Architectural Criticism



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    Chicago Architecture Biennial: Hit or Miss? A Review

    Jessica A.S. Letaw
    Nov 1, '15 12:01 AM EST


    Let's say you're throwing a big party.  You take a few weeks to sort out the menu, invite all your friends - you even make sure you clean the bathroom (for real this time).  By the time the last drink is drunk, the last dish piled up in the sink, and the last person tumbling tiredly out the door, you have a pretty good idea whether it was a good party by whether or not everyone had a good time.  But...what if you couldn't tell whether anyone was enjoying themselves?

    Chicago Architecture Biennial: Is it good or not?
    Chicago is throwing that big party.  They're calling it the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and this three-month international architecture exhibition (3 October 2015 - 3 January 2016) has multiple locations scattered across the city, most of which are free and open to the public.  Almost 20,000 visitors attended the opening weekend, and it will probably see a steady stream until it's over. it a good party, or not?  Another way to ask the question is: does this event matter?

    The answer is a little harder to give than one might think.

    Other critics have posed different questions pertaining to the Biennial.  Hometown Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin asked, Are these ideas we can build on?2  Chicago architect and writer Ed Keegan asked, Will it suck?1  L.A. Times reporter Christopher Hawthorne asked, Is this different from its superstar predecessor, the Venice Architecture Biennale?8  Each of them is troubled about the event in a different way, and each finds answering even his own question challenging.

    Why is it difficult to answer these questions?
    Part of the difficulty lies with the Biennial's organizers.  Most major exhibitions of this nature begin with a theme or a question; for example, the 2012 Venice Biennale started with the theme "Common Ground."  A carefully selected group of participants produce architectural work responding to the theme, which gives viewers context for understanding how different approaches produce different solutions to the same design problem, and also permits a more precise reading of whether the event was successful.  (For example, the 2014 Biennale, "Fundamentals," was universally panned because the theme, and perhaps to some extent the curator, did not lend itself to stimulating engagement by most of the participants.)  In this, artistic co-directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima have steadfastly avoided assigning the Chicago Biennial a theme and instead collected work samples of over 100 architectural designers to display, ex post facto dubbing it the "State of the Art of Architecture."  How can anyone judge whether the event has met its brief when the organizers themselves did not define one?

    And, anyway, what's at stake; how much does it matter whether it's good, mediocre, or awful?  According to legendary architect Stanley Tigerman: a lot.  “You fuck this up and you'll set Chicago architecture back for years,” he told Herda.1  He's referring in part to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, an architecture-centric world fair that lauded an already-stale architectural style so loudly that innovative (or even modern) architecture took another 40 years to make its way back to the city.

    What is a biennial?  And what is an architecture biennial?
    Even John Mingé, president of BP America, had to ask: "What the heck is an architecture biennial?"9 "They're fabulously unruly beasts,” says Zoe Ryan, Neville Bryan Curator of Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, of the biennial format. “But they're an opportunity to ask questions.”1 A biennial, by definition, is an event that happens once every two years (as opposed to the similar-sounding biannual, which is a synonym for semi-annual, both of which mean twice a year).  Their (in)frequency, long duration (typically a few months), and international audiences put enormous pressure on these events: biennials are both unparalleled crucibles for architectural innovation and the objects of intense scrutiny by the international design community.

    Who else is holding architecture biennials?
    The best-known, by far, is in Venice.  Its art & architecture biennale split into two distinct events starting in 1980, and the architecture segment has been held on even-numbered years ever since.  The world's other major architecture biennial, Sao Paolo, has been held on odd-numbered years since 1973.

    How does the Venice Biennale compare to Chicago's Biennial?
    The most striking difference, as already noted, is the framework; Venice puts forth a theme for participants to respond to, and the CAB has not.  Another big difference is in the format of the work.  At the CAB, participants determined the scale and mode of their work; 15 practices sent in film or photography projects, four built full-scale homes, and the rest cover a creative range of media.  In Venice, on the other hand, the only format is the pavilion; a temporary, occupiable installation, often outdoors.  Even more different, perhaps, are the participants themselves: Chicago invited individuals, teams, and practices, while at Venice, each pavilion represents a country.  The most telling difference is their respective ages: the Venice Biennale has been going on in some form for decades, while the Chicago Architecture Biennial was conceived and executed all within the last two years.

    Why does an architecture biennial matter, anyway?

