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‘No harm done, few traces left behind’

The Chicago Biennial fails to make a lasting impact

Among the ephemera available to commemorate one’s visit to this year’s inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial is a white T-shirt printed all over with a 4x4 cm grid. A small title along its bottom hem offers the only hint of connection to the exhibition. It may seem frivolous, but this T-shirt reveals much about the ambitions, along with some of the limitations, of this inaugural event. The gridded design is obviously a reference to Chicago’s streetscape, which stretches over 200 square miles to the north, west and south of Lake Michigan’s silty south-western shore. More than this, it implies that this city and this biennial occupy a kind of universal Euclidean space, free from encumbrance or circumstance and ‘unprogrammed’, as the members in one of the opening weekend’s many panels put it.

What a surprise, then, to find that the space curators Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda had to contend with is emphatically not an indifferent, Miesian one (like, say, Gene Summers’s McCormick Place or Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at IIT, to cite two Chicago examples), nor even the neutral box of a contemporary art museum, but instead an ornately decorated, late-19th-century civic landmark. Their assignment – to exhibit a cacophonous selection of contemporary architecture within an appealing, stately work of neoclassicism – is enviable but very challenging. With its Tiffany glass, tile mosaics and marble revetments, the Chicago Cultural Center is capable of outshining the exhibits at nearly every turn. As a result, the show seems to me a referendum on the status of the white cube gallery for architecture exhibitions, but also, crucially, on the importance of public engagement for architecture’s internal discourses. 

The Cultural Centre for Chicago Biennial 2015

The Cultural Center lives in the hearts of the people of Chicago due to its long-term involvement with public events

The Cultural Center, which receives upwards of 80,000 visitors per year even without as significant a draw as this Biennial, promises to put contemporary architecture in front of a broader viewership than might have been possible at any comparable venue in the city, if not the entire United States. Attendance during opening weekend has been estimated at more than 31,000. As usual for the Cultural Center, the exhibit will remain free and open to all. Some of the exhibitors chose to take this openness as a mandate, but others remained comfortably within an academic realm. But this apparent debate about accessibility is only one of many played out among the more than 90 installations. If this is the state of the art of architecture, as the exhibition’s title proclaims, it’s an utterly confusing time to be an architect. Or perhaps the state of the art simply changes too fast to capture it in an exhibition, no matter how wide-ranging.

A telling, ‘hyper-compressed’ event during opening weekend gave its 99 participants each 15 seconds to answer the question, ‘what is urgent?’ Absurdly, it seemed as if more time was spent introducing the participants than was allotted for them to respond, implying that their answers were only as important as their qualifications. Everyone may have had 15 seconds in the spotlight, but aren’t urgent problems worth more than a tossed-off tweet? This event, more than the exhibition itself, exemplifies the grid-as-curatorial strategy embodied in the Biennial T-shirt.

‘If this is the state of the art of architecture, as the exhibition’s title proclaims, it’s an utterly confusing time to be an architect.’

Atelier Bowwow

Jungle gym meets architecture: Atelier Bow-Wow presents its ‘Piranesi Circus’ at the Chicago Biennial 2015

Thankfully, participants seem to have been given substantial leeway to determine the topic, scope and in some cases the location of their installations. However, some of the most sincere projects – like Studio Gang’s timely and thoughtful rethinking of the American police station as a transparent community amenity, or the films documenting Lacaton & Vassal’s transformations of social housing in Bordeaux – have still ended up tucked into odd and unbecoming spaces. Four other installations have even been exiled to an adjacent building across the street. This is too bad for these exhibitors and for visitors, who might miss Toma’s improvised search-in-progress for architectural traces of Neoliberal economist Milton Friedman. Complete with ‘evidence board’ and a daily digest, this evolving work is politically charged but nonetheless quite funny.

Setting aside any desire for a neutral backdrop, some of the best installations supplement or disrupt one’s experience of the Cultural Center. Of these, none is a savvier contextual response than that of Studio Albori, whose recycled-and-recyclable ‘Makeshift’ installation occupies the fourth-floor landing of the cavernous south stairwell. Its reclaimed boards beautifully complement the colouring of the space’s marble, bronze and mother of pearl. Further enhancing this off-kilter equipoise are the treehouse-like towers nestled into the stair’s voids. These and a slightly raised floor will occasionally serve as staging for jazz performances. The work’s ideal state is during these sessions, when players fill the echoing space with improvised music.

‘Setting aside any desire for a neutral backdrop, some of the best installations supplement or disrupt one’s experience of the Cultural Center.’

Studio Albori

Studio Albori’s contribution to the event is a makeshift, recycle-and-recyclable installation which takes over the whole fourth-floor landing inside the Cultural Center

Equally interested in adjusting perceptions is Norman Kelley’s ‘Chicago – How Do You See?’ This largely 2D project transposes cartoonish drawings of windows found across the city onto those of the Cultural Center’s east facade. If on the exterior this lightens up the appearance of the staid edifice, it does its real work on the interior, where views of adjacent skyscrapers and streets are cleverly and subtly disrupted. Elsewhere, Atelier Bow-Wow’s ‘Piranesi Circus’ introduces a thrilling (but unfortunately inaccessible) architectural jungle gym into the Cultural Center’s light court. Though it would obviously present a serious safety hazard, one wishes it were accessible by foot as well as eye.

