Chicago Biennial review

The first Chicago Architecture Biennial is an exuberant explosion of ideas and it reaches out to engage the city. It offers spectacle and reflection, fantasies and practical projects, global perspective and local intervention. But what is the agenda? And does it succeed in restoring Chicago’s position at the centre-stage of architecture?


The State of the Art of Architecture is the theme chosen by curators Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial, opened in October and running until 3 January. The title has a built-in ambiguity: what is state-of-the-art in architecture? But also, what state is architecture in as an art form? Neither Grima nor Herda set out with preconceived answers. 'We wanted to ask participants what was important for them,' says Grima.

The agenda of the man who pushed through the idea of the Biennial was clearer. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (previously Obama's Chief of Staff) not only wanted to restore Chicago to centre-stage in world architecture, he had points to make. Chicago, he said, is 'the most American of American cities. Thirty years ago, we were talking about cities being violent, now it's [about] making cities sustainable.' Predictable enough, but he also stressed that he didn't 'want this to end downtown'.

And the Biennial doesn't. It stretches across the metropolis, notably into the long-neglected, largely African-American, South Side, as we shall see.

An array of plinths in Sou Fujimoto Architects’ Architecture is Everywhere stand before New York-based Moss Architects’ popmodernist House No.11 (Corridor House)
An array of plinths in Sou Fujimoto Architects' Architecture is Everywhere stand before New York-based Moss Architects' popmodernist House No.11 (Corridor House). credit: Steven Hall

The heart of the Biennial is the downtown exhibition curated by Grima and Herda at the Chicago Cultural Center, a grand 1893 building by Sheply, Rutan and Coolidge, with lavish marble interiors and great windows looking out across Michigan Avenue to Millennium Park and Lake Michigan beyond. Their show is a spectacular mish-mash of all manner of works from some 100 architects and 30 countries. Some projects mounted dense explanatory texts, demanding serious concentration.

Others grouped together into bazaars of bright objects and visualisations, offering the sort of eye-candy of a contemporary art show by look-at-me post-pop artists. The sheer spectacle alone was entertainment, and the open-door stance of the Biennial certainly reached beyond architectural circles to the citizen-in-the-street - in the first four days, the exhibition attracted 25,000 visitors.

One of Sou Fujimoto’s wondrous compositions in the Architecture is Everywhere installation
One of Sou Fujimoto's wondrous compositions in the Architecture is Everywhere installation. credit: Tom Harris

The open-house feel begins in the Cultural Center's entrance lobby, transformed by Mexican architecture practice Pedro & Juana with an installation of globe lights suspended on yellow cords that criss-cross the space. The effect is instantly tropical and relaxing, and sure enough the public was soon colonising sofas and tables to check their phones, chat or eat pizza. Nothing forbidding so far.

Exhibits in the spaces around it start the serendipity of what next? A room of Bold Alternative Scenarios is filled with colourful models. For example, The Big Shift imagines mirroring the skyscrapered grid of central Chicago's Loop on the other side of the park, into the lake. It's playful mega-urbanism, perhaps aspiring to be up there with, say, Koolhaas' Exodus intervention for London or Buckminster Fuller's giant Manhattan geodesic dome, but its point is described as little more than 'creating urgently needed municipal revenue sources'. David Brown's Available City, on the other hand, addresses the city's 15,000 vacant lots, and nine architects have each designed modest-scaled buildings (OK, one is 12 storeys), presented as models showing variety and imagination.

Pedro & Juana’s decor and installation, Randolph Square, created a warm trans-spatial experience in the reception lounge
Pedro & Juana's decor and installation, Randolph Square, created a warm trans-spatial experience in the reception lounge. credit: Steven Hall

Out in the corridors, a wall of photos commissioned from Iwan Baan is breathtaking, not least because aerial shots of Chicago can hardly be anything else. Less predictable is when he comes down to observe at ground level. A stunning shot of a woman of colour who really means colour, with pink shoes, orange dress, lime jacket and a pink and blue phone, reveals Baan breaking free from buildings to capture characters. How visually different from Tomás Saraceno's ethereal traces of white-lit spider webs in vitrines mounted in blackness, all with 'semi-social musical instrument' in their titles.

On either side of the grand central staircase are graphics of Studio Gang's Polis Station project, which traces the evolution of the police station, and proposes how to reconnect it with the community. Studio Gang's head Jeanne Gang, a veritable Chicago starchitect after projects such as the dreamy Aqua Tower, explains: 'Why are police stations like a fortress? The US has no guidelines for police [stations]. Now, they're essentially just a jail with a parking lot.' Her team consulted Chicago police, communities and academics and developed a vision of the police station as a local hub. This is architecture addressing social issues with fundamental, practical ideas.

