The first-ever Chicago Architecture Biennial ended last month, and I must say I was sad to see it go.
By any stretch, the Biennial was a rocking success. Thousands of people came, hundreds of architects participated, millions of conversations, discussions, presentations, debates… This is the great success of the thing. People engaged. And in that exchange, ideas can be born, new things come afoot.
The Biennial was ambitious and scholarly and entertaining. It was too big to write about as a whole, but here are some things of note:
1. High quality programming.
I went to many of the lectures, and presentations; Tuesday Talks, late night at the Biennial, Pecha Kucha Night, etc. As many as I could. It didn’t feel like enough, but every single one of them was my favorite kind of experience, even when I disagreed with, or sometimes (honestly) didn’t get the topic.
The events were characterized by smart people, organizing their thoughts around ideas, and trying to convey them to a group of interested folks they trusted to contend with them. The energy of it was exciting.
With the huge main show installed at the Cultural Center downtown, cultural institutions throughout Chicagoland offered a plethora of related exhibitions.
Two shows and related programing were held at the Elmhurst Art Museum (EAM).
“Lessons from Modernism” looked at environmental design strategies in architecture from 1925-1970. Organized at the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, the show brought together 25 projects that utilized green-ish design principles before the advent of ‘sustainability’ or LEED.
“Lessons from the Fick Home”, a collaboration between the EAM and students at the Art Institute of Chicago, explored “Social, Cultural and Environmental sustainability” in the McCormick/Fick home. Designed by Mies van der Rohe for Robert McCormick, the home’s longest residents were Elmhurst’s Fick family, (hence the naming distinction). Mies intended the design to be adaptable for mass production, though only two were ever built.
The students’ works in this elegant small show were playful and intriguing.
Bobby Youkahana’s “Mythical Transmigration of the Fick Home”, visually tracks Mies’ design for the 860-880 Lakeshore Drive high rises of the same period onto this suburban low-rise. The McCormick House design was in fact based on the idea of transforming one floor of the high rise into a single family home.
Also at the EAM, “No Place Like House” by Andrew Santa Lucia aimed to transform the McCormick House, including the recently opened west wing, into a temple for “Miesian Mysticism”, a fictional religion based on Mies’ architecture.
Among the programming organized during the Biennial, the EAM’s Chief Curator Staci Boris moderated a conversation looking at ways to once again redefine the home, perhaps even separating it once more from the Museum to attract Mies fans on tour to the more famous Farnsworth House, built during the same period further west.
I’ve got a special place in my heart for Mies’ McCormick House. I first happened upon it on my way to visit a new friend who lived across the street. This was years ago, before the Museum built itself around the home, and it sat as a bit of a wreck in the midst of an equally bedraggled downtown park. I was stopped in my tracks at how this great work could have come to such a sad state. Today, the park is much lovelier, that new friend is now my husband, and the EAM is a gem, with talented and energetic leadership.
City Gallery in the Watertower hosted “Athens and Oraibi”, a small exhibition of photographs by Assaf Evron. The works are a mash-up juxtaposing large Black and White photographs of landscapes in the Middle East (Evron is Israeli) with assorted small framed color photographs mounted randomly across their surfaces. In the color images, earth-toned arrangements of mass-produced building materials echo Native American designs.
Oraibi is a Hopi village in Arizona, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States. The exhibit title takes its name from a lecture by nineteenth century critic Aby Warburg who spent time in Oraibi and wrote about deep connections between ancient cultures. In this body of work, Evron draws Warburg’s idea into the present day, making correlations between ubiquitous Home Depot design products and the ancient desert landscape.
The Historic Water Tower gallery was a perfect place to show this work, adding a layer of 19th Century resplendence to the work.
Barbara Kasten’s retrospective at the Graham Foundation was brilliant. The word ‘Retrospective’ might imply looking back at the dénouement of a career. But not Barbara. Since installing the Graham show, she’s been actively at work on new video pieces, recently debuting a new installation in Staging Architecture at Kadel Willborn in Düsseldorf. She also showed works at ART LosAngeles Contemporary in January. Barbara’s absorbing, breath-taking work will be awarded a 2016 Silver Camera Award from the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
There could have been more satellites. This would even be a good organizing principle for the next Biennial. Take the focus off downtown. Look at what’s going on in the ‘rest of the city’. After all, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.
3. Inventiveness. So much of it, all around.
“BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago”. Organized by Iker Gil, this exhibit-within-the-exhibit at the Cultural Center presented 18 excellent, thought-provoking, and yes, Bold, ideas from local architects and designers.
The projects in “Nine Responses to the Available City” addressed urban vacancy with a focus on the collective potential of vacant spaces in the urban environment. The proposals reconceive the thousands of vacant lots in the City of Chicago, applying guidelines provided by David Brown’s long-term research project: “The Available City”. Nine architects were challenged to take Brown’s guidelines and apply them in specific lots.
In 3D Design Studio’s “Making Architecture that Heals” A. Melinda Palmore and Daryl G. Crosby offered their MATH Technology Center, which “provides an environment where learning, teaching and collaboration can reactivate a community; creating a “healing salve” in architecture.
Design With Company’s tongue-in-cheek “Late Entry to the Chicago Public Library Competition” reexamined issues in, and final selection of the design for the Harold Washington Public Library building. This engaging presentation effectively framed the historical context of the competition, connecting it to Ferris’ wheel and the lost Prentice Women’s Hospital among other Chicago icons.
