• “Decendances du nu,” by Jimmy Robert. - photo by Daris Jasper

…And Other Such Stories
Chicago Architecture Biennial

The third edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial opened on September 19, 2019. Titled “…And Other Such Stories,” it was curated by Yesomi Umolu, Sepake Angiama, and Paulo Tavares. Hosted at the Chicago Cultural Center and four off-site venues, the exhibition elided the formal and technical aspects of architecture to focus on problems of equity and historical violence in the world in which architecture operates. Here, Chicago Architect Editor Anjulie Rao and Texas Architect Editor Aaron Seward discuss some of what they absorbed at the event.

Aaron Seward: One of the criticisms we heard from several of our colleagues is that this Biennial is not an architecture biennial, but an art biennial. It’s true; there’s not much architecture on display. But my feeling is that the sort of research that is on display is the sort of thing that, when it’s missing from architecture — and it so often is missing — there’s a problem. And the fact that little or no architecture was presented only highlights the fact that most of the populations examined by the curators are not in charge of producing their own architecture, beyond the informal and often insufficient housing they erect for themselves or occupy. 

Anjulie Rao: Those critiques are rather reductive. Folks who work in/around architecture seem to be motivated by physical structures and use social structures like poverty and redlining as props for a practice that, without those qualifying props, would have little radiating meaning. You see it in how architecture journalists praise private buildings’ “plazas” as “inviting community spaces,” whereas in reality, they are highly controlled, policed spaces. While that is a basal example, that idea extends to how architects commune between private and public entities. So of course folks wail when they don’t see buildings on display — it forces them to confront the idea that “social practice” is not a real part of their practice because it’s not a monetizable form of labor. It exists outside of conventional market exchanges. It’s not quantifiable. It doesn’t integrate well into the traditional way of running a practice.

Calling it “art” only exacerbates how sad this situation is: What they expect from art dramatically differs from what they expect from architecture. Only art, by their definition, is allowed to form complex ideas that point to histories of disenfranchisement and neglect; art is allowed to live and breathe in environments of contradiction. 

You’re very much correct in your idea that the research is missing; I’d go so far as to say that many architecture practices should be relieved that there are other people doing this absolutely necessary labor for them. We should all be rejoicing that meaningful, long-term engagements are taking place without architects having to complain about “billable hours.” That there are folks doing the deep, scary, swampy research into how predecessors perpetuated segregation and disinvestment in communities of color.

AS: That’s an interesting way to look at this Biennial, as a resource library for architects who want to be better citizens of the world. I was moderating a panel last night and one of the panelists, UT Professor David Heymann, said something like, “There’s only one certainty in architecture and that’s gravity; everything else is a choice.” It seems, or one might hope, that if armed with the awareness of the precariousness of our situation at the global as well as local scales — and this Biennial is very much about trumpeting just how precarious that situation is — then when making decisions about a project beyond the first necessity of it standing up and not collapsing and killing people, those decisions would result in work that is less harmful to the environment and more supportive of the communities it serves. This sort of awareness, and decisions based upon it, are just what’s lacking in architecture produced from strictly Neoliberal economic concerns, which focus solely on increasing profit margins. 

It should be said that while not a ton of architecture is on display, a lot of the projects are by architects in collaboration with other disciplines and organizations. And the subject matters are all things that architects are, or should be, interested in: problems in contemporary urbanism; the depredations of resource extraction; the bloody history of colonialism; the continued oppression of communities of color; theories about society; climate and ecological crisis; etc. 

I was particularly taken with “Decolonizing the Chicago Cultural Center” by the Settler Colonial City Project (SCCP), which is led by two architects, Ana María León and Andrew Herscher, in collaboration with Chicago’s American Indian Center. It comprises several signs posted throughout the Cultural Center that describe how this decked-out, Beaux Arts building — which is quite beautiful and strange in its own right — is made up of materials extracted from land stolen from indigenous peoples, not to mention built on such land and completed with labor practices that don’t live up to contemporary ethical standards, while also being frosted with decoration and messaging that romanticize indigenous peoples as “noble savages” and normalize the removal and reduction of their populations. It’s sort of the equivalent of reading the full ingredients list on the bag of Doritos you’re eating and thinking “damn these are good, but holy shit!” Or it’s like the scene in “The Shining” when the elevator doors open and an ocean of blood — the blood of slaughtered Native Americans — floods the hallway. 

SCCP states that the project is not meant to take away from the grandeur or importance of the building, but to “complement and complicate” its history. This begs the question, what happens to us once the nightmarish history embedded within our built environment is decoded? Do we wind up murderous and crazed like Jack Torrance in “The Shining,” or do we become Care Bears and band together to defeat Professor Coldheart with the Care Bear Stare? 

