As anticipation rumbled towards the opening of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, excitement and reservation came hand in hand. The eclectic mix of over 120 participating firms, coming from over 30 countries, made the snapshot of the profession appear, depending on your side of the spectrum, as a vibrant collage full of diverse applications, or frayed and vacillating. But after its opening on October 3, it’s clear that the criticisms dealing in this binary miss the point – the Biennial is more about architects than it is about architecture.

But more on that later – the most prominent participant in the Biennial is, of course, the city. Under the imposing shadow of the city of Chicago, the Biennial has had to situate itself alongside the shoulders of such giant architectural benchmarks as the birth of elevators, skyscrapers, the discipline of city planning, and a modernist legacy told through more Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe buildings than you can shake a selfie-stick at. The city that literally rose from the ashes under Daniel Burnham’s “Make no little plans” ethos can’t plan to host a Biennial that is any less ambitious, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is betting big on its success.


Born out of the massive Chicago Cultural Plan, put together in 2012 by the Mayor and current cultural affairs commissioner Michelle Boone, the Biennial is a direct product of the Mayor’s attempt to boost local economic value born of Chicago’s architectural cache. Co-artistic directors Sarah Herda (director of the Graham Foundation, based in Chicago) and Joseph Grima (formerDomus editor and director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture) were then roped in to substantiate what they’ve titled “The State of the Art of Architecture,” a nod to a 1977 conference led by Stanley Tigerman.

Over the opening weekend and two preview days, the Biennial drew over 31,000 visitors – by comparison, the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale brought in 228,000 visitors over its more than five-month span. And the Chicago Biennial is certainly similarly ambitious, with “collateral” (to borrow a term from Venice) events stretching across over 100 institutions in the region (full disclosure, Archinect hosted one of these affiliated programs). The lion’s share of the 90+ featured exhibitions are gathered within the Chicago Cultural Center: a centrally-located Beaux-Arts behemoth in downtown that, until the 1970s, served as the city’s public library.


"a kaleidoscopic presentation of architecture today: at once optimistic, conflicted, exciting, confusing, and overwhelming"

Inside the Cultural Center is a kaleidoscopic presentation of architecture today: at once optimistic, conflicted, exciting, confusing, and overwhelming. The co-artistic directors insisted multiple times that the Biennial’s title, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” is not a theme to wrap all participants up neatly in, but rather a lens through which to view their work. These participants are young (the majority are under 50 years old), and push “many different arguments” while asserting that “architecture matters at any scale,” according to Sarah Herda.

Within the Cultural Center, the work takes a register of forms and media to address issues as complex as affordable housing, nation-building, health, blight, robotic assembly, policing, and urbanism for the elderly. And none of these subjects define the firm’s scope – Jeanne Gang, whose Studio Gang is perhaps best known for Chicago’s Aqua Tower, contributed “Polis Station”, a re-fangling of the urban presence of police stations in neighborhoods to increase positive relationships between the public and police officers. The installation by artist Tomás Saraceno, who was educated both as an architect and under NASA’s International Space Studies Program, was made up of a bunch of glitchy spiderwebs in clear plastic boxes – the result of stressed-out arachnids having to deal with Saraceno rotating their worlds constantly. Both can be read as a comment on the health of an organism’s environment, and how it responds to manipulations of space and power structures.


Then just down the hall, there is the meticulously realized “Studfindr” by Besler & Sons + ATLV, a kind of poetry of drywall (I’m not kidding), standing adjacent to New Territories / M4’s visual narrative of a feral child living in Bangkok. The same floor of the Cultural Center also includes a room devoted to Chicago-specific projects, featuring a dramatic proposal to move Lake Shore Drive further out into Lake Michigan, and a postmodern scrambling of Trump Tower.

Most of the participants’ work is presented in the Cultural Center as it would be an art gallery, while some installations actively seek to overtake or reorient its actual architecture. SO – IL’s “Passage” turns an awkward ramp into an industrial wireframe, Studio Albori’s social-scaffolding adapts a stairwell into a meeting place, and Studio Bow-Wow’s "Piranesi Circus" ramps up the folly-factor in one of the Center’s forgotten spaces by adding rope-bridges to nowhere.


