10 Highlights from the Chicago Architecture Biennial

The “State of the Art of Architecture” generally delivers on its promise to expand our definition of architecture as a cultural art.

Courtesy Steve Hall/Chicago Architecture Biennial

Any architecture biennial worth its salt is a sprawling, unruly beast, with size enough for surreal thought experiments, art devoid of function, and slick, concise building models alike. The Chicago Architecture Biennial is no different, and its main exhibition in the Chicago Cultural Center gathers the majority of the event’s 100-plus participating firms under one intricately coffered, Beaux Arts gem of a roof. Here are 10 of the cultural center’s highlights.

Othersothers, Offset House

One of the few biennial exhibits to wade into the suburban building typology (a context where architects often fear to tread), the Offset House peels back the facades of typical balloon-frame houses to reveal verandas of semi-public space. The project, by Sydney, Australia–based Otherothers, plays on the fact that, while Australia has the largest average home size of any nation, the vast majority of the country’s interior is unoccupied. Most Australians are clustered in coastal cities, and then, largely in suburban developments, making Australia one of the most urbanized and yet least dense countries on earth. Chicago’s own pivotal role in developing balloon-frame housing—for a long time, a very popular type of construction popular in the United States and Australia—gave the architects an opportunity to directly connect with the city’s architectural history. By tearing away the historicist cornices and overwrought pediments common to suburban housing, the Offset House revels in the simple structural grace of its wood framing, creating breezy patios and pergolas, halfway between outdoor park space and private porch. OtherOthers’ proposal is most effective when developed at the neighborhood scale. The overall effect of the planning, which configures the houses in a closely knit pattern, is the emphasis on creating warm and inviting community spaces—this in a building culture where privatization is usually the rule. It also makes for an unprecedented kind of housing development, where each of the X-ray–like houses revels in the exhibitionist reveals and spatial contortions. Think an entire suburban colony where everyone lives jollily in a home that could have been designed by Frank Gehry.

Lateral Office, Making Camp

It wasn’t until after the Second World War, when North Americans returned from battlefields to fill up vast suburban tracts of land in greater numbers than ever before, that camping became a widely celebrated and practiced American pastime. The parents of the Baby Boomers had greater access to cars and leisure time, making it easier than ever to escape their new picket fences and cul de sacs and explore the great outdoors. Toronto architectural practice Lateral Office’s installation on the fourth floor of the cultural center interrogates this domain, by proposing a different kind of camping infrastructure that gives campers new visual and spatial perspectives on nature. There’s a multi-story observation tower that takes campers above the tree line, and a tree-canopy platform that situates them very much in it; elsewhere, circular wetland lagoon hovers over lily pads and reeds. All these prototypes augment nature with building, making nature more accessible, but diminishing any sense of primeval authenticity. Lateral Office seems to be suggesting that pure, unadulterated nature is a fiction, or at least only truly accessible to those who can afford to charter a plane to the Yukon wilderness and make camp for a month. If that’s the case, a democratic, networked nature is preferable to none at all. A timeline complements the impressive model and traces the history of camping in Canada, from the first prototype sleeping bags in 1861 to the present, just as Canadian national parks have begun installing wireless Internet.

Courtesy Tomás Saraceno

Tomás Saraceno

One clue that you’re party to great design is maximum aesthetic impact derived from a minimum of components. By that measure, Berlin-based artist Tomás Saraceno has one of the biennial’s strongest entries. Venture into the dark room that houses the minimal installation, and you quickly deduce that there are only three things going on here: spider webs in glass vitrines, moodily lit from above and below. Whisper-thin, delicate, yet pound-for-pound stronger than steel, spider webs are a great tool for revealing the hubris that comes with just about all human-driven design. There’s one species on the planet that creates structures that rot, leak and decay; consume great quantities of the earth’s irreplaceable resources; and take years to build. There’s another species on the planet that extrudes a building material tougher than Kevlar as a bodily function, which requires few extra resources, and can be worked into marvelous “structures”in less than a day. Which of us are actually the master builders? Beyond this provocative thought experiment, Saraceno’s installation is inescapably beautiful. The sharp lighting gives a three-dimensional textural richness to the webs not often noted as you annoyedly swipe webbing off your face after wrong turn on a woodland trail. It’s the original biomorphic architecture.

