Posts tagged with "Chicago Architecture Biennial":
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.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. 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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Although the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) has begun to reveal the themes guiding this year’s exhibition, only a few details have slipped out regarding the physical content of the show. Rumors have it though that many of the large exhibition spaces within the Chicago Cultural Center will be organized by installations in which multiple participants have produced variations on a form or typology. One of these installations is reportedly going to be comprised of a room full of 16-foot-tall models of Tribune Tower submissions, each designed and fabricated by a different office. Many in Chicago are anxious to see which direction artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee—both architects not professional curators—are going to take the largest North American architectural exhibition.
With only one previous iteration, it seems impossible not to continuously compare the upcoming 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial to its predecessor. And that does not have to be a bad thing. During a panel discussion during the inaugural 2015 Biennial, British architect Sam Jacob was asked what the theme of next biennial should be. His response? In sum: Just do the exact same theme. That way, not only can we see the progress of the field over two years, but then we will also have two events that can be compared, apples to apples. His statement, though somewhat in jest, seems to have been, at least in part, prophetic.
With the recent announcement of the participants list, under the artistic direction of Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of Johnston Marklee, we have our first look at how similar the exhibition may be. And though the list of around 100 offices does include many new names, there are 22 repeats from 2015. There are other similarities between the lists. Neither 2015 nor 2017 include any significant contribution from corporate firms. In 2015 this was a sore point for many of the hundreds of local architects that work in the numerous mega-firms in Chicago. Many local architects admitted to not even having seen the show, despite it being free and only blocks from many of the largest offices in the city.
But this is why Jacob’s idea of repetition could end up being so brilliant. First, the biennial is not for the big corporate firms—even if it is being held in the city that is bursting with giants. Biennials are where the most avant-garde architectural discourse is presented. While contemporary large firms often lead the way in engineering and technological daring, they are rarely at the fore of architectural discussion. The nature of their business means that they cannot afford to be. Small, young practices on the other hand, with fewer mouths to feed and less money on the table, can’t afford not to be on the edge. For ambitious young firms, being experimental is the only way to set themselves apart in a world of architecture blogs and Instagram. For good or for bad.
One thing the large firms do well is exporting Chicago Architecture to the rest of the world. The biennial is a rare chance for the city, and the U.S. at large, to import some architecture. This factor should never be undervalued. The well-known story of Frank Lloyd Wright being influenced by the Japanese pavilion at the 1893 Columbian Exposition should be enough of a lesson. Chicago is already benefitting from this in the form of the Museum of Contemporary Arts’ upcoming renovation by two 2015 CAB participants, Johnston Marklee and Pedro&Juana.
Something can also be said about the quality of the practices being invited. The list, repeats and new firms alike, is filled with excellent firms. The names might not always be familiar or pulled from glossy magazine pages, but the last iteration is proof that these practices are thoughtful yet daring in their architecture. The United States, and Chicago in particular, have a problem with not supporting small and/or young practices. Biennials are a place where that can happen.
Another notable similarity is the presence of Johnston and Lee. They were responsible for an exhibit in the main show as well as a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Johnston was also on the jury for the 2015 Biennial’s Lakefront Kiosk Competition (a program that will not be continuing this year).
Only five months out from the September 17 opening, we still don’t know a ton about what the show will be all about. Yet through a close reading of the participant list, and the memory of the last show, we can make some educated guesses about its nature. The overlap of offices, the exclusion of corporate firms, and the main venue of the Chicago Cultural Center tell us the show will likely feel familiar. Yet, knowing the wide range of small, diverse offices, it is just as likely to be full of surprises and architectural ideas that Chicago has not seen.