With the police stations of tomorrow and $9,000 extendable homes, Chicago’s first Biennial is a diverse pick’n’mix of architecture today. But why won’t it engage with the city in a more meaningful way?
Birthplace of the elevator, cradle of the skyscraper and home to more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings than you could ever want to visit, Chicago has long been America’s mecca for architecture nerds. The city’s architecture foundation offers no less than 85 tours for visitors to marvel at the heroic skyline of neo-gothic buttresses and gilded art deco spires from the comfort of boats, buses, bikes and trains. The rich history of groundbreaking buildings remains the chief reason why the city lures over 50m tourists every year.
But that’s not enough for the city’s energetic mayor, Obama’s former chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel. He wants 55m by 2020. This week, he opened the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial as a step on the way, a $6.5m privately funded extravaganza (primarily sponsored by BP) aimed at ensuring the city “will continue to be seen worldwide as an epicentre of modern architecture”. It’s a no-brainer, he says; the question is why the city wasn’t doing this before.
Chicago has a fine history of thinking big. “Make no little plans,” said Daniel Burnham, the architect who developed the comprehensive urban plan for Chicago in the 1900s: “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” It is clearly a motto the Biennial’s curators have held dear.
Boldly pitched as “the largest exhibition of contemporary architecture in the history of North America,” the sprawling show takes over the entirety of the majestic Chicago Cultural center, a beaux arts pile dripping with marble and mosaics in the heart of downtown. It is a suitably lordly venue for the launch of a jamboree that is hoped to equal the stature of the Venice Biennale. But does the work on show live up to its grand surroundings?
Co-curated by the dynamic duo of Sarah Herda, director of Chicago’s Graham Foundation, an influential grant-making organisation, and Joseph Grima, former editor of Domus magazine, the main exhibition is an ambitious attempt to cut a cross-section through contemporary architectural practice in its many forms, from all corners of the Earth. After reviewing the work of 500 offices, the pair invited over 100 participants from 30 different countries to come and set out their stall. The result is an intriguing hotchpotch of the strange and wonderful, which rambles around the labyrinthine venue in no particular order.
The range of work is dazzlingly catholic, stretching from a Berlin-based architect who “collaborates with spiders”, training his eight-legged friends to weave sculptural webs, their silky cocoons shown here in spotlit vitrines, to teams working on radical solutions for low-cost social housing in developing countries, to the heady sci-fi future of robot-aided construction. It makes for a lively romp through the gamut of the many different things the word “architecture” is now applied to, but the sheer breadth of approaches, combined with a distinct lack of any central idea, can make it a frustrating experience. After visiting several times over the course of three days, I still left with indigestion.
“We didn’t want to constrain the work with a theme,” says Herda. “We went out into the world and asked architects to tell us what they think matters.” She describes the exhibition as a “site of experimentation – not a place to look at pictures of buildings, but to figure out the future of making buildings.”
As Grima puts it, the Biennial is “a platform through which theory and practice can converge”, adding that they were keen “not to make disciplinary distinctions”. Gnomic tableaux of abstract furniture-like sculptures are presented on equal terms with speculative masterplans for the future of Chicago. It is an architectural pick’n’mix, with visitors encouraged to roam through the kaleidoscope of contemporary practice, free from a guiding hand.
Highlights for me include a full-scale prototype of a $9,000 house developed by Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, designed to let residents extend a basic shell, with a solid central core that can be expanded in phases with lighter-weight materials. Aimed at tackling the country’s shortage of 9m homes, the model provides a compelling alternative to pokey state-built housing, built for the same budget, and it’s already being trialled across three different cities.
Lacaton & Vassal’s remarkable work breathing new life into dilapidated council estates in France, through intelligent remodelling, is shown in a series of films of residents’ daily lives in their new homes. The sensitivity and economy of their work contains important lessons for estate regeneration around the world, their projects achieved at a fraction of the cost of the usual process of demolition and rebuilding.
The skewed economics of housing are also brought into sharp focus by the work of Cape Town architect Jo Noero, who engages with the two extreme ends of the financial spectrum. He uses luxury clifftop villa commissions to subsidise work on community housing projects in impoverished townships. The stark contrast is shown in two models, presented side by side, in a powerful representation of South Africa’s persistent inequality.
Light relief from the socially worthy comes thanks to some intriguing material experiments, such as Swiss boffins Gramazio Kohler’s latest foray into robotic construction. Having trained drones to weave suspension bridges, they have now developed a technique by which a robotic arm can build compressive structures from a pile of pebbles, held together with nothing more than a length of string. The architects are hazy about what practical application this might have, but their knobbly column, which stands in the centre of the room like some gnarled elephant’s leg, is a startling thing – and will be even more so when it is unravelled into a heap at the end of the exhibition, with a single tug on the string.
