The Chicago Architecture Biennial debuted in October, and the cognoscenti were watching. Closely. Beneath the widespread support ran a faint undercurrent of astonishment that any city, even the birthplace of the skyscraper, would challenge the discipline’s reigning festival, the Venice Architecture Biennale. There was also concern whether the artistic directors, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, could pull it off—not due to any shortcoming on their part, but because they only had 12 months between the formal announcement of the biennial’s existence and the scheduled opening. Yet open it did, and with justifiable fanfare.
Herda and Grima dubbed this first iteration “The State of the Art of Architecture,” after a 1977 debate in Chicago organized by Stanley Tigerman, FAIA. The title is so broad that it might as well serve as a mission statement for the whole ongoing enterprise. But what does it actually mean? The phrase “The State of …” suggests an encyclopedic survey, and work by some 100 designers and artists from 30 countries does appear in the show, staged at the city’s Beaux-Arts cultural center. But there’s a point of view teasingly implicit in those three words, “… the Art of …”; I wish Herda and Grima had more forthrightly articulated it on site.
In keeping with the open-endedness of the title, the installation isn’t organized according to overtly stated themes. But Herda and Grima, who are among the most astute design observers of my generation, obviously pursued a set of overarching ideas in choosing the remarkable roster of participants and took great care in grouping the projects for display.
Attentive visitors will detect patterns—common concerns and predispositions among an emerging generation of practitioners. There’s social justice (Studio Gang’s design strategies for urban police stations), economic opportunity (Tatiana Bilbao’s adaptable, $8,000 house prototype), community-building (Studio [D] Tale’s map of private minibus routes in Harare, Zimbabwe), technical innovation (Junya Ishigami + Associates’ roof design, a sheet of steel a half-inch thick and 330 by 200 feet in area, supported on just four perimeter walls), and even—old-fashioned as it may seem—formal beauty (Andreas Angelidakis’ classicizing, PoMo-ish ceramics).
There’s blessedly little blobmeistering or theoretical posturing (though an inscrutable video by François Roche does its best to fill the void). The wall texts accompanying each project are, for the most part, simply worded and to the point. That’s a plus, because the biennial’s ability to reach broad audiences will be a decisive measure of its success, both this year and in the future.
A good biennial champions the cutting edge—the state of the art—which this one certainly does. The cognoscenti should be satisfied. A truly great biennial helps architects comunicate meaningfully with the public, and demonstrates the real promise of those fresh ideas. By that standard, did Herda and Grima pull it off? The critics’ reviews are rolling in (including Cathy Lang Ho’s on page 83), but I’m eager to see final attendance numbers. The biennial’s opening weekend drew a crowd of more than 31,000, which is an awesome start. By comparison, the summertime food fest, Taste of Chicago, attracted 1.5 million during its five-day run this year. Architecture should be so lucky.