WORKac + Ant Farm, 3-C. City: Climate, Convention, and Cruise

This richly visual project finds New York-based WORKac “hacking” the oeuvre of the countercultural architecture, media, and environmental design collective Ant Farm. The intergenerational collaboration reimagines three Ant Farm projects (The House of the Century, Convention City, and Dolphin Embassy), remixing them into a mega-structural terraced floating island shaped like a manta ray. Ant Farm and WORKac envision this Archigram-meets-the-Grateful-Dead ocean city as a forum for debate on climate change, sustainability, and ecology—both “a synthetic harbor where docking is welcome” and an otherworldly place that can drift away from the entrenched ideologies and social strictures that inhibit the need for “diplomacy among all the species living with us.”

Courtesy Tom Harris/Chicago Architecture Biennial

Studio Albori, Makeshift

Italian firm Studio Albori’s seemingly ad hoc structure embraces the biennial’s transitory nature better than most. It’s a simple wood structure of scaffolds, stairs, and wooden pallets, cobbled together from the city’s building material-reuse organizations. When the biennial closes in early January 2016, the materials will go back from whence they came, ready to take on new life. Makeshift is a roughshod foil to the Beaux Arts trimmings of the Chicago Cultural Center. At first glance, it’s an even-money bet on whether it was designed in any traditional sense, or just fell out of the sky in a somehow useable condition. Its conceptual starting point isn’t architecture or design, but improvisational music; namely Chicago’s rich history of free jazz, from Sun Ra to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. The multi-story installation includes a seating area that can double as a music stage, and smaller stages on the upper level, where musicians strummed ukuleles and crafted wafting, ambient soundscapes with a synthesizer. Hovering over one of cultural center’s grand staircases, the jazz scaffolding might look ad hoc to the point of chaos, but a stroll around it and up into its upper stories reveals a procession of carefully crafted discovery, both visual and musical.

Courtesy Tom Harris/Chicago Architecture Biennial

3D Design Studio, Ania Jaworska, Central Standard office of Design, Jahn, JGMA, Krueck + Sexton, Margaret McCurry, Landon Bone Baker, Stanley Tigerman—Nine Responses to the Available City

Design with Company, Late Entry to the Chicago Public Library Competition

Concentrated mostly on the city’s poorer South and West sides, Chicago’s 15,000 vacant lots comprise an area twice the size of the Loop. Put another way, if grouped together, these urban inequities could soon overshadow Chicago’s exquisite skyline. As such, a major portion of the Iker Gil–curated exhibit is focused on ways to fill in the city’s many missing teeth. Local architects have proposed new programs and building types for such vacant properties, ranging from anonymous technocratic high-rises to more intimately scaled housing for disabled seniors. The most effective entry, Ania Jaworska’s Forum Pavilion, keeps everything simple. It’s a pitched-roof shed that serves as a flexible hub for the kind of everyday community activities—barbeques, block parties, and recreational spaces—that make up that “somewhere between living room and public plaza.” The project acknowledges the inherent spatial modesty required to invest in disused land in impoverished neighborhoods, and so sets a simple stage on which to cultivate a genuine urban neighborliness and community.

Courtesy Design With Company

Just a few steps away, Design with Company’s “Late Entry to the Chicago Public Library Competition” is a thoroughly enjoyable—escapist, even—counterpoint to the social ills worth being agonized over across the gallery. In it, architects Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer reimagine the 1987 design competition that yielded Hammond, Beeby & Babka’s Postmodernist Harold Washington Chicago Public Library. The pair rifled through archival materials, public surveys, and other historical ephemera related to the building to arrive a their whimsical library “proposal,” which fires off Chicago architectural inside-jokes (dutifully explained in the wonderfully delineated wall drawing) with wide-eyed delight and abandon. Amid the gleeful pile, the visitor can identify a clone of the Navy Piera Ferris wheel, the Prentice Women’s Hospital shattered quatrefoil, the much maligned Trump signage of that namesake skyscraper, and even building-scaled owl sculptures, sized-up versions of the genial ornaments that crown the corners of the Harold Washington Library. The design’s combination of visual and narrative density makes it as much a three-dimensional comic book as architecture.

