Bruce Damonte

With more than 300 art and architecture biennials and triennials and counting, does the world need another? From the 19th-century Venetian original to the mid-20th-century copycat in São Paulo to the hip 21st-century incarnations in Shenzhen, China; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Lisbon, Portugal; and Oslo, Norway, the format of the alternating-year global art and architecture extravaganza has exploded, reflecting the rapid global expansion of creative and financial markets and their inextricable entanglement with local economies and civic ambitions.

It’s useful to rephrase the same question: Are the burning questions about architecture’s importance and possibilities not already sufficiently considered on what’s now essentially a perennial schedule? Are architects really lacking exhibitionist opportunities in alluring locales—chances to unleash their impulses by creating follies, sculptures, agitprop, manifestos, videos, and so on? And should cities and funders expend precious resources on such temporary spectacles when there are so many other urgent urban and social problems that require investment?

The organizers of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (which is open until Jan. 3) have clearly considered all this and more. Intellectual powerhouses Sarah Herda, director of the Chicago-based Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and Joseph Grima, former Domus editor and accomplished curator who directed the first Istanbul Design Biennial, responded to Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) commissioner Michelle Boone’s invitation with a conscientious effort to create not simply another tourism-motivated architecture mega-event, but a sturdy foundation for a new institution that will benefit the city in the long term while spotlighting some of the world’s leading talents and new directions for the field.

Titled “The State of the Art of Architecture,” the show is an inclusive mélange, purposefully avoiding any overarching proclamations or themes. At risk of being criticized for a lack of focus, the exhibition—which meanders throughout the magnificent five-story Beaux-Arts Chicago Cultural Center (CCC), formerly the city’s main library and the nation’s first free municipal cultural center—promotes the idea that architecture, like religion, is a construct that can be expressed, interpreted, and instrumentalized in myriad ways.

Tomás Saraceno's spiderwebs exhibit, which magically displays the wondrous geometries of nature
Bruce Damonte Tomás Saraceno's spiderwebs exhibit, which magically displays the wondrous geometries of nature

But can architecture be defined in individual, personal terms? Those in the field have been saying Yes, definitely, for some time now. But it doesn’t mean that the general public won’t be mystified by a dark room with glowing ethereal spiderwebs (by Berlin-based Argentine Tomás Saraceno), or a confounding series of ramps and bridges in a inaccessible courtyard (by Tokyo firm Atelier Bow-Wow), or petri dishes filled with detritus from the streets of Johannesburg (by South Africa–based Counterspace). Those with a traditional view of architecture might have a hard time accepting the new gospel. But this biennial—with its straightforward aims, described in unpretentious terms, situated in a beloved, well-used, free public building, accompanied by dozens of programs and collateral events in partnership with nearly every cultural and educational institution in the city—works hard at spreading the message.

Co-artistic directors Herda and Grima borrowed the biennial’s title from a 1977 Chicago conference organized by Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, which convened that generation’s influential practitioners, including Peter Eisenman, FAIA, Frank Gehry, FAIA, and John Hejdik, to discuss their various “positions.” “In a similar spirit but with an expanded, global scope,” write Herda and Grima in the catalog introduction, “the Biennial summons to Chicago a group of architects … whose work tests the limits of the field, with the expectation that the resulting diversity of projects and ideas will cast into doubt our certainties about what architecture is.” Rather than give space to select projects, the curators entrusted thoughtful designers to convey their personal concerns and passions in ways that will ideally bridge a general understanding of architecture’s complicity in issues ranging from sustainability to housing, resilience to social justice. The show isn’t about big names or big projects, but it’s about big ideas.

Respect for individual agency is the thread that connects the hodgepodge. Displaying insight, sincerity, and optimism, as well as humor and poetry, the installations—contributed by 100 participants from more than 30 countries on six continents—make delightful use of the building’s sidewalk, façade, light- and stairwells, passageways, banquet rooms, and Millennium Park across the street. Along Lake Michigan, four semi-permanent kiosks for the parks department’s lakefront concessions (two built now, the others to come in 2016) were also designed as part of the biennial.

