Given all the venues for viewing ambitious architecture, do we really need the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, touted in press materials as “the largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America”?
The answer, counter-intuitively, is yes. While other exhibitions have tended to attract government money and marquee talent aimed at addressing esoteric curatorial themes, the Chicago biennial (through Jan. 3, 2016) has staked out more straightforward territory, inviting a wider array of names simply to explore architecture that matters. Funding has come entirely from private sources, with BP, which gave $2.5 million, identified as the major sponsor.
The result is a pulse-taking of contemporary architecture as it could be—creative responses that suggest solutions to some of the intractable, quotidian challenges of our times, from housing the needy to harnessing baffling new technologies. The work of over 100 participants from 30 countries, the installations are largely free from the academic navel-gazing and Freudian rematches with postmodernism that have marred many recent architecture exhibitions.
Instead there are sincere engagements and radical innovations on offer, from local architect Jeanne Gang’s proposal to turn urban police stations into community hubs with basketball courts, legal libraries and communal dining, as a way to nip confrontations in the bud, to Providence, R.I.-based Ultramoderne’s monolithic flat roof made of cross-laminated timber—a 56-square-foot expanse common enough in concrete but never before tried in wood—on a shade pavilion built for the biennial on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The majority of the installations are in the downtown Chicago Cultural Center, an 1897 Beaux Arts beauty that was once the city’s main public library. The biennial fills all 150,000 square feet of this lovely event and exhibition space with 82 installations, including four full-scale houses.
Affordable housing is, in fact, one of the recurrent themes shepherded—rather than dictated—by the biennial’s artistic directors, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima. In Vietnam, Vo Trong Nghia Architects developed a working prototype—one of the full-scale installations—for a $3,500 house that can be assembled in three hours without power tools or skilled labor, using a galvanized steel armature that can accommodate walls made of local material, such as palm leaves or bamboo.
The droll Offset House by Otherothers in Sydney addresses lot-hogging McMansions by tucking smaller homes into the flabby frames of McMansions that have been stripped to the studs to serve as balconies and porches.
There were relatively few displays of technological bravado, but Rock Print—by the Swiss fabrication architects Gramazio Kohler Research and MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab—was a tour de force. The towering structure on sculpted legs was the first architectural construction built by a robotic arm using only small rocks and string. A marriage of dry-stone stacking and digital 3D printing, the process has untold potential for sustainable and economic construction using the cheapest materials imaginable.
It was encouraging to find rising architects and artists dealing with the materials, structures and conditions already at hand. The first Chicago Architecture Biennial had just the right proportion of earnest effort to razzle-dazzle.