Highlights from Opening Weekend of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Highlights from Opening Weekend of the Chicago Architecture Biennial
Preston Bradley Hall on Chicago Architecture Biennial opening night

The Chicago Architecture Biennial, which runs through the month of December, kicked off with quite a bang this weekend. Here are a few highlights from things I’ve seen in the first few days. It’s a whirlwind of ideas and explorations. There is much to see and more to come.

Others have mentioned the unwieldiness of the Biennial, chalking it up to the nature of such things. And the CAB website is available to sort through what’s on the table to help you with your planning over the coming months.

Thursday night, I stopped by a panel moderated by Zoe Ryan as part of “International Perspectives | Chicago and the Future of Urban Change” at the Art Institute. Ryan posed of her panelists: “What is, in your mind, the biggest challenge for Chicago over the coming two decades and what role can architects play in tackling that challenge?”. It’s a big question, and the panelists, as might be expected, gave a broad a variety of response. Some challenged the question itself while others posed their own questions in return.

Zoe Ryan and panelists at the Art Institute of Chicago "International Perspectves | Chicago and the Future of Urban Change".

Zoe Ryan and panelists at the Art Institute of Chicago “International Perspectves | Chicago and the Future of Urban Change”.

Robert Somol, Director of the School of Architecture at UIC, questioned whether Architecture will still exist in 20 years. It makes sense he would ask this; he’s working on a book called This Will Cover That: Writing and Building from the Death of Corbusier to the End of Architecture. You can hear more about it later this month. Somol lamented the ‘stepfordization’ of architecture, and ‘good’, i.e. polite, pc, ingratiating design, suggesting that what might be needed is less good design – (he stopped short of calling for bad design).

Jeff Risom of Gehl called for decentralization. It’s not about the one great architect. He offered three phrases: “with, not for, people”. “new outcomes = new processes”. and “measure what you care about”. Projected behind him, these statements were layered over an image of the Stony Island Arts Bank, spearheaded by Theaster Gates, which Risom credited with modeling his first precept; designing through a consultative process in the neighborhood.

Jeff Risom of Gehl Architects highlights Theaster Gates and Stony Island Art Bank

Jeff Risom of Gehl Architects highlights Theaster Gates and Stony Island Art Bank

After the panel I headed over to Barbara Kasten’s show at the Graham Foundation. This is a show not to be missed. Three floors of her work dating from the 1970’s trace lines and connections between ideas in a variety of media including photography, video, installation and sculpture.

Barbara Kasten "Stages" at Graham Foundation

Barbara Kasten “Stages” at Graham Foundation

The through-line in Barbara’s work is a preoccupation with space, color and light. It’s architectural, abstract, and surprisingly emotional. Barbara was a colleague at Columbia College, and since retiring from teaching, she has been producing an amazing quality and volume of new work. I thought I knew her work well, and yet this wonderful show includes many surprises. Her third-floor video projection is mesmerizing.

So that was Thursday.

"Superpowers of Ten" by Andrés Jaque Architects and the Office for Political Innovation

“Superpowers of Ten” by Andrés Jaque Architects and the Office for Political Innovation

On Friday evening, I stopped by the restored Chicago Athletic Association for a performance of “Superpowers of Ten”, a theatrical presentation created by Andres Jaque and his “Office for Political Innovation”. The piece is a play / puppet show experience that springboards off “Powers of Ten”, a film by the great Charles and Ray Eames from 1977, which was itself based on a book by Kees Boeke. “Superpowers” does have a kind of a echo-chamber quality, but one that keeps moving, expanding beyond expected boundaries.

CAB-opening-11

The original Eames film, produced for IBM, begins with a man and woman at a picnic on Chicago’s lakefront one sunny October day. It then moves out through levels of scale based on the factor of ten – zooming out into the cosmos before returning back to the picnic where it plunges through the man’s skin and proceeds into the human body down to atomic level. This tight, specific, and scientific methodology moves smoothly into metaphor. The film has been credited with making people feel they are citizens of the universe with an expanded sense of responsibility.

“Superpowers of Ten” takes this idea of varying frames of perception and explodes it. Presented in the Athletic Association’s “Tank” (feeling very much like a tank with its swimming-pool-tiled floor), the area surrounding our chairs was jammed with puppets and objects used in the performance, and the whole thing had a cozy, ad-hoc quality.

