Don’t Be Afraid of Character, Say These Biennial Participants

Architecture can be funny, eliciting a laugh or a smirk. It can have a backstory. It can be a character in an urban drama. But how far do you push it?

The Chicago Toothbrush
Designer Laurel Consuelo Broughton’s Chicago Toothbrush  Courtesy Laurel Broughton

To coincide with the opening of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial, themed “Make New History,” we showcase three recent trends in architecture, as seen in the work of emerging architects who are participating in the event. This is the third article in that series. You can read the first here and second here.

Going to the Biennial? Check out our Top 10 Things to Do and See at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Laurel Consuelo Broughton designs and makes handbags in the shape of cartoonish archetypes. Among her popular wares are a cocktail purse made to look like a slab of toast, a teardrop wristlet, and a strawberry clutch. But in a reverse translation of the pillbox hat, she also designs buildings that draw on this same Pop menagerie. Monumental toothbrushes, top hats the size of a city block, and cloud-scraping cordless phones—she equally delights in the Brobdingnagian.

You may think “novelty architecture,” or even of Robert Venturi’s polemical use of the “Long Island duck,” but Broughton, who lives in L.A. and teaches at USC, resists both. Her interest, she says, lies in “playing with misreading the object as it gets scaled up or down.” The idea that a building can be read—or misread—is one she shares with several other young architects whose work could be said to be in a neo-Postmodernist vein.

Paul Andersen also works in this register. Based in Denver, he and collaborator Paul Preissner were approached about building a pavilion in Millennium Park timed to the first Chicago Architecture Biennial two years ago. Called Summer Vault, the sky-blue structure was a simple rhombus topped with a vault, yet an angled interior wall complicated things. In plan, the design was straightforward, without any geometric distortions, but the built object was difficult to make sense of. “There was no ideal view of it. It was enigmatic in that way,” Andersen says. (The project was designed with a vendor in mind, but none were forthcoming; the lack of an obvious use surely contributed to the folly’s perplexing appearance.)

The work Andersen does under the name Independent Architecture is a couple of steps removed from Broughton’s. A design for a playground in Denver’s Paco Sanchez Park integrates elements that are at once abstract and figurative. From certain angles the play structures resemble graphic clouds and bunnies. These images aren’t stable, however. The impressions gathered from different vantage points don’t quite add up to anything concretely recognizable, resulting in chimeras. “You can’t really pin it down,” Andersen explains, “or at least there’s a delay in your seeing and finding that character.”

Summer Vault
One of the two temporary pavilions to be built for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial, Summer Vault lives on virtually. If you Google Image “the Bean,” chances are you will spot the bright blue pavilion in the background. (The structure was built near the famous landmark.) Courtesy Iwan Baan

This parsing of character and ambiguity plays out at a larger scale in the work of Design With Company. The Chicago architectural office is run by Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer, who bring a literary approach to the problem. They cite a curious feature from The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace’s first novel, in which the writer imagines a suburb designed in the form of the actress Jayne Mansfield. “No one really knows they live in this giant figure. But there are all these neighborhood requirements to paint the exteriors of your home different flesh tones,” Hicks says, en route to the takeaway. “By designing a fictional place in a real place, people can begin to see their reality in a whole new way.”

Ideas about narrative-based architecture—the concept of an architecture parlante having been introduced by French Enlightenment architects—have always tended toward the overdetermined. Form and meaning were self-reinforcing in limiting ways. But Postmodern procedures of rereading and deconstructing “definitely open up space,” says Broughton, who has a background in literature studies. For her, Postmodernism “is fundamentally about multiple stories as opposed to one story, multiple narratives as opposed to one narrative.” Translating this to the urban experience can lead to many a semantic game, which remains one of the most obnoxious features of Pomo’s first go-around. It often seemed, especially in the facadism of the period, that architects were playing a dweeby game among themselves, admonishing anyone who didn’t get it.

If architects want to engage a wider public, as they often claim, then they have to switch tactics, says Hicks: “We’re not interested in challenging people until they break down but instead in delighting them. Once they’re engaged on that level, they may start to think about the object in a new way.” This productive misreading is the ideal outcome, he admits, and it seems leveraged on an unambiguous optimism. (But about what?) Ania Jaworska, an architect also based in Chicago, works in grayer territory. She often makes use of iconography, in ways more literal than Design With Company and Independent Architecture, and more strictly architectural than Broughton’s gargantuan consumer props. But she departs from them all in tone. Her Cynic Architectures project, for instance, coats stylized Ionic columns in a sinister matte black. If democratic values were intrinsically encoded in the building blocks of classical Greek architecture, there must be a dark underbelly to that social form.

Jaworska’s humor is also slier. Her Subjective Catalog of Columns illustrative series recapitulates several decades’ worth of faddish trends the once-noble column has been ignominiously dragged through. Each of the columns has a story—Saint, for instance, imputes Catholic icon status to the I beam (or Mies’s I beam, anyway). With Wooden Column on Fire, she again makes a comment on democracy, this time about its fragile achievements, all while citing Billy Joel’s anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

In their own ways, these architects hope that the hoi polloi engage with architecture, and architectural culture, in ways they hitherto never bothered with. That a building could evince “character” or humor is a big part of their strategy. And yet there’s always the threat of being reduced to a one-liner, Andersen warns. “That one Ed Ruscha quote is always on our minds—‘Good art should elicit a response of Huh? Wow! as opposed to Wow! Huh?’”

You may also enjoy “How the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale Jumpstarted Postmodernism.”

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