Q&A: New Agendas at Chicago’s Architecture Biennial

The biennial’s directors discuss how the event will act as R&D for architecture and design.

The first Chicago Architecture Biennial will be the largest architecture and design festival ever to be held in North America.

Courtesy Iwan Baan

It’s almost impossible to contemplate the idea of an architecture biennial without acknowledging Venice. When the city of Chicago announced a little more than a year ago that it was launching a program of its own, its planners knew it would have to tackle the comparison head-on—by outdoing it, naturally. But speaking with the new biennial’s artistic directors, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, two months before the opening, the whole issue becomes moot. At Chicago, Herda and Grima have adopted a diffuse, decentralized approach to the biennial, with scores of satellite shows that tie into its theme in different ways. They have also chosen to focus on younger, emerging talents over the discipline’s more famous, often overbearing figures. Here, the directors discuss their hopes for the biennial, the pressures of adding to Chicago’s architectural heritage, and how their programming will act as R&D for architecture.

Paul Makovsky: There are more design biennials now than ever. The results can often be mixed, and there’s consequently been some backlash against this model. Why do you see the biennial as the right medium for discussion and production?

Sarah Herda: It was certainly interesting to us how people in the world of contemporary art talk about biennial fatigue. This is the first biennial for architecture in the history of North America, and for a continent with such a rich and significant architecture and design culture, it’s crazy that there has never been an internationally focused exhibition of this scale. There can’t possibly be any fatigue or overload, because how can you be tired of it if you have never had it?

Joseph Grima: A biennial is simply an exhibition that happens every other year, and so it would be a bit like saying there are too many exhibitions out there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite in architecture, where there are probably not enough institutions or critical platforms devoted to debating the production of architecture. So the question is, are there too many exhibitions? In this instance, the answer is an unwavering “no.”

PM: What was the experience like of getting a new biennial, especially one of this size, off the ground?

SH: We are very conscious that this is the inaugural biennial, an event that will continue on, so one of the most important things is to lay the groundwork for future generations. Because of this we chose the title “The State of the Art of Architecture,” which is not a theme, exactly, but something much broader and more inclusive. Joseph and I felt that it was very important that we went out into the field and talked to people and reviewed work to see which issues are occupying practitioners around the world. We want these issues to speak for themselves in the exhibition, as opposed to us choosing a theme and selecting projects that were demonstrating our argument. We don’t have it all figured out, and our ambition has really been to create a diverse and challenging selection of people working globally to address what’s happening in the field.

PM: So would you say that this is the North American answer to the Venice Architecture Biennale?

JG: I don’t think it needs to be an answer. A lot can be learned from Venice, of course—it has been incredibly useful not only in Europe but all across the world, especially through the national pavilions, which have promoted a kind of disciplinary inclusion. It has also been incredibly important in terms of creating a dialogue between practitioners and participating in the formation of new global networks. It’s actually changed architecture for the better by making it something that’s less regional, less isolated, but more diverse. The fact that Chicago opted for a biennial says that there is a desperate need for a similar platform in North America. It’s going to do a lot to bridge the gap that exists between the excellence in academia and the pragmatic excellence of everyday production. Now there is nothing in between, no platform for experimenting with new ideas, not in the U.S.

PM: And what do you think this is going to do for Chicago in particular? It’s a city that is kind of caught between its industrial heritage and increasingly global identity.

SH: For a hundred years, Chicago has been a laboratory for new architectural ideas and inventions that were developed here and went on to influence the world. Whether you are an architect trained in the U.S., Europe, or Southeast Asia, Chicago was and is part of the canon. It’s a perfect backdrop to have a conversation about the future of architecture. A caveat is that the sort of research work we were doing from the outset didn’t necessarily involve digging into Chicago’s history, which is already fairly well known. We put in a lot of effort trying to understand the ways in which we could achieve and build capacity to produce programming at this scale—that has the ambition of being both a global event and an event for the citizens of Chicago. Aside from scale, we also had to look at how the event would deal with architecture in a serious way, and how to put these ideas in a context so the public can experience them firsthand. A pitfall of biennials is that you are often only speaking to your peers in the field. The Chicago Architecture Biennial will be different. We are creating a place where different types of audiences will converge.

PM: You’ve also set up several partnerships in pursuing a more horizontally structured biennial. Can you break out that structure of the programming?

SH: Joseph and I are responsible for a certain number of sites—our primary ones are the Chicago Cultural Center, Millennium Park, and the Stony Island Arts Bank—and we have our own program, but we really tried to embrace the city’s diverse audiences and interests as a way to really tie the event to Chicago. We reached out and continue to reach out to different organizations and individuals to find the right partners to work with. As of now, we have 90 partnerships in place.

JG: All of these partners are going to be putting on programs that are not part of the biennial per se—or that aren’t being organized by Sarah and myself—but which will be in dialogue with the central exhibition that will be held in the Chicago Cultural Center. We’re also working closely with the artist Theaster Gates, with his projects in the South Side. Lastly, we’ll be connecting to historical sites around Chicago, like the Farnsworth House, the Racine campus by Frank Lloyd Wright, and others. So we also want it to be an opportunity for people to visit locations that they otherwise might miss.

PM: You mentioned the exhibition hall. What programming challenges are you facing working in the cultural center?

SH: It’s an 1897 Beaux Arts building, probably over 150,000 square feet. We’re taking over about 70,000 square feet of this, which is still a massive space. We’re not just taking over the 13 exhibition galleries—some of them formerly library stacks and reading rooms—but we’re also programming the building’s interstitial and circulation spaces. We want someone who uses that building every day to be completely surprised. The biggest opportunity and the challenge is the lack of traditional exhibition spaces in the building—the interior has some really unusual and pretty dramatic spaces that have forced us to rethink the way we exhibit architecture. How do you convey an architectural idea beyond the use of a plan or section? We’re challenging the participants to express their ideas in unconventional, but still accessible ways.

