3rd Chicago Architecture Biennial


One of the first things you see when entering the Chicago Architecture Biennial, from either entrance, is a gray land acknowledgement sign with crisp white type: “Chicago is part of the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations. Many other tribes—such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Sac, and Fox—also called this area home. . .” Such recognitions have become more visible in recent years, but this text, prepared by the American Indian Center of Chicago, functions differently within its context than on, say, the bottom of an institutional website or in the opening remarks of an academic event. The entire biennial proceeds from and revolves around its abiding message—at the north entrance, you have to walk behind the land acknowledgement to read the exhibition’s introductory wall text.

Titled “…and other such stories,” the biennial emphatically, if quietly, rejects the civic boosterism and avant-garde posturing of past editions. Both “The State of the Art of Architecture” (2015) and “Make New History” (2017) were heavy on homage and very on-script. Each reinforced, clearly and with little complication, a triumphant tourist board narrative: Chicago is the greatest city for architecture in America. This year’s artistic director, Yesomi Umolu, alongside curators Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares, chips away at some of Chicago’s, and architecture’s, foundational myths, starting with the displacement of Indigenous communities by settler colonialism. One of the biennial’s satellite venues is Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville, among the nearly fifty educational facilities in communities of color closed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose legacy is defined by this and other austerity measures, plus gun deaths and police brutality (the biennial was spawned by his administration, with the help of a cultural consultancy). The most-discussed work in the exhibition, The Killing of Harith Augustus, 2019, is an investigation by Forensic Architecture and Invisible Institute into the 2018 police killing of a local barber.

Chicago, in the curators’ telling, is being continuously made and unmade along a horizon that extends far beyond the modern high-rise. “Sitting at the crossroads of the Great Plains and the Great Lakes,” their statement begins, “Chicago’s urbanism is inextricable from the flows of people, goods, and capital—and the concurrent exploitation of bodies, labor, and nature—that have contributed to its making.” Without the description of physical geography, this statement might apply to almost any city. Which is, of course, the point.

The displays make this argument more suggestively. A run of three galleries—the so-called Chicago Rooms in the Chicago Cultural Center, the biennial’s main venue—is bracketed by two large-scale works that fill their respective walls. At one end, Maria Gaspar’s Unblinking Eyes, Watching, 2019, a high-res photograph of the concrete perimeter wall of the nearby Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the United States. At the other, Do Ho Suh’s Robin Hood Gardens, Woolmore Street, London E14 0HG, 2018/19, a hypnotizing moving image work that seamlessly combines time-lapse photography, drone footage, 3-D scanning, and photogrammetry into an impossible interior portrait of the Alison and Peter Smithson–designed housing estate on the eve of its demolition in 2017. Between them is Theaster Gates’s Landed: Gates et al., 2019, a reinterpretation of Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971. The artist displays documentation—titles, plat maps, and other legal paraphernalia—related to his property acquisitions in Chicago’s Grand Crossing, a predominantly black neighborhood where Gates has directed profits from his artmaking. Gates’s installation shares a space with Vincent Meessen’s SIISIS, 2016, which proposes, based the Situationists’ idea for a labyrinth city on a deserted island, an experimental metropolis for and by asylum seekers from the African-Eurasian supercontinent.

Careful sequences like these, and a reduced number of contributors, create a far more satisfying, and intellectually rigorous, experience than past editions. For once, the curators have made use of gaps, pauses, silences, decompression. Corridors function, for the most part, as corridors, not compromised galleries. No clear Instagram moment sticks out, either—nothing like Sou Fujimoto’s found object maquettes from 2015, or the alternative Tribune towers from the biennial’s last iteration.

Another noticeable scarcity: architects. This time around they are outnumbered by artists and less determinant spatial practitioners, which aroused palpable anxiety among some students and professionals attending the opening. At a Q and A with the curators, an audience member asked if they might have prepared the same exhibition for an art biennial—a good question undermined by an accusatory delivery. Considering how much architecture—by virtue of its historical constitution and ongoing entanglement with power—has neglected, it comes as no surprise that architects are incapable of telling the whole story. There are other ways of caring for and configuring land, other constellations of agents through which spatial needs and desires can be fulfilled (for one, the biennial leadership could start by dumping its founding sponsor, British Petroleum). Some of the most fascinating contributions to the exhibition are from collectives active in securing the right to housing, like Usina-CTAH in São Paulo and the international consultancy network Urban Front, which is working with activists to develop affordable housing on Barcelona’s trade fair complex. Sweet Water Foundation, a community land trust, is doing similar work in Chicago’s South Side. Such practices are often characterized as bottom-up, but in the presentations here, their work appears more lateral than vertical.

The distribution of contributors is meaningful, but the dearth is less some strident antidisciplinary polemic or prioritization of artists above designers than the inevitable result of the epistemological shift that undergirds the biennial. If you have as a priority—as this exhibition does—acknowledging indigenous cosmologies, challenging anthropogenic dominance, and highlighting struggles against dispossession and displacement, you’re unlikely to find many representatives within a Renaissance invention whose calling card remains, by and large, rationalism.

Menil Drawing Institute


Fantasy collided gently with reality in Houston’s leafy Montrose neighborhood earlier this month. The Menil Collection is a place I have studied closely from afar but never seen in the flesh, and I was arriving with a head full of fragments: the famous centerpiece by Renzo Piano, with its cheap pine floorboards and proprietary ceiling louvers; the rows of prewar bungalows painted a uniform gray; the blocks of evergreens; the porches; the porticos; the filtered daylight. The museum of my mind wasn’t too far off, though, in part because some recent developments make the actual place more like I imagined. Plucking out an oversize apartment complex and stitching in new streets (per a new master plan), the institution has been distilling its thirty-acre campus into a purer version of itself—a carefully contrived everyday interspersed with the kind of spaces for art that architects dream about making but the Menil actually realizes. Johnston Marklee, the Los Angeles firm of architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, got the chance. The completion of the Menil Drawing Institute, the freestanding facility for the study, storage, preservation, and display of works on paper that they designed, was an occasion to visit.