Kodak film and 'normal' skin tone.

Kodak film and ‘normal’ skin tone.

The performance itself was a groovy cosmic ride through the universe, spinning atoms, and other elements from the original film, and then somehow, (in a process akin to how the Eames’ led viewers under the skin of their picnicking man), proceeding along into the politics embedded in a host of topics including sausage-making, the color balance of kodak film, and Miss America pageants. It was a remarkable polemic, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. This one will be with me for awhile.

The Washington street entrance to the Chicago Cultural Center

The Washington street entrance to the Chicago Cultural Center

The Biennial’s rich layers are echoed in the Chicago Cultural Center’s opening night reception which was jam-packed. The building itself is crammed with exhibits by over 100 participants. Every room contains something, and spaces have been redesigned to accommodate the vastness of exploration and expression from across the globe.

John Ronan's "Leaf Lounge" outside the Cultural Center Washington Street Entrance

John Ronan’s “Leaf Lounge” outside the Cultural Center Washington Street Entrance

What is most remarkable? You’ll hear a lot about the robot-created structure. Although the tower itself is odd and ugly, the idea of it (held together by string, and nothing more) is portentous, and the process through which it was created is presented in a pair of time-lapse videos alongside. What’s engaging is the intense busyness of the robot’s human collaborators. They speed around the growing structure like ants.

In an adjacent room, a huge projected video of ‘flying gardeners’ takes you flying over the city. The size of the projection is enveloping, and beautiful.

Architecture is everwhere

Potato chips in Sou Fujimoto Architects’ “Architecture is Everywhere”.

The pile of potato chips in “Architecture is Everywhere” is only one of many charming ideas in this installation by Sou Fujimoto Architects.

Tomas Saraceno’s collaboration with spiders are gossamer and beautiful.

Tomas Saraceno's collaboration with spiders are gossamer and beautiful.

Tomas Saraceno’s collaboration with spiders are gossamer and beautiful.

The Cultural Center’s entrance lobby off Randloph street is transformed by Mexico City’s Pedro&Juana with lanterns hung on an adjustable pulley system, rocking chairs and colorful wall hangings.

Randolph Street entrance Lounge by Mexico City's Pedro&Juana

Randolph Street entrance Lounge by Mexico City’s Pedro&Juana

And the window frames in “Chicago: How Do You See?”, installed on the Cultural Center’s Michigan Avenue windows by Chicago/New York design collaborative Norman Kelley, metaphorically reference the ideological framing and perspective intended by the Biennial.

Norman Kelley. "Chicago: How Do You See?"

Norman Kelley. “Chicago: How Do You See?”

Amanda Williams’ “Color(ed) Theory” is intriguing and challenging. You can see more of her work in “Vacancy” at Columbia College Chicago’s Glass Curtain Gallery.

Amanda Williams' paint samples

Amanda Williams’ paint samples

Amanda Williams "Color(ed) Theory".

Amanda Williams “Color(ed) Theory”.

As you can imagine, this is just the tip of a very rich iceberg. I hope you get out there and explore it!

Prezels served in Preston Bradley Hall during the opening night reception.

Prezels served in Preston Bradley Hall during the opening night reception.

Yes, there were pretzels. Eli’s Cheesecake too…

Some upcoming events to look out for:

Barbara Kasten’s work at Graham Foundation will be the subject of a talk by Art Historian Alex Kitnick who will present “Use Your Illusion: Barbara Kasten’s ‘Architectural Sites”.
Thursday Oct 22, 6-9 PM at Graham Foundation 4 West Burton Place

Amanda Williams Workshop at Sweet Water Foundation’s Think-Do House in conjunction with the exhibition Vacancy: Urban Interruption and (Re)generation at Glass Curtain Gallery.

Saturday, October 17. 2-4 PM   5749 S. Perry Ave.

Gallery Tour and Artist Talks at Glass Curtain Gallery.
Vacancy: Urban Interruption and (Re)generation at Columbia College Chicago’s Glass Curtain Gallery. The exhibition runs through November 14, 2015. Please visit colum.edu/vacancy for more information about the exhibition and programming.
Saturday, October 24. 2-4PM   1104 S Wabash Ave.

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