For all the ingenuity on show, the wider impact of the Biennial comes when it breaches the museum walls. One key off-site initiative has been a competition for a number of lakefront kiosks, which has produced some pleasing follies for selling hotdogs, but it’s perhaps not the most pressing of Chicago’s problems that architecture can be mobilised to tackle.
A more compelling proposition comes from Jeanne Gang, one of the world’s pre-eminent women architects, whose Chicago-based practice is best known for the shapeshifting Aqua tower. For the Biennial, she has turned her hand to rethinking the police station, prompted by the increasingly fractious relationship between US police forces and the communities they are supposed to serve.
Tracing the evolution of the station from the 18th-century neighbourhood “watch box” to the modern fortress-like sheds, she has proposed a new hybrid police station that incorporates community facilities – from a creche to a barber’s and doctor’s surgery – in a bid to humanise the often faceless policing machine.
“The police have become ever more isolated from their neighbourhoods, and most stations are now just jails in parking lots,” says Gang. “By combining them with everyday facilities, you could increase the opportunities for regular interaction between officers and residents, and help to make people feel less intimidated.”
The first trial project, a playground on surplus car parking space next to the police station in Chicago’s rundown 10th district, opened this weekend – a project which 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,” says Gang. “It really helped to coalesce research ideas into something concrete.”
It is an example that Mayor Emanuel, and whoever succeeds him, would do well to learn from. As it evolves, the power of this new architecture biennial might be found less in aping the kinds of Instagram-friendly gallery installations of Venice, and more in a direct engagement with the real problems facing the city of Chicago. When a biannual gala succeeds in bringing together some of the world’s best architectural minds, it might be an idea to put them to work.
Stony Island Arts Bank
The indomitable Chicago artist Theaster Gates has used the biennial as an opportunity to launch his latest and most ambitious community arts facility in the city’s impoverished South Side. Following projects that transformed abandoned houses into libraries and arthouse cinemas, the one-man regeneration machine has now converted a dilapidated 1920s bank into a gallery, archive and events space, using an ingenious Robin Hood funding model. As one of the most sought-after artists in the US, he used his status at Art Basel to sell “bank bonds”, carved in marble slabs pulled from the building, to generate funds for the project. “The project was called Bank Underwater,” he tells me, “referring to the leaking state of the building and the metaphoric condition of the industry. I thought: who better to bail me out of a flooded bank in the South Side than Swiss bankers?”
Making Place: the architecture of David Adjaye
For those left disappointed by the lack of real-world building projects featured in the Chicago Cultural Center’s biennial show, this major retrospective of the London-based Ghanaian architect should provide the fix. The first comprehensive museum survey devoted to the 48-year-old Adjaye, it dispels the myth still held by many in the profession that he is just the architect of fancy artists’ houses and cheaply-built libraries. The rooms are bristling with models and drawings of everything from the golden lantern of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, to the mad constructivist composition of his Moscow business school and a new shopping mall-cum-art gallery in Beirut.
Highrise of Homes by James Wines, from SITE Specific at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Best known for his surreal 1970s stores for big box retailer Best – fantastical concoctions, featuring facades collapsing into piles of bricks and forests encroaching into the buildings – the Chicago-born, New York-based environmental artist is showing a small but exquisite selection of drawings in the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, which first launched his Highrise of Homes project back in the 1980s. Alongside the Best drawings, which have the quality of a storybook Piranesi, and the designs for his seminal Shake Shack pavilion in New York, the illustrations for this fairytale highrise are still the most powerful – a great stack of suburban bungalows piled up in a great concrete and steel frame. “It was about taking the design role from the architect and putting it in the hands of the resident,” he tells me. Intended as a provocation, he’s now been approached by several developers intent on realising the dream. “Never say never,” he chuckles. For fans keen to get their hands on a piece of PoMo history, everything is for sale – with prices around $30,000 a pop.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax tour
Every weekend throughout the biennial, free shuttles are taking visitors out to Racine, two hours north of Chicago, where Frank Lloyd Wright built the spectacular headquarters for SC Johnson, the makers of household cleaning products Glade and Pledge. With the most polished floors in town, it is a thrilling place to explore, home to the famous administration building (built 1936-9) with its soaring lily-pad columns, and the research tower (1944-50), whose windows are formed from sparkling stacks of thousands of curved glass tubes – “an ideal laboratory,” said Wright of his own work, “if ever one was”. Now fresh from a $30m eight-year-long restoration, it is one of the best preserved Wright projects, and his only commercial building still in everyday use. The tour also takes in Wingspread, the house Wright built for Herbert Johnson, complete with a vertiginous crow’s nest poking out of the roof.
Chicago Architecture Biennial is at various venues until 3 January 2016.