Being juxtaposed to the Cultural Center’s spaces enriches even less site-specific installations. With its oversized, modular openings and carefully curated selection of strange domestic objects, MOS Architects’ ‘House Number Eleven’, for instance, is a jarring, surreal presence on the fourth floor. It might elsewhere appear ghostly, but is rendered somehow benign, perhaps even friendly, by its surroundings. Then again, maybe that’s a side effect of breathing too near its off-gassing plywood. Similarly surreal is Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen’s panoramic presentation of photographs by Bas Princen. Printed on fabric hung from a pill-shaped ring, the images document the site of Cedric Price’s unrealised Potteries Thinkbelt project, transporting the visitor to an undistinguished patch of forest with a resonant architectural history. It works well enough, but perhaps a field recording would have enhanced the effect.

Mos Architects

‘House Number Eleven’ by MOS Architects dominates the space due to its scale and materiality, in contrast with its neighbour by Sou Fujimoto which displays a series of small, ad hoc objects

As a whole, the installations placed in more neutral galleries prove far less memorable. One exception is Besler & Sons/ATLV’s ‘The Entire Situation’, which takes on the paper-thin, throw-away quality of the gallery wall by tying it, more or less, into knots. A touchscreen near their pair of freestanding mock-ups allows visitors to draw and automatically BIM-model their own absurd plan shapes, which will become part of an archive accessible online. A floor above, Baukuh, Stefano Graziani, and Yellow Office offer a smart but totally ignorable play on the crisis of miniaturisation that confronts most architecture exhibitions. Small prints of Graziani’s photographs, arrayed on a low table, record the architects installing and testing a model of their competition design to surround Berlin’s Stadtschloss with expansive Italian gardens, in a colourful, wallpapered room that does their design no favours as a backdrop. It’s sophisticated stuff that rewards close attention, but many will likely walk right by.

 In an inspired move that future Biennial curators should look to for inspiration, others chose to take their work out of the galleries and into the streets. Chicagoan Amanda Williams has used the exhibition as a spur to continue her ‘Color(ed) Theory’ project. She has painted foreclosed and abandoned houses in African-American neighbourhoods in colours carefully selected for their special relevance to the black community. A few stunning photographs are on show in the Cultural Center, but the real action came during the opening weekend, when she staged a live painting session at the last of eight houses, this one given the colour of ‘Flamin’ Red Hots’. Other off-site events, including numerous exhibitions and inaugurations that will have a lasting impact, are worthy of closer and more discrete scrutiny than I can dedicate here.1 One of the most visible found Los Angeles- and Oslo-based architect Bryony Roberts collaborating with the South Shore Drill Team and their choreographer Asher Waldron to bring a bit of fanfare to Mies’s often-lifeless Federal Center Plaza. Made up of teenagers from some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the drill team instills discipline and gives order to the lives of these youths. Their Biennial performances have no doubt given them a boost in visibility, while also subtly pointing to the inequities inherent in the ‘free and equal’ society celebrated by Mies’s gridded architecture.

‘In an inspired move that future Biennial curators should look to for inspiration, others chose to take their work out of the galleries and into the streets.’

Amanda Williams

Amanda Williams’ presents part of her ‘Color(ed) Theory’ project which contains a series of photographs of abandoned houses painted in bright colours in deprived African-American neighbourhoods

One might imagine encountering an audience member at their performance dressed in a brand new gridded T-shirt, perhaps unaware of its design’s contradictory implications. Wearing it, one could even re-enact a famous photograph of Superstudio’s members in similar shirts designed to mimic their gridded Histogram tables. These Italian radicals are forebears to the approach taken by certain Biennial exhibitors, who see architecture exhibitions as more like conceptual art than public relations. Transposed to the Cultural Center bookshop, the gridded fabric jumps across that spectrum, enlisted as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s strategic investment in contemporary architecture to reassert Chicago’s cultural prominence among a cadre of global cities. But the attention Chicago and its communities garner through the Biennial will, inevitably, prove transient.

In a strangely poignant series of videos exhibited by Architecten de Vylder Vinck Taillieu, unseen architects strike tennis balls against well-known works of architecture in an endless loop. This fleeting and heedless activity seems analogous to the Biennial installations’ encounter with the Cultural Center, even at their best: no harm done, few traces left behind, and gone in the blink of its majestic Tiffany-glass eyes. With enough patience, visitors will notice this type of wry humor behind many of the works on show. Here’s hoping they’ll be willing to dedicate more than 15 seconds apiece. At the very least, they should think a little about their new T-shirt.

Footnote

1. Particularly notable are the opening of Theaster Gates’s Stony Island Arts Bank on the city’s South Side, and a staging of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center’s House Housing exhibition at the nascent National Public Housing Museum. Both are located in historic buildings that rival the Cultural Center in social significance. Gates’s ambitious and multi-faceted new institution is located in a former community bank built in 1923 but vacant since the 1980s, while the NPHM will soon renovate and occupy the only building in the Jane Addams Homes to be spared demolition during Chicago’s decimation of their public housing stock in the 2000s. A parallel exhibition at the NPHM, titled We, Next Door, situates the narrative of House Housing in the Chicago context.

Chicago Architecture Biennial: The State of the Art of Architecture

Curated by Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda
3 October 2015 – 3 January 2016

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