Joseph Grima & Sarah Herda
Chicago Architecture Biennial curators Joseph Grima, Genoabased architect, writer and researcher, and Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, talk to Herbert Wright about the event and the art of architecture
Blueprint: Now that this has been brought together, what do you think is the State of the Art of Architecture?
JG: There's no singular definition of the State of the Art of Architecture. It was never the objective to say definitively or provisionally what architecture is. Architecture is not only solving a set of very pragmatic challenges, but also it's capturing certain aspects of our cultural identity, who we are. Therefore, it's an art form; architecture actually is an art. That point needs underlining, especially in the tradition of architecture in the past half century in North America, where... there's a major lack of institutions that speak to a broad audience. There are so few platforms for the idea of the art of architecture today.
SH: Something like an extremely affordable house: it's not only a practical solution, [it's] a beautiful solution, invested in political qualities and spatial qualities... you can't divide it out into these segments.
JG: That's why we never have [just] rooms with houses in, other rooms with drawings in, because that would lead to the idea that there was a number of sections that architecture could be pigeon-holed into. That's the absolute antithesis of the point we wish to make.
Blueprint: Are politically charged issues like affordable housing vital to the state of architecture?
SH: You see that a lot in the exhibition. The socio-economic situation is absolutely crucial.
Blueprint: But architects are more likely to be engaged in, say, suburban house extensions or luxury apartments in the Middle East, commercial stuff...
JG: I had an interesting conversation with a correspondent of the Yale School of Architecture student magazine... [about his] frustration at... the rites of initiation into the extremely ethereal world of architecture. You have to read a massive pile of books to allow you to deconstruct the codes of aesthetics and form, then you'll have the right to produce something and also comment on the work of others. That whole idea in which there are gatekeepers and you have to be initiated and there are certain qualifications to understand what you're looking at, I think is the antithesis of everything this show stands for.
I think there was a particular moment in history when architecture was drawn out of the realm of the public and elevated to an extremely remote sphere, academic theorisation. That architecture is public and everyone has a stake is the point we're trying to make. That's why we have this building that is so public and so part of the city.
SH: I think also that this issue of the agency of the architect, that's something. I think we can find new ways of dealing with that, new ways you can practice; you're not always waiting for a commission. There are practical projects like the VTN house from Vietnam, or even the more speculative, or research.
JG: It's almost as if we were presenting 100 definitions of what an architect is. Each one is different and has a different definition of their agency. It makes the idea of architect relevant. It's not simply about making extensions, which is a depressing idea.
SH: There are so many positions in the exhibition; the State of the Art of Architecture is that. A cacophony of voices pushing at architecture in all different directions.
Blueprint: Did you feel Daniel Burnham looking over your shoulder from the 1892 Columbian Exposition?
SH: It was a moment when the world was looking at Chicago. The scales are quite different, but it's convening that conversation.
Blueprint: And the 1932 World Fair?
SH: They built these demonstration houses on the south part of the lake that have recently been restored. But you know, it's an architecture exhibition, not an Expo or a World Fair. It's a different scale.
We're finding welcoming ways for people to experience architecture. There are four buildings in this building (the Chicago Cultural Center).
JG: To be able to present prototypes and demonstrate full-scale possibilities, that's action, not just theory.
Blueprint: What are your personal favourite exhibits?
SH: I'm going to say Environmental Communications [collaborative research by Mark Wasiuta, Marcos Sanchez and others into archives including of Los Angeles air quality and San Fernando's police surveillance, architecture, green technology and energy privacy]. I think with this we were acknowledging research is an important form of practice.
JG: I can't hide my love for Saraceno, who exhibits four webs woven by spiders. Tomás is an old friend.
SH: Animal architecture!