1st Chicago Architecture Biennial


Impressive exhibitions, like abhorrent oil spills, can really stick: The impact is permanent. Still, I wasn’t the only one surprised to see the budding Chicago Architecture Biennial get in bed with Big Oil the first time around. Perhaps there was some kind of misunderstanding.

“What the heck is an architecture biennale?” asked the president of BP America, John Mingé, at last Thursday’s press conference for “The State of the Art of Architecture,” on view at the Chicago Cultural Center and other sympathetic institutions through January 3. He was recalling his reaction when organizers approached the beleaguered company about a sponsorship a few years back—before it paid record environmental fines for letting obscene amounts of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico for eighty-seven days in 2010. “But we actually looked into it. We said, ‘What a fantastic thing to do in this city.’ ”

Chicago, elevation 595 feet, certainly stands a better chance against creeping sea levels than Venice. And Chicago—home of the first modern high-rises, world’s fairs, Frank Lloyd Wright, and whatnot—makes architectural heritage a central part of its identity as no other major American city does. Surprised the city wasn’t in the biennial game, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hatched one as part of his 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan, a policy framework dense with phrases like “cultural assets,” “innovation,” and “global destination.” As the mayor, braggart, said: “If it’s my vision, I want to thank you all for realizing it.” We applauded him telling us to applaud ourselves.

But, really, what the heck is an architecture biennale? With over one hundred participants from more than thirty countries—architects, mostly midcareer, plus artists like Tomás Saraceno and Pedro Reyes—the inaugural exhibition played the long game. It was, organizers took pains to note, the largest exhibition ever of its kind in North America. The artistic directors, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, thought it better to be open, to avoid the all-time-high didacticism of Rem Koolhaas’s epic one-person group show in Venice last year. “We didn’t pick architects to illustrate our themes,” explained Herda while touring press around the principal exhibition site, a block-long, turn-of-the-twentieth-century building facing Millennium Park. The smarts and seriousness I’ve seen Grima, a peripatetic curator and writer, and Herda, head of the Chicago grant-making organization Graham Foundation, reveal elsewhere did not come through as much as some of us would have liked. The catchall title and soft curatorial hand perpetuated a degree of consensus not typical of these types of affairs: The show lacked focus. When I asked Herda whether the director would change with each iteration, she said that remained to be determined, but she expressed excitement for less conventional models, specifically Sally Tallant’s idea of a continuous Liverpool Biennial.

This much was certain: A biennial is not a biennial without Hans Ulrich Obrist. HUO was flown in to moderate “What is Urgent? 99 Telegraphic Manifestos on the State of the Art of Architecture,” an afternoon event that subjected most of the biennial participants to a torturous two-hour experiment in technodeterminism. One by one they mounted the stage, faced a camera, and tried as hard as possible to respond to the titular question within fifteen seconds (the maximum permitted length of video clips on Instagram). The long-winded were castigated, forced to do it over. Andreas Angelidakis admitted his work wasn’t very urgent, but he managed in a quarter-minute to sound pretty sage: Instead of making refugee housing, architects should design legislation that permits refugees to inhabit the glut of vacant buildings in his hometown of Athens. I fidgeted near the door for twenty minutes, then left, finding a few invitees playing hooky. “I don’t know what this word ‘urgent’ means,” said an outspoken Belgian in flawless English.

Absent too was Turner Prize nominee Assemble—both work and members. The DIY architecture collaborative—the first of that disciplinary orientation ever to be considered for the eminent art award—was busy installing its exhibition in Glasgow, letting the gallery space assigned to it in Chicago accumulate with other participants’ tools and castoffs. It was just one of a number of signs of an awkward dynamic between art and architecture. Art—whatever that is—seemed to act the suture here, called upon to mend the gap between architecture as such and the exhibition of architecture.

In truly desperate moments, middling digital renderings were ink-jetted on stretched FedEx Office canvas. “Artist and architect” Didier Faustino’s BUILTHEFIGHT—a ring of tangled steel tubes and pretty plywood supporting hollow declaratives (ProtestResistOccupy) scrawled in Tracey Emin–esque neon—reeked of antiseptic art-fair trade well past its sell-by date. Elsewhere, on a long table the width of a marble foyer, an agglomeration of cut-up printouts related to development in the Indo-Pacific region were affixed to wooden sticks à la Leaves of Grass, artist Geoffrey Farmer’s Documenta 13 diorama. Was it a copy? I asked its artificer, Urtzi Grau, one half of Fake Industries Architectural Agonism. “I’m happy someone got it,” he replied.

Two biennial partners, in different ways and on opposite ends of the city, did the art-architecture thing better. And they showed that traffic between these arts moves in both directions. On Thursday night, Barbara Kasten opened her retrospective at the Graham Foundation’s Gold Coast mansion, her fluorescent photos of mirrored constructs and Troll Doll–hued buildings more ecstatic than ever within the Prairie-style chambers. On Friday morning, press took a junket to the South Shore to see Stony Island Arts Bank, a financial institution converted into an art center, archive, and music venue by Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. Its official opening, the following day, was timed to coincide with the biennial, but Gates refused the veneer of good mood. “As much as I’m excited about the history of Chicago architecture,” began the artist-entrepreneur, rattling off the superlatives the biennial rides the coattails of, “we also have a major history of racism and segregation, a history of redlining and housing policies that work against the poor, against black and brown people.”

Getting at both sides is probably Gates’s greatest talent—and for his detractors the biggest problem. Back in the Loop that evening for the formal vernissage, I thought about how well architects know this mess of global finance, urban development, and community advocacy Gates is mixed up in, and yet how rarely they negotiate it with as much justice, poetics, and self-reflection.

Late night, lots of us were back down on the South Side, where we were promised a party but got something more like an alumni meetup, cordial and restrained. Lesson learned: The art of architecture—in this case the glorious Mies van der Rohe–designed Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology—isn’t much without life, or attitude.