Studio Gang, Polis Station

Biennial co-artistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima assembled their biennial roster to look past the older generation of globe-trotting starchitects and invite emerging designers, whose work reaches out beyond the borders of formalism. Much of the 2015 crew posits architecture as a design practice with a social mandate located among stronger cultural forces that can work with or against it. Jeanne Gang is no one’s idea of an emerging designer, and she logs a few airline miles as well, but her entry Polis Station is among the most grounded and urgently needed proposals of the biennial. Studio Gang’s exhibition takes a deep dive into the history of police building infrastructure, strikingly articulated in a timeline that underpins the firm’s timely project. The latter imagines new ways to make police stations active, participatory elements of their respective neighborhoods, and not just bastions of institutional, and often antagonistic, authority. Essentially, Gang and her team suggest wrapping police stations in a litany of community programs: parks, playgrounds, a trade school, a café, a community center, a maker space. On stools surrounding the exhibit, visitors can pick up a copy of President Obama’s task force report on community policing, commissioned in the wake of protests and rioting that followed the death of unarmed African-American men at police hands. These cautionary tales point to places where police and the citizens they serve operated as parallel entities with nothing but mistrust between them. Studio Gang’s design hopes to intertwine these two groups, smudging the thin blue lines that divide rather than protect.

Courtesy Steven Hall/Chicago Architecture Biennial

Amanda Williams, Color(ed) Theory

Chicago artist and architect Amanda Williams’ Color(ed) Theory began as a mildly guerilla experiment in land value and use. There are thousands of vacant land parcels and abandoned houses on the city’s South Side, and Williams, who was born and raised there, has taken to painting these decaying and downtrodden homes. Williams applies colors that have a special relevance to the local African-American communities; Harold’s Chicken Shack red, for example. Williams’ photography (displayed in the cultural center) reveals that these dwellings are so far gone that there’s relatively little cost—at least in terms of time, effort, and bureaucratic wrangling—to improve them. A common conception in Chicago and in most cities is that architecture is reserved for rarified, grand cultural buildings in high-rise-strewn downtowns. But Williams reminds us that isn’t the case. With a simple coat of paint, she identifies how even the most modest of structures are worthy of consideration and care, bringing new communities into the architectural conversation who aren’t often invited in.

Courtesy Steve Hall/Chicago Architecture Biennial

Pedro & Juana, Randolph

The warm and playful cultural center entry lobby space by Mexico City–based Pedro & Juana sets the tone for the exhibits arrayed within. Like many of the installations, video, models, and drawings that follow, it’s a sharp contemporary composition that plays well with the building’s ornamental curlicues, with a sub-textual reverence for Chicago architectural history. The Mexican designers’ project is a grand public reading room, reconsidered in the tradition of the original Chicago Public Library main branch that once occupied the cultural center. The spindly installation consists of a network of spherical lamps attached to a red rope pulley system. Visitors on their way to the cultural center’s offerings are first offered a hands-on chance to meddle with the carefully curated exhibit. If you pull on the weighted ends of the pulleys, the lamps shift up and down, creating a dynamic, performative field of light.

Moon Hoon, Doodle Constructivism

South Korean architect Moon Hoon’s doodles have a set of fairly obvious inspirations (science fiction, Russian Constructivism, the drawings of Lebbeus Woods) and a few more subtle allusions: the body horror films of early David Cronenberg and tantric Buddhism. The sketches are hyperrealist in their layering of detail and texture, but still wildly phantasmagoric. A few examples: A transparent building-scaled human torso filled with what could either be giant organs or mechanical building components, but which is probably a bit of both. A female torso whose limbs are writhing, mutating inorganic structural systems. And lots of insane, biomorphic robots. Moon Hoon seems to be working through the revulsion (or anticipation) that comes with the physical welding of our bodies and our buildings to brutally rational systems of new technology. They’re lusty documents of the race towards total cyborgification, and some of the biennial’s most powerful aesthetic statements. But throughout, there’s always a playful sense that this is simply where Hoon’s mind wanders when a meeting gets boring or his taxi gets stuck. Let’s hope there are more traffic jams and superfluous conference calls in his future.

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