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History in the making: Chicago Architecture Biennial

This year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial provokes new thoughts about history

In declaring ‘Make New History’ as the title for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, curators Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee explicitly echo Daniel Burnham’s injunction to ‘make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood’, but also implicitly challenge the status of his 1909 Plan for Chicago, which remains the single most powerful imprint on the city’s physical character – and given Chicago’s role in the emergence of modern architecture, Burnham’s Plan could stand for an abstract template for architecture itself. 

Plans, like their authors, tend to focus on the future, while history is inevitably concerned with the past. Calling for ‘new history’ transports what has happened from fixed unrecoverable layers described by the pluperfect tense (ie, it had happened) to the illusory assurance of the future perfect (ie, it will have happened).

Verticalcity 003 stevehall

Verticalcity 003 stevehall

‘Vertical City’: Adolf Loos in foreground, Barbas Lopes (behind, in gold) and Serie (right). Source: Steve Hall / Chicago Architecture Biennial

According to this formation, the past may have yet to happen, the future already have occurred; the device for this time-warping is the evil twin of the discipline of history. This comprises the background for 100 or so individuals, firms or teams, which together with performances and numerous other events comprises the biennial, running until 7 January. Its exhibitors include well-known international practices, several who have won reputations for pursuing a particular agenda, but remarkably few from Asia. In the background is the brooding intellectual might of the ETH and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Johnston and Lee are about to take up professorships.

At the end of a dense seminar on one of the biennial’s opening days, Lee, with a touch of ingenuousness, placed this ball right in the court of the participants: ‘We wanted to ask, what is history now for this generation?’ All too often it is easy to answer such a question with ‘everything and nothing’, but Johnston and Lee devised enough of an intellectual programme (and a physical structure) to open up all sorts of questions about contemporary architectural practice and its double-edged relationship – pluperfect and future perfect – to the present and future.

The principal template for questioning what history is, comprises the city of Chicago and its own architectural and urban history. Some exhibits are spread across the city and beyond, using landmarks such as the Water Tower, the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Farnsworth House, which hosted a dance performance choreographed by Gerard & Kelly.

Dsc02304

Dsc02304

Gerard & Kelly performance at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Farnsworth House. Source: Bradley Glanzrock, LStopMedia.com / Chicago Architecture Biennial

Most of the action, however, is in the Chicago Cultural Center – by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge – on Chicago’s legendary Michigan Avenue, opened in 1897 as the city library. Its Gilded Age decoration – the largest Tiffany dome in existence and the most expansive area of wall mosaics since Monreale Cathedral – make it a metonym for the historical period when Chicago was helping to make the future of architecture as well as commerce, though the exhibits turn it more into a dynamic synecdoche for the history of architecture and its immediate future. Its highly specific century-old character sets a base against which the exhibits react with varying degrees of extremity and historical consciousness.

Nowhere in the building is this more apparent than in ‘Vertical City’, which holds centre stage in one of the former reading rooms. Here, 16 architects were asked to make a tower, each represented in a 16-foot high model, in response to the Chicago Tribune tower competition of 1922. Adolf Loos’s famous Doric column entry provides a recognisable anchor to a cacophony of proposals, which range from 6a Architects’ assembly of spun profiles of Classical detail, to Francis Kéré’s meditation on details drawn from the Tower of Babel and drawings in the catalogue by Sam Jacob, formerly of FAT, which lie somewhere between the most outlandish of the original competition entries and Monty Python’s animated cartoons. His name for the model, Chicago Pasticcio, says all you need to know.

Franciskere 002 tomharris

Franciskere 002 tomharris

‘Vertical City’: Kéré Architecture (blue), with Productora and Eric Lapierre to the right. Source: Tom Harris / Chicago Architecture Biennial

Illustrations on the walls show the Chicago Seven’s 1980 reworking of the original competition, but what makes all this piquant is the real presence a stone’s throw away of Raymond Hood’s winning design, and Holabird & Root’s built version of Eliel Saarinen’s entry, which many thought should have won. The echo chambers of history, factual and counter-factual, written and rewritten, with unintended consequences extracted from an initial idea, just about quietens the cacophony into an opportunity to speculate, even for visitors who find none of the new proposals to their taste.

Together, these exhibits also reflect the influence of another of Johnston and Lee’s curatorial devices, namely their proposal of four historical categories: building histories, material histories, civic histories and image histories. None of these is entirely hermetic – Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s magnificent series of 729 iterations of the three simple forms which make up their house and studio in their Chilean home town of Concepción, speak both of image and material – but the categories do give insights into the curators’ concept of history itself. It also commands an enfilade across three rooms, drawing visitors from a room curated by Caruso St John towards their own.

Pezovonellrichshausen 001 tomharris

Pezovonellrichshausen 001 tomharris

Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s ‘Finite Format 04’, 729 iterations of three simple forms. Source: Tom Harris / Chicago Architecture Biennial

Building histories, they propose, depend on the concept of typology which in this sense allows the concept of a building to exist beyond its immediate contingent context, and so to acquire different and varied layers of significance. Civic histories relate to the way a city evolves, in respect of both its particular urban character and the contribution it makes to an underlying concept of urbanism. The quartet has some intellectual substance, but their dispersal through the building and the inevitable ambiguity of some of the classifications makes some more successful than others. 

