'The State of the Art of Architecture' at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

John Hill
12. October 2015
Like this photo, the Biennial is a cacophony of imagery and ideas within the Chicago Cultural Center. (All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects)

The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial opened to the public on 3 October 2015, running until 3 January 2016. Under the direction of curators Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda, the Biennial takes a look at "The State of the Art of Architecture" through more than 100 participating architects from 30 countries.

So far in our coverage of the Biennial we have highlighted about a dozen contributions to the exhibition headquartered at the Chicago Cultural Center: Sou Fujimoto's collection of everyday objects paired with scale figures, Jeanne Gang's reconsideration of police stations in light of recent acts of police violence in the U.S., four environments for sitting (and one for leaning), four full-scale dwellings on display in the Cultural Center, an exhibition within the exhibition focused on "alternative scenarios for Chicago," a large-scale installation by SO-IL, a pile of rocks assembled by a robotic machine, and a Lakefront Kiosk made out of cross-laminated timber.

To wrap up our coverage of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, here we take a look through the Cultural Center and at other parts of the city (and beyond), in an effort to make sense of the exhibition and see what exactly the state of the art of architecture is today.

Chicago Cultural Center with Norman Kelley, "Chicago: How Do You See?"

Even before heading inside the Cultural Center, there is an evident embrace of Postmodernism on display. Norman Kelley's window installation, Chicago: How Do You See, places black-and-white images of curtains, columns, shutters, and other elements – all in a historical vein – onto the large windows facing Michigan Avenue.

Kelley's literally cartoonish appropriation of historical motifs is echoed in a number of pieces inside, particularly Furniture Urbanism by Bureau Spectacular, which is headed by Jimenez Lai. He gained popularity through sci-fi/architectural cartoons – or graphic novels – but in the Cultural Center he has collaged abstracted three-dimensional objects and given them an even Modernist whitewash.

Bureau Spectacular, "Furniture Urbanism"

Lai's skyline of furniture-sized objects sits across from Onishimaki + Hyakudayuki Architects' Children's Town, which playfully assembles pyramidal and domed objects in the center of the space, some of them floating above the floor. Combined with pieces like Design With Company's Late Entry to the Chicago Public Library Competition (part of the BOLD mini-exhibition), this embrace of Postmodernism – more abstracted and less literal than its 1980s reality – comes from young architects who are too young to be cynical about it.

Onishimaki + Hyakudayuki Architects, "Children's Town"

Elsewhere, as in Columbia University's contribution in the Cultural Center (the GSAPP is also part of an off-site exhbition with the National Public Housing Museum), history is mined through archives. Environmental Communications: Contact High focuses on a West Coast from the 1960s, which asks some effort on the part of visitors to find relevance to Chicago and contemporary concerns. 

Mark Wasiuta, Marcos Sanchez, Adam Bandler + GSAPP Exhibitions, "Environmental Communications: Contact High"

Italy's Studio Albori mined Chicago's salvage centers for old doors, stairs and lumber to fashion the aptly named installation Makeshift, located on a landing atop the Cultural Center's south stair. Equal parts spatial improvisation through found objects and commentary on the wasteful, temporary nature of architecture exhibitions, the materials will be returned to the reuse pipeline after the Biennial closes, something most of the other installations can't state truthfully.

As in any exhibition related to architecture, many of the most successful contributions are large scale and therefore spatial, such as SO-IL's Passage and the four experimental dwellings on display, two of which can be entered. Erin Besler, working with the computational design studio ATLV, contributed The Entire Situation. The piece takes the standard stuff of buildings (metal studs and sheetrock) and creates two strangely familiar rooms with curved walls and some odd details. 

Besler & Sons + ATLV, "The Entire Situation"

While the contributions on display within the Cultural Center point to a messy vitality as the defining characteristic of young architects today (could "the state of the art of architecture" really be unified with so many voices from so many places?), much of the value of the Biennial stems from the attention it brings to Chicago and the cooperation of other institutions through architectural events, exhibitions, and installations. The Stonly Island Arts Bank is just one example of this reaching out into the city.

Studio Albori, "Makeshift"

Through its material origins, Makeshift subtly hints that there is a whole city outside the Cultural Center. This notion is more prominent in artist Amanda Williams' Color(ed) Theory, which presents photographs of the houses she has brightly painted on Chicago's neglected South Side. Also on the South Side, and timed to the Biennial, is Theaster Gates's just-opened Stony Island Arts Bank, an exhibition venue and cultural archive housed in a 1920s bank in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. 

Amanda Williams, "Color(ed) Theory"
Independent Architecture & Paul Preissner Architects + UIC School of Architecture, "Summer Vault"

In Millennium Park, across the street from the Cultural Center, the Biennial has staged two of the four kiosks it commissioned. They will be moved to permanent spots after the Biennial closes in January, while the winning design for the Lakefront Kiosk competition is already in place near the Shedd Aquarium. I wish there was more engagement with the city along the lines of the kiosks, but since this is the first of hopefully many more Chicago Architecture Biennials, the thrift is understandable (the whole Biennial cost only $6.3 million USD, all from private sources) and future curators can take note and increase their ambitions accordingly.

"Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye" at the Art Institute of Chicago

Across the street from both the Cultural Center and Millennium Park is the Art Institute of Chicago, which is hosting the exhibition Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, its mid-September opening timed to the Biennial. It is a sprawling exhibition that takes up all of the architecture and design galleries within the museum's Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing. In addition to clearly showing how busy Adjaye's firm is right now (in addition to a number of buildings in planning or under construction, he is also a favorite for the Obama Presidential Library planned for Chicago's South Side), the exhibition designed by the architect illustrates the diversity of his expression. Beyond the usual models, drawings and photos, Making Place includes full-scale mockups of façades and the Horizon pavilion, an accessible installation that gives visitors a spatial experience of Adjaye's architecture.

SC Johnson Research Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright, with Fortaleza Hall, Norman Foster, in the foreground

Yet what might be the most rewarding experience of the Biennial is a trip to another state, to Racine, Wisconsin, for a tour of SC Johnson's Administrative Building and Research Tower designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As part of the Biennial the "family company" is holding free tours Thursday through Sunday that includes round-trip bus transportation from the Cultural Center to the company's headquarters north of the Illinois border. The freshly restored tower, with its glass tubes and mezzanines, and the workspace topped by Wright's lily-pad columns are a delight to behold. Wright designed the Administrative Building when he was 70 years old, and the Research Tower was completed when he was 82. There is no clearer expression that innovation and experimentation are not the purview of the young, something visitors the Biennial should keep in mind as they explore the Cultural Center.

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