it is hard to say no to participating. (See point 3)

MAIO’s The Grand Interior plays on the work of Marcel Duchamp with an endless interior defined by domestic objects, furniture, appliances, and technology, rather than the massiveness of architectural form. (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, (c) Tom Harris)

2. The complexity of history was reduced to precedent

Most of the historical references were weak and don’t add anything substantive to the projects. They were often simply a pair of precedents, such as in the “Vertical City” mini-exhibition, where architects were challenged to rehash the famous 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. This competition is an iconic reference point in Chicago architecture history, but like most of the historical references in the show, it pretty much stopped there. Some projects were about “signs” or about “steel construction,” but that label was more or less the extent of it. There was not much criticality in each individual project, and the overall idea of history seemed to simply be about picking a precedent. Precedent and history are two different things: the former is about legal or argumentative justification, while the second is about all the interesting social, political, and formal ideas. Perhaps the exhibition should have simply been “Use Precedent (101).”

In 1965, using historical forms such as ornament and classical language was a radical, innovative idea. But today, it looks more like a replay of Philip Johnson’s late version of post-modernism, where attitudes about image and form in architecture—pioneered by people like Charles Moore, Venturi Scott Brown, and Hans Hollein—were reduced to empty signifiers that enforced upper class institutional good taste. ‘Twas this reliance on architectural historicism—rather than the new language of postmodern society—that made pomo into a joke for the dustbin of history. In the past, it has often been clear why we are revisiting particular histories as architectural turns, but here it is not.

3. The biennial’s market imperative warped the work that was shown 

It is no coincidence that this Biennial is so closely related to the commercial art fair EXPO Chicago. It is in some ways the logical conclusion of the Biennial model: a gathering of celebrities who want to show off their recent work. Obviously the work in the Biennial is not being sold in the same way that the work in the art fair is being sold, but there is an economy at work in both places. And these two markets both influence the work in the exhibitions. Someone should make an artrank.com for architects.

In the art fair, collectors speculatively invest in art that will hold value, including art that is produced by future stars, artists whose work is cheap now but will appreciate in years to come. This dictates what kind of work is displayed. In the Biennial, young designers are given a “platform” that will—at least in theory—lead to future work and opportunity. This marketplace, unfortunately, shapes the work.

In a forthcoming essay entitled “Peripatetic Pettena” in the book The Curious Mr. Pettena (Humboldt Publishers, 2017), artist and architect James Wines reflects on the state of art fairs and the effects of the commoditized market upon art. In the following excerpt, it would work just as well if you replaced “art fair” with “2017 Chicago Biennial;” “Pop era” with “early postmodernism;” and “Abstract Expressionism” with “modernism.”

In today’s gallery world, where stock exchange voracity appears interchangeable with art fair commodity peddling, the anti-commercial and introspective dialogues of the environmental movement during the late 1960s and 70s were like apostolic meditations by comparison.  Even the merchandising excesses associated with Pop Art now seem like somber banking conventions, in contrast to the souk-like sales tactics of current international expos…to its historical credit, the Pop era contributed significantly to liberating the 1960s New York art scene from the fusty anti-figurative bias of third generation Abstract Expressionism.  By contrast, current events like Miami Basel and the Armory Show appear dominated by hyperbolic celebrations of conceptual vacuity, a disproportionate enthusiasm for transitory talent and a steadfast avoidance of original aesthetic values. There is a ubiquitous re-packaging of influences from the past, defended with such vaguely apologetic labels as ‘Appropriation, Pseudorealism, Post-postmodernism, Metamodernism and Neomimimalism.  Too much of the new work, endorsed as hot ticket progressivism is, in reality, a deferent version of ‘if-you-please’ avant-garde.

Twenty four models sit on plinths arranged in the pattern of the IIT Campus in the “Horizontal City.” (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Kendall McCaugherty (c) Hall Merrick Photographers)

4. “History” was stale and familiar, and largely irrelevant today 

In this Biennial, there were some interesting bits of lesser-known history and some amazing moments of drawing and architectural assemblage. But the curation was uneven, and swerved from heavy-handedness with no productive end to the usual suspects doing their usual things unrelated to the project at hand. In the “Vertical City” show, for example, the wall texts read like a presentation from a first-year design studio. Very little new information was introduced,  and the show took a boring typology—the tall tower—and didn’t even update it. Instead, we got a very personalized response from each designer. There wasn’t much that was “new” or historical in this room.

While the 2015 version of the Biennial was simply “all the cool stuff we could find,” it was indeed, cool stuff, at the edge of knowledge both within and outside of the discipline. Biennials don’t have to solve all the world’s problems or solve inequality, but they can at least relate to the outside world in a coherent way. In the end, disciplinary knowledge is at its best when it has productive friction with issues outside the profession.

The historical canon is being questioned today more aggressively than ever. There is a real need to probe what kinds of histories we are telling and where. On one of the biggest platforms in the world like the CAB, it was unfortunate that this exhibition only reinforced a Western ideal of architectural history. Almost all of the “history” here was from the Western canon. Now would be the time to really upend some of the stale narratives that have dominated architectural history in the past.

The massive Lake 33rd, Bronzeville model by IIT College of Architecture and SANAA spreads out under one of the two Tiffany domes in the Chicago Cultural Center. (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Kendall McCaugherty (c) Hall Merrick Photographers)

5. Its relationship to art was all wrong

The art references made in this Biennial are mostly from the 1960s, such as Ed Ruscha, from whom the title was borrowed, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Claus Oldenburg. While certainly interesting, these antiquated modern art references keep the exhibition from engaging with the contemporary, adding another layer of alienation.

Contemporary art biennials have moved so far past these modern art references that it makes this Biennial look completely out of date. The Berlin Biennale 9 (BB9) in 2016, curated by the New York collective DIS, was full of ultra-contemporary works that addressed all kinds of issues today like cryptocurrency, surveillance, wellness, migration, emerging technologies, new social norms, and radical shifts in how we consume media, among a host of topics. It was criticized for not being overtly political enough, but it did access some of the pertinent ideas that are affecting how we live today. There is really no way to compare the sheer horror and excitement that came from BB9 to the dusty 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

So given these five issues, what do we take away from the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial?

If this show is any indication, there is a real case to be made for abandoning the language of architectural history entirely and inventing something else. Some of the most interesting times for architecture occurred when we tried to move beyond something prior, or as Bertolt Brecht said, “Erase the traces!” If there is a role for architectural history outside of the academy, it is not obvious what that might be, based on what this show demonstrated. How history was deployed was problematic for the discipline, as it was too narrow in its purview, and made an exciting time in architecture (the re-orientation of the discipline in the age of digital space and ubiquitous digital production) into another worn-out historical trope.

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