Image histories deal with the proliferation of images and techniques in reusing them. Other ‘image histories’ which command attention are Stanley Tigerman’s ‘Homage to the Lozenge’, no doubt a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Albers’ ‘Homage to the Square’ (which shares a room with Pezo von Ellrichshausen), and some powerful drawings by Bak Gordon Arquitectos of Portugal which face an equally powerful but very different wall composed by Made In, separated by Studio Mumbai’s deliciously delicate frames, with these three in the room on the enfilade mentioned above. It is a moment to savour as a visual and sensory experience which rigorous historical thinking would probably negate rather than nurture.

Studiomumbai 001 kendall mccaugherty

Studiomumbai 001 kendall mccaugherty

Studio Mumbai’s ‘Prima Materia’, 2017, with Bak Gordon’s drawings in the background and Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s in the distance. Source: Kendall McCaugherty – Hall+Merrick Photographers / Chicago Architecture Biennial

Provoking another set of enjoyable impressions are Baukuh and Stefano Graziani from Milan and Genoa. They take Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua asa precedent for narrative told through numerous images and rework it into an entirely fictional (and impossible in conventional temporal conditions) meeting between Italian oil baron Enrico Fermi – and the Queen of Sheba. According to such diverse authorities as the Bible, Piero della Francesca, GF Handel and King Vidor, she actually met King Solomon – Vidor represented them via Gina Lollobrigida and Yul Brynner. What Giotto, who made the first steps towards perspectival representation, and Piero who perfected the technique, might have made of this is beside the point. Once they had shown how space could be represented accurately in two dimensions, they released the fixity of time, for instance portraying their patrons as part of events which happened in the deep or mythological past which was licensed by their triumph over space. They could hardly complain if, in the restlessly stroboscopic 21st century, their successors play fast and loose with their narratives and chronologies.

All this gives a sense of carnival, where time stops, goes backward or leaps into the future, according to the diktats of imagination rather than some sort of mythical Court of Historical Arbitration – though it would be fun to appoint judges to such a body. Without doubt the sort of pilfering and perjuring which characterises how architects treat the past stands outside conventional chronological flows. It may even be, as the Russian scholar MM Bakhtin implied, a necessary aspect of ‘novelty’ or creative endeavour.

Nick cave wide 007

Nick cave wide 007

Jeanne Gang and Nick Cave, Here Hear, 2017. Dancers were ritually reclothed in urban detritus with their movements bringing a sense of carnival. Source: James Richards IV. Courtesy of Navy Pier

The last of the curators’ four historical categories, material histories, forged the closest (if still unresolved) connection between rigorous historical thought and freedom to distort chronology. Studio Gang’s exhibit, for instance, explores the results of industrialisation as it separated  place or origin and use of materials. Another relationship to material can be seen in the Ábalos and Sentkiewicz ‘Planta Project’, which recycles refuse from a stone quarry into a contemporary art museum which, as part of a long-standing interest, uses advanced thermodynamic concepts to manage radiation, natural lighting and ventilation. The potential of material provides the basis for transformation into what might be a new history.

In the abovementioned seminar, Iñaki Ábalos confessed that he liked the three words ‘make new history’ expressly because they raised the issue of material culture. Organised by Harvard GSD, the subject was ‘New Materialism: History makes Practice/Practice makes History’, with practice being deliberately ambiguous between practice as a working method and as a firm. Under this rubric, for instance, Frank Barkow outlined Barkow Leibinger’s proposal, which reworks three mid-20th century projects – Heinrich Tessenow’s timber Festhalle pavilion of 1936, a typical East German housing block, and Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s film Thicket – into three residential towers, the material for the same programme reconceived through these frames. Emanuel Christ reinforced the tautology of his name by showing a Gerhard Richter reworking of a Renaissance Annunciation scene, as an example of ‘reinterpretation, transformation and appropriation’ of history.

Jmayerhundphilipursprung 001 kendall mccaugherty

Jmayerhundphilipursprung 001 kendall mccaugherty

Jürgen Mayer H and Philip Ursprung, ‘Cosmic Latte: Beige Manifesto’. Source: Kendall McCaugherty / Chicago Architecture Biennial

The missing word here – at least to me and the Society of Architectural Historians’ president Ken Oshima – was historiography, the intellectual structures of historical thinking. On this note the most perceptive and most troubling comments came from ETH historian Philip Ursprung – who himself co-conceived a manifesto for the colour beige, called ‘Cosmic Latte’, with Jürgen Mayer H. Ursprung cited the advice given by Jacob Burckhardt, one of the founders of cultural history in the 19th century, to his student Heinrich Wölfflin, who made a decisive contribution to architectural history, to ‘keep close to the sources. There is a very special blessing on them’.

I am sure all the exhibitors believe there is a special blessing on their sources: architects usually hold their own predilections higher than anyone else’s. The difference between them and Burckhardt is that, for the latter, historical and contingent context was as important as the image, building or text that comprises the source itself. For architects what matters about this kernel of the source is how it fits in the context of their own creative thought. And it is that disjuncture that makes ‘new history’, histories which can suggest futures as challenging and troubling as any of the stuff that happened in the past.