    It matters because architecture is a s – l – o – w profession.  Slow to process.  Slow to develop.  Slow to unfold.  Slow to gain consensus.  Painfully slow to get feedback.  Sometimes, it can feel to architects like they are practicing patience more than they are architecture.  A biennial is sort of like architectural speed dating: a whole bunch of tightly focused ideas about urban, architectural, and social relationships are thrown together in one place for a short time and then left alone to see what sizzles.  Watching a broad cross-section of practicing architects interpret a single idea is a highly illuminating survey of how Zeitgeist and technology are being adopted and interpreted by the profession, as well as a profound catalyst for the evolution of new ideas.  A biennial provides a unique way to practice architecture; designers pass around new thought-provoking ideas in universities, at conferences, at cocktail parties, in lectures, exploring new ideas and looking for opportunities to export them to the 'real world'.  The proliferation out into built projects is slow, and subtle, but the innovations debuted at architecture biennials resonate in the design community, and the world at large, for years.


    There's a well-known rule of thumb in architecture schools: 'You can't talk about what isn't on the wall.'  At project reviews, students generally post drawings, renderings, diagrams, photographs, and models on the studio wall for critics to look over and comment on; yet they often spend the most time trying to describe design ideas that didn't make it out of their heads.  The rule is intended to develop rigor in visual communication, which is after all the architect's true métier.  In the absence of a central theme or question, the only thing that the Chicago Architecture Biennial organizers have 'put on the wall', so to speak, is the event's name; so, in the grand tradition of architecture school critiques, let's see how it measures up in those three dimensions: "Chicago", "Architecture", and "Biennial."

    Biennial: The king is dead.  Long live the king!
    It is impossible to consider the Chicago Biennial without looking at how it measures against Venice's.  This was central to Hawthorne's concern; he wrote about the "Oedipal struggle" apparent in how Grima and Herda "have organized the Chicago biennial very much in dialogue with and opposition to Venice".8  It starts with the title: "State of the Art of the Architecture," while most explicitly an echo of an eponymous 1977 conference paper (not coincidentally, penned by Tigerman), it is also a call-and-response to the theme of inaugural Venice Architecture Biennale.  In "La Presenza del Passato," translated as "The Presence of the Past", the Venice event began by paying respects to its deep history, while Chicago is shrugging off the weight of that history, and in doing so finding its feet.    

    The installations themselves are also a new approach; the full spectrum of media is represented, from petri dishes to livable homes, presented by emerging practices rather than architecture's Old Guard.  The CAB is being praised, rightfully, for this pivot; it's a kind of silent iconoclasm, shutting out the megafirms and the old white men (except for that profane guardian angel of Chicago architecture Stanley Tigerman; but he's the kind of guy that makes this (link to 2015 Titanic collage), so we can kind of say he doesn't count).  This presents a new kind of tension: on the one hand, good riddance!  ...on the other hand, mature perspectives borne of experience are sorely missing.  Perhaps there's some way to upset the apple cart while not getting rid of all the apples?  

    But "to simply position against antique beliefs is to revert to a debate that goes back decades,"10 says architecture critic Mimi Zeiger; we are exposed to new media and emerging architects rather than the usual suspects on an unprecedented scale, but it's still work on a wall and models on a table: this still feels like an old-school architecture pinup.  Chicago architectural historian Robert Bruegmann is wondering, "Is this actually a repudiation of star architects or is it a way of looking at those that haven't emerged yet?"  Is the Chicago Biennial really promoting a multiplicity of voices, in other words, or is it attempting to write over architecture's existing power structure by ushering in a new one?

    It is also difficult to understand what, if anything, to do with the ideas the work suggests at Chicago.  Wainwright notes that even "the architects are hazy about what practical application this might have"5, and Kamin is uncertain how any of the work should be applied to actual buildings.7  If the point is for architectural ideas and innovation to proliferate beyond the borders of the Biennial, it's not serving the event to have those ideas presented in ways so unhelpfully remote from practice.

    Architecture: art, more art, and inflatable kiddie pools.
    Speaking of things remote from practice, consider most of the work presented in this Biennial.  The title may appear to be word play, but it is not; it refers strictly to the art of architecture, not the field’s more prosaic concerns.
  Issues of everyday practice like client and labor concerns, design development, or construction communication are conspicuously missing.  On an early visit to the Biennial, Kamin commented that practicing architects will find themselves disappointed not to be represented.  

    On the other hand, its emphasis on academic and arts practices is also an illuminating opportunity to see how architecture can get away from its usual transactions to engage and change the world.   The emphasis on emerging rather than established practices also means a lighter approach to work that "high" architecture traditionally eschews.  The most gratifying example of this is housing.  This set of work takes on affordable, sustainable housing from the Mekong Delta to Modernist social housing renovations in Parisian suburbs, seeking innovative solutions that could be made available to everyone from homeowners to governments.