The MDI is a short walk from the main building: one block south, past Menil Park and the Cy Twombly Gallery, under a marvelously scruffy live oak. Richmond Hall, an old grocery that hosts a Dan Flavin installation, sits two blocks south, but the Johnston Marklee building gives reason to pause. Its long, low, single-story volume, a seemingly simple white box with its corners cut out, proves the most surprisingly playful and visually arresting work of architecture on campus. Arriving from the main building, your view is of its short side, one half of which projects well beyond the other. This sixty-foot-square entrance courtyard, mirrored on the east end of the building, introduces the formal logic from which the rest of the architecture proceeds. The roofline, a consistent sixteen-feet high along the outside perimeter, folds down toward the interior to create four covered walkways around a thirty-six-foot square central garden planted with trees and open to the sky. The sloped roof geometry extends along the southern edge of the building—another covered exterior walkway that links both entrance courtyards—and into the so-called living room, an interior spine that serves, on one side, the publicly accessible exhibition gallery, and on the other, private functions: administrative offices, study rooms, subterranean storage, a conservation lab, and a third courtyard dubbed the “scholars’ cloister.”

Ever since Johnston Marklee’s design was unveiled in 2014 following an invited competition, press has latched onto the pitched profile, approving of how it seems to nod to the nearby domestic architecture. The roof is certainly the defining architectural feature of the completed building—unifying the interior and exterior, public and private spaces—but any link to the neighbors, metaphorical or real, is fortunately weak. The collective efforts of its detailing—the cut-out corners; the contrast between the flat, white thin-plate steel outer facade and the rough, gray cedar-planked inner facade—push the building toward cool abstraction and away from symbolic reference. Johnston Marklee buildings, in general, do not wink. Their deliberate formal operations, grounded in architectural geometry and skillfully translated into material construction, feature and make strange traditional building elements—arches, vaults, apertures, and other devices for framing space and light. Perhaps this is what attracted the museum to the architects, who are best known for their residential work. Light has always had a higher calling at the Menil (its founders, Dominique and John de Menil, were Catholic, in addition to wealthy), and Piano set the bar, well, high: The sun-filtering louvers in the main building, developed together with engineer Peter Rice, breathed new life into the modern ceiling, architecture’s sorriest surface.

Johnston Marklee had a different challenge. The medium for which the building was made is notoriously sensitive to light. Which means: no top-lights allowed. The architects did, midway through the design process, manage to smuggle in two narrow, floor-to-ceiling slots of glass on each end wall of the dim gallery (I suspect more for visitors’ sanity than light admittance). But even these were covered over for the inaugural exhibition, a fine show of Jasper John drawings entitled “The Condition of Being Here.” The title, taken from one of John’s sketchbooks, could be an institutional motto. Photography is not permitted in any of its galleries, some haughty fine print explains, “in order to preserve the contemplative atmosphere and facilitate intimate encounters with works of art.” Fine. But in the main building and Twombly gallery, the architecture facilitates and figures in such intimate encounters with works of art. Most dramatic of all is how, in the porous main building, glass-enclosed interior gardens afford multilayered views of artworks, tropical plants, reflections, and bodies. It’s stunning. In the drawing institute, by contrast, the relationship between the architecture as a whole and the gallery in particular is frayed. It’s jarring. Entering the exhibition space, a meticulous shell of sheetrock strewn with spotlights, I felt like I had crossed a sanitary line, one that divided invention and delight from prescriptive best-practices.

Then I took a step back and remembered I was in an institute, with all the empiricism and serious quasi-scientific rigor that the self-conscious term implies. This fact, not the photosensitivity of paper, is what distinguishes the building from the others on the Menil campus. The exhibition of artworks is simply not the priority of the MDI. This is not a criticism, just a statistic: The gallery accounts for just under ten percent of the building’s total thirty-thousand square feet. Scholars will get the most out of it, and I envy their spaces—their cloister, study room, collection access, and staff support. The rest of us have the entrance courtyards and living room, terrific areas that alone are a reason to visit. Cliché as it sounds, the transitional is the destination here.

One more way to look at this project is biographically. The MDI is the museum’s first building for art not conceived during Dominique de Menil’s lifetime (she died in 1997, aged 89). Her smart, hands-on patronage, which extended to active participation in the architectural design process, is one reason why the idea of a perfect client persists even as the myth of the genius architect is thoroughly eroded. Great buildings require great clients, consensus still goes. If her vision still informs the institution, it is filtered through deadening bureaucratic instruments: executive leadership and the board of trustees. The Menil remains an exceptional institution, for sure, but it is necessarily more like other art museums today than in prior eras, and the MDI is a reflection of this. The drawing institute has the burden of cleaning up after past commissions (Piano’s light spills too freely), but overall it proceeds with too much caution. The de Menils, under the influence of French Dominican priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier, aspired to make spaces in which poetry would prevail over pedagogy. Yet with the drawing institute, the Menil has provided a lesson: In hewing to too strict an idea of verse, it left some of the talent of its architects on the table.

"Sketch Pad," Artforum.com, November 2018

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.

Norman Foster Foundation


Like many married men, Norman Foster takes enormous pride in his garage. His is brand new, an immaculate structure made of German glass and polished Japanese mirror, built behind a petite 1902 palace in Madrid that has been refurbished to house the Norman Foster Foundation, an archive and research center inaugurated on June 1, the illustrious British architect’s eighty-second birthday. The day before, itching to show the place off, Foster had some friends over.

