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Unpacking the Chicago Architecture Biennial

In its global ambitions, it actually spreads itself a little too thinly. But there is much to praise and much to find. 

‘The State of the Art of Architecture’. Unpack that. Is it about the state of the art in architecture?  Is it about architecture as an art?  Is it a subtly sneaky way of avoiding a question altogether?

Perhaps as the curators claim, it’s a way of kicking off the US’s first-ever major architecture festival (yes, really) with a generously all-embracing, open and non-proscriptive statement. 

The Cultural Centre is more than just a building for the Chicago public as it has held many events and has a deep history with public engagement

The Cultural Centre is more than just a building for the Chicago public as it has held many events and has a deep history with public engagement

The title comes from a conference held in 1977, chaired by local architect Stanley Tigerman and featuring Frank Gehry and others, an effort to define what was happening between the West and East Coasts at a moment when architects seemed to be resuscitating an industry which had degenerated into a predictable dirge of corporate monoliths. Postmodernism was emerging and architects were using deep theory and superficial playfulness to breathe life back into the corpse. 

‘A stimulating snapshot of contemporary concerns, or a self-indulgent mess of self-promoting theatrics?’

The question is whether allowing architects to present whatever is of interest to them at the moment will add up to a stimulating snapshot of contemporary concerns or a self-indulgent mess of self-promoting theatrics. The answer is, thankfully, far closer to the former than the latter.  

A stark contrast to the Cultural Centre's interiors- Tatiana Bilbao's scalable timber house is displayed at the Chicago Biennial 2015

A stark contrast to the Cultural Centre’s interiors- Tatiana Bilbao’s scalable timber house is displayed at the Chicago Biennial 2015

The inaugural Chicago Biennial, curated by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, is being held at Chicago’s former Public Library, now its Cultural Centre, an eye-wateringly grand lump of fin-de-siècle civic architecture from an age when cities took themselves, their image and their streetscape very seriously indeed. If it seems unambitious to base a big show in a single building – it’s only because you might not know the building.

‘It isn’t Venice, but then neither does Chicago itself aim to be’ 

Used during the year by readers, the homeless, start-up tech kids and pensioners, as a truly public and inclusive place, it is a fine setting for an architecture show which attempts to explore manifold aspects of the city and public engagement. The first exhibit to greet the visitor is Jeanne Gang’s fascinating study of the changing face of the US urban police station. Coming at a time of increased tension with African American communities, it is a very timely and serious examination of how architecture and planning has alienated communities and what could be done about it – a project currently being manifested in a new pop-up police presence in a schoolyard.

It’s probably predictable that the theme that emerges from a selection of the world’s younger, more socially-engaged architects is housing. There are four full-size dwellings here including Tatiana Bilbao’s scalable timber house.  There is a film of Lacaton & Vassal’s exquisite transformation of a Paris social housing tower block into a Minimalist condo tower for the disenfranchised without the need to decant the residents while the work goes on. There are studies of Australian suburban housing (Ozzies take up the most room apparently) and there is Amanda Williams’ elegiac though rather dispiriting painting of condemned houses in the hood, archetypal, timber-clad dwellings painted pretty colours as art pieces. 

Amanda Williams presents a bittersweet series of colourful condemned timber clad dwellings located in socially deprived areas

Amanda Williams presents a bittersweet series of colourful condemned timber clad dwellings located in socially deprived areas

Beyond housing however, the non-brief admits a very wide interpretation of architectural practice. It embraces art, drawing, tech, sculpture and mischief in an encouraging way which suggests that architects don’t lose their student desire to explore simply because they qualify. You might wonder whether this range of practice and media isn’t to do with the dearth of opportunities for architects at this age – almost everyone displaying here is under 50 – or you might think it demonstrates a healthy, omnivorous cultural attitude. It does throw up some playful, thoughtful and charming exhibits. 

‘Despite the scale, variety and charm of the cultural centre though, the best of the show sits outside its walls.’ 