Chicago-based Amanda Williams’ house-painting project Color(ed) Theory (2014 -2015) is captured in photos
Chicago-based Amanda Williams' house-painting project Color(ed) Theory (2014 -2015) is captured in photos. credit: Steven Hall

It is while climbing up the staircase that the visual drama really begins. In the lightshaft is Atelier Bow-Wow's Piranesi Circus - a configuration of mad ladders, rope bridges, platforms, even a trapeze swing. It is impossible yet visible (and echoes the weightlessness of Saraceno's webs). Grima noted that 'a performer can infiltrate the space and activate it through performance', and indeed such events are programmed. From the first floor (or second, as Americans say), the building opens into great spaces with huge windows, making fantastic galleries for large works.

Beijing-based Wai Architecture Think Tank's Narrative Architecture: A Manifesto spreads images across a large wall, which lets imagination play with iconic structures, such as OMA's CCTV in Beijing, Boullée's Cenotaph for Newton, and a Malevich architecton. Gramazio Kohler Research with ETH Zürich and MIT's Self-Assembly Lab have created a giant organic figure, perhaps 5m high, of grey rocks and thread, built by robots. A film, The Flying Gardeners, is projected on another wall, following the men who tend the greenery on Stefano Boeri's Bosco Verticale residential tower in Milan.

Norman Kelly patterned the Michigan Avenue windows of the Cultural Center with vinyl in Chicago: How Do You See?
Norman Kelly patterned the Michigan Avenue windows of the Cultural Center with vinyl in Chicago: How Do You See?

But not everything here has such powerful scale. Two colourful, timeless montage artworks by Portuguese architects Ana Luisa Soares and Filipe Magelhães of Fala Atelier show their unadorned domed Setúbal Public Library design, one with local couples dancing drawn around it. 'First thought [was] don't relate to the surroundings. Have a pure form,' they say, adding, 'It made no sense to make a rendering.'

Perhaps mischievously, Grima and Herda display Wolff Architects' Halo - a halo envisioned to float above Cape Town - and BIG's famous halo-puffing power station project, quite close to each other. The latter shows a prototype Steam Ring Generator of the halo-making machine itself, looking like a pimped-up household boiler.

On the top floor, four houses have been built ('a critique of spatial needs says Herda). You can step inside Vo Trong Nghia (VTN)'s S House of bamboo louvres and a steel frame, and see the bamboo beds. It resonates with Prouvé's Maison Tropicale, but this is to meet local needs and is going into mass production. In contrast, New York-based MOS Architects' plywood House No 11 has a poppy modernism. Other exhibits address housing through film. Bangkok's All (Zone)'s Light House; The Art of Living Lightly, charmingly follows a graduate, Paka, living in a space made by screens in a multi-storey car park. (There's a lesson for Chicago there, where buildings such as Marina City and the Trump Tower stack tens of floors of car parking into the city centre).

Atelier Bow-Wow’s Piranesi Circus presented a fantasy web of paths and platforms in space, but no public access. Photo: Steve Hall
Atelier Bow-Wow's Piranesi Circus presented a fantasy web of paths and platforms in space, but no public access. Photo: Steve Hall

Elsewhere, Mumbai practice Urbz has a brisk film, Homegrown Homes, showing a house construction in its city's slum Shivaji Nagar with a percussive soundtrack made from construction sounds. A corridor hosts a sequence of photographs of foreclosed or condemned houses (many in South Side's depleted Englewood neighbourhood) repainted in Amanda Williams' Color(ed) Theory project, exploring how colour itself carries coded social implication. She comments that this was not 'a beautification project. Beautification was a by-product'. Her palette of eight colours 'have a history that relates to this place' - for example, the turquoise recalls Ultra Sheen hair products in the Sixties and Seventies.

Lacaton & Vassal's social housing rehabilitations are also screened. Anne Lacaton, in Chicago for the first time ('it doesn't disappoint') explains: 'The question of transformation begins with the question of inhabiting. It's the first step to thinking... We consider [that] we're not just building, we are also making dreams'.

Not everything on the top floor is earnest. Fujimoto's Architecture is Everywhere is an installation mounting everyday small things on stands, with tiny human figures on them. When they sit on a crumpled serviette, it becomes a magical feature demanding a landscape. This is about scale, and possibly the most entrancing work on show.

Studio Gang’s Polis project is graphically represented beside a staircase in the Cultural Center. Photo: Tom Harris
Studio Gang's Polis project is graphically represented beside a staircase in the Cultural Center. Photo: Tom Harris

There is, of course, much more in the Cultural Center. Its great random mix ticks all the current agenda boxes: community, housing, urban solutions for developing countries, sustainability. They jostle for attention with grand visions, detailed designs, leaps of imagination, and (almost a hobbyhorse of Herda's) research as practice. The variety of things an architect can do is bewildering.