“Jony!” said Norman, greeting Jonathan Ive, the T-shirt wearing chief creative officer of Apple. The two tanned designers brought it in for a hug. Ive had just arrived, presumably from Apple’s new Foster + Partners–designed donut-shaped headquarters in California. In short order, the garage door, a two-and-a-half-ton slab of glass supported by one wheel, was pivoted open by four hired hands, sweeping past Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, depicting a Futurist man rushing in the direction of Le Corbusier’s original 1926 Voisin Lumineuse coach, which Foster acquired and had impeccably restored. The “Pavilion of Inspirations,” as it is referred to in press material, is a storehouse for memorabilia and miscellaneous Guy Stuff that a dad, if he is wise, knows not to bring into the house. In the architect’s case, a large Andreas Gursky photograph of the Engadin Skimarathon (Foster participates annually) and a large Robert Longo drawing of Russian fighter jets (Foster flies planes, the civilian type). Contained within a big vitrine were, among other mementos, miniature tensegrity structures and Dymaxion cars; Zeppelin models and Lionel model trains; an Olivetti typewriter; and, perhaps to tickle Ive, a first-generation iPhone.

Come evening, the driveway played host to a cocktail reception. Ivorypress publisher Elena Ochoa Foster, the architect’s glamorous Spanish spouse, was parked between the front gate and the palace porch, wearing a gold Claude Lalanne collarette and oversize, squared glasses. She welcomed invitees with kisses and inimitable facial expressions. Foster had told me that the choice to locate the foundation in Madrid was not determined, as many assume, by his wife’s nationality. But witnessing her cool, larger-than-life personality at the party—before wedding Foster, in 1996, she made a name for herself as a professor of psychopathology and as the host of a TV show called Let’s Talk About Sex—it is hard to imagine it located anywhere else (let alone Brooklyn, which was under consideration along with Manhattan, Berlin, and London).

Lord Foster, less comfortable with freeform conversation—he fidgeted with his white Apple Watch as we spoke—prefers to ground discussion in things. Fortunately, there were plenty of things inside the palace. A selection of Foster’s models and sketches were displayed in nine rooms across two floors, which the architect roamed, hobnobbing with esteemed guests including James Costos, the former United States ambassador to Spain, and his partner, Michael S. Smith, the Obamas’ White House decorator, as well as billionaire captains of industry Alberto Cortina and Plácido Arango, companion of artist Cristina Iglesias, whose carbon-fiber canopy was suspended over the driveway. The usual accusation that architects are hopelessly complicit with power can’t be leveled against Foster: He is not some naive pawn of the powerful global elite but rather one of its members, with an estimated fortune of $220 million, according to last year’s Sunday Times Rich List. As for me, a pitiful, unpedigreed freelancer, I was underdressed and underage. With a few exceptions—Ochoa and Foster’s two teenage children, and middle-aged old money like Pia Getty—the attendees were up there in years. Septuagenarian Bianca Jagger, dressed in a beige full-length coat and silver platforms, seemed spritely, though, compared to the reclining bronze by Henry Moore next to her.

By 8:30 the next morning, most of these eminences, plus legions of students, had packed the seventeen-hundred-seat Teatro Real. The foundation’s director, María Nicanor, who arrived from London’s Victoria and Albert in January, kicked things off. Manuela Carmena, Madrid’s left-wing mayor, implored Foster in her welcome speech to help “reduce inequality in our city.” But as the day went on, this plea for equality proved one of the few things the guru-participants—drawn from art, architecture, urbanism, academia, and the tech industry—could not care to imagine. Titled “The Future Is Now,” the conference sought to demonstrate the foundation’s holistic, interdisciplinary approach to urgent global issues. The artists—except for Cornelia Parker, who kept it refreshingly kooky—spoke the studied managementese of consultants, discussing the “culture sector” (Olafur Eliasson) and its “very large return on investment” (Maya Lin). “First become a billionaire, then become a mayor,” advised Michael Bloomberg, who, after taking jabs at Trump, millennials, and other lowlifes, offered glowing endorsements of Elon Musk and similar visionaries. “You are one of them,” he said, gesturing to Foster. “Jeff Bezos is another one.”

Listening to Bloomberg and others talk, you started to feel that any apprehension about their future could not possibly be born of legitimate political or ideological difference. Instead, it’s some sort of character flaw—an indication of constitutional weakness. It took the conservative Ivy League historian and TV pundit Niall Ferguson, part of the panel on technology, to shatter the liberal consensus. And that’s when things got bizarre. (Was I really agreeing with Henry Kissinger’s authorized biographer?) After sitting through a keynote by architect Matthias Kohler on robotic construction, a conversation between Financial Times managing editor Gillian Tett and a tight-lipped Jony Ive (“The change right now is . . . intoxicating”), and then a long-winded fried-eggs-versus-omelets analogy by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, Ferguson pounced. “There’s other things to do with eggs,” he said, recalling how, the night before, Tesla’s chauffeuring conference participants were targeted by angry huevos-wielding cab drivers protesting Uber. The self-appointed “voice of doom,” Ferguson accused the people who work in technology of being historically ignorant and warned of an impending backlash against their innovations by labor. “The rotten eggs have only just begun to fly!” Negroponte, giddy techno-optimist, dug in: “There is no question that twenty years from now, people will learn French by swallowing a pill.”

What goes in must come out, and Foster, who in his opening keynote championed the great life-giving potential of sewage for urban agriculture, returned to fecal matters. “I was reminded that really there is a history of technology responding to crises,” he said in his closing remarks, explaining how the Great Stink of London (1858) was overcome by the construction of a new sewer system, and the Great Manure Crisis (1894) by the eventual transition from horses to automobiles. Will high-rise farms fertilized by human waste satiate growing urban populations and stave off ecological collapse? If there’s one thing optimists and pessimists can both agree on, it’s that the future is shit.



The twin imperatives steering the flurry of recent museum transformations resemble a yoga technique: expand and relax. It has been a boom time for some while now, but growth tells only part of the story and increasingly, a smaller one. In their drive for more space and higher attendance figures, large art museums in America are being refashioned to strike a casual demeanor and achieve an integrated relationship to their urban surroundings. These are renovations of institutional philosophies as much as buildings.

