11 Things to See at the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial

Our selection of the standout installations from Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee’s exhibition “Making New History.”

Our selection of the standout installations from Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee’s exhibition “Making New History.”

At a press conference for this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial this morning, the architect Sharon Johnston described the Chicago Cultural Center as “not any easy place to put on an exhibition.” About that: The 1893 structure, with a four-story north wing and a five-story south wing, is a beyond-confounding labyrinth. Yet, as Mark Lee—who with Johnston is a founding partner of the L.A.-based firm Johnston Marklee and co-artistic director of this year’s Biennial—pointed out, if there’s anyone who can organize the space efficiently for a show, it’s architects. Specifically, I would add, these architects.

For the 2017 edition, titled “Make New History”—which follows the inaugural 2015 Biennial “The State of Art and Architecture”—Johnston and Lee split the show into four subcategories: Building Histories, Image Histories, Material Histories, and Civic Histories. In short, the exhibition focuses on the multifarious ways contemporary architects are redefining, referencing, resampling, and reassembling the past to create entirely new spaces and concepts. Per usual for an architecture exhibition, there is much didactic architect-speak going on throughout, but the presentation does drive home why architecture—and specifically our understanding of the history of architecture—matters so much today.

The most effectively executed part of the show, without question, is the “Vertical City” installation on the four floor. Bringing together 15 architects to reimagine the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, it presents large-scale models that stretch toward the ceiling and delight in both their scale and imaginativeness (many would be completely unrealizable, but that’s not the point). Anyone could enjoy this room full of models for the sheer spectacle of it. While not exactly capital-A architecture, the display is fun and lighthearted but still serious. The highlights, for me, were the less showy concepts in the group, models by the firms Productora (Mexico City), Ensemble Studio (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Barbas Lopes (Lisbon), and Barozzi/Viega (Barcelona).

As in the 2015 edition, a dialogue between art and architecture is present in most of the galleries. For “Structure of Place,” Japanese architects Shingo Masuda and Katsuhisa Otsubo and the photographer Kazuhiro Ishiyama collaborated—via two large-format photographs by Ishiyama—to contrast the Akakura Shrine in Kumano, Japan, and a recently completed house by the firm. The result is a study on how the richness of the past can, when applied in the right way, help inform the present.

“Super Models” is, without a doubt, a display for architecture wonks: Presenting replicas of 12 models collected by the German Architecture Museum (DAM) in the 1980s, it’s included in the Biennial on the basis of asking how architecture models, authentic or not, have been collected by museums and other institutions over time. Regardless of the backstory, though, the models presented, by architects including Frank Gehry (shown here), Aldo Rossi, and Shin Takamatsu, offer pure aesthetic joy.

London firm Dogma created “Rooms,” an installation of drawings reflecting on the idea of a room—or, as the Biennial wall text put it, “the capability of clearing space for oneself.” The expertly conceived drawings of interiors, featuring case studies such as William Faulkner’s bedroom, Steve Jobs’s living room, and Le Corbusier’s cabanon, don’t disappoint. “Rooms” brings a sense of personality and—refreshingly—a few ideas from non-architects to the fore.

A pleasant surprise is a wall displaying 30 sketches by the Portuguese architect Ricardo Bak Gordon. Brimming with a sense of soul, the colorful table-sized studies, done in bright crayon on vellum paper, showcase Bak Gordon’s mind at work. They exult, in a wonderfully impassioned form, his adept attention to materiality, texture, and light.

In a room adjacent to the Bak Gordon drawings there are attention-grabbing works by Chilean architect Pezo von Ellrichshausen exploring the idea of multiples. Done in 729 variations and 81 colors, all of them in white frames, the installation is Warhol-like in its serial nature and meditative in its practically seamless execution.

Two Chinese firms have work on display, in separate galleries, focusing on the intersection of old and new in their home country. One of them, Shanghai-based Archi-Union Architects, has put together three recently completed projects that merge robotic fabrication with centuries-old craft techniques (one of the models is shown above). The other, Beijing-based ZAO/Standardarchitecture, also has three of its projects on display, all of them of buildings in hutong areas of Beijing and analyzing the tensions between conservation, development, and renovation.

A material study I found pleasing in its simple form and message is “Totems” by Athens-based firm Point Supreme. The installation presents three poles with an artfully arranged selection of samples taken from a 2016 project by the studio. It shows how the architects creatively worked around constraints during the country’s recent financial crisis to build a home with materials found in local markets or from donations.

More material exploration—and weaving, in particular—is highlighted in adjacent installations by New York–based architect Toshiko Mori (shown above) and the New York– and Tucson, Arizona-based firm Aranda\Lasch (shown below). For Mori’s, done with support from the Anni Albers Foundation, the architect combined Bauhaus history and craft, software design, and Senegalese craftsmanship to create a scale model of the thatched roof of her firm’s Thread Artist Residency and cultural center in Sinthian, Senegal.

Aranda\Lasch, continuing a long-standing partnership with the Native American artist Terrol Dew Johnson, organized a new showing of their “Baskets” project. The collaboration, which began in 2006 with a show at Artists Space in New York, continued with a recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson. Here, a selection of the work from the past decade—which tests new forms and combines them with traditions of the Tohono O’odham Nation—is assembled.

Title photo: A model of a project in Beijing by ZAO/Standardarchitecture.

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