Building a Biennial


Aqua Tower
Jeanne Gang / Studio Gang Architects
Photo: Butler V Adams
courtesy: Chicago Architecture Biennial

Chicagoans take their architecture seriously-most of the time. There’s a kind of local pride in the distinguished historical record strewn all over the city and its environs, the legacy of Chicago-based architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, D. H. Burnham and more contemporary Chicago-based exemplars such as Helmut Jahn and Jeanne Gang. It’s got great architecture schools, tourists queuing up for guided walking tours and riverfront building cruises, and you can’t spit in a local bookstore without hitting one of the umpteen guides to Chicago architecture. The annual $100,000 Pritzker Prize, described as the Nobel Prize for architecture, is a Chicago project (though curiously enough, never in its 36-year history has it been awarded to a Chicago-based architect) and Chicago museums and foundations regularly survey architecture, contemporary and historical, both of Chicago and elsewhere.

The announcement, then, that a Chicago Architecture Biennial would commence in 2015 (it runs from October 3, 2015 through January 3, 2016) was not some decontextualized shocker, and seemed more an indication of a large and ambitious project planted in an already receptive climate. For much of 2014 the groundwork, politically and in terms of some well-heeled sponsorship, was laid; declaring a biennial for 2015 and calling it the “inaugural” exercise implies, of course, that you’ve got commitments and support for at least 2017 and 2019, and that this is a project intended to become more or less permanent.

It’s worth quoting aspects of the CAB’s initial public announcement: “Through its constellation of exhibitions, full-scale installations, and program of events, the Chicago Architecture Biennial will invite the public to engage with and think about architecture in new and unexpected ways, and to take part in a global discussion about the future of the field,” and “The Chicago Architecture Biennial provides a platform for groundbreaking architectural projects and spatial experiments that demonstrate how creativity and innovation can radically transform our lived experience.” Two important indicators can be gleaned from these-the first is that this will be a Chicago ARCHITECTURE BIENNIAL, not a CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE Biennial; Chicago is to be the host city, and while not insignificant in terms of some of the programming the CAB will mount, it is not to be a largely Chicago-centric exercise. Of the more than 100 participating architects and artists who have committed to attend (including representatives from over 30 countries and from every continent except Antarctica) only 15 are from Chicago. Even those geographical distinctions blur a bit in a unceasingly expanding global architectural market; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for example, founded in Chicago in 1936 and the largest architectural firm of the 20th century, has full offices locally and in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, London, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai and Shanghai. An indication that the Biennial is clearly directed toward being more of a futurist think-tank kind of project than an excuse for giving prizes and looking back to past achievement, is the use of phraseology such as “spatial experiments,” “new and unexpected ways,” “creativity and innovation,” and “radically transform our lived experience,” which gives the aura of some kind of laboratory of the future.

Chicago Horizon
Project rendering for Winning Design for the Lakefront Kiosk Project
Photo: courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial

Of course, we’ll know more about all of this a few months from now, and even more two years on when some corrections and adjustments will undoubtedly be made. It will be interesting to see to what degree the CAB resembles what now has become the other huge architectural biennial, the Venice Architecture Biennale, which will be next held in the summer of 2016 (you can already see how in one way CAB takes the VAB into consideration; the latter is held in even-numbered years, the former in odd-numbered ones, meaning that there will be a biennial pinballing back and forth every year). Venice has been hosting their architectural Biennale since 1980, in rotation with their art, film, dance, music, and theater biennials, and it has become a very successful project that garners international attention. Of course, Venice itself, to all intents and purposes has no modern or contemporary architecture at all, unless you’ve decided to count the 17th Century as earlyearly- early-modern. It’s truly a host city, and excepting the technological challenges in keeping Venice in existence and perhaps some ruminations on historical preservation issues, their architectural biennial is irrelevant to its urban existence. The CAB, though appears more amenable to having Chicago, if not the subject or the prime focus of its programming, interact with it in ways that will affect its urban scene.