Even when I didn’t agree with the ideas – for instance, the one where the downtown lakefront is in-filled, and high-rises are built surround Buckingham Fountain, cutting off public access to Lake Michigan downtown.
“The Big Shift” included an informative video outlining the development of the lakefront, offering the proposal as a natural outcome of the City’s development. Clearly, it would be a dramatic transformation, and lots of money to be made developing it, but … well … just, no.
4. Houses, housing, home
I’ve written a bit about the Biennial entries on house and home already. Though the Biennial consciously chose not to have a central theme, this is one topic around which much seemed to gather. Highlights were:
Amanda Williams’ wonderful project painting abandoned houses in the City
The ‘guerrilla exhibition’ by the NPHM in a dilapidated building at the Jane Addams Homes
Economical housing including Tatiana Bilbao’s ‘sustainable house’ for Mexico, and
Vo Trong Nghia architects “S House” for Vietnam using local materials.
The Sydney-based design organization otherothers’ exploration / critique of ubiquitous balloon frame construction, (born in Chicago), that demonstrates how giant McMansion housing can be broken down into smaller more liveable spaces within.
But, among all this invention, here's a perplexity:
5. People complaining about doing good
This one baffles. Really. I don’t get why it would be considered a problem for architects to take note of issues and problems in the world and attempt to address them with good design, good ideas, fresh ways of thinking. It seems a bit enervated to complain about it, but I heard this more times than I would care to count (including during the first event I attended: Zoe Ryan’s “International Perspectives” panel on opening weekend at the Art Institute). The rationale for this complaint seemed to be that this was thinking small. Instead of designing to take over the world – to solve all the problems at once – architects were designing to integrate with the world; to solve things one problem at a time. Huh.
On the other hand, there's this:
6. The David Adjaye show.
Curated by Zoe Ryan this exhibit was well-designed, packed with information, and fascinating. Here is a man who designs to do good, in big ideas and small. If he were to take over the world with these ideas, we’d all be better off.
And, considering all the libraries Adjaye has made, it will be interesting to see what he proposes for the Obama library. Notwithstanding the parkland that building will likely eat up no matter who is ultimately selected to design it, Adjaye’s proposal will likely function as library and an integrated community center for the neighborhood.
Speaking of eating up parklands…
Personally, I’m not a fan. I’ve a resistance against the urge to build stuff along the lakefront, and turn it into an amusement park – can you say NFL draft pick, or Lollapalooza?
The best thing about the lakefront is that sometimes you can still get to some of what Frederick Law Olmstead treasured; an experience of wildness in the city. Granted, it’s a bit fleeting because of all the concrete and streetlights, but it’s there. I worry about the push to create entertainment and revenue streams along the lakefront, because those things are so much at odds with quiet experience and contemplation.
Even so, I get it. Architects build, and strive to build, and dream of building. And it makes sense the Biennial would want to sponsor the act of building even in a small way. Someone suggested that bus shelters might have been a better task. It’s of a similar scale – and much needed. Maybe next time out, that could be the thing.
The Ultra Moderne kiosk has already won at least one award. This is good. It’s a pretty thing, very photogenic, especially sitting as it does with the Field Museum and Planterium close by, the sweep of the skyline around you. Actually being there though is not so pleasant as it looks. Windy and dusty. A bit apocalyptic.
There are many, but two that continued to delight throughout the run of the biennial were:
“Architecture is Everywhere”; Sou Fujimoto’s charming, engaging look at architectural inspiration all around us. Pringles chips and staples inspire architecture…
Norman Kelley’s drawings of Chicago windows affixed to the Michigan Avenue windows at the Cultural Center. I’ve got a deep affinity for the metaphor and specificity offered by a view frame by a window, and the plurality of Point of View in this piece has a rich resonance.
Of course no Biennial would be complete without some...
In the midst of all the dreams of building up, the talk of tearing down – demolishing the Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois building, and the wonderfully modernist Malcolm X College, together with proposals to tear down McCormick Center.
It also surprised me to see Jeanne Gang injecting an alteration to history within the beautifully designed timeline of her “Polis” proposal re-thinking community policing. Gang’s timeline places a marker at the Haymarket Affair in Chicago describing it as the advent of violence against police when “An anarchist threw a bomb”. Not to quibble, but it’s never been determined who threw the bomb. Though at the time many were convinced it was anarchists, the lack of actual evidence contributed to the later release, and pardon by Governor Altgeld (for those not yet hanged) of the labor organizers originally charged.
... and of course there were some
The twist ties lassoing up the inventive pulley-system lighting cables of Pedro&Juana’s marvelous “living room in the city” installation in the Cultural Center lobby. Wondrousness instantly transformed into hum drum.
Here's how they looked opening night:
I never did get to see the Fitzsimmons house on Ohio street beach. For some reason it wasn't there when I went to see it. I did have a really fun conversation with a guy throwing a ball in the water for his little Jack Russell dog though.
Well, that’s a wrap.
This Biennial opened up new insights and excitement about architecture and design in the city, and that’s a good thing. “The State of the Art of Architecture” as it was titled proved many things; most notably the vibrance and diversity of the practice today.
Before I go, just one more thing:
The Chicago Architecture Biennial website which acted as a lively community center throughout the run of the event now has a great archive of the projects and a running calendar of related events continuing.
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