There are also several full-scale “prototypes” for housing, including Tatiana Bilbao S.C.’s “Sustainable Housing”, which attempts to alleviate Mexico’s housing shortage of nearly 10 million homes with a archetypal structure that costs only $9,000 USD to build. It shares a room with MOS Architects’ “Corridor House,” a critique of McMansion designs waxing on the idea of transitional spaces that are actually big enough to inhabit. These two critical products in one room form a complementary discourses on excess and equity in architecture that continually ping back and forth throughout the Biennial.


But for the most part, the familiarity to art gallery exhibitions will no doubt really annoy some people, who resent architecture’s overlap into “that world” and out of the real one. But the venue of the Cultural Center manages this anxiety simply by being a very public space – the “living room of the city” where the strict etiquettes of art galleries aren’t so imposing. Over the opening weekend, two wedding parties, a handful of people who appeared to be homeless, and many screaming children drifted through the Cultural Center, using it much as they would have before the Biennial began.


Outside of the Cultural Center, the Biennial has also extended its scope to partner with architecture organizations in Chicago both old and new, such as the Chicago Architecture Foundation (who is also a sponsor) and the Stony Island Arts Bank, a recent renovation project in South Chicago spearheaded by artist Theaster Gates and the Rebuild Foundation. Partnering with these institutions, as well as University of Illinois, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Illinois Institute of Technology, extends the Biennial’s reach into areas that otherwise might not be so accessible to the casual tourist. This is also the aim of the affiliated Lakefront Kiosk competition, which culminated in a series of pavilions installed along Lake Michigan and in Millennium Park.


Perhaps the farthest-flung from traditional architecture media are the Biennial’s performances – effectively, dances about architecture. Bryony Roberts collaborated with South Shore Drill Team's Asher Waldron to choreograph a routine in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, flanked by Mies van der Rohes, and scored by a melange of Phillip Glass and House music. The short performance took place at the end of the workday, leaving many commuting Chicagoans confused but transfixed (see video at the bottom of the feature).

Andres Jaque, from the provocatively titled Office for Political Innovation, staged a play at the Chicago Athletic Association inspired by Eames’ “Powers of 10” film (incidentally, completed the same year as Tigerman’s conference). Through papier-mâché puppets and human-sized cardboard dioramas, “Superpowers of 10” aspired to illustrate how design is at the root cause of contemporary cultures’ injustices. While a bit clumsily polemic at times, the freshness of the elementary school play aesthetic won out.


"provoke a strong feeling of new potentials and optimism for what the profession is capable of" 

While entirely charming and curios in their own right, these performances may befuddle the general public even more when it comes to forming a more coherent idea of architecture today. And making the Biennial accessible, particularly in an exhibitionary context where the intellectual bar is set pretty high, is exceedingly important should the Cultural Plan succeed in waxing a brighter shine onto Chicago’s status as an architecture destination. I’m not entirely convinced that the average person walking into the Cultural Center will leave feeling that they understand architecture (or architects) any better, but the performances provoke a strong feeling of new potentials and optimism for what the profession is capable of doing.

Granted, this deferral to architecture’s multitudes can get tiresome, or seem like it’s dodging any conclusive statements about the profession today. But really, insisting on any comprehensive analysis of such a large, diverse event would gloss over lines that should be blurrily drawn, between art and architecture, practice and research, technology and craftsmanship. What the Biennial makes clear is that architects today do not feel beholden to any strict form of practice – the these designers base their work around issues, not program, and as such handle a diversity of media that (for the most part) thumbs its nose at plan drawings and models.


And this is where the Biennial neatly evolves with its 1977 namesake. The first “The State of the Art of Architecture” referred to rustlings of a kind of existential crisis in the profession in the wake of modernism’s deflated promises. Whereas architects in this Biennial, “whose intellectual zest is only surpassed by their optimism” according to Tigerman himself, seem to happily eschew any “-isms” in favor of new applications and a wider field of practice. There are no easy answers here, but some much needed fresh questions.

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