Critics Take On "The State of the Art of Architecture" in Chicago

An image from Iwan Baan's Chicago photo essay. Image © Iwan Baan

Last week, the Chicago Architecture Biennial opened to over 31,000 visitors and much fanfare, and for good reason - it is the largest architecture event on the continent since the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, featuring over one hundred exhibitors from over thirty countries. With a theme as ambiguous as "The State of the Art of Architecture," and with the hope of making the biennial, according to directors Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda, "a space for debate, dialog and the production of new ideas," the event was sure to generate equally wide-ranging opinions. Read on to find out what the critics had to say about the Biennial.

Installation view of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo by Steve Hall, © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

“Less emphasis on traditional buildings and grand plans and more on doodling, postmodern reconsiderations, and fragmentary constructions.” - Aaron Betsky, Architect's Newspaper

Betsky seemed to spend much of his time in the Biennial’s main venue, the beaux-arts style Chicago Cultural Center, where he was amused by the exhibitions - if not wholly impressed - but perhaps distracted by the building itself:

“It presents the exhibitors with the Cooper-Hewitt problem: a building that draws so much attention to its own weight of history and ambition that it is difficult for the exhibitors to breathe.”

The setting strengthened Betsky’s argument that the Biennial’s displays have taken on a neo-postmodernist feel; he argues that many of the projects seem to be about renouncing the accepted order of contemporary architecture, and approaching design with a more capricious attitude:

“We do seem to be having a particular postmodern moment here, one that focuses on the intersection of melting classicism and space age faith in technology that brings to mind as much Barbarella as it does Archigram.”

While he did points to favorites, such as Sou Fujimoto’s assemblages of everyday objects turned into architecture by the addition of scale figures, Betsky ultimately seemed to be overwhelmed by the extensive span of themes:

“‘Make no big plans,’ the exhibition seemed to whisper from the corners of its Beaux-Arts prison, ‘Just subvert the order.’”

Sou Fujimoto Architects (Tokyo, Japan). Architecture is Everywhere, 2015. Image © Becky Quintal

“When a biannual gala succeeds in bringing together some of the world’s best architectural minds, it might be an idea to put them to work.” - Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

Wainwright, too, seemed to suffer from a sort of architectural vertigo, calling the range of work “dazzlingly catholic.” He acknowledges the intention behind this approach as a “site of experimentation” and not one of appreciating finely-tuned finished products, but feels the Biennial may do better to follow a more coherent path:

“It makes for a lively romp through the gamut of the many different things the word 'architecture' is now applied to, but the sheer breadth of approaches, combined with a distinct lack of any central idea, can make it a frustrating experience.”

Wainwright’s favorite exhibition came from Chicago’s native daughter, Jeanne Gang, and her proposal to give a friendly face to police stations through design and community engagement. In fact, he takes his compliment one step further, offering that the project’s ideas could translate into the theme of the entire event:

“As it evolves, the power of this new architecture biennial might be found less in aping the kinds of Instagram-friendly gallery installations of Venice, and more in a direct engagement with the real problems facing the city of Chicago.”

Atelier Bow-wow (Tokyo, Japan). Piranesi Circus, 2015. Photo by Steve Hall, © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

“Architecture can be many things to many people, and nowhere was this more apparent than the first annual Chicago Architecture Biennial.” - Patrick Sisson, Curbed

In contrast to the other critics, Sisson saw the chaos of the Biennial’s theme as its strength:

“The organizer's inability to cut off the debate, and stop expanding the circle of topics, could be frustrating, but it was also perhaps the Biennial's strong suit.”

He also ventured out to the off-site the exhibitions, and came away impressed. Examples such as Luftwerk's light installations at the Garfield Park Conservatory seemed to tether the event to its city in a way that wasn’t obvious in the main venue:

“Swapping some of the conceptual pieces with more of these types of on-the-ground displays would have dramatically strengthened the exhibition.”

But overall, Sisson’s outlook remained optimistic - after all, the Biennale is the largest architectural event in Chicago in over 100 years:

“For its first time out, the Biennial seems to have established a personality and philosophy for itself, a more open-minded, and on-the-ground view of architecture worth propagating. While this more adventurous take may have seemed looser and less focused, the high points suggest it's definitely a conversation worth continuing.”

Kéré Architecture (Berlin, Germany). Place for Gathering, 2015. Photo by Steve Hall, © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

“You never know where an architect will find his muse.” - Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune writer Kamin speaks also of the event’s lack of thematic coherence, but recognizes the passion with which the displays were designed:

“The first Chicago Architecture Biennial, which brings together projects by over 100 designers from more than 30 countries on six continents, is, by turns, surprisingly streetwise, maddeningly megalomaniacal, deeply humanistic, playfully forward-looking and head-scratchingly intellectual.”

Kamin also notices the lack of importance given to the big names within the field. While not absent of recognizable figures (contributors include BIG, David Adjaye and the aforementioned Jeanne Gang), the event’s message is one of subverting tradition and expectation. He sees the Biennial as a an attempt to rediscover the innovation and ingenuity that was put on display in Chicago's 1893 exhibition, the results of which remain in our present-day lives:

“Instead of advocating for a single aesthetic approach, the biennial embraces many (though traditional architects will likely complain that they are barely represented). We see the transnational priorities of a generation that will replace today's 'starchitects,' from architectural research to public space. Such pluralism turns out to be a strength and a weakness.”

Vo Trong Nghia Architects (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam). S House, 2014. Photo by Tom Harris, © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

“I rather feel that our discourse has become far too moralizing and politicized” - Patrik Schumacher, Zaha Hadid Architects

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that one of those big names, the often vocal Patrik Schumacher, raised his discontent with the event, taking to Facebook to provide his own critique of the biennial:

“The State of the Art of Architecture delivered by the Chicago Architecture Biennale Exhibition must leave lay-visitors bewildered by one overwhelming subliminal message: contemporary architecture ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, driven it to self-annihilation and architects have now en masse dedicated themselves to doing good via basic social work.”

Schumacher sees the attempts at small-scale innovation and non-traditional precedent as flamboyant and counterproductive to the field of architecture, which should always utilize the most relevant technologies to create form:

“I am indeed arguing that parametricism represents our contemporary global best practice paradigm ... even for work in the poorest arenas. To stay with modernism (or to go for the recently fashionable Neo-Rationalism or Neo-Postmodernism) would be like rejecting social media and insisting on the postal service instead.”

Schumacher seems to take particular issue with the projects that attempt to improve less well-off places with small, simple improvements, such as Amanda Williams’ Color(ed) Theory:

“It’s all too familiar by now: Political Correctness swamps the discipline and takes over its discursive spaces

“Is this 'intellectuals and architects into the poor countryside' drive really the way forward? ... I am as much committed to societal progress and the making of a better world for all as any of my moralizing critics.”

15 Must-See Installations at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

About this author
Cite: Patrick Lynch. "Critics Take On "The State of the Art of Architecture" in Chicago" 09 Oct 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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