Chicago Architecture Biennial
Photo: Iwan Baan

In 1977, deep into architecture’s sectarian manifesto wars in the run-up to Postmodernism, the Graham Foundation invited architects from the avant-garde establishment to Chicago to participate in “The State of the Art of Architecture,” a conference organized by Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, and his Chicago Seven (not to be confused with Abbie Hoffman’s Chicago Seven).

The speakers, which included Frank Gehry, FAIA, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, FAIA, and John Hejduk brought with them position papers, project drawings, and verbal daggers honed during various turf skirmishes in Modernism’s eventide. In 1977, there was the mutating abstraction of the Whites versus the context and narrative of the Grays; there was a breakaway Los Angeles insurgency; there was the high-tech London set; there was also an advocacy-design movement, born out of the nationwide social and political protests from a decade earlier.

“The State of the Art of Architecture,” then, was a chance for Tigerman to throw gasoline on several competing brushfires.

“There was discussion and debate and, ultimately, name-calling,” Tigerman says. “It was exciting to have all those people in one room yelling at each other. That had never happened before.”

For one, Helmut Jahn, FAIA—“a product of both Germany and [Mies’] IIT,” points out attendee Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA—was called out on the carpet for his reticence to leave right angles behind. At the conference, Stern presented his Lang House and a renovation of Columbia University’s Jerome Greene Annex, both projects that had him piping on delicate Classical molding like an indulgent baker. He also presented his Subway Suburb project, a history of the garden suburb that has since culminated in the publication of Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City (Monacelli Press, 2013).

This battle between International Style Modernism and more traditional Classicism baffled Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, who had only then recently arrived in Los Angeles to become the associate dean of the California Institute of the Arts. His West Coast brand of improvisational architecture, outside of the two dominant design camps, was infused with the canny realization that technology would ultimately redefine architecture. Hodgetts talked about proto-3D printing and how wireless transmissions could change the way we think about conventional spaces, and he presented a design for a mobile inflatable concert venue, delivered on site by truck—Archigram meets the Merry Pranksters. For him, the whole thing seemed to sag with the weight of the past—a declining empire trying to hold onto converts. And he told them so.

“The message I was conveying was not the message anybody was very interested in hearing, like a court jester,” says Hodgetts, who felt a little patronized. “It made me dismiss the whole group. I did feel that I was in the midst of a very conservative group of thinkers.”

If you zoom out a bit, you can see Hodgetts’ point. The conference represented an insular monoculture of establishment values with little room for variation, despite the aesthetic and philosophical feuds Hodgetts, Stern, and Tigerman recall.

Architecture today still has its ideologies, but nearly 40 years later its practice is defined more by its variety and interdependencies than warring factions. More than ever before, architects are expected to speak to wider audiences about how their work engages with regional ecologies, demographic shifts, resilience, and equity. It’s a profession in transition, to the point where disciplinary boundaries have softened—which is the crux of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opened this month and runs through Jan. 3, 2016; its title (in a nod to Tigerman’s 1977 conference) is “The State of the Art of Architecture.”

The biennial’s co-artistic directors—Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation, and Joseph Grima, former editor of Domus—chose that title because Tigerman had asked all of the participants to come prepared to present a polemical (and provocative) position and a project that demonstrated their ambition. “The directness of letting the ideas come from the architects themselves drew us to the 1977 event,” Herda says.

“It challenged architects to articulate what was at stake in their practices, and to show how they were fulfilling their ambitions,” she says of the biennial, which is the first of its kind in North America. “It suggests a more open-ended dialogue and coexistence between radically different architectural practices across the world, without the constraints of a specific overarching theme.”

Participants hail from more than two dozen countries and represent a higher level of diversity, both in terms of race and gender, than is usually found at design conferences and events. Even if architecture, by the numbers, struggles to be a more diverse profession than it was in 1977, the decision by Herda, Grima, and other biennial organizers to pursue diversity and balance represents an ideal as well as a mandate.

