• The south lobby is the smaller, but more distilled entry to the Chicago Cultural Center and Biennial exhibit. Four stories of mosaics and stairs introduce the building and landscape. Photo by Tom Harris.

Chicago Architecture Biennial: Make New History
Curated by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee

Having ridden past countless billboards promoting the Chicago Architectural Biennial over the last few weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the curatorial title of this second run called “Make New History.” The billboard, with the title printed twice but using inverse colors in medium blue and blood orange, obviously suggests multiple readings, and in this capacity, the Biennial delivers.

More than 140 participants have contributed to the over 100 exhibits and installations housed in the Chicago Cultural Center to showcase this conversation. The Cultural Center, the city’s central library prior to the opening of the much maligned and post-modern Harold Washington Library in the early 1990s, makes the trip worthwhile alone. Designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in 1892, the building is a labyrinth of beautiful space after beautiful space.

Per the curators Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, from the diversity of topics presented the conversations centered around four topics: building histories where a single building stands alone as a marker of time; material histories that explore the contemporary strategies or approaches; image histories that reflect contemporary representational thinking; and civic histories where questions of collectivity are posed.

As Chicago makes its own New History hosting the Biennial, this second installment is initially less visually stunning than the inaugural. In 2015, small architectural pavilions dotted the landscape of Millennium and Grant Parks outside the doors of the Cultural Center, and the Center’s sequential foyer and lobby were activated with massive, room-filling, inhabitable, and kinetic installations. Through the lobby, up the stairs, and out to the historic light well, Atelier Bow-Wow’s exhibit from 2015, “Piranesi Circus,” is still installed and visible. A seemingly permanent installation at the Cultural Center now, it gives hope that these ideas aren’t only markers in time.

But intellectually, this show is considerably more cohesive than the first, and if perhaps the exhibits don’t leave you in awe, the questions and their insight into the state of the discipline linger.

The two largest exhibitions of the Biennial are group installations entitled “Horizontal City” and “Vertical City.” Horizontal City exhibits models by 24 architects who were asked to reference a photograph of a canonical architectural interior and reconsider the state of architectural interiors across a larger horizontal site or landscape with the exact meaning of that context left abstract. Displayed as 24 large pieces on a grid of plinths, the models themselves form a compelling landscape, but the continuity of their pursuit is lacking. The question posed is vague, leaving the exhibit without a clear voice as to the state of the interior, or which broader landscapes the interior could inhabit. Many of the models, however, are spectacular as inspiring displays of craftmanship and creativity, almost all benefiting from forcing viewers to bend, kneel, or sit next to them to peer inside. (As an aside, the light fixtures that illuminate them are beautiful, too.) UrbanLab’s “A Room Enclosed by Hills and Mountains” references Superstudio’s “Life, Education, Ceremony, Love, the Encampment, The Fundamental Acts,” and is a series of illuminated rooms, bounded by mirrors, and full of colorful bodies and cacti. Diego Arraigada Arquitectos’ exhibit referencing Jørn Utzon’s own house, Can Lis, takes a new look at one of the most powerful architectural images I’ve ever seen — the beautiful living room view from the cliffs of Majorca to the ocean — and extrudes each aperture several feet into a tube or space of its own. The concept is an interesting perspective, but the spaces created by the new extrusions lack compelling logic and use, and sadly frame nothing, other than the darkness of the Cultural Center’s walls. The model does prove one thing: A beautiful view will always win in a battle with an architect’s seemingly invincible intellect.

These incredible architectural models shine brighter in the beautifully scaled and articulated spaces of the Cultural Center, and nowhere more so than on the top floor gallery, where the exhibit Vertical City reimagines the 1925 Chicago Tribune Tower competition with 15 new ideas for tall buildings. The models, each 16 ft tall, are more impressive in person than any photograph can reveal (like a good piece of architecture). The concepts displayed take cues from current and historic cultures, uses, and forms and translate them into a variety of hybridized statements and potentials. Again, it is the models, and not so much the ideas, that steal the show. In 1925, a beautiful building emerged from the Tribune Tower competition, but in 2017, it doesn’t appear that the new histories of vertical cities will be affected by these ideas. In the world, new ideas regarding vertical construction abound. Tall garden cities are being constructed, and 30-story buildings are now being built entirely of wood. But the architects here eschew almost any responsibility for seriousness with their entries. A cast glass block tower by MOS Architects, which might have been speaking to Mies’ 1922 Friedrichstrasse glass tower, actually describes itself as, “on the verge of nothing-in-particular,” and “Maybe it is a knowing wink and nod toward quote-unqote history. Maybe not. It couldn’t care less or more.” While perhaps not as literally evident elsewhere, the show exudes this attitude. Architecture may not care if it is on the verge of nothing in particular. 

While the curatorial topics are evident in the show, material histories, building histories, and civic histories all take a back seat to image histories. If the Biennial is any indication, architects are very focused on image. Whether the image itself or the image of an idea, the exhibits on display very heavily lean on the act of producing compelling images or producing images of ideas. The discourse presented seems to be less focused on reinterpreting history through buildings and spaces, and more focused on a stylistic representation of analysis. 

No doubt, the images are often beautiful. In Philipp Schaerer’s “Chicago Series,” materials and textures are digitally sampled to produce abstract 2D compositions that resemble plans, facades, and maps. This sampling tactic has been popular in the making of music for some time, and it is interesting to think about how it could apply to the production of architecture — or at the very least how architects will apply it
to attempt to make art.