Ultramoderne’s Chicago Horizon, winner of the lakefront kiosk competition
Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing Ultramoderne’s Chicago Horizon, winner of the lakefront kiosk competition

This is the first time the CCC has been given over to a single exhibition, and it has never looked better. The first hint of the building’s complete occupation is visible on its Michigan Avenue façade: Chicago firm Norman Kelly, known for its site-specific “disruptive optics,” has given the structure’s 65 windows historic window treatments, cartoony white vinyl cut-outs that mimic the mullions, curtains, and blinds seen in iconic Arts & Crafts, Chicago School, modernist, and vernacular buildings.

The first thing one sees (and smells!) when entering the CCC’s foyer is an oversized table/bench composed of young stacked timbers, sliced and sanded smooth on its edges. Using locally sourced wood, Place for Gathering, as it’s called, is the handiwork of Berlin-based, Burkino Faso–born architect Francis Kéré, whose previous projects have won widespread acclaim for making the most of available resources and centering communities. “It’s all about people,” he said simply, when he was asked during the biennial’s marathon press conference (as all participants were) to articulate in 15 seconds or less, “What is urgent about architecture?”

This is just one of several projects that underscores the importance of collectivity, the need for architecture and cities to be designed to bring people together and foster communication and mutual benefit. Of his own village, Gando, Kéré writes, “Community members depend on one another for the survival and prosperity of the group as a whole.” A second gathering space, Randolph, by Pedro&Juana, a German-Mexican partnership, takes over the next room. They’ve transformed an old drab, multipurpose intermediary space into a cheery “living room” with globe lamps suspended from a web of bright yellow rope, swaying and dancing above custom-made metal mesh sofas and chairs. The removal of gray industrial carpeting revealed an intricate turn-of-the-century mosaic floor—one of the many lasting improvements that the biennial has brought to the CCC.

Francis Kéré's Place for Gathering 
Bruce Damonte Francis Kéré's Place for Gathering 

Community action is very much a part of contemporary practice, particularly among the younger generation of architects who’ve grown up able to communicate, share, crowdsource, mobilize, socialize, publish, and more, at a tap or a swipe. Santiago, Chile–based research collective Toma has set up a workshop of sorts, Especulopolis, inviting visitors to participate in acts of “urban speculation.” The live collaborative residency/workshop has become something of a fixture at recent international biennials—understandably, given the duration of these events (the Chicago biennial spans 100 days). After the opening festivities, it’s nice that some architects want to stick around to engage with the locals.

London-based Assemble, a self-described “cooperative structure” known for its DIY urban interventions, exemplifies this new type of idealistic-slash-pragmatic practice. Although their installation wasn’t complete at press time, the group was recently nominated for the Turner Prize—the first time a design studio has been shortlisted for this prestigious artistic honor. That a bunch of 20-something-year-olds who pledge to “democratize design and activate overlooked spaces through architecture and community-focused programs” can, in a short amount of time, create a thriving practice that’s now being retained by communities, municipalities, and public art commissions, is inspirational.

A quick browse through the participant list reveals many practices that self-identify as collectives, boast multinational principals and bi- or tri-city operations, and work across art, architecture, publication, research, and so on. URBZ is a collective with team members in Mumbai and Goa in India; São Paulo; and Santiago, Chile. It organizes community workshops and actions, like the Homegrown Cities project, which facilitates self-built housing in slums. Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, which produced Indo-Pacific Atlas, a beautiful pop-up collage that explores the geopolitical consequences of media misinformation, is helmed by Columbia University–educated Spaniards Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo and lists offices in New York; Barcelona, Spain; and Sydney. WAI Architecture Think Tank, which exhibited a new take on old-school paper architecture, is led by a Puerto Rican–French duo, Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski, who run a gallery along with a design practice in Beijing.

Atelier Bow-Wow’s Piranesi’s Circus
Bruce Damonte Atelier Bow-Wow’s Piranesi’s Circus

Diversity—geographic, ethnic, disciplinary—is a defining feature of an emerging generation of architects, and permeates this biennial. The majority of the participants are under 45, like Herda and Grima themselves, Gen Xers comfortably sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials. The average might be thrown slightly by a pocket exhibition that gives Chicago architects special place: Bold: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago, organized by Iker Gil, which includes Jahn, SOM, Margaret McCurry, and others. Without investing too much in the sociological term, Gen Xers are purportedly activist, engaged, and, no longer guaranteed employment when armed with good degrees like previous generations, entrepreneurial by necessity.