The Tiffany dome in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, one of the venues for the architecture biennial, which opens next month. Part of the event’s agenda is to engage with Chicago’s built heritage.

Courtesy City of Chicago

PM: When we look at a lot of the architects who are participating in the main exhibition, many are non-American. And you have a really rich range of younger, emerging firms, as opposed to star architects. What do those things mean in terms of what we’re going to be seeing?

SH: We really want to have a global conversation. That said, it is not a complete survey, as there are parts of the world that are underrepresented. But we are trying to bring different voices to the table. We’re going for challenging ideas and not necessarily name recognition.

One of the more overwhelming things we’ve seen running through so many of these practices is how the agency of the architect is being reformulated. A lot of these architects are carving out spaces for them to practice, and many have their own self-initiated projects. They’re looking for and creating opportunities for architecture to matter. This intersects with another prevalent theme generally shared by this group, and that’s the issue of public space in the city and how architecture might meaningfully contribute to that discussion. An office like RUA in Rio de Janeiro is working directly in this way to address the problems of a city starkly divided by class. They have the position that architectural projects can somehow create opportunities and spaces where different classes can mix. In a similar way, Jakarta–based architects Csutoras & Liando have a project for a public cinema in the city’s downtown, in an area that is lacking in public amenities.

JG: Another recurring theme is the crisis of domesticity, to rethink architecture’s ability to deliver a space of refuge under increasingly difficult conditions of poverty, aggressive climate change, and increasing density. You’ll see that there are a number of participants who have been working on prototypes of dwellings and looking at changes in the spaces of domesticity and living space. We’re working with some of them to actually produce one-to-one scale prototypes that will really make this biennial an insight into the way that architects are thinking about homes today. We have also seen a renewed interest in the act of drawing and representation, which, of course, goes against the widely held myth that the digital rendering has completely replaced the hand drawing. We’ve found that not to be the case at all.

Lakefront Kiosk Winner: Ultramoderne 
The winner of the Lakefront Kiosk Competition, the Miesian pavilion will be one of four follies built at various points along Lake Michigan. Together, they will form the physical legacy of the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. Yasmin Vobis and Aaron Forrest’s design will be realized in time for the event, after which it will live on as a viewing platform and alcove.

Courtesy Ultramoderne

PM: But it looks like there’s also a very activist approach to architecture within the group, and with Alejandro Aravena directing the next Venice Architecture Biennale, do you think there will be some overlap, as he is someone who really embraces social design?

JG: There will be some overlap for sure, but in putting together our exhibition, we didn’t want it to be simply an activist architecture biennial. Activism and social engagement have a very significant impact on the work of many designers today—it’s something that just can’t be ignored. But if you look at the architects who will be exhibiting at the event, there are many who fall in that category, and there are just as many who don’t. They will be in dialogue.

SH: It wasn’t our intention to seek out those “activist” practices, but I think it manifests in a lot of different ways, as in the work of the London collaborative Assemble or the projects of a small office like TOMA in Santiago in Chile—they’re less traditional architectural practices in that even the structure of an architectural practice is being rethought and reimagined. I think our approach is really rooted in questioning where innovation comes from. It usually comes from people—individuals or teams of individuals working together, and their having forums and platforms where they can express their ideas. It’s kind of like R&D for architecture and design.

JG: We were interested in people who were pushing the boundaries of architecture in one way or another, people we felt had invested in experimenting with architecture that involved an element of risk taking—architects who are opening themselves to failure in many ways. That was a kind of guiding principle.

PM Are you saying that you don’t see more established or famous architects as risk takers?

JG: I wouldn’t want to completely undermine that argument. To some extent those architects are where they are because they took several risks. But as architecture scales up, the boundaries and envelope of experimentation are necessarily reduced. That’s why we want to give visibility to those most engaged in taking risks and responding to the conditions of the present—those architects who are doing that now and who were doing that 20 or 30 years ago. We are working on bringing on some people who were part of a distant, almost forgotten avant-garde.

PM: The Chicago Seven, you mean? Stanley Tigerman and the gang?

JG: Stanley has been central to our discussions from the very beginning—so central that, without his contribution, we wouldn’t have this exhibition at all. He strongly supported the idea of a sort of return of the “State of the Art of Architecture”—the conference he planned in 1977—looking at it under a completely different set of conditions. For us that kind of generational tension has been incredibly productive, and it also allows us to really ground this biennial in the history of architectural culture of Chicago specifically.

PM: You’ve also introduced this competition for a lakefront kiosk. The winner was announced in August. Did you intend this and the other planned kiosks to function as the built legacy of this inaugural biennial?

SH: Absolutely! The Kiosk Initiative will definitely act as a lasting physical reminder that good design is important at all scales. The idea was to show that even an intervention at a modest scale can create engaging new public spaces and act as a catalyst for conversation. We’re very excited to engage the public in thinking about architecture, while also creating opportunities for architects and designers to not just propose but realize projects. We want to bring more public awareness and engagement to architecture. That is our hope.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial launches October 3 and will run through January 3, 2016. Metropolis editorial and brand director Paul Makovsky will moderate a panel about Chicago’s Postmodern legacy during opening week.

Lekker Architects‘ proposal was a finalist in the Lakefront Kiosk Competition.

Courtesy Lekker Architects

The kiosk designed by NLÉ and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will be built at Montrose Beach.

Courtesy NLÉ

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