Sou Fujimoto, for instance – who is probably as close to a starchitect as we get in this show – presents a series of ad hoc objects assembled from everyday products and placed on plinths. Using clothes pegs, Pringles, tea strainers and anything else from discarded packaging to a flush pull handle, he creates plausible architectural forms to substantiate his theory that architecture is found before it is designed. It works. Any one of these could be a competition-winning entry for a new cultural centre or Serpentine Pavilion. There is almost no British involvement here beyond Assemble’s not-very-well represented Baltic Street Adventure Playground – and it probably doesn’t give a misleading picture of global influence of a younger generation still seemingly oppressed by the big names of High-Tech and the corporate establishment.

I liked Besler & Sons’ ‘The Entire Situation’, a digital interface which allows you to create, with the swipe of your finger, a complex stud wall installation rendered in impeccable 3D. The name on the screen, StudFindr is certain to attract a large, fat-fingered and accidental gay following. I also liked Wolff Architects’ simple juxtaposition of a villa and housing for the poor, one subsiding the other in his practice (which also refuses to design houses bigger than 120m sq). There are some misses – Atelier Bow-Wow’s self-proclaimedly Piranesian courtyard installation looks more low-budget Tarzan than Baroque dreamscape, and the exhibits regarding the future of Chicago itself were broadly – and surprisingly – weak, potentially undermining the city’s status as a nexus of Modernist urbanism.

Architecture can be made from Pringles? Sou Fujimoto presents a series of adhoc objects layed out to create architectural forms to support his theory that architecture is found before it is designed

Architecture can be made from Pringles? Sou Fujimoto presents a series of adhoc objects layed out to create architectural forms to support his theory that architecture is found before it is designed

Despite the scale, variety and charm of the cultural centre though, the best of the show sits outside its walls. A few miles south. Artist Theaster Gates bought a bank from Mayor Rahm Emanuel for $1 and has transformed it into a remarkable place. The building, a stolid, neo-classical marble mausoleum of a building, is the last remnant of a once vibrant main street on the city’s South Side. The now virtually wholly African American neighbourhood has been smashed as a piece of city, seemingly irreparable, yet Gates is trying some DIY. The interior has been revivified with a kind of Neues Museum respect for the original fabric and the decay inscribed upon it. The galleried banking hall becomes a wonderful social space, a new library is carved out upstairs and galleries and reading rooms have been scattered through the structure. It is as open, generous and civic-minded a building as you will find – very much in the vein of the cultural centre itself. The South Side is also the site of much speculation about Barack Obama’s Presidential Library, a project for which David Adjaye has been hotly tipped. A large Adjaye retrospective at the Art Institute is one of the Biennial’s bigger attractions but there are also shows on James Wines, Irish Architecture and installations as far afield as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. 

‘The biennial raises both questions and an occasional smile’

This is an intriguing, occasionally frustrating but often enjoyable festival of architecture. It is necessarily incomplete and, in its global ambitions, it actually spreads itself a little too thinly, not stopping long enough in any one place to deliver a real analysis or a suggestion of sufficient power. But there is much to praise and much to find. From Moon Hoon’s exquisite drawings to ETH’s robotic Self-Assembly Lab (which surprisingly comes up with something little like a piece of Gaudí), it raises both questions and an occasional smile. It isn’t Venice, but then neither does Chicago itself aim to be. And, just as in Venice, its inadequacies are shored up by the city, the Chicago of Sullivan and SOM, of Mies and Wright. If you get sick of the contemporary, you can wander outside and enjoy the modern. Or you could take a long stroll through the park opposite and enjoy the pavilions (of which only one has been realised so far, a Miesian timber construction), concessions for coffee and hot-dog stands. It’s an odd kind of legacy but perhaps appropriate, a little touch of architecture to feed and refresh in the bracing lakeshore wind. It whets rather than spoils the appetite. 

Atelier Bowwow's Piranesian installation misses the mark as it is reminiscent of a low-budget Tarzan than a Baroque dreamscape

Atelier Bowwow’s Piranesian installation misses the mark as it is reminiscent of a low-budget Tarzan than a Baroque dreamscape

Chicago Architecture Biennial

When: Until 3 January 2016

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