The Whitney, relieved of its weighty uptown building—which the Met is leasing while replacing its own late-1980s modern wing—is diverting pedestrians from the High Line into its new downtown home, offering them art and even more elevated views from outdoor terraces. And MoMA is busy scrubbing hauteur off its chilly Yoshio Taniguchi–designed expansion, hiring Diller Scofidio + Renfro to expand galleries, improve circulation, and, in an effort to make more of the ground floor publically accessible, add unticketed exhibition space to a ballooning lobby.

As museums loosen up, they’re becoming more flexible about designers’ credentials. I would wager that Diller Scofidio + Renfro earned the MoMA job less on the merits of their museum work than on their successful revamps of the High Line and Lincoln Center—two New York has-beens made over as interactive open-air attractions. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened a $305-million expansion last month, commissioned architects Snøhetta in large part because of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Rising out of the Oslo harbor, the landform-like structure buries the performance functions under an inclined public plaza that, upon completion in 2008, burnished the firm’s reputation for making human-centric and photogenic places. Snøhetta did not have much experience designing spaces for art, but SFMOMA made other demands. “We really want the museum to be much more outward-looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in,” the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, told the New York Times in 2011, when plans were unveiled for a ten-story addition to its South of Market building, a sober brick-veneer edifice with a mouse-hole entrance designed by the Swiss postmodernist Mario Botta and completed in 1995. “We want it to be an embracing, luminous space where you can get good coffee, a place where people come and meet their friends.”

The existing five-story stepped building posed space problems. In 2009, attendance and collection already swelling, the museum secured a century-long loan of postwar blue chips from Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher (the Fisher collection now constitutes the bulk of the work on view). Botta’s imperious tone, too, was at odds with the institution’s softer message. If barely a decade or two ago the astringent rationalism of Botta (and, in a different way, Taniguchi) was to modern art museums the keeper of a high-middlebrow flame, the white-hot contemporary art market and the hordes of tourists flooding gentrified cities have them going casual, an effect that is especially pronounced in San Francisco, where the tech industry is reshaping the city around a mixture of innovation and inequality, and drawing international attention.

Snøhetta fits in comfortably here. More than a traditional architecture practice, the Oslo- and New York–based multinational resembles IDEO, the stalwart design and innovation consultant. In addition to architecture, it creates landscapes, interiors, brand design, and, soon, new banknotes for Norway. Part of Snøhetta’s success as a company lies in how well it mines the Scandinavia-meets–Silicon Valley ethos that undergirds large swathes of our present culture (a mostly affluent, white, American and European culture, granted). In its most caricatured instances, this is a culture of city dwellers who yearn for the outdoors; “disruptors” who work from Eames chairs and communal desks; digital craftspeople who spin bespoke wares. This is a culture that aspires to a lifestyle of purity and simplicity in every consumer choice, yet whose material expressions can be quite baroque (urban farms, rough-hewn farm tables in minimalist apartments).

On its website, Snøhetta describes its working methodology as the “simultaneous exploration of traditional handicraft and cutting edge digital technology.” On the facade of the SFMOMA addition, there is a similar kind of statement. If the view from the front of Botta’s brick structure is simply a cream-colored slab shaved off at slight angles along the top and side, the volume’s obverse is a bulbous form clad in over seven hundred unique fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels inspired, we are told, by the fog and waters of the San Francisco Bay. The ripples may have been generated by algorithms and carved by robots, but Snøhetta embedded the panels with a natural touch: silicate crystals from nearby Monterey Bay. The panels were fabricated by Kreysler & Associates, a Bay Area firm that grew out of the boat industry and has made numerous large-scale public sculptures for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (Pop art confections such as twenty-foot ice-cream cones and banana peels). Here Snøhetta has selected a more serious subject, but earnestness can inspire a kind of kitsch. Whereas the Oslo opera conflates an architectural element (sloped roof) and natural formation (glacier) to produce a new relationship between the public and the landscape, the facade arrests the ephemeral coastal atmosphere in a frothy simulacra the pallor of steamed almond milk. As an image, however, it has currency—a cunning triangulation of the local terroir (coastal environment, technology, and capital) that is globally recognizable.

If SFMOMA has a recent precedent it is less Guggenheim Bilbao than Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which did not inspire the growth of museum lobbies but dissolved them altogether: You step off the street and directly into a gallery. Snøhetta’s extension stretches a full city block from Minna Street to Howard Street, where there are two new entrances and a double-height street-level gallery with floor-to-ceiling glass—literally the clearest expression of the museum’s refashioned identity. Here, visitors are greeted by Richard Serra’s Sequence, 2006, a sculpture resting in an expanded field of pricey concessions and 45,000 square feet of unticketed gallery space. This space, which starts at Sequence, extends up amphitheater steps to a second-floor level containing a satellite museum store, education space, and a large Sol LeWitt wall drawing; then it turns ninety degrees (on axis with the original Third Street entrance) and continues, following a flight of stairs, into Botta’s atrium, a tall, oculus-topped square ringed by a museum store, restaurant, and auditorium (by 2017, two enormous paintings by Julie Mehretu will flank the atrium). What is most generous about this free gallery space, though, is the way in which it effectively creates a new route through the city block, enabling new connections with Yerba Buena Gardens, a public park sited between the museum and the convention center.

Yet despite the effectiveness of this continuous passage on an urban scale, an odd dynamic emerges between the two buildings themselves. The natural light, bright white walls, and openness to the street of the new building have sapped energy from the existing one—particularly the atrium, which is no longer the heart of the museum, as it was designed to be. The strong centrality and unadulterated symmetry of the Botta building make it intolerant of change. Remove one part—such as the black-granite staircase that originally soared up the atrium toward the oculus—and the whole space gets off kilter. In its stead are cheery new maple steps connecting the first and second floors. They leave the atrium feeling even more solemn, reacting to Botta’s formal bombast without reckoning with it. And this is the paradox: The binary mantras that informed the redesign—old SFMOMA is a bunker; new SFMOMA is light filled and open—have been crystallized rather than overcome.