While Schaerer’s images appear to be less critique and more composition, many of the images feel like attempts at critique without being productive. In Filip Dujardin’s “Chicago,” images of Miesian-like towers are warped and distorted and composed into a city of child-like blocks, referential of classic orders but painted with modern texture. In what appears to be a brilliant curatorial maneuver, these images are juxtaposed with Christian Kerez’s “7 Represented Spaces,” very large prints of massive-scaled industrial interiors. Kerez, who began his career as a photographer, suggests that the appeal of these spaces lies in their rational and objective response to highly technical and functional criteria. It’s this kind of observation and beautiful representation that one wishes were more prevalent in the show.

In addition to the unintended yet curatorially provoked collaboration of Kerez and Dujardin noted above, SANAA and the Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture teamed up to build a massive site model that explores creating a new green belt connecting Mies’ IIT campus to Lake Michigan. The idea is a strong one, and though its link to the agenda of the Biennial is unclear, underneath the glass dome of the Cultural Center, the room looks spectacular. 

Many exhibits sing, and it isn’t their physical scale or presence that gives them agency. In ZAO/standardarchitecture’s exhibit, “Make New Hutong Metabolism,” the architects present three concepts for the redevelopment of China’s Hutong housing typology. The concept, models, and designs present enthusiastic and clearly emotional responses to the old and new histories of these multiple-unit courtyard dwellings. In one, a library space is added to the courtyard, introducing new complexity to the already complicated aggregation of spaces. Using modern cuts and assemblies of the historic materials, the Hutong is reinvigorated — given a new history. In this exhibit, an idea produces a compelling image, but more so a compelling space and experience. And in doing so, it also makes an argument and commentary literally concrete. These historic typologies are a clear part of China’s history, and the incredible pace of growth and modernization in China often isn’t leaving time for the negotiation of the proper new history for these spaces. A practice model and professional agenda by the architect gives this conversation life.

In “Heliomorphic Chicago,” Charles Waldheim with the Harvard Graduate School of Design Office for Urbanization and Siena Scarff Design offer a visually clear analysis of architectural form through two specific lenses: solar equity and ecological performance. The exhibit displays two separate models for each of Chicago’s 20 most iconic towers, one which warps the current design into a form that demonstrates the building’s potential to harness the sun for performance, and the second that bends the design into a form that allows the greatest amount of sunlight and view to those in and around the building (think New York City’s classic step-back zoning laws).
It was essential for the precedents to remain legible, but to see the altered forms, their similarities and differences, raises excellent questions. Interestingly, the hulking dark towers of the 1970s fair well. The Hancock tower is almost unaltered, and the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) generally remains itself, only becoming more shard-like as the characteristic stepping tubes are smoothed into shards. Mies’s 860-880 Lake Shore, however, get a major face-lift. The triangular slicing and shortening that occurs in both of the sibling models turns the towers more into the Thompson Center than themselves. The sun orange models demand to be stared at and studied in an attempt to understand the exact criteria that would force such shape-shifting, and while a more detailed explanation of that analysis is missing from the exhibit, the questions raised linger.

There are so many galleries and exhibits that it is certain that some will be missed on a first visit. In an almost hidden gallery tucked in a corner of the first floor, there are a couple of other gems. “Baskets,” by Aranda\Lasch offers a new look at weaving. In collaboration with Native American Terrol Dew Johnson, simple materials — wood, fiber, metal — are woven into mesmerizing algorithmically generated forms. The ancient tradition of weaving is illuminated as an algorithm that itself can generate broader forms. As a new material history, the exhibit is captivating and the forms beautiful. One wonders how either these materials or techniques might find themselves in the new material and structural histories of buildings.

While the Cultural Center houses the majority of the exhibits and conversations, there are several “off-campus” exhibits in the Biennial rotation. One standout is the Stony Island Arts Bank, a salvaged (not restored) early 20th century savings and loan. The bank closed in the 1980s and sat vacant and deteriorating until the Rebuild Foundation salvaged it as a hybrid community center. The building is an archive, literally and figuratively. The walls of the space are preserved as layers of material, time, and narrative. Upon entering the historic lobby, the eye is drawn ahead to the old teller windows straight ahead, but also to the glow of a two-story library space on the mezzanine above. The library, which houses the archive for the former Johnson Publishing Company is one of those all-time great architectural spaces. The color, scale, materiality, and textures of the room are simply perfect. It’s a room you feel lucky to inhabit and sad to leave. 

Overall, the Biennial is full of delightful imagery but leaves us wanting more in the way of the future of architecture. In this exhibit, architects are too comfortable as critics and analysts, presenting creativity, opinion, and wit through imagery as opposed to architectural ambition through space and materiality. In this image-heavy time we find ourselves in, perhaps this should come as no surprise, but the position seems as though it lacks agency — as though we are painting ourselves even further into a corner. Almost all the works are presented by single practitioners or firms, and very few examine collaboration or cross-disciplinary explorations that suggest new modes of practice — the Stony Island Arts Bank project being a standout exception.

And finally, in more than one location across the Biennial, from the billboards to the installations, to the images themselves, I couldn’t help but notice the color theme of the deep orangey pink and the just deeper than pastel blue. This color scheme is so prevalent that to me it was impossible to ignore, and I couldn’t help but continue to reference and be reminded of the much-maligned Illinois Center building by Chicago master Helmut Jahn, a building that seems to be disparaged for its color choices more than complimented for its acoustic performance. It’s a reminder of how architects are first and foremost image-based.

Andy Tinucci, AIA, is a principal at Woodhouse Tinucci Architects in Chicago and a studio assistant professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture.

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