It’s also recognition that architecture, writ large, is not a function of the East Coast or West Coast axes of influence. Amanda Williams and Theaster Gates, two Chicagoans who blur the line between art and architecture by revitalizing disused and derelict properties in impoverished neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, see the biennial as an opportunity to show people their version of an iconic city. At the other end of the spectrum, Diébédo Francis Kéré designs community buildings in African villages with unskilled labor that use vernacular traditions far outside the Western canon. Based in Lagos and Amsterdam, NLÉ/Kunlé Adeyemi is most well-known for a floating classroom that addresses both rapid urbanization in Nigeria and flooding driven by climate change.

Most of the participants are younger than the attendants at Tigerman’s event were in 1977, still operating at the scale of small buildings and pavilions. In recognizing a diverse set of voices and approaches, some of the attendees of the 1977 event see the 2015 biennial as an opportunity to expand the agency of architecture.

“It will introduce, firsthand, a whole new set of both social issues and social and political understandings of architecture into the mix,” says 1977 attendee and Chicago Seven member Stuart Cohen.

Entrance to the biennial is free (unlike the Venice Biennale), and the organizers have selected venues in both prosperous and struggling neighborhoods of Chicago. The hope is that a diverse group of participants attracts a wider audience outside the traditional design public. Peter Eisenman, FAIA, the 2015 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion recipient, 1977 conference participant, and veteran of more than a half-dozen Venice Biennales, says this goal will have an ally in the city of Chicago.

“Anybody that goes to Chicago is interested in the ‘urban,’ ” he says. “Whoever is going there anyway is already preprogrammed to understand what the [biennial] is about. Chicago is a very unselfconscious manifestation of what is best about American urbanism—the grid, tough external materials, the scale. Where is the best urban place in the United States? It’s Chicago. It’s Michigan Avenue. It’s the Loop. It’s a very condensed urban setting, with the prairie on one side and the lake on the other. Chicago is the place, if you’re a foreigner, to feel what urbanism in America can be.”

The year 1977 also represents a transitional period in architecture in ways not covered by that year’s Graham Foundation conference. The 1973 oil crisis raised serious questions about our management of natural resources, and even if the 1979 energy crisis was two years away, energy analysts of the period were already issuing warning signs. Environmental design gathered together architects, ecologists, engineers, land use experts, and social scientists much in the same way that resilient design today gathers together architects, hydrologists, landscape architects, seismologists, and social equity activists.

Architecture is at another crossroads, professionally and publicly. Add the aspect of digital media coverage to the diffusion of talent surrounding resilient design, and “The State of the Art of Architecture” is a curatorial challenge for Herda and Grima. The well-defined factional blocs that defined 1977 have been subsumed into an ocean of disparate design approaches, all sorted through hundreds of niche media platforms online.

“Today, I don’t think we have a very clear sense of what direction or another architecture is taking,” Stern says. “There are so many different points of view.”

The 1977 event wasn’t set up to yield a consensus, and Tigerman says the 2015 biennial has a greater potential to crystallize a new generational awareness among architects. Fueling this potential is the vast generation gap between younger architects who reach for a computer for the first sketch of a building, and more seasoned architects who still remember paper and pencils.

“I feel an enormous dislocation from the younger generation,” Eisenman says. “It’s up to [them] to seize the ground and make of it what they can. I don’t think there’s anything standing in their way.”

Though landmark exhibitions are popularly described as marking the beginning of an era (like the Hitchcock/Johnson-curated International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932), Eisenman says they more often mark the end of one. “The hope is that Chicago will end a period of time and move on to another period.”

In other words, the young designers who see their stars rise after their exposure at the biennial won’t be refining patterns recognizable today; they’ll be looking for new points of departure. And the true “State of the Art of Architecture” that will be remembered after the design circus leaves town might not be what’s on the stage in Chicago; it might instead be whatever comes next.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial, sponsored in part by the AIA, runs through Jan. 3, 2016. Learn more at