While Snøhetta’s relationship to the Botta building wavers between begrudging deference and bald indifference on the exterior and ground floor, it transitions to neutralization on the gallery levels. The existing galleries—well-proportioned enfilades around the atrium—have been maintained, beginning on the second floor (accessible from the new ticketing area) and then on levels three, four, and five, where they merge with the addition (new galleries continue on floors six and seven of the extension). Here, seamlessness is the strategy: The floor levels are contiguous, and Botta’s material palette, white sheetrock and blond-maple flooring, lines a record-breaking expanse of exhibition space. With a combined 146,000 square feet of galleries, SFMOMA has—for the moment—the most display area of any museum in the US devoted to modern and contemporary art (MoMA is set to add 50,000 square feet to its existing 125,000 ). Functionally, Snøhetta has managed an efficient plan—not an insignificant feat considering the museum expects 1.4 million annual visitors following the reopening.

In the 2011 Times article presenting the design, Dykers asked, “Is it a building filled with art with some people in it, or a building filled with people with some art in it? There needs to be enough social space to make people feel comfortable in what can be an austere environment, the white box.” The subtle oppositions—of comfort and austerity, social space and gallery space, people and art—reinforce the schisms presented to large contemporary art museums today. As ground floors of museums mutate into free entertainment, with galleries reserved as premium content—the former following the logic of hospitality management and the latter clinging to standardized models—it is more urgent than ever for architects to define the connections between these two realms. This interstitial zone might be the last place where architects can still gain a foothold, and where museums—operating within an ecology with art fairs and “museum-quality” gallery shows—can set themselves apart.

15th Venice Architecture Biennale


From now through the fall, visitors to Venice will likely catch a glimpse of archaeologist Maria Reiche perched high atop an aluminum ladder, peering downward at the Peruvian desert. The photograph, taken by writer Bruce Chatwin circa 1975, has been rolled out across the entire graphic identity of the fifteenth International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, titled “Reporting from the Front” and directed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. For Aravena, who expounds an up-by-your-bootstraps worldview, the image is a talisman: He admires Reiche’s resourcefulness, the modesty of her means.

Even his curatorship is an object-lesson in making-do. Solicited just ten months before the opening, Aravena, a dutiful citizen, stepped up to the challenge, undaunted by the long shadow of its previous curator, Rem Koolhaas. Aravena is everything that Koolhaas is not: suave, easygoing, anti-intellectual. Aravena is a doer, and he is not afraid to get other people’s hands dirty. Elemental, his Santiago-based “do tank,” is renowned for low-cost housing that trades on ideas of community empowerment and incremental self-construction. He has the ear of Chile’s political and business elite, and the bleeding hearts of American architecture critics. For his do-gooderness, he has been heavily medaled, receiving the Silver Lion for “promising young talent” at the 2008 biennial and, this past April, the Pritzker Prize.

“Instead of complaining and lamenting, just do something,” implored Aravena during last Wednesday’s press walkthrough of the central exhibition. There was lots of ingenuity and entrepreneurialism on display—creative responses to cruel circumstances—but the uglier side of self-sufficiency was never far away. As The Guardian reported, between that morning and the conclusion of the vernissage on Friday, more than seven hundred migrants were believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean, asylum seekers taking matters into their own hands in the absence of any governmental resolve (forgive my lamenting). Migration was one of many “battles” Aravena placed under the umbrella of “Reporting from the Front”—along with waste, crime, inequalities, natural disasters, segregation, and a handful of other urgent issues. Some in attendance wanted a more political show; others wished there was a stronger emphasis on architects. My expectations kept being thwarted. Aravena’s curatorial strategy is capable of odd contortions and sudden inversions, making twin sisters, as neoliberalism does, of the grassroots activist and the global starchitect. Bottom-up projects are spitting distance away from showpieces by top names—and Aravena’s fellow Pritzker laureates—like Richard Rogers, Tadao Ando, Kazuyo Sejima, and Peter Zumthor (who contributed a large-scale model of his design for LACMA).

On Thursday evening, crowds swelled the Peggy Guggenheim Collection garden to wish the American pavilion well. Curators Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León made remarks, then John Phillips, US ambassador to the Italian Republic, got on about the history of Detroit, “a powerhouse of industrial muscle” and the subject of this year’s pavilion. “And then Detroit became an arsenal of democracy,” boomed Phillips, as he moved into the World War II part of the celebration. Corks popped, and guests fetched prosecco to make the patriotism more palatable. “I need to leave,” muttered Pedro Gadanho, the former MoMA architecture curator who recently retreated to his native Portugal. I stayed, consuming enough hors d’oeuvres to tide me over until the British party, which offered dinner and dessert. With lentils still on my plate when caterers hauled out boards full of whipped cream and meringue as informe as Christian Kerez’s cavernous confection in the Swiss pavilion. Spoonfuls of white stuff were passed around, sugar to get us through the DJ’s hour-long a cappella set, then three more at the Bauer Hotel bar, where ÅYR, the four-architect art collective formerly known as Airbnb Pavilion, was hosting an afterparty.

ÅYR contributed two inflatable spherical pods fit for freelancers to the British pavilion. Its curators tackled the transformation of domestic space and homeownership models in light of new technologies. They and other participating youngsters embodied a spirit made plain by DJ Ashland Mines, aka Total Freedom, who slipped into Venice earlier in the week, performing late-night at the Bauer, after tenth-anniversary festivities for Felix Burrichter’s biannual magazine, PIN-UP. “I hate 5 star hotels,” wrote @TotalFreedom, tweeting like a true modernist. “I don’t need marble and brass accents in my room, I need good wifi and USB charging points.” The German pavilion, devoted to the country’s refugee crisis, offered both of the latter, plus fresh ayran and Haribo treats. The Serbian pavilion, nothing but a royal blue half-pipe outfitted with electrical outlets, gave drained bodies and low batteries a place to recharge.