    --[ The installations

    All the installations are work presented in some medium by individual practices or firms.  Each is allocated a discrete space, in the Cultural Center or elsewhere.  The media range from the tiny (Counter-Space’s arrangement of artifacts in petri dishes) to the tremendous (MAIO’s giant inflatable columns).  Some engage the spaces they're in (spectacular examples of this are SO-IL's Passage and Norman Kelly's Chicago: How Do You See?); most are formatted traditionally as images hung on a wall and physical models carefully laid out like museum pieces.  The breadth of work is a strong flavor of the "increasingly fluid, nomadic and transnational nature of design practice."8  The unparalleled diversity of the work serves as a cacophony that unfortunately dampens the intensity of each individual installation, the visual noise occasionally amplified by the unrelenting grandeur of the Cultural Center itself.

    The Biennial’s gestalt presents as a confusing jumble; taking each installation for itself is often much more rewarding.  Much of the work on display is lively and thought-provoking; at times playful, at others earnest, it is always productive.  Some in architecture believe that the field should concern itself solely with the aesthetics of building, but this cohort gracefully shrugs off such attitudes and works instead on social justice and environmental remediation with energy and optimism.  It is challenging to cull cogent sets of ideas from the work on display, but the same attitude is found in many of the designers: The world is messy, but I have agency to change some small part of it, and these are the ideas I have to make my corner better.  The unapologetic shift from aesthetics to social ethics is confusing to some ("What are you rebelling against?", complains one Archinect commenter) and downright annoying to others4, but the genius of this show is truly in its spirit: architecture has, finally, gotten past its myopic megalomania and is starting to get at the good stuff.

    Within the Biennial, a sub-exhibition, "Bold: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago," features 18 thoughtful approaches to Chicago-specific issues.  It's the best opportunity the Biennial offers to view traditional architectural models and proposals.  Having a group of work respond to a single theme is a refreshing break amid the rest of the circus; it would have been even more interesting had the submitted work been framed more universally to allow for easier interpretation across urban regions. Tone-deaf development, water scarcity, urban blight and vacancy, the skyscraper: cities from Cleveland to Cape Town will benefit from these conversations, but the onus is on the curators to provide that framework.  

    Although the heart of the Biennial work on display is located at the Chicago Cultural Center, some installations and several events are scattered across the city, and Hawthorne is not the only one who feels that "It is only once it gets beyond the Cultural Center that the exhibition really finds its voice."8  While this is true, Chicago was already home to a vibrant and incredibly active architecture community, and that the event is associating itself with many events and installations that would have happened anyway.  The line between what truly belongs to the Biennial and what to Chicago's already bustling architectural scene is appropriately blurred, but perhaps gives the biennial more architectural cachet than it alone deserves.  It seems disingenuous to credit the Biennial for that diversity; better to give a nod to canny co-branding.

    --[ The curation

    Curation is the process of selecting which work to show together, and how; it lays a foundation and then, through signage, brochures, or other material, provides some framework for visitors to interpret the work.  Deft organization by an exhibit’s curator helps experts and laymen alike take advantage of the unique constellation of work being presented, understanding relationships and allowing plenty of space for new ideas.  Done well, it's the invisible star of the show; done poorly (or abandoned entirely), it feels like the equivalent of ball bearings clanging around an engine.  There's no question that the work being shown at the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial is of an unprecedented and rich diversity; on the other hand, "such pluralism turns out to be a strength and a weakness."7  Here, curation can be divided into two acts: Act One, the process of choosing which work to show and how; and Act Two, the process of providing focus for visitors.

    Act One: the work shows a spectacular diversity in part because the participants are spectacularly diverse.  Half of the invited firms are owned or led by women; a significant proportion are people of color.  Most focus on research on behalf of the disenfranchised rather than the typical wealthy clients.  Herda and Grima have figured out that "[m]ultiplicity is not a crisis or the end of architecture"10, but rather an opportunity for it to thrive and flourish.

