2nd Chicago Architecture Biennial


The week before last, fifty miles east of Downtown Chicago, on the bank of the Fox River in Kendall County, where Trump beat Clinton by a hair, a young woman in a neon-green getup and white volleyball kneepads stood on the deck of the Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and made a small request. “Welcome. Please take off your shoes or put shoe covers on.”

We’d stepped, a gaggle of globalists, into a rehearsal for Modern Living, a new performance by artists Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly commissioned for “Make New History,” the second Chicago Architecture Biennial, directed by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee and timed to coincide with the Expo Chicago art fair. Modern Living is the third in an ongoing series of works sited at canonical modernist residences—after the Schindler House in California and the Glass House in Connecticut—exploring how queer intimacy is produced outside of dominant ideas of family. For the next hour we moved as we pleased, my own attention tacking, bicuriously, between two dancers—a WO (Julia Eichten) and a MAN (Zack Winokur).

I stretched booties over my soles. I ambled inside. “Rub the belly button. Expose the clavicle. Twist the hips,” intoned WO. When I returned to the deck, MAN had shed his pants and shirt and kneepads. Now he was upright, butt-naked, Hanes around his ankles and hands above his head, posing as Alba, the Georg Kolbe bronze figure in the reflecting pool of the Barcelona Pavilion. There was shattered glass (prerecorded) and shrieks (live), followed by a séance at the dining table with incantations about tenuous client-architect relations. Then, to conclude, the two rendezvoused at the doorway, one on each side of the threshold. They leaned in face-to-face but remained separated by inches, repelled like opposed magnets. It was a fitting end to the performance and, as I would discover, an appropriate start to this biennial, which strained to keep reality at bay.

On Thursday morning, fifty miles west of the Farnsworth House, at the Chicago Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue, Mayor Rahm Emanuel probably stood on a riser and said, “Welcome.” I say probably because that event was for local media and I—member of the culture press—was invited to an earlier, Rahmless “press breakfast” where scones and sarcasm were served. “Imagine inviting 140 architects into your home and saying, ‘Do something,’ ” said Mark Kelly, Chicago’s culture commissioner. Imagine!

Fortunately, not all the biennial’s participants are architects (there are artists and even fashion designers among them) and Johnston and Lee are a capable pair of designers with significant pedigree (a renovation of the MCA Chicago just wrapped up, and their new building for the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston will open next year). In terms of curation, this year’s biennial is sharper and more refined than the inaugural edition. Offsite projects and affiliated programs were pared back and better edited. The Garfield Park Conservatory—a sprawling hothouse and civic wonder—hosted an installation by François Perrin and an elegiac performance by Ana Prvački, who collaborated with architects SO-IL on whimsical full-body air filters for the brass quartet. The Graham Foundation presented an exhibition by David Hartt exploring Moshe Safdie’s unfinished Habitat Puerto Rico project from 1968.

What was more apparent to me this year were the peculiarities and hierarchies of the main venue (a onetime library). Displays in fluorescent-lit corridors and dim ground-floor galleries pale in comparison to those in elegant former reading rooms. The show’s visual and philosophical tour de force, Vertical City, is reserved for the finest space, Yates Hall. For this, Johnston and Lee invited fifteen architects to revisit the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922, a watershed event that has inspired polemical copycats over the years, most famously the zeitgeist-defining exhibition of postmodern “late entries” organized in Chicago in 1980. The 2017 towers—sixteen-foot-tall scale models—were presented alongside the 1922 proposals of Adolf Loos(an oversize Doric column) and Ludwig Hilberseimer (an orthogonal slab-and-column structure), thereby framing the exercise, I think, as a blurring of two iconographic regimes once seen as binaries. The term “scale models” is misleading, however. Better to treat them as totemic—one-to-one depictions of process and sensibility rather than representations of inhabitable buildings. What you see is what you get, and I’m certain you’ll be seeing them on Instagram for the next four months.

A symposium organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Design on Thursday afternoon cemented Vertical City’s importance, with six of the eight architect-panelists participating in the tower pageant. GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi had a hunch that practitioners today treated history differently than in 1980, and he was proved correct. While postmodernists preferred quotation and pastiche, the panelists spoke of “fusing,” “merging,” and “copying” (à la Nicolas Bourriaud’s “Postproduction” or Lawrence Lessig’s Remix Culture). Emanuel Christ described “history as the toolbox,” but if you remixed the metaphor, swapping out “toolbox” for “database,” his notion of “searching for solutions” would still obtain. In practice, the biennial’s title isn’t an imperative, a fiery call to action, but a droll command: Siri, make new history. Instead of an open commons with a wide range of producers, its operating procedures are more akin to contemporary platform-capitalism, under which a few rarefied institutions—in this case, the Modern Movement, the West, the Ivy League—determine the rules.

Small wonder then that opinions divided along old borders. Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao contended that “history occurs through people.” Burkina Faso–born, Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré took a long look at the starched audience and, with palpable melancholy, remarked, “Architecture is far, far, far away from people.” This humanist impulse extended to the functional and social concerns of their respective towers—awkward prerogatives considering the unspoken agenda of the biennial, which was more didactic than its curators let on. History is a synonym for a brand of formalism advanced by a loose network of architects, most of them San Rocco–reading Europeans in their forties, who are represented in the exhibition by OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, 6a, Christ & Gantenbein, Kuehn Malvezzi, PRODUCTORA, Sam Jacob, Go Hasegawa, Christian Kerez , and Pezo von Ellrichshausen, among others. (Were Johnston and Lee not the gatekeepers, they’d be included.) A talented bunch of designers, they reject the razzle-dazzle of the digital and the programmatic preoccupations of Rem Koolhaas, and their calling card is an austere yet casual aesthetic of simple geometries and bold platonic shapes. The Loos and Hilberseimer of Vertical City belongs to this coteries’ canon, and outsiders became reluctant interlopers.

“Why does architecture have to be an enemy of modernism?” asked Go Hasegawa, rhetorically, during a Friday afternoon conversation with Kersten Geers, part of a series of talks organized by Columbia University GSAPP. Hasegawa was speaking of his education in Japan, but he then generalized. “We, as a generation, are free from this trauma. Maybe we can be more honest.”

If I may be forthcoming, or Freudian, I’d contend this pluralism is less a triumph over intergenerational conflict or patricide than a survival tactic—a form of affect-management at a moment of overwhelming crisis. In the face of Silicon Valley futurism and a toxic political discourse (as I write: “Trump Tweets Doctored GIF of His Golf Ball Hitting Hillary Clinton”), the invocation of history is regarded as a reassertion of liberal democratic values—a soothing theme that all of us can, and must, get behind. Yet just as obnoxious tweets of politicians are not politics, historical objects and styles and persons are not history. Politics and history are processes, and the biennial, by isolating form-making from the production and occupation of space, precludes an active role for architecture.

“What do you think?” I was asked countless times during the opening, in corners of galleries and backseats of cars. There’s a certain way of asking that question—wherein sincere curiosity is shadowed by gut-level uneasiness—that says more than any answer. The tone was the answer. As with any big thematic exhibition, individual participants offered compelling counternarratives to the theme (for instance, Gerard & Kelly’s Modern Living and DOGMA’s Rooms, a survey of famous domestic spaces from antiquity to the present, examined how social formations are entangled with the activity of living). But the larger curatorial frame, an adventure in disengagement, failed to convince me why this biennial should matter. Architecture felt small, isolated, gutless, and inconsequential. Architecture felt squandered. There it was, inches from the city and a world apart.