While architecture exhibitions have a tendency to be drab affairs with poorly displayed poster boards and reams of intellectualized text spouting pseudo-complex ideas, the Chicago Architecture Biennial stands out for its undeniable sense of playfulness. From its central HQ to the fringe performance events, this exhibition is bright, fun and Instagram-ready.
Chicago, like Venice, is blessed when it comes to architecture, making the city an ideal home for a recurring architecture show. The importance of this year’s iteration, the second after its inaugural event in 2015 (thus confirming its status as an actual “Biennial”), is clear. And the curators, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee from LA-based practice Johnston Marklee, seem determined to grab people’s attention.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial sets out its spirited intentions early, with bright salmon-pink and navy blue branding. The show’s website and social media presence are also brazenly graphic and visually led. Inside the Chicago Cultural Center, which hosts the bulk of the Biennial, this fun aesthetic continues with a bold and bright yellow information desk, positioned immediately in front of the entrance.
Inside the exhibition proper, the Instagram-ready highlight of the Biennial is the much-publicized “Vertical City” exhibit. Arranged on the top floor of the building, this is the place to start a visit before descending to the (slightly) less impactful, but arguably more cerebral, exhibits within the show.
In “Vertical City,” the Biennial’s theme “Make New History” is interpreted literally, with 15 prominent, young(ish) architects from around the world invited to respond to the 1922 competition brief to design a skyscraper for the Tribune Newspaper on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. This original contest, which was billed as “the greatest architectural contest in history,” drew 263 entries from 23 countries.
“The act of looking to the past to inform the present has always been central to architecture,” say the curators. Fittingly, the Tribune Tower contest has already been revisited once before, with the famous "Late Entries" exhibition in 1980 featuring alternative drawings from Helmut Jahn, Frank Gehry, and Arquitectonica, among others. Each of these two previous contests provided a cross-section of the architectural thinking of their times, and one assumes the aim of this contest is to once again reinvestigate and reimagine the skyscraper under a contemporary lens.
The highly photogenic #VerticalCity exhibition at @chicagoarchitecturebiennial. Adolf Loos' overscaled column entry for the original competition in the foreground, with Serie to the right and Tatiana Bilbao, Barbara Lopes, 6a, Barozzi Veiga and Sam Jacob to the left. . . . #architecture #archdaily #chicago #chicagoarchitecturebiennial #chicagoarchitecture #chicagobiennial #tatianabilbao #6aarchitects ##archidaily
Rather than drawings, this year’s invitees were each invited to create a 16-foot high model, and almost all are individually eye-catching. The whole ensemble is an entertaining range of ideas and colors—perfect for photographing and sharing on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat. The attention to detail on many of the towers proved especially ideal social media fodder.
Many of the entries initially appear cartoony, but after reading the blurbs attached and talking to some of the commissioned architects it is clear that, in the main, each is a considered mini-essay. The architects have worked hard to build a narrative to support their model, if not actually to tackle the issue of how a modern skyscraper should operate and its role within the city. Of course, shows like this are a place for experimentation so the contributions are ultimately fit for purpose.
The understandable narrative of reimagining the well-known contest combined with the visually enticing results make this part of the Biennial accessible to anyone with a passing interest in architecture, which is of great credit to the curators—although putting the “Vertical City” at the furthest reaches of the Cultural Center may impact the numbers of casual visitors that view it.
Beyond and below the “Vertical City” is its counterpoint, “Horizontal City,” a series of 24 models arranged on low pedestals. Deliberately more difficult to engage with, both physically—many of the exhibits require bending down low to see into—and intellectually, this exhibition is still immensely photogenic.
The challenge of crouching or kneeling to get the best photos only seemed to increase people’s desire to capture, crop and filter these models that each play with the theme of scale. Both "The Re-Encampment" by Chicago’s UrbanLab and the millennial pink furniture of the “Grand Interior” scale model, by Spanish architects MAIO, were particularly popular on social media. My personal favorite was DRDH’s investigation of the Pantheon, which showed a perspective of the famous building that is hard to appreciate in real life due to its immense scale.
More from the Biennial... This is a model of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome that lets you see the whole dome. Something that is hard to see all at once in real life. . . .#architecture #chicago #chicagoarchitecturebiennial #architecturelovers #chicagoarchitecture #biennial #archidaily #archdaily #architecturephotography #model #architecturemodel #pantheon #rome
Beyond these two key exhibitions, the Biennial gets more fragmented, but still retains, for the most part, its aesthetic impact and physicality, with some of the numerous exhibits in the building’s lesser spaces being almost built for Instagram. One such example is Sylvia Lavin, Erin Besler, Jessica Colangelo, and Norman Kelley’s “Super Models” exhibition within an exhibition, displaying 12 models of famous works of art within an almost life-size house; another is T+E+A+M’s Ghostbox, a re-imagination of the contemporary ruin.
Although further still from the main exhibits, the talks and symposiums connected to the Biennial were relatively dry and aimed at architecturally-focused professionals. I heard first-hand from international journalists who left the New Materialisms: Histories Make Practice/Practices Make History symposium because of its unnecessarily heady conversation.
While the Biennial is undoubtedly playful—I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much at an architecture exhibition—it could be criticized for being too focused on the surface without the meaningful content of other Biennials. Sure, there is some more serious content like David Schalliol’s images of an underrepresented Chicago, but these photos only line a groundfloor hallway of the Cultural Center. Overall there is no escaping the Biennial’s sense of light-heartedness.
While the inaugural Biennial, “The State of the Art of Architecture”, asked what architecture’s role was in shaping, and perhaps even helping, the world, this year’s title “Make New History” is a wide-ranging prompt that does not suggest any social agenda.
Sam Jacob's "Chicago Pasticcio" contribution to the Vertical City. With a sea of mini distorted bright red skyscrapers in the background. . . . #architecture #chicagoarchitecturebiennial #chicagobiennial #chicago #skyscrapers #architecturemodel #samjacob #verticalcity #tribunebuilding #chicagotribune
However, with 100,000 people visiting in the opening weekend, cementing Chicago’s reputation as one of the most successful cities at engaging the public to its architecture, is that such a bad thing? And, does this point to a wider trend in architecture? A trend of people wanting instant (and Insta) gratification giving rise to the prominence of one-dimensional architecture?
I don’t know.
What I can say for certain, however, is that this Biennial is incredibly enjoyable and worth going to... if only to Instagram the many, many visual highlights.
Tom Ravenscroft is an architectural historian and editor of The B1M.