Saturday, January 02, 2016

Afters its close, an assessment of the First Chicago Architecture Biennial

click images for larger view
First things first.  Sunday, January 3rd is closing day at the Cultural Center for the First Chicago Architecture Biennial.  If you haven't seen it, make the trip.  The Biennial has not been universally loved, but I'm betting that unless you're Zaha Hadid, you'll find things that intrigue and perhaps even amaze you.

For an opening salvo for what is hoped to be a continuing event, the Biennial can be judged a major success.  According to official sources, by the time it closes, it should have drawn nearly a quarter of million people to the Cultural Center (no, I don't know how they count them either, and as critic Edward Keegan has noted that's only 38% over what the CCL drew in the same period the year before.)
John Ronan at the Chicago Architecture Biennial
Beyond the body counts, the Biennial drew major press attention globally, and spurred a great deal of discussion, laudatory and otherwise.  The event included a wealth of related events, including signature addresses from the likes of John Ronan, and other lectures, panels and presentations which seems to have included the participation of just about every Chicago architect of note, as well a wide roster of distinguished visitors.
Summer Vault - Independent Architecture
and Paul Preissner Architects
The Biennial went beyond the confines of the Cultural Center to create four temporary kiosks for  locations at IIT, the Museum Campus, and Millennium Park.  One, located on the Museum campus, was the result of an international competition; the other three were created in partnership with the city's architecture schools at IIT, UIC, and the School of the Art Institute.  They were all outshone, however, by the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank, created out of a South Side classically-styled, long-abandoned building by Theaster Gates, who, much like Ai Weiwei, is becoming an international superstar for his merging of architecture and design with social activism.
Photograph courtesy: Rebuild Foundation
The Arts Bank is an example of how the Biennial was enriched by a wide range of events other institutions mounted in co-ordination with its run.  Most prominent of these was the Art Institute's major retrospective, Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, which also closes this Sunday, and a smaller show, As Seen: Exhibitions That Made Architecture and Design History, which runs through May, and may be particularly relevant to the Biennial as it examines "the influence of architecture and design exhibitions years after their closing." 
Grid | River | Landmark, first prize,
Perkins+Will DLC Design Competition
Yanwen Xiao and Silas Haslam

When you consider the influence of this First Chicago Architecture Biennial, a lot of the real meat came not from the "official" events, but from the partnerships that went beyond the usual suspects.  Perkins+Will scheduled its in-house DLC Design Competition, Projects Imagine Sustainable Design Along the Chicago River, to coincide with the Biennial, with the awards ceremony held at the Cultural Center.
Tim Samuelson and Tom Burtonwood
photo courtesy Thorsten Bösch.

Pecha Kucha had an evening in Preston Bradley Hall with, excepting myself, a particularly rich roster of presenters, culminating with a demonstration by Tom Burtonwood and Tim Samuelson of making affordable replicas of Louis Sullivan's ornament in a bound set created by 3-D printing.  The Chicago Architectural Club mounted both a competition and a series of events centered on Chicago architecture's eminence grise Stanley Tigerman, who was both perhaps the Biennial's most vocal booster and an indefatigable participant in many of its events and panels.
The Big Shift
Indeed, one of the most interesting part of Biennial inside the Cultural Center, was a co-exhibition Bold: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago, curated by architect Iker Gil, whose most ambitious proposal came from Port Urbanism: The Big Shift, which envisions transforming Millennium and Grant Parks into a variation of Central Park by enclosing it from the lake with a wall of skyscrapers built on new landfill.  Tigerman labeled Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin "an asshole" for not supporting what Tigerman sees both as the kind of audacious vision we need, and inevitable.  I have to admit that, while I do admire the breadth of vision - and especially the excellent and informative video Port Urbanism made documenting the development of the downtown lakefront - I am as confident as Tigerman, but that the proposal, to the contrary, will never be built and is, in essence, a really bad idea, shafting the larger public by trading the great sweep of Grant Park to the Lake Michigan for a fringe of parkland fronting still another enclave for the super-rich. (But think of the tax revenue it will raise!)

Given Tigerman's commitment to making architecture something more than just "designing houses for the rich", his enthusiasm for The Big Shift is a bit of a puzzler. If we are going to create more landfill downtown, it should be more in line with Daniel Burnham's vision - shifting the huge boat parking lots that now dominate the lakefront to a new island or islands to free up the actual lakefront for beaches and greenspace, with maybe a tower or two in the mix.
The High Life
Far more provocative to me were The High Life, a collaboration between Grant Gibson and SOM envisioning a new tower that allows for maximum differentiation among individual residents, and, most especially . . . 
3D Design Studio entry for The Available City
. . . David Brown's continuing development of The Available City, looking at revitalizing neighborhoods with infill built on some of the 15,000 vacant lots owned by the City of Chicago.  For the Biennial, Brown expanded Available City to include nine specific proposals and models from architects small and large, established and new, from Jahn and Krueck and Sexton, to Ania Jaworska and 3D Design Studio.  I hope to be writing more about these two installations soon.

