The importance and awareness of our built environment is at an all-time high. A rising tide of exhibitions and symposia, tours and publications dealing with architecture and design continues to proliferate around the world, combined with pressing issues of population growth, health, infrastructure, and politics. The City of Chicago once again reminds us of its role as a global design incubator with its recently launched inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. Running from October 3, 2015, through January 3, 2016, the Biennial is lauded by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the “first international survey of contemporary architecture in North America.” What better place to continue the discussion on design than in the city that is home to so many innovations, inventions, visions, and revisions?

Home base is set in the 1897 Chicago Cultural Center, whose location in a bustling part of the city along Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park will draw 200,000-plus visitors over the three-month period, even without any formal events scheduled. Biennial planners were aware of this. The amount of foot traffic, combined with the fact that this was the first time a single exhibit filled all four floors of the Cultural Center, made it a logical place to focus the exchange of ideas.

The tone of the Biennial is set by its subtitle, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” a reprise of a conference by the same name organized in 1977 by Stanley Tigerman. And, while the first conference assembled some of the brightest architects in North America, this round brings to Chicago urgent issues of a diverse cross-section of approximately 100 global, up-and-coming design practices. The curatorial view of architecture “through the lens of art” is a liberating, preemptive swerve from the usual pragmatic overtones of Middle America. This time around, venues are deliberately scattered across the city in an effort to expand the reach of the Biennial and merge ideas with the public realm, from the Stony Island Arts Bank on the south side to the Graham Foundation on the north. Locals will enjoy the ongoing slate of events, while out-of-town visitors will need to be very selective about what is offered on the schedule.

My time at the Biennial included a number of separate wanderings through the installations at the Cultural Center, listening to casual talks by some of the participants, attending formal lectures by John Ronan and Reinier de Graaf, taking in a live-jury design competition, and making visits to the lakefront kiosks. I was given a particularly insightful tour by Iker Gil of MAS Context, who curated the installation, “Bold Alternatives for Chicago.” Iker, originally from Barcelona, pointed out that all students of architecture around the world study Chicago and therefore bring a unique, heightened awareness to the Biennial. The work in his installation shows that nothing is compromised when the focus on technology and efficiency gives way to identity, values, and personalized space.

As a collective statement, the installations are as much about what’s not shown as what is. Nowhere were outsourced, photo-realistic renderings, construction documents, or BIM models used to explain the ideas. Even form, as prominent as it is, does not exploit the tools used to make it. Many of the drawings and physical models were digitally generated, but they always give a unique, personal, crafted feel that supports the idea of architecture as an art form. The designers have been careful to prevent the potentially homogenizing effect of technology. Without the slick imagery and easily digested diagrams we’ve become accustomed to, the future doesn’t look brand new, here, and that’s a good thing; instead, it is largely referential, tying the future to the past in a trajectory of form and intent. The physical representation of the ideas does not overwhelm the content, and technology and efficiency have been displaced by issues of personal values and identity — all without compromising anything. Most large firms are noticeably absent (and there was no representation from any Texas practice), clearing the floor for different voices to participate, joining or challenging the familiar “corporate giants.”

The Biennial is a citywide, global unpacking of ideas about the role of architecture in the life of the built environment. The confluence of events, grafted as it is onto the vibrant fabric of Chicago, makes design thinking relevant. And, though it is happening in a single city, the lessons about risk-taking, thinking differently, and the economic value of creativity are applicable to any city and should fill all open-minded guests with the energy to create better places for people. The audience is out there — in fact, the Biennial opening was the largest in the history of the Cultural Center. The larger questions to be answered deal with tourism, the value of this exhibition to the city, and whether or not the speculations can be exported and implemented in a meaningful way (Mayor Emanuel agreed to host two of these Biennials).

One last look at the Cultural Center offers a fitting metaphor for the exhibition: All of the public venues were stripped of their well-worn carpet for this event, revealing the original mosaic-tiled flooring beneath. The beautiful, polished veneer shines up at us. What’s old is new again.

Ron Stelmarski, AIA, is design director for Texas practice at Perkins+Will.

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