On Friday afternoon I ran into Istanbul Biennial director Bige Örer and curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. They were enjoying the relative freedom of conversation at the architecture biennial compared to its art counterpart. Christov-Bakargiev told me she liked the Albanian pavilion, an iso-polyphonic sound installation addressing migration and, in her words, “rendering stupidity” (a compliment). I told her I liked Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s matte-green maze, a bunch of intersecting cylinders that rendered me stupid (a compliment), offering momentary escape even right there in the center of the biennial.

Leaving the Giardini, I came upon a loose cannon. It was Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher, boiling despite the comfortable daytime temperature. I’d heard he wanted to shut the biennial down. “Yeah, right away,” he confirmed. “Before the damage is done. You can record that.” I did, noting the irony of reacting to the insufficient representation of architects’ work—the result of an overemphasis on “topics” in his opinion—with complete and total censorship. Schumacher fulminations are more at home on Facebook feeds, but he was in Venice to open a Hadid retrospective at Palazzo Franchetti, a striking show organized in a hurry following the Dame’s sudden death two months ago.

Was Aravena’s militaristic exhibition title responsible for the spike in testosterone levels? It seemed like every fifteen minutes—at roundtables and book launches somewhere in the Giardini or Arsenale, or at a myriad other collateral events—a man was dissertating, not least on infrastructure, which the biennial convened a headlining event with an all-male panel (no exceptions!) to discuss. A lack of official invitations to exhibit inspired the most conspicuous shows of male ego. Koolhaas protégé Bjarke Ingels hosted a party on board a pirate ship (which I did not attend, but trolled on Instagram, where his stage-managed antics are documented, to the delight of his rabid followers). Meanwhile, on Friday night, Koolhaas protégé Fernando Romero secured the Bauer terrace—which, being the son-in-law of Carlos Slim, the world’s second-richest person, actually meant heavier-than-usual security. Aravena and Romero paraded in together, affecting nonchalance even as they scratched each other’s backs. They filtered through the crowd and a pop-up exhibition of Romero’s work, at ease among other guy’s guys like Koolhaas protégé Kunlé Adeyemi, this year’s Silver Lion winner.

Where did Maria Reiche, the modest lady on the ladder, go? I passed her wheat-pasted image at least ten times the next morning, walking to the Baltic pavilion, an off-site display that is first-rate. Later, on the way to catch a train, I saw the biennial’s biggest star floating along the Grand Canal, on advertisements affixed to vaporetti. I don’t know what she would have thought about her inclusion in this circus. But look closely at the picture and you’ll see that she couldn’t even be bothered to face the camera.

Guggenheim Helsinki Competition


Lists. It is hard to imagine architecture not getting its regular fix. The announcement of competition longlists, shortlists, and final lists pace the field’s collective conversation in a way that individual building projects or even group exhibitions usually do not. And if the playing field is not always leveled—too often, high-profile invited competitions read like Who’s Who lists—the site and the project size are at least common enough to make quick correlations and easily measure-up the contestants.

So this past June when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced that the two-stage design competition for a proposed museum on Helsinki’s South Harbor would be open to any qualified architect worldwide, they were ensuring a full year of tallying and intrigue. Entries would be due in September; submissions revealed in October; six entries selected by an eleven-member jury in December; a winner declared in June 2015.

As to which, or how many, architects would enter was anyone’s guess. Open competitions for major museum projects are extremely rare, and altogether unprecedented for the Guggenheim. The brand has a Midas touch when it comes to buildings, but the every one of its iconic art containers—in Venice, New York, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi—resulted from either a direct commission or an invited competition. All those designs also pre-date the 2008 global financial crisis, which has called into question such name-brand architectural glitter, along with the rarified processes that typically produce it.

In Helsinki, skepticism abounds. The city board voted in 2012 to reject the proposal, citing lack of open debate about the project and doubts about the museum-as-tourist-engine economics that supposedly justified it. Last year, the Guggenheim and its local backers succeeded in moving forward by ensuring more public engagement and greater transparency. We knew to expect a bigger, more democratic competition, but no one could have anticipated just how weird and benumbing the whole process would get.

The deluge began with a click. It was October 22, a Wednesday, and I had woken up to an email from a friend. The cryptic subject line: How to separate the sheep from the goats? The message: www.designguggenheimhelsinki.org/stageonegallery/view. At the tap of my mouse, the site launched and images loaded. Not all at once but rather one by one, left to right, row after row. Square, predominantly blue, they marched across my MacBook screen. When I scrolled, the gapless grid spawned more squares. Wooziness ensued. The sight of so many similar-but-not images—digital renderings of buildings of varied design on the same waterfront site, often depicted from identical perspectives—was crossing wires between my eyes and my brain. All 1,715 submissions were posted that morning, and fatigue had already set in.

I have spent hours on the site since then. So I say with confidence that I have not seen at least a third of the proposed projects at a scale bigger than their gallery thumbnail (which truly are the size of an adult’s big-thumb nail when viewed on a laptop and a toddler’s pinkie on a smartphone). At an average rate of 30 seconds per submission—each consists of two images and a brief text of uniform dimensions and word length—it would take over fourteen hours to view them all. And, at any rate, prescription attention enhancers. The same technologies that had enabled this apparently fathomless pit had rendered my mind incapable of approaching its depths.

But a pit it was not. As it turns out, the site is less deep well than database, and fully outfitted with Web 2.0 tools to help survive the informational flatlands. Browsing the submissions, users can search and share, shuffle and sort. Basically all the stuff one is accustomed to from Pinterest-y websites, but tweaked a bit to suit the content. For instance, entrants were given the option to apply to their projects up to 5 tags from a predetermined list of twenty-three formal and material descriptors like “twisted,” “fabric,” “transparent,” and “pyramid.” Now, picky users can filter the gallery according to their desires, fantasies. Like your mega-museums textured and smooth? That combination has over twenty matches! (Umm, congratulations?)