    Act Two: the opening sentence of Hawthorne's critique zeroed in on this immediately: "The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial...does not have an official theme."8   A creative array of topics shown in a peripatetic medley of media held in a city-block-sized building whose Beaux Arts style competes as strongly for attention as any of the installations combines to form a frenzied visual cacophony; the effect, Wainright says, "is an intriguing hotchpotch of the strange and wonderful, which rambles around the labyrinthine venue in no particular order."5 Although the organizers claimed to be setting the stage for future events by not making stronger claims about how to organize the work, David Huber of ArtForum hit the nail on the head:  "[t]he catchall title and soft curatorial hand perpetuated a degree of consensus not typical of these types of affairs: The show lacked focus."9
 It felt like the organizers did the artistic equivalent of an inflatable pool out in the yard and expected visitors to go swimming after the next good rain; you have to go farther than setting out an empty vessel if you want visitors to derive something meaningful from the experience.

    Chicago: The undisputed winner.
    Driven by relentless hometown boosters Michelle Boone, Stanley Tigerman, and Mayor (and erstwhile White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emmanuel, the true intention of this event has been to raise Chicago's reputation internationally using architecture as a vehicle.  In this sense Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, both past directors of the respected Storefront for Art & Architecture and well-established globally for their top-notch architecture curation chops, were cherry-picked to accomplish that aim.  Perhaps the most telling evidence of the Chicago Architecture Biennial's true emphasis: Tigerman's resounding endorsement of it.  A truculent bulldog better known for blunt confrontation than any kind of praise, his unsullied enthusiasm for the works on display at the Biennial ("They're...frankly brilliant and are doing things that I think are pretty terrific.  So I'm thrilled")11 falls more comfortably under his self-confessed Chicago boosterism than it does under his career of architectural criticism.  

    Support for this can also be found on social media.  In slight contrast to its name, most of the CAB's handles and hashtags are actually "chicagobiennial", not "chicagoarchitecturebiennial" or "architecturebiennial".  The organizers spent no time publicly discussing what this event could do for architecture, or even how 'the first North American architecture biennial' could benefit more of North America, but they all did a fantastic job at every turn of talking about why Chicago was the best possible location for a North American architecture biennial.  Chicago has already embraced architecture as a part of its identity; the advent of the Chicago Architecture Biennial is simply announcement of that to the rest of the world.  Kamin notes thoughtfully that the city  "is poised to leverage that legacy and construct a new role for itself: A global crossroads of the latest architectural thinking", but that it "can also be read as a steaming caldron of fraught circumstances that lead to improvised solutions and clashing visions."2  To be fair, this is the land of Frank Lloyd Wright and the home of the skyscraper; pulling that architectural heritage and identity together into a digestible package for Chicagoans and tourists alike is really only helping everyone to understand architecture just a little bit better.


    Many critical reviews of the Biennial are already impatient for the next one ("Now we just have to see how the next three months play out—and start planning the next one for 2017"1; "This one marks an often-exhilarating but imperfect beginning for Chicago, a foundation on which to build...the next biennial in 2017"8).  Herda and Grima repeated many times that their decision not to set a theme was to set the stage for the widest possible range of interpretations in the future; their titles - artistic co-directors, rather than curators - bear that attitude firmly out.  The validation of that decision will only come with time; in the meantime, there are two things the organizers of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial can do to ensure a more fun and productive experience for everyone next time.

    Provide a theme for participants.
    In June 2014, the CAB organizers put out an international call for submissions, and received hundreds of entries in return. They invited over 100 to participate by asking them to share what they were working on at that moment; the CAB was to be a survey and display of contemporary architecture, they explained.  The result is a kind of architectural "One Day On Earth," a Polaroid picture of what designers all over the world are working on as architecture and how they are working on it.  It is accurate to call this a survey; it is also accurate to call it a little counterproductive.  "The sheer breadth of approaches, combined with a distinct lack of any central idea, can make it a frustrating experience," Wainwright says.  "After visiting several times over the course of three days, I still left with indigestion."5  Although some repeating themes - film projects, water scarcity, affordable housing -  ended up emerging, the effect is still kaleidoscopic vertigo: a confusing array of work that makes more sense individually than as a whole.  In the future, give participants a question to respond to or a theme to work on.  This is not restrictive; in fact, it's quite productive, as Jeanne Gang of Chicago superstar firm Studio Gang points out.  Their installation, Polis Station, a provocative architectural answer to the issue of police brutality, "wouldn’t have happened without the trigger of the Biennial. It was a great prompt to do something we’d been thinking about for a long time,” she says. “It really helped to coalesce research ideas into something concrete.”5

