Architectural Criticism



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    Chicago Architecture Biennial

    Jessica A.S. Letaw
    Sep 3, '15 12:48 PM EST

    There’s a new architecture biennial coming to Chicago.

    This, friends, is a PRETTY BIG DEAL.

    How big?

    104 artists and architects from the Magnificent Mile to Madrid, Tel Aviv to Tokyo, will soon be converging on just a few square miles in the heart of the United States for a three-ring, five-star, seven-course tour de force of urban and architecture-flavored pavilions and projects.

    Why does this matter?  What the heck is a biennial, anyway?

    By definition, a biennial is something 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).  Architecture biennials are international, and they’ve been going on for a while now.  The best-known one in architectural circles is held on even years in Venice and was an evolution from its pre-existing art biennale.  Starting in 1968, architecture had been a part of that event; beginning in 1980, it came into its own.  Other biennials have been held in Asia, Europe, and South America, although they are still often combined with art, and none are as long-standing.  Biennials traditionally have a driving theme, and practitioners are invited to submit proposals to be admitted to the event on a competitive basis.  The selection of the jury and directors or co-directors of the event is its own high-profile sideshow; their decisions flavor the entire event.

    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 highly focused ideas about urban, architectural, and interpersonal relationships are thrown together in a tight space for a short amount of 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 impetus for the evolution of new ideas and paradigms.  In raising the very small number of existing architecture biennials by one, this event is providing an invaluable new opportunity to understand, interpret, and practice architecture, and its effects will be felt for decades.

    Oh, biennials, right!  Like that Crystal Palace thing.

    Actually, the Crystal Palace was a part of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and this is in a related but different category, International (or “World”) Expositions.  World Expos also have unifying themes, but they are more specifically geared towards the temporarily close grouping of technologies and ideas spread throughout the globe.  Architecture is not the point but rather the framework of these events, with some notable exceptions: the Crystal Palace (London), the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 with its famous whitewashed neoclassical presentation, and perhaps most infamously, the 1929 Barcelona Universal Exposition, in which Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion was debuted and which has, in the decades since, almost totally overshadowed its original raison d’être.  All of these are important and fascinating in their own rights, but they are a bit to one side of an architecture biennial.

    So what exactly is going on in Chicago?

    The (first, hopefully) Chicago Architecture Biennial has selected as its theme “THE STATE OF THE ART OF ARCHITECTURE”.  It runs from 3 October 2015 to 3 January 2016 across six distinct sites in the city of Chicago, both indoor and outdoor.  There will be pavilions, kiosks, and individual works of art on display.  The selected participants are a wide mix of both established and newer architects; visiting the event will be prominent architectural critics, practitioners, and thinkers from across the city and around the world.

    What are you, an official spokesperson or something?

    Not even remotely.  I’m just really, really stoked that an architectural event of this magnitude is being held in the United States, a convenient short train ride away from my home.  I guess you could call me…a STOKEDsperson.

    You can read the official information about the Chicago Architecture Biennial at its own website,  You can follow the event on Twitter at @chicagobiennial, Instagram at @chicagoarchitecturebiennial, as well as on Pinterest, Tumblr, Medium, and YouTube.

    I’ll be visiting for about 10 days in October, and then again hopefully once or twice more before the Biennial closes in January.

    Are you going?

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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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