If you are okay having no real say in the outcome of the competition, if a jumbo dose of architectural renderings of slick swirling surfaces and gimmicky lighting effects does not make you queasy and/or hugely dispirited, then the gallery does inspire some kind of ludic and social and participatory behavior—maybe. In effect, the Guggenheim had transformed the entire competition pool into a content mill, and was now relying on us to mine it. The interface’s “My Shortlist” feature allows you to play juror by compiling personalized six-entry shortlists that can then be pitched effortlessly into Facebook and Twitter streams, circulated.

The six-entry max did not suit the kinds of lists my friends and I were making, however. By Wednesday afternoon, multiple friends had sent me, unrequested, their favorite-in-scare-quotes submissions,simply copying and pasting JPEGs straight into the email as they often did with similar digital inanities. Then, a week later, while on a lethargic nighttime Skype call, I roamed the gallery for images with Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dogand Louise Bourgeois’s Maman in them, using the interface’s “Favorite” function to keep track. Within a half hour I had star-ed seventy-four different appearances of those iconic spiders and canines. (It seems the architect-curators of these imagined museums learned art history from in-flight magazines.)

Ad-hoc lists were popping up elsewhere on the web too. At some point in the days after the Guggenheim released the competition entries, the popular real-estate blog Curbed published a post headlined “The 36 Weirdest Proposals for the Guggenheim Helsinki.” It was a quintessential “listicle”—the article-as-list form popularized by BuzzFeed—with a compelling combination of eye-catching cardinal number, zany adjective, and recognizable proper noun to generate links, likes, clicks, mentions, tweets, and, ultimately, site traffic. And to much success: the post now ranks—in the US, on my browser—second in a Google search for “Guggenheim Helsinki,” right below the official website for the competition.

Weird was trending. Meanwhile, conventional indicators of achievement were nowhere in sight. If this was a competition, why wasn’t anyone talking about the “best”? Where were debates about the prowess of one submission, the weakness of another? Had we grown that contemptuous of considered judgments?

The Internet has no winner’s platform. If anyone comes out ahead, it’s those who reach farther rather than stand higher. Buzz—not best—is the name of the game, the logic of our networked social media. Its means are its ends: magnitude of connectivity and velocity of circulation, reach and influence. Images, itinerant and mobile, are its privileged agent.

What, then, becomes of things as stubbornly immobile and site specific as buildings? For some time now, designers and patrons of so-called signature architecture have responded to this question with icons or image-buildings whose obligations are awkwardly torn between their real and virtual sites. But with the changes in our visual economies and image consumption brought about by expansion of social media and smartphone use over the past decade, the production of architectural icons would inevitably need recalibration. Maybe we were looking at one attempt to adapt. By embedding the entries in the media environment that gives value to and conditions images today—cat GIFs and blue-chip edifices alike—the Guggenheim has transformed the design competition into a kind of proving ground—or screen test. Whereas architectural renderings once helped jurors and the general public bridge the representational gap between speculative proposal and real site, they serve here not as mediators but as the things themselves, media objects whose performance is evaluated within their virtual environment.

Perhaps this is why, despite the 4:3 aspect ratio elsewhere on the site, the images in the thumbnail gallery are cropped into squares, simulating the familiar Instagram format that will give the project life blood when, or if, it is ever completed. And perhaps this is also why so many of the submissions are rendered with those artificial filters and faux-glow light effects. After all, it’s not the best project that the jury will be selecting. It’s the one that can buzz the most.

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.

Ideas City Festival


Here’s one way to break through all that noise and get the attention of a mostly under-thirty-five-year-old audience, a demographic fawned over by marketers and worshiped like a cult by brands, a niche all of us millennials were born into against our will and can’t, even if we wanted to, escape: Woo it with impressive deck, then tell it to its face it’s screwed.

That was the route special-interest-money foe and free-culture friend Lawrence Lessig took last Thursday during his keynote at the New Museum’s three-day Ideas City festival, a biannual conference and street fair devoted this time around to the theme of invisibility. The tech-y Harvard Law professor whizzed through hundreds of well-cued slides, did a bit on the differences between the electrical grid and cable television he called A Tale of Two Networks, and played a blurry video of a dumb bird inside a Skinner box—the bird, like members of Congress, operantly conditioned by special interests—before he dropped this shocker: “Inequality hates youth.”

Lessig wasn’t referring to Bret Easton Ellis (although he might as well have been when he threw the over-fifty contingent under the bus: “I increasingly think my generation is the worst generation”). Rather, he was describing how unequal governance by wealthy oldsters shifts today’s burdens to tomorrow and forecloses future possibilities. “We need to remember and celebrate the equality that the Internet has come to stand for,” Lessig said, trying to bring arguments for net neutrality to bear on “the network we call democracy.” He formulated this comparison: If the Internet is ideally like the open and neutral electricity grid, enabling innovation through user freedom and diversity, then democracy in America resembles something more like the cable network, offering lots of choices and little control. Today a tiny fraction of people—precisely .02 percent—fund the primary elections that select the candidates the rest of the population gets to vote among. “The result is a democracy responsive to the funders only.”

A kind of tech and culture conference with an urbanism slant, the day proceeded on from Lessig’s mix of the Internet and inequality into issues of citizenship, political unrest, incarceration, surveillance, and mapping. I couldn’t say from which fields the approximately half-capacity audience inside the Cooper Union’s Great Hall came, though participants included cartographers, photographers, entrepreneurs, and activist consultants. The mayors of Houston, San Juan, and Ithaca, New York, discussed policymaking as a form of design. And science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson and architect Bjarke Ingels sat down to talk “plausible utopias.” The implausibility of this pairing—Robinson called for an alternative to capitalism; Ingels’s firm is designing Google’s new Silicon Valley campus—was overcome by their admiration for each other’s work and mutual enthusiasms for outer space.

