Chicago has always dreamed of a better version of itself: Founded with big ambitions on a swamp next to Lake Michigan, carried forward by trains, meat-packing, and real estate development, rebuilt after the Great Fire and re-planned by Daniel Burnham three decades later, gridded in plan and girded by skyscrapers, Chicago wants always to be bigger, cleaner, and more rational. Now with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, open through January 3, 2016, Chicago corrals those dreams one more time and to invite an international audience in to view its latest new and improved self.
Supported by the city, British Petroleum, and a host of other partners, the Biennial certainly got off to a grand and ambitious start that had the media buzzing. Then reality intruded. The reality check first took the form of the Biennial’s main venue, the Chicago Cultural Center. Formerly the city’s main downtown library, it is an ornate, neo-classical number, opened in 1897 with designs by Shelpley, Ruttan, and Bulfinch, of weight and integrity but no particular distinction, beyond some lovely stained glass. It presents the exhibitors with the Cooper-Hewitt problem: a building that draws so much attention to it’s own weight of history and ambition that it is difficult for the exhibitors to breathe. Luckily (sort of), many of the spaces have long since lost some of their luster, so that exhibitors in the lower levels have white-walled halls in which to draw attention to what seems to be a plethora of 1960s utopian thinking and style.
We do seem to be having a particular postmodern moment here, one that focuses on the intersection of melting classicism and space age faith in technology that brings to mind as much Barbarella as it does Archigram. Between workAC’s collaboration with Ant Farm and Mark Wasiuta’s, Marco Sanchez’s, and Adam Bandler’s unveiling of archival material belonging to the archi-media collective Evironmental Communications—who collaborated with like-minded radical practices like Superstudio and Ant Farm—there is plenty that recalls the era of acid-colored day dreaming of a more voluptuous and fluid future infested with the ruins of a dying order.
Along the same lines are Moon Hoon’s “Doodle Constructivism” drawings. They draw inspiration from similar postmodern sources, but carry the aesthetic forward with a combination of K-Pop, manga sensibility, and Hoon’s signature nonchalance. Smout Allen and Geoff Manaugh work in a similar mode, though their inspiration is more Lebbeus Woods than Peter Cook and his posse.
Doodling also permeates the work of what I think is the most successful exhibition in the Cultural Center, Sou Fujimoto’s array of ashtrays, shredded paper, pine cones, and tea strainers re-imagined as koans for architecture, merely through the device of adding tiny model figures that make these everyday objects look huge. Whether statements such as, “The faint depth becomes architecture that connects the society and individuals” are meaningful matters less than the visual revelations and the respite from the grand visions and big rooms you achieve when hunched over these little maquettes.
Biennials, when they work, tend to sprawl throughout the city, and this one is no exception. Some of the best work is offsite and temporary, such as Bryony Roberts’ corralling of the South Shore Drill Team to take over Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza, turning the grand grids into human twirls and swirls. Unfortunately, many such performances only took place during the opening weekend.
My favorite offsite discovery was Xavier Wrona’s installation in the Theaster Gates-designed Dorchester Houses, where the self-proclaimed Marxist architect has been in residence for the last few months. When I arrived with former Cranbrook Dean Reed Kroloff, Wrona daubed his face and hands with red war paint and proceeded to lead us on a twenty-minute tour of the interior, whose recycled boards and intricate built-in furniture was festooned with copies of quotes, diagrams, and citations, all leading to the conclusion that we need to move beyond the affirmation of capitalism through standard building techniques, and toward a more open and revolutionary form of production.
I am not sure either Wrona (who admitted it is a work in progress), nor I, know exactly what it all might mean, but his three-dimensional essay did sum up the contrary conclusion of this Biennial: Less emphasis on traditional buildings and grand plans (Save for the exhibition of David Adjaye’s work at the Chicago Art Institute, which felt like it was preparing the natives for his seemingly inevitable anointment as the architect of the Obama Presidential Library) and more on doodling, postmodern reconsiderations, and fragmentary constructions. “Make no big plans,” the exhibition seemed to whisper from the corners of its Beaux-Arts prison, “Just subvert the order.”