Studio Albori ‘Makeshift’: Photo Tom Harris

“The Architects are Coming!”, “The Architects are Coming!” is the rallying cry for the citywide exposition Chicago is hosting now through January 3, 2016. For 96 days, Chicago is the architectural center of the world.
It is fitting that this city, the birthplace of the skyscraper and bold urban designs by architecture icons–Burnham, Wright, Sullivan and Mies van der Rohe–should host the Chicago Architectural Biennial. Chicago was also a key birthplace of The City Beautiful movement following the 1893 World’s Fair.
Chicago thus holds a special place in architects’ imagination and the call to participate drew visionary ideas from hundreds of architects. The result is an exhibition featuring more than 100 chosen architects spread across five continents. Unlike previous gatherings, fewer than a third of the installations are from the United States.
As an ambitious organizational feat, kudos must be given to the co-curators, Sarah Herda, head of the Graham Foundation (dubbed “the CIA of Architecture”) and Joseph Grima, founder of Space Caviar and director of Ideas City. Herda said that, with no defining architectural “ism” in the world today, they chose to give free rein to a wide diversity of current architectural ideas.
Since the expo helps boost Chicago’s stature worldwide, it has been embraced by City Hall, a boatload of corporate sponsors and local media. The coverage has been glowingly positive with no attempts, to my knowledge, to critique the installations or the roughly two dozen expressions (both modular and textual) of transgressive ideas against past and contemporary practices.
The scale of the Biennial is impressive. It is taking place at seven sites throughout the city, with the Chicago Cultural Center as its headquarters. Walking throughout the city’s former main library, one’s impression is of total transformation. Never in my memory has the building been so alive. Installations fill its four floors of galleries and public spaces, including one striking installation on a ramp between floors. There is even a private garden outside the library’s front entrance consisting of tree leaf “walls” and sawed-off barks as sitting stools.
The Biennial is a smorgasbord of events beyond the installations. There’s a series of Tuesday Talks with panels of architects, designers, curators and scholars, a film series, lectures by prominent architects from around the world and late-night performances.
This inaugural event draws its name from a famous 1977 gathering of architects at the Graham Foundation, convened by Stanley Tigerman, designed to free architecture from the stranglehold of Miesian dogma at the time. It too called its gathering “The State of the Art of Architecture”.
Among the rebels (who have since achieved international success) who were part of that so-called architectural “mosh pit” were Robert Stern, Richard Meier, Helmut Jahn, Peter Eisenman, James Sterling, Ben Weese and Tigerman.
After several days of touring the Cultural Center, along with a visit to artist Theaster Gates enterprising and provocative Art Bank on the South Side at 68th St. and Stony Island Ave., I emerged with a number of impressions.
As I entered one gallery, I heard a voice emanating from inside a lighted white column hanging from the ceiling. The woman asked “What is the relation of architecture to reality?”. Based on my tour of the Cultural Center, my answer is “Not much”.
The expo is promoted as a gesture of civic engagement that allows the public to see the building ideas of today’s global architects. However, the building contains too many models, drawings and installations that fail to engage that audience. Most are highly conceptual, speculative visions and, unless one reads the detailed wall texts, the ideas get lost.
This seems an architecture show for architects with little input from the public. My reaction was echoed by another writer, Nick Cecchi, writing in New City. “Much of the programming ignores the city’s own inhabitants”.
Two projects that buck this trend deserve praise. The fourth floor’s Sidney Yates Gallery contains scale models of three modular, low-cost homes. One, by Tatiana Bilbao of Mexico City, is a five-room house, designed after obtaining input from potential residents as to their preferences in the home’s features. Bilbao’s firm designs modular homes costing between $5-8,000, thus filling a pressing need in Mexico City which has a housing deficit of nine million units.
Another on the main floor is a project from Jeanne Gang’s Studio Gang. It offers a detailed plan for situating a police station in the midst of a neighborhood, surrounded by a park and community activities, counter to the current model of isolating police stations away from communities they serve. The project name, “Polis Station”, borrows from the Greek term for community
Architecture is a humanistic discipline and architects, according to one exhibitor, should be considered “public intellectuals”. Among contemporary architects, Tigerman, Gang, Martin Felsen of Chicago’s Urban Lab and British architect, David Adjaye (featured in an exhibit at the Art Institute) deserve that label. Their designs take a site’s full social and economic context into account.
Architecture’s public are its clients–mainly real estate developers and government bodies. Nothing gets built without financing. Thus architects too often are beholden to the dreams and dollars of developers whose notion of public space usually consists of “how high can I build” and “what’s the sq. ft. return”. Some exhibits expose architecture’s enabling role in urban renewal and community displacement
Two more promising, publicly-minded, projects by visual artists relate to the art part of architecture. Amanda Williams’ project, titled “Fields of Color” embraces the interstices between art, architecture and design.
Williams, a trained architect, chose eight houses on the South Side of Chicago and painted them different colors—red, purple, yellow, black, pink–according to what she terms a “culturally-coded color palette”. Besides giving abandoned houses a fresh coat of paint, Williams wonders what color signifies gentrification and what color suggests poverty. She seeks to generate a conversation around the inequality of the two Chicagos — the black South Side and predominantly white North Side and suburbs.
The exhibit that has generated the most media attention is artist Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank. Gates, who has catapulted to fame in less than a decade, purchased an abandoned, deteriorating bank from the city and remodeled it, at a cost of millions, to serve as a culture lab for its south-side residents.
The bank is 17,000 square feet and contains the archives of Johnson Publishing, the publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines. It also houses the vinyl collection of 6,000 records of Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music” which originated in Chicago in the 1980s.
Gates is explicit about the bank’s purpose. “Who has the right to amazing culture?” The highest culture, he notes, becomes the domain of the wealthy elite. Much rarer is that which honors the makers of black culture (jazz and the blues) and the fruits of their creative expression.
Building on this premise, Gates quotes the words of rapper Jay-Z, “Build the space you want to rock in”. Tell that to Skidmore, Owings.
A final exhibit relates to the host city, titled “Bold Scenarios for the City of Chicago”. It contains a number of proposals by local firms but two, in particular, epitomize opposing viewpoints
on building for the future.
“The Alternate City”, by David Brown, notes that the city owns 15,000 vacant lots. The city could put those properties to much better use by offering them to residents, the neighborhood, developers so that they can revitalize the city and add to the tax rolls.
The other is the standard model by Port Urbanism–build higher and make another bold addition to the skyline. In an era of global housing inequality, this plan proposes adding a two-mile strip west of Lake Shore Drive (since building east of the Drive is prohibited), pushing the Drive into Lake Michigan.
This strip would be filled, block after block, with an uninterrupted span of what appear to be 50-70 story high-rise towers. The selling point is the added revenue our city desperately needs. No mention of any despoiling of the lakefront. The model makes Chicago look like one of those instant mega-cities in China. Port Urbanism’s proposal proves the observation that architecture is often something done to people.
Guess which one stands the greater chance of ever being built? Most likely the one oblivious to public space. That highlights a major problem affecting American architecture today: the loss of the public realm and its capture by venture capitalists.

Tom Mullaney, Chicago Editor (retr’d)


Volume 30 number 2 November / December 2015 pp 8-10

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