The act of looking to the past to inform the present has always been central to architecture. While different eras saw the imprint of history more strongly than others, one of the most dramatic ruptures in the evolution of architecture over the last century was between history and modernity. Spawned from a revolutionary and positivist climate, early modernism’s repression of history severed architecture’s future from its past. While measured and moderate attempts of incorporating historical models before and after the apotheosis of modernism bore witness to movements ranging from Novecento, Rationalism, Neo-liberty, Postmodernism, Tendenza to various modes of revivalism, the zeal of modernism prevailed in obscuring these short-lived episodes. The insistence on being unprecedented and unrelated to architectures of the past reached new heights at the beginning of the millennium as more and more architects became reluctant to consider what they do as being part of a larger collective project or architectural history.
Today, history neither represents an oppressive past that modernism tried to discard nor symbolizes a retrograde mindset against unbridled progress. Instead, at a time when there is too much information and not enough attention—when a general collective amnesia perpetuates a state of eternal presentness—the importance of understanding the channels through which history moves and is shaped in architecture is more important than ever. A renewed interest in precedents of architecture has been noted among a generation of architects. Committed to progress, but always from within an architectural tradition, these architects are producing innovative and subversive work grounded in the fundamentals of the discipline—rooted in the fabrics of the cities where they are built—without having to keep up with the latest micro-trends or being accused of cultural appropriation.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial 2017 will showcase the diversity of work from around the world to examine the underpinnings of this resurgence of historical interest. MAKE NEW HISTORY will focus on the efforts—across registers of building and discursive production—of contemporary architects to align their work with versions of history. From the vantage of the discipline, the Biennial aims to examine the interplay of design and the broadening access to, as well as recall of, historical source material. In the realm of building practice—from new construction to adaptive reuse to conservation—it will investigate the ways that the architect’s encounter with a site is, in fact, a prior accumulation of state and government regulations, social conventions, and markers of personhood to be interpreted and responded to. Under consideration for architecture in the concept of history is the regulation and management of power and identity, what prevails and what does not, and how to recognize the significance of untold narratives. Now, more than ever, the assumptions embedded in cultural exempla and civic imaginaries require examination and discussion.
With a legacy that is equally embedded in the buildings and fabric of the city as well as a lineage of media and cultural production, Chicago will provide a backdrop to typify disciplinary concerns around the continued importance and value of history in architecture at present. A calendar of events, emanating from the Chicago Cultural Center outward to Biennial partners, will create comparative encounters with various sites across the city. The Biennial will foreground questions and ideas regarding the making of a new history: what political role has history played in the regulation of buildings and the city, how can buildings speak to history without being nostalgic or pastiche, and how might we build connections to the past that are relevant and valuable to our present?
Architecture’s entry to the domain of the art Biennales, almost forty years ago in Venice, opened with a reflection on the relationship of history and memory in architecture. The event showcased an expanding repertoire of theatrical devices and scenographic modes of display. Today the role and influence of history in the field of architecture is not the same, nor is that of the exhibition. On the one hand, the Biennial format sits at the core of architecture’s cultural project: a forum to reach and produce new audiences that has always been part of the exhibitionary project. On the other hand, it replicates the enduring question of how to display and tell stories about absent buildings. These questions have been answered by a suite of new modes to express and mine architecture’s own traditions. Often these new methods of communication reflect an intensified engagement with media and approaches traditionally seen as art practices. This sort of overlap has served to blur the expertise and responsibilities of distinct disciplines.
The relationship between the fields of art and architecture is a historical narrative unto itself. Both practices have evolved around the changing nature of public space, in the function of specific sites, and in the expanding definitions of national and civic identities. To continue the unity of architecture and the exhibition format of the biennial is to acknowledge these commingling histories. It also becomes—in its very act and existence—a nod to the past that stands to strongly influence both the present and future of design depictions. What is at stake here is the furthering of diverse identities, cultural politics, and the way in which these identifiers shape the changing representations of the architectural practice.