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5 Projects at the Chicago Biennial that Demonstrate the State of the Art of Sustainability

At the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the theme selected by directors Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda was deliberately wide in scope, with the expectation that more than one hundred exhibitors would each bring their own perspective on what is “The State of the Art of Architecture.” But where does that leave one of architecture's most widely adopted missions of the 21st century: sustainability? In this article, originally published on her blog Architectstasy as “Chicago Architecture Biennial: The State of the Art of Sustainability,” Jessica A S Letaw delves into five projects that take on sustainability in the context of Chicago's biennial.

At North America's inaugural Architecture Biennial in Chicago, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” architectural firms and practices from all six inhabited continents have been invited to display their work. Spanning all sizes and kinds of projects, the Biennial is showcasing solutions to design problems from spiderwebs to social housing.

US buildings use around 40% of all the country’s energy consumption. It is a disconcerting truth that even if every new building starting construction tomorrow were to be net-zero energy and net-zero water, we’d still be on a crash course, draining more naturally-available resources than our one planet can permanently sustain. In this environment, architectural designers have a special responsibility to educate themselves about innovative sustainable design techniques, from those that have worked for thousands of years to those that, as the Biennial’s title hopefully suggests, are state of the art.

So what does the Biennial have to say about sustainability? Five projects on display demonstrate different approaches at five different scales: materials, buildings, resources, cities, and the globe.

Gramazio Kohler and Skylar Tibbits' "Rock Print" Is a Gravity-Defying Pile of Stones

As everyone knows, if you stack layer upon layer of small stones atop one another, what you eventually get is a pile of stones. It's among the least dramatic phenomena in the whole of nature; add string though, and the whole process is transformed. That's the idea behind Rock Print, an installation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial created by Gramazio Kohler Research of ETH Zurich and Skylar Tibbits of MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, which uses just these two elements to create a dramatic four-legged column that is self-supporting and can be quite literally unraveled into its constituent parts after use.

Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich

Gramazio Kohler's Robotic Arm Creates an Elegant Twisting Brick Facade

Advances in computers and fabrication technology have allowed architects to create fantastic designs with relative ease that in years past would likely require the labor of countless master craftsmen. Architecture firms like Gramazio Kohler Architects are known for their innovative approach to digital fabrication, adapting technology from a variety of fields. To create this stunning new brick façade for Keller AG Ziegeleien, Gramazio Kohler used an innovative robotic manufacturing process called “ROBmade,” which uses a robot to position and glue the bricks together. 

Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler Courtesy of Gramazio Kohler