The notion that architects can not only design and build buildings but also push agendas, manage crises, and improve society is not new, but the strategies presented in this biennial are. In the context of Chicago, a city like so many others worldwide struggling to deal with violent crime, divided neighborhoods, racial tension, and endless other urban and social problems, creative alternatives take on a new urgency. In the biennial, housing comes up repeatedly as an area of concern. Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao designed a $8,000 house with a simple solid core that that residents may extend in phases using lightweight materials. Her full-scale prototype allows visitors to experience its spatial efficiency and possibilities for variation. French architects Lacaton & Vassal and Frederic Druot Architecture’s remarkable upgrade of a dilapidated public housing estate in Bordeaux, France—which involved recladding the façade, adding balconies, remodeling interiors—shows an intelligent alternative to costly demolition and new construction. The project is portrayed through a touching film that captures the everyday lives of the project’s residents.

Two other projects—which are starkly different in appearance but respond to a shared concern—are Chicago-born, Los Angeles–based architect Erin Besler’s The Entire Situation, which takes everyday standard construction materials (metal studs, sheetrock) to create interesting forms, and Milan-based Studio Albori, which improvised an installation on-site using materials donated from local salvage centers. Besler’s installation is tidy, referencing the huge supply chains that drive the industry, and uses computational design to break boxy formulas. Meanwhile, Studio Albori’s messy collage, aptly called Makeshift, recycles discarded building elements, commenting on the wasteful nature of buildings, not to mention architecture biennials. Both critique the dominant architecture culture, building production, materials supply loops, and accessibility to the art of building.

The felicitously timed opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank extends the biennial to Chicago’s South Side. The bank project was spearheaded by Theaster Gates, who started gaining attention with the Dorchester Projects, the “recycling” of an abandoned home and vacant lot, also on the South Side, into a gallery, artist-in-residency program, and neighborhood resource. He has since grown his Chicago-based nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, into a full-fledged arts organization that oversees a community garden, Black Cinema House, a mixed-income housing collaborative, performance venues, artist studios, arts education programs for neighbors of all ages, and more. The Arts Bank is the most ambitious, however: The city sold the 17,000-square-foot neoclassical bank, which has sat vacant for more than 30 years, to Gates for $1, who in turn raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance its refurbishment. Gates describes the Arts Bank as “a new kind of cultural amenity, a new kind of institution—a hybrid gallery, media archive, and library and community center.”

Gates is a new kind of hybrid professional himself—an artist, trained as a planner, as inspiring as a preacher, an accidental developer, property manager, and arts administrator—who in restoring pieces of architecture has restored whole neighborhoods. Acknowledging Chicago’s proud architecture tradition, he also has highlighted the city’s “history of segregation, of redlining and housing covenants that work against the poor, systems that leave people out so that they never get to experience the beauty of architecture.” His point—that architecture’s “highs” also have “lows,” and vice-versa—offers a way to appreciate this biennial.

Sou Fujimoto's Architecture is Everywhere
Bruce Damonte Sou Fujimoto's Architecture is Everywhere

“Architecture is first found and then made,” according to Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, who illustrates his belief with an installation called Architecture is Everywhere, of everyday items, like staples, ping pong balls, bath puffs, and microchips, set on small pedestals with miniscule plastic humans. It’s one of the show’s most captivating installations. It opens different ways of looking at mundane things, celebrating serendipity in the everyday—and the minisculptures are striking primarily due to the relationships between the objects and the figures.

As South African architect Mokena Makeka said during his 15-second manifesto at the biennial’s press conference, “Architects must be leaders. We must find relationships between design, politics, and power.” “The State of the Art of Architecture” has essentially built an entirely new network of relationships and ideas which, one hopes, will gain more power as this generation grows.

Correction: Two lakefront kiosks were built for the biennial, not one as previously stated. Four area schools contributed designs. In addition to Ultramoderne's winning kiosk, the University of Illinois at Chicago contribution by Paul Andersen of Denver-based Indie Architecture and Paul Preissner of Chicago-based Paul Preissner Architects was also erected at full scale.