Chicago Architecture Biennial #1


There is no doubt that Chicago is the city of modern architecture. Louis Sullivan, the first skyscrapers, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, corporate SOM – the city set the template for the 20th century. But what about the 21st? Is it still a city of architecture – or just of nostalgia for modernism?

It’s a question the city’s inaugural architecture biennial doesn’t ask, so perhaps its unfair to criticize it for not asking it. Instead its theme is the rather vacuous “The State of the Art of Architecture”. Is it about architecture as “state of the art”? Or is it about architecture being an art? Or both? Or neither?

It ranges widely across the continents, mainly taking in young(ish) practices, deliberately excluding the over-exposed starchitects and ranging across social conscience and avant-garde practice beyond building. There are visionary drawings and art installations, photography and robot-constructed monoliths – and much of it is provocative and wonderful. More than anything there is an acknowledgement that housing is not a luxury but a human right and there is a sense that architects must engage with housing the disenfranchised if they are to remain relevant – which is refreshing and welcome. There is not, however, much sign that they are making a difference beyond a pinprick.


Which is precisely why Theaster Gates’ Rebuild foundation, a few miles away for the main exhibition on the city’s troubled South Side, is so impressive. Launched as part of the Biennial program, the Stony Island Art Bank is a revived neo-classical bank building, the only surviving remnant of a real main street in a now-shattered neighbourhood. The artist has relaunched the building as an arts, cultural and social center, putting to use the money swishing around in the art world in the real world. But there are other things beyond the show too – a pavilion by Ultramodernem – a kind of Mies-type gas station in timber construction – is the first of a series of kiosks to be completed in Millennium Park, others, including an odd looking tower by Pezo von Ellrichshausen will follow – architecture mediated through coffee and snacks. A big retrospective of David Adjaye and a small exhibition for drawings of James Wines add to the edges of the Biennial – the city does seem to be taking architecture to heart again. But can it catalyse an impact beyond art spaces and parks? Perhaps.

81_Tom_Harris_081Edwin Heathcote

Pictures from top to bottom:
House is a House is a House is a House, Johnston Marklee, 2015.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects and NLÉ Kiosk in Millennium Park.
BP Prize Winning Kiosk: Chicago Horizon by Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest and Brett Schneider of Ultramoderne.

Photo by Tom Harris, copyright Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

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