The Museum of Contemporary Art's contribution seemed thin pickings by comparison. Ania Jaworska's Columns shows draftsmanly drawings and has five intriguing black sculptures in a black space. Johnston Marklee's Grid is a Grid is a Grid, a minimalist steel frame installed in the cafe's ceiling, riffs on the museum's modernist rectilinearity, but it's totally nonplussing, totally nonplussing, totally nonplussing. An outside installation made with concrete pipe-sections by Brazilian artist Alexandre da Cunha is impressive in a pop-brutalist way, but was commissioned independent of the Biennial. He is not an architect, but Jaworska and LA practice Johnston Marklee are. Architects as artists resonates with Grima and Herda's framing of their theme 'the Art of Architecture'.

Hark! Cross-laminated timber design reaches the US! The BP Prize-winning kiosk: Chicago Horizon by Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest and Brett Schneider of Ultramoderne, with skyscrapers and Lake Michigan. Photo: Tom Harris
Photo: Tom Harris

Even clearer is the powerful choice of Chicago's Art Institute (one of the world's greatest galleries) in hosting an architect's retrospective for the Biennial: David Adjaye.

A little further south is the showcase Lakeside Kiosk, a design by Ultramoderne called Chicago Horizon. It won the Biennial's BP prize and so accessed a $75,000 build budget.

Wood may have been Chicago's undoing with the Great Fire of 1871, but it was back in town, here with a 17m x 17m roof of cross-laminated timber (CLT) floating not so much like Mies' Nationalgalerie roof in Berlin, but rather like a great petrol station canopy, completely open beneath. It is striking, but offers scant protection from Chicago's famous winds, strong at the lakeside. As a legacy structure, it will come into its own in summer, offering shade. The roof was offered by Grima as 'pushing wood in a new direction', but as Susan Jones of Seattle architecture practice atelierjones observed, it 'ultimately represents the United States' current rush to catch up with Europe and even Australia and Canada's work with CLT', not least because of American building regulations. CLT 'has huge carbon sequestration potential', she adds, and is happy that the Biennial is 'putting this issue out front and centre for debate'.

Carlos Bunga’s cardboard installation Under the Skin creates a church-like air in the spine of Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Tom Harris
Carlos Bunga's cardboard installation Under the Skin creates a church-like air in the spine of Rebuild Foundation's Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Tom Harris

Further south lies Chicago's South Side, to which African- Americans from the South mass-migrated, but where population has dropped by a third since manufacturing dried up in the Seventies. One of the Biennial's great events was the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank, a 1923 bank building salvaged and repurposed by Ken Stewart of the Rebuild Foundation, led by the charismatic local artist Theaster Gates Jr. 'Make no mistake,' Gates says, 'this is the hood.' As he explains in the dignified, contemplative space of the library created upstairs, Chicago has 'an amazing history of modernism. We also have an amazing history of racism, segregation, red lining... This is a social and intellectual grappling where an architectural space can become amazing again'.

And it has! Currently, with a cardboard frame installation by Barcelona-based Carlos Bunga on the ground floor, the building's axis feels like a church nave. The Arts Bank is not the only example of what Gates calls 'redemptive architecture': the nearby Black Cinema House, which used to be a beer distribution building, is another beautiful example of Rebuild's new cultural infrastructure.

The South Side Drill Team choreographed by Bryony Roberts performs below Mies-designed volumes in Federal Plaza. Photo: Tom Harris
The South Side Drill Team choreographed by Bryony Roberts performs below Mies-designed volumes in Federal Plaza. Photo: Tom Harris

The South Side came downtown in one of the first of many events in the programme, which includes theatre, talks and discussions in various venues. For two days, the South Side Drill Team commandeered Federal Plaza, beside Alexander Calder's iconic 16m-high red Flamingo sculpture. The young African-American troop, dressed immaculately in silky uniforms, tossed flags and white rifles and paraded to music, particularly effectively when it was industrial beats. The performance's title, We Know How To Order, comes from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem about black soldiers' lonely deaths in the Second World War, but here the mood was upbeat, its precision echoing the Mies' buildings around it. This, too, was architecture of a sort.

Chicago is a muscular, no-nonsense town, and the splashes of colour, overflowing optimism and liberated imagination of this Biennial may seem out of place. But the city has twice before offered a perspective of architecture that caught the zeitgeist. The great Chicago architect and urbanist Daniel Burnham planned the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition, and it projected whiteplastered beaux-arts neoclassicism on a vast stage. The 1932 Century of Progress World Fair heralded futuristic design. While the Biennial's scope is narrower, it too speaks of where architecture is: a diverse art, in need of reconnecting to the public. In Chicago, it makes an extraordinary, engaging effort to do so.

main image: Iwan Baan

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