If there’s something about these types of summits that make participants conflict-averse, it doesn’t mean that culture clashes can’t be the subject of discussion. “The unfortunate thing is that computer science programs don’t do a very good job at producing people who have empathy,” said ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian during a standout panel on the “morality of information” with artist Trevor Paglen, activist Jillian C. York, and hacker anthropologist Gabriella Coleman. “Programmers are taught to communicate with other programmers,” Soghoian added. “They use buzzwords, they use lingo.”

Kind of like obfuscating art speech, right? But Paglen defended the right of artists to refuse to speak sensibly: “I’m actually not interested in making something that explains something to you. I’m interested in making something that tries to put something on the cultural agenda.” And images, Paglen added, are deeply strange things: “If you just go by the Snowden documents, mass surveillance looks like PowerPoint.”

On Friday morning, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro delivered the festival’s second keynote. I streamed the event from Brooklyn, avoiding the levels of security that might trail a cabinet member and Democratic Party rising star. There has been speculation that Castro will be a vice-presidential candidate in the 2016 election, and the address did have the feel of a stump speech, more spirited than substantive. “We call ourselves the Department of Opportunity,” he remarked, explaining how their goal is to give people “the foundation they need to dream.” Aware that he was among creative “thought leaders,” Castro adjusted his rhetoric accordingly. “This doesn’t require a big government or a small government: It requires a smart government.” It’s not the size, it’s how you use it, essentially.

That night, inside a gymnasium three blocks from the New Museum’s stack of cubes, a hot air balloon was repurposed as a dome. “A Performative Conference in Nine Acts” is how the event was billed, though the friend I was with described it as “very sad.” I’d describe the mood as lukewarm, amputated. Parents of teenage participants, friends of the DJ, and museum brass were there to show support, but, tapping their feet awkwardly around the gym’s perimeter, appeared almost like chaperones at a prom. Bowery Poetry Club proprietor Bob Holman stood atop a round stage in its center and read a poem off of dot-matrix-printer paper, the night’s first act in a series of anachronisms.

“Old New York, the New York that is passing away, was about pleasure, and pleasure is a radical value,” groaned downtown diva Penny Arcade during her performance of Longing Lasts Longer, a wry personal commentary on the city’s gentrification. “New York is in a coma. New York is in a sugar coma,” continued Arcade, outfitted with a red shock of hair and polka-dot dress, as sound collaborator Steve Zehentner cued Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” “If it’s not a macaroon, it’s an artisanal gelato. If it’s not an artisanal gelato, it’s a cotton-candy mojito. If it’s not a cotton-candy mojito, it’s probably a cupcake.”

If matcha green tea donuts and mango agua fresca were not what you were after at Saturday’s street fair, which encircled the museum’s Lower East Side address and spilled into a nearby park, there was raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet and toasted coconut milk chocolate ice cream. Organizers reserved half of a block for a food court where New New York’s gastro-industrial complex got put on full display. In one stall, a juice proprietor marketed raw, cold-pressed liquid under names like Elevated, Grounded, and Balanced. In another, Nicola Twilley and Zack Denfeld, two culinary brains technically part of the cultural programming, offered sooty confections free of charge but at one’s own risk: smog meringues flavored like air from London, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, prepared from eggs, gluten, hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, nuts, orange, pine, rocks, soot, sugar, sulfur, and terpenes. Further down the street, Slovenian artist and architect Marjetica Potrč and her Hamburg students had constructed a one-hundred-foot-long table. They served gratis melon and bolles of bread, social lubricants they hoped would get attendees to open up about the city’s housing issues.

Around 5 PM on the Bowery I caught part of the Living Theater’s NO PLACE TO HIDE. A participatory work by their late director Judith Malina, it dealt with the reasons for and consequences of going incognito. Performers stood in single-file lines, waiting their turn before aggressive, screaming examiners.

“State your name,” a man demanded.

“I don’t know!” a woman responded.

“Privacy or safety?” the man demanded.

“I don’t know!” the woman responded.

As the troupe took over the sidewalk, pedestrian flow was facilitated by members of Starwatch Security, the rent-a-cop outfit the museum hired to keep an eye on things. I asked one guard if there had been any trouble.

“No problems,” he answered. “Everything has been good.”

“And how many of you are there?”

“I can’t say,” he replied.

“And I see there’s NYPD too.”

“Yes. And undercovers.”

That’s one way to address invisibility.

Wesley Willis


“Wesley Willis” at Delmes & Zander, Berlin

For two decades until his death in 2003, keyboard rock star Wesley Willis unremittingly rendered Chicago’s dour Dan Ryan Expressway and curtain-walled skyline with ballpoint pen and felt-tip-marker lines so ecstatic, so fluorescent as to demand that established habits in representing late-twentieth-century American cities make way.

The twenty-six drawings in this show, nearly all from the 1980s, graze the surface of an oeuvre that by the artist’s own tally numbers forty thousand works. (Fact-checkers take heed: Willis, no record keeper, peddled the drawings on the street and at concerts.) A series of small untitled drawings in blue ink from 1982–83 depict big rigs, tractor trailers, rolling stock, and transit-authority buses in side and isometric views. Throughout, his years spent sitting in on drawing classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology—a beachhead for exiled Bauhauslers and a raft for the poor, precocious Southsider—are manifest in drafting techniques Willis never abandoned but, to singular effect, refused to master.

In Reagan’s urban America fat on fossil fuels and fast food, Willis divined—atop overpasses and train platforms, out of franchise storefronts—something akin to Futurist draftsman Antonio Sant’Elia’s 1914 New City, that vertiginous, infrastructure-crisscrossed ode to speed. In McDonald’s 51st & Wentworth, 1988, a work of apparent sedateness, Willis faintly superimposes the adjacent expressway on the drive-through, all beneath the burger chain’s Marinetti-worthy slogan “Billions and Billions Served.” Off in the distance is the Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest building, and a country hanging onto its pride in productivity and superiority for dear life.