The most visible way this will occur is through this year’s commissioning and creation of four lakefront kiosks for more or less permanent installation, with further kiosks planned for subsequent CABs. Chicago’s more than 20 mile lakeshore has been protected since 1836 by a statute claiming it “forever open, clear, and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.” While the subsequent 180 years have often seen this challenged, ignored, parsed, and abraded, it has also been evoked by generations of preservationists and is part of a current lawsuit to prevent the building of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art near Soldier Field. A kiosk, however, is not officially a building or an obstruction (part of what defines a kiosk is that some of its sides are open), and many such kiosks already dot the parks abutting the lake. The CAB, with support from British Petroleum, supervised a competition (another Chicago tradition, rooted in the famed 1922 competition for an architect to design the Chicago Tribune Tower) for one of the downtown kiosks (two will be located downtown, and one each on the north and south side lakefront), which was won by Aaron Forrest and Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne in Providence, RI. The CAB itself is sponsoring the other three in cooperation with local schools of architecture and design, and all these projects, some of which will be displayed in Millennium Park during the Biennial, will be permanently installed in spring of 2016. (“Permanent” is a relative term, in some cases these kiosks are placed very near the lake, and it’s guesstimated that their lifespan will be in the decades rather than centuries-February is not a kiosk-friendly month in Chicago). The three runners up reflect the CAB’s international flavor, with the selected designers from Nigeria, Chile, and a team from Colorado and Chicago-in order, they are Kunlé Adeyemi, Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen, and Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner; Adeyemi will work with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on his project, Pezo and von Ellrichshausen with the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Andersen and Preissner with the University of Illinois at Chicago.

CAB will also coincide with the completion of renowned local artist Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, a multi-year project where a derelict neoclassical bank building from 1923, vacant for more than 30 years, is being transformed into a cultural and social space for the burgeoning South Side community where Gates and an increasing number of artists reside. Organized by the Rebuild Foundation, this is a particularly rich instance of adaptive reuse, an obvious topic
of interest in contemporary architecture, and the public debut of this new space will be part of CAB.

Prentice Women’s Hospital Building
Bertrand Goldberg
Photo: Rob Hurson (2013), Courtesy of the photographer

The CAB is a collaboration of the City of Chicago and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Sarah Herda, Director of the Graham Foundation, and Joseph Grima, an architect, writer, and curator based in Genoa were named Artistic Directors, and CAB is described as “a vision of Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a major international architectural event and an outcome of the comprehensive cultural plan developed by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.” BP was brought on as CAB’s chief sponsor. While some of its programming for 2015 is still being finalized at this writing-the full list of participants was announced as late as August 13-the Chicago Cultural Center has been named the main venue for most of the panel discussions, presentations and lectures that will ensue during the three month run of CAB and almost all of its programming will be free and open to the public. Exhibitions will also be held at the Water Tower Galleries and at the Graham Foundation, the latter also the site for some of the major panel discussions and lectures that will be sprinkled throughout the three-month run of CAB. Among the participants will be Frank Gehry, Theaster Gates, Jeanne Gang, and Stanley Tigerman.

Locally CAB has generated a lot of good will-the Graham Foundation is a highly respected scholarly institution and exhibiting venue in Chicago, and the outreach of the organizers has been thoughtful and inclusive. While the title of CAB this year-“The State of the Art of Architecture”- seems somewhat amorphic, it did provide the Biennial’s directors the leeway they probably required to get this up and running.

Some cautionary criticism came from those dismayed by the overt presence of Mayor Emanuel and BP in the somewhat fawning literature surrounding CAB; the Mayor just a year ago was the object of widespread and vociferous protests in the local and national architectural community-including by several participants in this year’s CAB-for his acquiescence in Northwestern University’s decision to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, an acclaimed Brutalist masterpiece at its opening in 1975 and placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most endangered list before its destruction in 2014. BP is regularly cited as one of the major polluters of Lake Michigan; two recent headlines in the Chicago Tribune note: “BP raises estimate of Lake Michigan oil spill,” and “BP is polluting Lake Michigan,” the latter observing that “BP, one of the world’s biggest companies, dumps nearly 20 times more toxic mercury into Lake Michigan than federal regulations permit.”

Still, the first rule of architecture is “Get the job,” and the first rule of organizing a biennial, particularly for its first iteration, is probably “make it happen.” If you attend some CAB programming this fall and see some people groaning and squirming in their seats when Mayor Emanuel is thanked for his visionary support of architecture and BP is extolled as a great corporate supporter, those are probably Chicagoans. But the squirming will only be momentary, as time goes by mayors and sponsors will come and go, and a first-rate architectural biennial in the Western Hemisphere is a great idea. With its wealth of partners and participants, and surfeit of ambitions, the Chicago Architecture Biennial shows an excellent prospect of providing it.