Bruce Damonte From Barkow Leibinger’s installation of three towers, each made from a different material.

The beauty of “Make New History,” the second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, is that it is neither. Most of the work is historical only in the sense that it reuses materials, forms, or types that are familiar from the world around us. Although that might make them historical in the strict sense of the word, what is more important is that it also makes them the raw material out of which we create all of our cultural artifacts, even as we continue to claim innovation and invention for our interpretations. And, as such, the work is not necessarily new, even if almost all of it was created in the last few years. (There’s none of the historical citations to Archigram or Ant Farm that gave the first edition of this biennial some depth.) A few passing references to Postmodernism in the Jencksian sense of that word, and some flaccid reconstructions of historical models from the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany, are all that drag this edition away from its repurposing of what is current.

I might thus have called this modest, but coherent, exhibition “Make History New,” or “Make New What Is,” but you can see why Sharon Johnston, FAIA, and Mark Lee preferred their more catchy title. The contribution they have made to our current discussions (I noted the recurrence of that post-postmodern phrase “discourse” everywhere) is to give appropriation—which makes little distinction between reusing finished forms through Photoshop and assembling cast-offs into the new, and which has been championed recently by artists as diverse as Sterling Ruby to Theaster Gates—a formal frame. That was true literally, as the architecture found itself enshrined in the Beaux-Arts behemoth of the Chicago Cultural Center, as well as by Johnston and Lee’s very present exhibition design and in manner in which the work found itself categorized.

Bruce Damonte New contributions to the Chicago Tribune Tower competition.
tk 2nd Revised edition edition (Dec. 1982)
Rizzoli International Publications From Stanley Tigerman's “Late Entries” 1980 exhibition on the Chicago Tribune Tower competition.

The curators’ strongest move was the commissioning of a dozen new doubly-late entries into the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1923. Stanley Tigerman, FAIA—a presence I felt looming over the whole proceedings—had already organized the “Late Entries” at the height of Postmodernism in 1980, and now Johnston and Lee have invited today’s hot new design shops to make their own attempts to design what was supposed to be “the most beautiful building in the world.” The results are big and bold, but not nearly as innovative or provocative as the earlier editions. The era of making statements with big buildings is most definitely over.

Bruce Damonte Design With Company’s installation of the steel skeletons of Chicago.

A good example is what I found to be the strongest room, one that was also the most isolated. (It should be noted that the Cultural Center, as I said in my review of the first edition, is not a good building, no matter how grand it is, and is particularly a bad place for any exhibition because of its disjointed layout.) Tucked away kitty-corner from the south entrance, the room contained Stan Allen, FAIA’s research into stud construction and Design With Company’s similar examination of the combinations that make up steel skeletons in Chicago. Facing off against these displays of time-honored and -perfected materials that go into many of our country’s buildings were more fanciful acts of research. They included Barkow Leibinger’s three towers, each made from a different material, that showed the subtle variation of not only framing, but character, that construction can provide, and Aranda\Lasch’s collaboration with Terrol Dew Johnson, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, that combines their own research into computational architecture with the craft of a master Native American basket maker.

Bruce Damonte Aranda\Lasch and Terrol Dew Johnson's research into computational architecture.

Each of these projects showed what you could get out of elaborating, deforming, and reforming standard methods and materials. They came closest to making new history. Beyond those experimental projects, there was a fair amount of ruin porn (the best of which was T+E+A+M’s Ghostbox, a miniature train-set-style re-imagination of a big-box store). There was also a fair amount of work that documented and then elaborated on work that you might think of as both historical and vernacular. Exemplary in this vein was PioveneFabi and Giovanna Silva’s Metropolitana, a collection of Memphis-esque furniture based on photographs of the Milan subway system’s furnishings.

Bruce Damonte T+E+A+M’s Ghostbox, a miniature train-set-style re-imagination of a big-box store.
Bruce Damonte A closer look into T+E+A+M’s Ghostbox.

Marshall Brown, in his The Architecture of Creative Miscegenation, and AWP, in its Invisible Modern Architecture, explored how you could draw out, quite literally in both cases, existing forms to release all their connotations and possibilities. These last few projects all showed up in a room that seemed dedicated to the craft of representation, as if by drawing, redrawing, or reconstructing existing forms or situations you could make them new. If that was the intention, the curators here were certainly successful.

Bruce Damonte PioveneFabi and Giovanna Silva’s Metropolitana, a collection of Memphis-esque furniture.
Bruce Damonte Another look at PioveneFabi and Giovanna Silva’s Metropolitana.

My personal favorite project was the Chicago Series, by architect and photographer Philipp Schaerer. His previous work concentrated on making enigmatic monuments—or at least what appeared to be documentation of such solid structures—out of images of walls he doctored to bring out their most abstract qualities while liberating them from the role of cladding or support structures. In this series, he started with satellite photographs of roofs, and then manipulated them into collages. The results are completely divorced from their origins, turning into images that evoked the contemplative possibilities of abstraction and collage in a manner that mashes up Piet Mondrian and Kurt Schwitters.

Tom Harris Philipp Schaerer's Chicago Series.

After leaving the Chicago Biennial, I sent out the necessary pings to gather my students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, who were wandering around dazed by such a surfeit of image and form, and gave them a tour of downtown Chicago. Walking past the Reliance, Inland Steel, Monadnock, and Rookery buildings, that magnificent moment when Michigan crosses the Chicago River, and gazing up at the competing cathedrals of commerce, we saw history that remained as such, offering its remains as evidence of what we once believed and made. “Does this now feel like new history to you?” I asked one of them. “No,” she said, “but I learned great tricks this morning and now I am seeing buildings that inspire me.” And that sums it up for me: History remains to be mined, but techniques for doing that work remain the work for exhibitions such as the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and it taught its lessons well.