The key to all of these is they did what the Biennial is supposed to do.  They inspired intelligent debate.  The greatest value of the Biennial was not in itself, but in the response, which came from two opposite directions.
Stuart Cohen and Robert Bruegmann at the Studebaker
Classical architecture proponents mounted their own events, a symposium sponsored by the Driehaus Foundation at the University Club, and a wonderful program put together by the Benjamin Marshall Society, Radical Conservatism: Classical Vocabulary, New Form, at the newly re-opened Studebaker Theater that ranged from architect Paul Florian talking about the individualized classicism of Nicholas Hawksmoor, to John Zukowsky giving a preview of his upcoming book on Marshall.

From the futurist side, Zaha Hadid, recently in Chicago for a long-awaited appearance, dismissed the Biennial as "a cute show."  More detailed dissent came from Hadid Architects Senior Designer Patrik Schumacher who through several Chicago appearances became a sort of counter-Biennial in his own person.
Patrik Schumacher
Schumacher, a tireless polemicist in the cause of parametricism, first appeared at a debate in an ornate ballroom at the Congress Hotel sponsored by ArchAgenda that also included Peter Eisenman, Reinier de Graaf of OMA, Theodore Spyropoulos, and an alternately bullying and just bizarre Jeffrey Kipnis.

Schumacher went on first, electrifying the room with an impassioned critique.  "I have just been to the exhibition yesterday," he said, "and there was virtually next to nothing which I recognize as relevant contemporary architecture." He talked of "an imperative of coherence which implies a rejection of pluralism.  We can only accept pluralism as a temporary sort of condition during periods of crisis-induced paradigm shifts and the last one was the 1980's . . . We have to reject the fabulistic acceptance of a pluralism [as] an insurmountable condition of post-modernity."

"I think we should work from a benign intolerance as I would like to call it . . . The principle of indiscriminate tolerance . . . ultimately denies the possibility of a comparative variation of positions, paradigms and styles.   So that ultimately denies the discipline of rationality, denies the possibility of progress."

Schumacher expanded on his thoughts in subsequent lectures at both UIC and IIT.  His ideas are fascinating and truly provocative in the best sense of the word, even when you see major disconnects between his analysis and conclusions.  This kind of Salon des Refusés insinuated itself into the Biennial in a way that broadened and enriched its scope and cohesiveness.  Which leads me to . . .

Some final Thoughts on the First Chicago Architecture Biennial
1.  The open-endedness of the first Biennial was exactly the right approach, creating an event that was a true exploration, breaking the usual dominance of the usual-suspect best-known firms in a favor of a more eclectic mix of the work and thought of lesser-known architects.
2.  The Cultural Center and the Biennial is a match made in heaven.  The scale and finish of the building proclaims both "public" and "capacious".  The many white-wall galleries provided the accustomed neutral settings for installations, while the ornate interiors of the Yates Gallery and GAR hall provided a surprisingly contrasting and supportive backdrop for the often minimalist modern exhibits.

. . . and Second Thoughts for the Next

1.  If this year's theme was a survey-driven The State of Architecture, perhaps the next logically should be The Future of Architecture, organized around a clear dialectic - pure form versus sustainability, large versus small-architecture as an expression of prevailing power versus an instrument of subversion, etc. - that offers up a coherent foundation for discourse. Or perhaps simply make the next Biennial a symposium of the relationship between power and architecture.
2. Encourage more architect presentations that go beyond "and-then-I-designed" dog and pony shows to talk about the ideas first and then how the work ties into them.
3.  Scout satellite locations that can merge the Biennial within the city's globally-recognized architecture.  The Federal Center Plaza, UIC-West Side, IIT-Bronzeville, etc.
4.  Look for sponsors for regular bus shuttles to remote sites.
Sarah Herda, Michelle Boone
Blair Kamin has already named Biennial co-organizer Sarah Herda and Chicago Cultural Commissioner Michelle Boone as Chicagoans of the Year in Architecture, and, along with co-organizer Joseph Grima, they have, indeed, accomplished a small miracle in creating an exciting calling card that reasserts Chicago's claims to architectural relevance to a broad, global audience.  They dared not only to think big, but to posit a continuity of engagement that expands and deepens in repeated iterations.

Let's do it again

Read More:
Carnival of Possibilities:  A Photographic Tour of the First Morning of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Little Houses on the Lakefront:  The four kiosks of the Chicago Architectural Biennial
Bombs Away! Stanley Tigerman unveils Titanic 2015


Anonymous said...

It should have been called "The State of the Art of Talking about Architecture." Did not see much architecture. Sure saw and heard a lot of BS. "Don't talk - Build." MVDR

Stuart Spindlow said...

Its really great information you have shared which is knowledgeable. As we are also working with Architects in Brentwood.

Greg said...


jose said...

interesting read