The second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial opened to generally positive remarks this past September. Headquartered at the Cultural Center (78 E. Washington), the Biennial spans all four floors of the building, occupies space at several satellite venues, and was presented for the first time in alignment with Expo Chicago, the city’s premier art fair.
This edition’s artistic directors, Johnston Marklee (who readers may recognize from their hand in the recent MCA renovation) selected the thematic exhibition title Make New History, a broad and not uninteresting imperative that sees applications both literal (there’s plenty of talk about adaptive reuse) and conceptual (there are more unbuildable theoretical models on display than one could ever hope for). The saturated red and blue color scheme selected for the exhibition signage and collateral lends a peculiar note, begging the question as to whether or not, given the current climate and deep association of the chosen colors with the primary American political parties, it is designed to add a political undercurrent to the exhibition; a matter that, unfortunately, goes unresolved by both the exhibition and the accompanying catalog.
The volume and depth of work on view in the Cultural Center alone demands return visits, though the primary components can be taken in over the course of a couple of well-planned hours. One installation that quite literally can’t be missed is Frida Escobedo’s Randolph Square, installed in the space bearing the same name. A monolithic ramp structure with rails running along the sides and low-slung steps cutting through it, it is intended as a commentary on the ubiquity of the grid in architecture historic and present. This is a deceptively simple premise for what is an almost aggressively installed structure, feeling less site-specific than site-consumptive. It also raises questions of use: Randolph Square is one of the city’s most well-trafficked public spaces, usually filled with tables where one can scarcely find an empty seat at any time of day for all the tourists, office workers on lunch hours, and passers-by off the street. Though the installation is intended as a usable space for “informal lounging, gatherings, and forums,” in fact it has rendered a typically busy space mostly vacant, seemingly for its lack of utility.
By contrast, on the third floor is perhaps the Biennial’s most cleverly incisive installation. Swiss photographer Marianne Mueller’s She Knows She Is In Chicago turns an inward glance on the Cultural Center itself, as its transitional instances, minor interventions, and (often unattractive) details of its junctures of building extensions and phases of various uses are documented and rendered on an exaggerated scale inside the space’s built-in vitrines. This makes the decision on the part of the curators to install a separate series of large scale models in the hall significantly disappointing. Mueller’s installations are not afforded enough clear space to have an uninterrupted view of the work, much less appreciate its gravity.
This tendency to overstuff exhibition spaces, resulting in a chaotic environment where one most craves spareness is a curatorial issue that unfortunately plagues much of the Biennial, occurring in virtually every gallery at the Cultural Center. While it is not possible to positively identify whether this is intended as a deliberate strategy in the exhibition plan (though to what end, I couldn’t tell you), or simply a gross error resulting from the inclusion of more work than the galleries can fairly accommodate, it does have an undeniable negative impact on a significant number of otherwise outstanding works.
Other works to make a point of visiting include Portraits I-VI, a staggering assemblage that one enters in reverse over a mirrored threshold to reveal a master survey of architectural style through time and global culture that culminates in the Holzer-esque dictum “Our Heritage Was Left To Us Without a Testament” made in collaboration by ETH Zurich and the Accdemia di Architettura Mendriso in Geneva, a selection of intricate collage works by the late Gordon Matta-Clark from the documentation of his seminal project that once overtook the former Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago building, Circus or The Carribean Orange, and Berlin-based Verinika Kellndorfer’s National Gallery, a series of large-scale prints on glass (one of a handful of works on view paying dutiful homage to Mies van der Rohe). There is also a hidden gem laying in wait for the most diligent viewers, which can be found in the pedway (accessible via the elevator in the Randolph Street lobby), where there resides a meticulous recreation of the Cultural Center’s front doors, just below the genuine article. A work as delightful as it is spatially disconcerting.
The Graham Foundation’s on-site pop-up bookstore warrants a trip all its own. Sporting its own exhibition space, the shop has on view classic editions of seminal works on Chicago architecture (including an autographed copy of a Buckminster Fuller title), and a wealth of quotations from Stanley Tigerman integrated into the design. Cruelly enough, copies of the titles on display are not, in most cases, available for purchase in the shop, though the space does host an extensive free browsing library that more than makes up for it.
Despite the drawbacks in its execution, the Biennial is worth the investment of time its scope and complexity asks for. It is a logical and fortunate addition to the city’s cultural landscape, helping to ensure that the rich architectural heritage of the city is not forgotten, and that Chicago strives not just to remain on the vanguard of contemporary practices, but to be a consistent voice in, and platform for, the conversation about the global future of architecture. In this regard, the second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial may be considered a success.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial will remain on view through January 7th, 2018. The Chicago Cultural Center is open to the public Monday-Friday 10am-7pm, and Saturday-Sunday 10am-5pm. Guided tours are available twice daily at no charge. For departure times and more information visit chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org