AR: The SCCP project is definitely the standout display at the Biennial. The way I tend to evaluate architecture exhibitions begins with examining power: Where is it displayed, where is it ceded, and how? SCCP works in very un-nuanced ways with power. The Forensic Architecture display does something similar. The group uses architectural design principles and practices to investigate cases of state violence, re-creating events to deconstruct scenarios in which armed conflicts lead to deaths and environmental destruction.

For the Biennial, they were commissioned to display their investigation into the murder of Harith Augustus, a Chicago resident who was shot to death by police. The dash and bodycam footage was released more than a year after his killing, and Forensic Architecture, in collaboration with the Invisible Institute (a local journalism production group that uses reporting, documentation, and litigation to advance citizens’ ability to hold government institutions accountable) put together a multimedia model re-creating what happened when Augustus was brutally murdered.

The piece was removed from the Biennial, and in its place, an essay by Jamie Kalven (the head of the Invisible Institute) was displayed. The essay, titled “Looking and Showing,” tells us why the installation was removed:

This is the context in which we undertook our investigation of the police killing of Harith Augustus. As we became immersed in this year-long collaboration, certain questions surfaced …. However, over the course of the project, we were confronted by an apparent contradiction between the necessity of looking and the difficulty of showing. We became increasingly concerned about presenting graphic scenes of police violence against a black man in the context of an exhibition, about the danger of foreclosing other ways of engaging with the life of Harith Augustus by repeatedly showing his last moments, and about inflicting difficult images on visitors who had not consented to view them.

The installation is instead displayed at The Experimental Station, where the Invisible Institute, among other amazing organizations, is housed. 

I don’t fully understand why one context/place is more important than another; it seems their concerns about looking/not looking could be solved through careful installation. In many ways, I feel comforted knowing that the piece exists and exists someplace. But can we draw power back from terrorizing institutions like state-sanctioned police violence just by knowing violence occurred? Do we become more powerful by visualizing more just worlds? If not being forced to confront it, do we become more complacent in violence?

The ideas I’m raising, I think, are more complicated than becoming villains or Care Bears (though I appreciate your deep knowledge of Care Bear politics); rather, I’m addressing how we see ourselves in relation to the built environment and the minutiae of how we contribute to or run away from the violence within. 

The fact is, nothing happens when we confront historical violence in exhibitions. Nothing happens because the people currently in charge of displaying that history are, for the most part, white, affluent, and male. And those people in charge of those histories have a stake in maintaining the conditions in which they amassed power, the conditions created by historic violence. People of color, particularly women of color, know these histories all too well and are confronted by them or their residues on a daily basis. Many people still suffer from historic violence, and putting it on display is a step forward but doesn’t do a whole lot to disseminate power or build opportunities to remedy injustice. That happens before the hole is dug or the building is designed. It happens when land is ceded; it happens when communities are engaged. So, again, is looking enough, Aaron?

AS: Well, Anjulie, I suppose the answer to that is, No. But maybe there’s more to looking than you’re allowing. 

Kalven’s “Looking and Showing” essay is very interesting. I think it’s peculiar that Invisible Institute and Forensic Architecture should worry about “inflicting difficult images on visitors who had not consented to view them.” First off, proceeding from the premise with which we started this discussion — that possibly this is more of an art biennial than an architecture one — since when has art been worried about inflicting difficult images on viewers? (Remember Jordan Wolfson’s virtual reality installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, “Real Violence”?) Art, actually, has been in a funk over the last few decades because it feels like it no longer has the ability to shock audiences. Are we to conclude that poor architecture can’t even get an art biennial right because it’s too worried about triggering sensitive constituencies by showing pictures that raise awareness of terrible problems in society and the environment? 

I suspect the decision to not show the Forensic Architecture piece had more to do with not wanting to rankle the Chicago Police Department — showing it at an obscure venue is one thing, but exhibiting it at the international venue of the Biennial is another thing entirely — but I also think that architecture really does have a problem with reticence. After all, architecture needs clients, and so the perception among the majority of the profession in this country is architects should be careful about what they say. But that perception isn’t entirely accurate. Just consider Rem Koolhaas, who manages to be a very outspoken critic and get major commissions at the same time.  

