Biennial needs more clarity for us laypeople

The Chicago Architecture Biennial, executive director Todd Palmer said in a WTTW interview, is “a kind of hands-on, fun, accessible way to get the public thinking about what’s new in the field of architecture.”

Accessibility to the public is a laudable goal, but unfortunately, too many of the exhibits are obscure to me — even though, as a Chicago Greeter, I may be a little more knowledgeable about architecture than the average person.

For those who don’t recognize the title, the Chicago Architecture Biennial is North America’s largest exhibition of contemporary architecture. As the name suggests, the biennial will happen every two years. This second one follows 2015’s “The State of Art and Architecture.” The current offering has more than 140 exhibits, the majority at the Chicago Cultural Center and others at satellite sites.

I agree with the assessment of a reporter from The Guardian who flew in from London to check out the biennial: “Some of the exhibits assume a knowledge of architectural history that most of the general public won’t have, and some of them require a bit of work to appreciate.”

Simpler captions would have helped. My hunch is that organizers didn’t do much editing of what the exhibit designers submitted, which sometimes reads like “didactic architect-speak,” to use the words of another reviewer. How is the layperson to interpret, for instance, “to express tectonics and materiality” or “to insinuate a contemporary and playful leveling of architecture and inhabitation”?

Finding many captions dense, I tried going through without reading them, thinking I’d get whatever I got. Unfortunately, I often got little. What were the curtains hanging along a corridor on the fourth floor supposed to suggest? I didn’t have a clue until giving up and reading the caption. They are meant to evoke the glass curtain wall associated with Mies van der Rohe’s skyscrapers.

Taking a guided tour and going through again (paying attention to the captions as well as I could) helped. For other laypeople, here are suggestions of a few exhibits at the Cultural Center that I found more accessible. I have yet to see any of the mini-exhibits elsewhere.

“A Room of One’s Own” (fourth floor): These architectural drawings of the room, the most basic architectural unit, are fun. There are rooms of famous people along with rooms of generic types like a monk, a student, and an artist. Steve Jobs’s living room, based on a 1983 photograph, is ascetic, with just a lamp and a record player. The famous couch in Freud’s consulting room is plush, covered with a rug and pillows. Magritte’s studio includes his “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” painting on an easel. Virginia Woolf, author of the book A Room of One’s Own, has two rooms — one for writing and one for sleeping.

“Vertical City” (Yates Gallery, fourth floor): Fifteen architects were asked to reimagine the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, and their 16-foot models are shown along with replicas of two of the original 1922 entrants. Those who want to learn why the architects did what they did can read their statements on the wall, but it’s not necessary to enjoy looking at the vastly different models. My favorite is “(Not) Another Tower,” which imagines not just an office building but a multifunctional vertical community.

“Architurniture” (Randolph Street landing, fourth floor): The German firm Bless dresses furniture, merging it with art and fashion to create “architurniture.” This is an exhibit with which you can interact, sitting or reclining on the objects.

“Lake 33rd, Bronzeville” (GAR Hall rotunda): In this large-scale model, Chicagoans will recognize a slice of home: the Illinois Institute of Technology campus and surrounding neighborhood. The model by the Japanese firm SANAA and the IIT College of Architecture proposes a walkway along 33rd Street connecting the IIT campus, the Bronzeville neighborhood, and the lakefront. Six boulder-shaped new buildings inject the only strangeness.

“Horizontal City” (GAR Hall): Some of these reimagining of the interiors of iconic buildings are more accessible than others, but you may find a few that appeal. I liked the all-pink “The Grand Interior,” which removes walls and lets furniture and doorways define function.  

“Randolph Square” (first floor): Frida Escobedo’s slanting wooden platform with different elevations is “designed to respond to various ways in which it will be occupied.” People can sit, lounge, interact, or otherwise use the space as they choose. (I get it but find the idea underwhelming.)

You might find it helpful to take a tour, which highlights about a dozen exhibits. Tours are at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. weekends. They leave from the biennial’s welcome center (first floor, west side).

For a complete list of sites and exhibits, see The biennial ends January 7.

I’m not sure what message to take from the biennial as a whole — if there is a unifying message. In titling the biennial “Making New History,” artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the Los Angeles-based firm Johnston Marklee asked the exhibitors to address the theme that an open attitude to the past can generate ideas for the future. Architects don’t operate in a vacuum but draw on the experiences of others. I left wondering about how to make connections between the scores of individual exhibits.

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