    Curate the exhibition for visitors.
    It is regrettable that somehow, in this smorgasbord of innovative design, the element that seemed least designed was... the Biennial itself.  Herda and Grima, anxious "not to make disciplinary distinctions”11,  provide little guidance to visitors towards understanding the work.  "By bringing them [the installations] together and putting them in dialogue with one another, we can look as much for the points of divergence and tension as for the points of convergence or consensus," says Grima; but physical adjacency is not tantamount to theoretical or productive adjacency.  One such method could be to characterize each project within the context of the theme, drawing comparisons across installations in terms of representation, topic, or design decisions.  Another method could be to take each area - in this case, each room of the Cultural Center - as a chapter, and frame for visitors why the projects within it speak to one another.  In the current Biennial, for example, the fourth floor is intensely interesting; two full-scale model homes are separated by the Architecture Is Everywhere installation, a study in microcosm, while off in the corner Lacaton & Vassal + Druot's film Imaginaries of Transformation is on infinite loop.  It would have been intensely interesting to see a write-up of the intersections and adjacencies that room's layout suggests.

    Finally - don't let the architects represent their own work; or, if they must, help them edit until the end product is understandable by anyone.  Architects speak of "narratives" and "experiments" and "reifying", and with this language they are really only talking to one another.  To make this an event that truly changes the world: let the world in on the conversation.


    If, as Kamin says,2, "the real test will be...the quality of debate they spawn in the months to come": what people are saying?

    People aren't really talking about it.
    Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times (and arguably the highest-profile U.S. journalist writing about architecture), spared a tweet3 for the Biennial.  John King, venerable architect and Pulitzer-prizewinning writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, didn't even go.  There are very few reviews of the CAB outside of the architecture community, and not that many more inside it; the silence from the normally-vocal East Coast design commentators has been deafening.  Everyone seems to be waiting to see what everyone else thinks before deciding whether it's worth spending time on.

    Or, some people are talking about it...kind of.
    U.S. real estate blog Curbed described the Chicago Architecture Biennial as "thrilling, eclectic, and quirky"; U.K. architecture critic Oliver Wainwright said "I left with indigestion";5; Patrik Schumacher, a prominent designer for the international jetset, suggests none too kindly that the CAB installations are anything but architecture.4  A couple of major U.S. newspaper critics wrote up softball reviews, and ArtForum was downright unimpressed9.  On the other hand, over 2,000 photos have been posted to Instagram documenting people's visits and reactions to the Biennial, most of them enthusiastic and interested.  Judging by these reactions, the positivity of responses seems to be inversely correlated to how intimately connected the viewer is to architecture.

    In the end, the Chicago Architecture Biennial means a lot to Chicago's tourism industry and cachet in international architecture; a little bit to architecture's development and proliferation of new ideas; and not much to anyone else...yet.  The full story of the "State of the Art of Architecture" will only be told through the lens of biennials to come; its greatest value lies in the legacy that has yet to be written.

    In the meantime, if you can check out North America’s inaugural Architecture Biennial, you should.  It’s a pretty interesting party.

    1. 29 Sep 2015: "What's at stake in the Chicago Architecture Biennial" Ed Keegan, Crain's Chicago
    2. 30 Sep 2015: "Towering question for biennial: Are these ideas we can build on?" Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
    3. 2 Oct 2015: Tweet Michael Kimmelman, Twitter
    4. 4 Oct 2015:  "Disappointed and Confused" Patrik Schumacher, Facebook post
    5. 5 Oct 2015: "Chicago Architecture Biennial secures the city's place as a mecca for building buffs" Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
    6. 6 Oct 2015: "Chicago Architectural Biennial draws crowds, mixed reviews" Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
    7. 6 Oct 2015: "Chicago Architecture Biennial a sprawling, captivating mixed bag" Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
    8. 9 Oct 2015: "In Chicago, an ambitious biennial for architecture banishes the stars and anoints a new generation" Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times
    9. 9 Oct 2015: "Oil and Water" David Huber, ArtForum
    10. 16 Oct 2015: "Lessons from the Biennial" Mimi Zeiger, Dezeen
    11. Oct 2015: "Sarah Herda + Joseph Grima" and "Mr. Chicago" Architectural Record


    This is the final article in the critical series on the Chicago Architecture Biennial.  For the rest of the series, check out the following articles:
    "The 10 Most Outstanding Entries"
    "Too Long; Didn't Read"
    "The State of the Art of Sustainability"
    and a companion piece to the series, "The Definitive Visitor's Guide"

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About this Blog

Architectstasy is a resource for the current, past, and projected built environments of Ann Arbor, SE Michigan, the U.S., and occasionally the world. Jessica A.S. Letaw and invited critics present critical readings of the city's trajectories that are situated within architectural discourse as well as news that is pertinent to residents and citizens.

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