Another installation that grapples with gun violence, one that actually made it into the Biennial and has received a lot of attention, is the “Gun Violence Memorial Project,” a collaboration between MASS Design Group and the artist Hank Willis Thomas. It comprises four gable structures situated in the Cultural Center’s north lobby, each one made of 700 glass bricks, representing the number of Americans killed each week in shootings. Within many of the glass bricks are objects owned by victims of gun violence. It’s great in that it handles its subject matter in a way that highlights one of architecture’s purported strong suits: the ability to think across multiple scales. Here, all at once, you understand the enormity of the problem — 700 deaths per week — and the intimacy of individual lives lost as represented by things that were precious to them. 

So what makes this memorial project suitable for showing at the Biennial, whereas the Forensic Architecture project is a no-go? I think it’s because the “Memorial Project” is architecture operating as a work of art. It speaks through metaphor. Like MASS’ lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama (The National Memorial for Peace and Justice), it’s an alluring object that beckons you inside. You can become absorbed in its curious formal qualities and appealing materials, in its fascinating little objects that someone once cherished, without realizing right away what it is saying. Then, when it becomes clear what it is saying, when that dawns on you, and the whole monstrous weight of history comes crashing down on you, you hopefully undergo a catharsis and emerge on the other side as a better person. The seduction and absorption coming before the message reveal, I think, is crucial. The Forensic Architecture piece, on the other hand, is literal. It uses the architectural skills of analysis and visualization (3-D model-building) to reconstruct a murder in minute detail, like a piece of evidence presented in court, in order to catch the CPD in a lie. Its intention is immediately clear, but if you’re inclined to put up your defenses against its position, you’ll more easily be able to deflect it than if you were already drunk on its beguiling charms. 

So that’s one way that looking might be more than just looking, by the object actually creating a change in the subject who sees it. I’d posit that that sort of thing happens all the time, in subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways. Maybe if there was more stuff to look at in our built environment like the “Gun Violence Memorial Project” and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we might eventually get to a place where there is greater consensus to right the wrongs of our history of violence, to make reparations and tell the stories that have been buried. I feel like that project is already underway; we’re just digging ourselves out of a very deep hole, and the current political regime in Washington, as well as the constituency that put it in power, is a reaction against that change in our society. Or am I being naive? 

And did you feel like this Biennial didn’t focus enough on climate change? Or does the environment not fit as an “Other Such” story? 

AR: I also appreciate the “Gun Violence Memorial Project,” though I’ve been hearing critique. I think that the critics feel it doesn’t speak deeply enough to systemic violence and the social and physical structures that make violence possible. Maybe that critique displays the gaps between our academic, built, and social lives; some folks want solutions, and others need to hold feelings of grief and injustice. I don’t know if I fully agree with your evaluation of transformation — that we might emerge “better people” after looking at an exhibit. Rather, I think that looking allows us to experience difficult conditions in new ways; we don’t become better people but rather more conscious observers.

I often lament over the difficulty of not having language to discuss or convey emotions. When you feel a combination of grief, guilt, rage, and frustration, is it enough to merely list those feelings? Is there a way we can use words to impart that experience; or is it enough to be able to hold all those messy things at once? I think the “Gun Violence Memorial Project” does the latter. It creates a physical space for holding all those unspeakable, unnamable sensations that come from losing a loved one, or from being a civilian living in an environment colored publicly by violence. I don’t want to be a better person. I want to be a person, in all my incapacities and linguistic failings. Looking at those personal objects within that space accomplishes this.

Honestly, I didn’t spend enough time perusing the Biennial looking for climate change as a topic to be addressed; notably, I believe that racial injustice and climate change go hand-in-hand. Unlike the “Dimensions of Citizenship” exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which addressed climate change directly through compelling installations, the Chicago Biennial acknowledges the difficulties of being an under-resourced human in the era of apocalypse. While we look at the Chicago installation “Sanitation and Equity,” a research initiative to bring clean water to the 70 percent of the Indian population that doesn’t have access to it (done by the Mumbai and Boston-based firm RMA Architects), we learn to think abstractly about the effects of human negligence on equity. The installations at the Chicago Biennial don’t scream “Sea levels are rising!” — we all know that. Rather, how can we see climate and inequities built into living environments as being a symbiotic disaster?

I’m speaking lightly. I don’t think the Biennial is fully successful. I’d argue that this edition was the least-discussed of all three. Maybe there was less fanfare due to the curators not being starchitects; maybe it was because the theme wasn’t as compelling as the previous two: “Make New History” and “The State of the Art of Architecture.” But there was something deeply personal to me about this exhibition. It wasn’t a “throw-your-hands-in-the-air-for-Frank-Gehry” spectacle. It was quiet. Sometimes I’ll see a new building and think, “It’s a nice new building. So what? Have you felt my heart lately?” It’s really all I need to say.

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