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Chicago Architecture Biennial, in second act, will tackle architects' roles in a frayed society

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Curators and architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee talk to Curbed

An aerial view of Chicago. With the second-ever Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Windy City is working to cement its status as the premier North American destination for design discourse.
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The Chicago Architecture Biennial returns to the city this fall, two years after attracting over half a million visitors to the Windy City. The biennial’s sophomore showing will again attempt to establish Chicago as the North American seat of international architectural discussion.

The first biennial, in 2015, featured the work of a number of emerging practices, each of which preoccupied with redefining the scope and potentials of the architecture profession. Its second-coming has a high bar to exceed—partially to satisfy the city’s “Cultural Plan,” a program aimed at strengthening Chicago’s touristic identity as a nursery of architectural history and the arts.

As announced last September, partners Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston of L.A.-based firm Johnston Marklee will serve as co-artistic directors. Their chosen theme, “Make New History,” came after reflections on their role as participants in the 2015 biennial—and in the midst of political discourse set ablaze by “alternative facts.”

While the opening is still months away, Lee and Johnston spoke to Curbed about their artistic development and overall strategy for exploring architecture history’s many narratives.

This year’s Biennial theme, “Make New History,” is less about redefining the profession and more about how contemporary architectural forms reckon with the past, especially in a globalized present. What kinds of architectural ideas are you hoping to explore with this theme?

Mark: We were very much aware of how the first [Biennial] started and how we can play off of certain themes that were already embedded in the first one. […] So we wanted to have a more intense focus on the role history plays in the making of architecture.

Under that theme there are many other issues: social issues, structural, and sustainable issues that each architect brings to the table.

Sharon: We’re focusing in on a certain kind of framework that we saw coursing through a lot of the [previous Biennial’s] work. And you will see again, in the work of this biennial, what we’re calling “civic histories,” which reframes an idea about social engagement within cities and within architecture.

What do you hope an architecture biennial can accomplish by engaging with our climate of fake news, filter bubbles, and political echo chambers?

Mark: I think we’re trying to be aware of what architecture can do.

I think architecture can do a lot, but it can’t do everything. But ... there’s a certain slowness about architecture—how architecture comes about or how architecture is experienced—that brings a certain kind of concentration that’s very much unlike the fast-paced explosion of images. I think it demands a certain kind of contemplation.

How will “Make New History” take care to represent architects’ work as sympathetic to, but not acquiescing to, these issues?

Mark: Well, I think this is something we need to think about, because we’re still in the process of receiving the work. We know we have invited architects who have dealt with strong stances on social or political issues, but I think for us it’s how the work conveys these issues [that’s important].

It’s very important to understand the role of the architect in the built environment, in the sense that the role of [an architect] is [as] one of many players, and as participants. And oftentimes the role of the architect is to give form to forces that are already there. I certainly think that an architect has a position to make certain statements about these social-political issues, but it’s also a very limited one.

So would you say the role of the biennial will be to make sure that there’s an honest portrayal of that limited ability?

Mark: I think so, I think that’s important for us, yeah.

As the sophomore event, there are high hopes for this biennial to exceed 2015’s, and to strengthen Chicago’s urban identity as an art and architecture capital, worthy of tourist dollars. Can you describe how you and the mayor collaborated on the biennial’s artistic direction?

Sharon: [Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago cultural commissioners have] initiated a discussion with a number of important national architects and landscape architects about the state of the river in Chicago, so I think that has been born out of the legacy of the biennial.

The intention is to penetrate even more deeply into design communities and the impact of design on cultural threads of the city, that might not be so obvious to an international crowd.

Mark Kelly, the cultural commissioner, [is] very interested in the legacy of the biennial having an impact on the building itself. So we’re maintaining some of the pieces of last year’s biennial, and perhaps we’ll do that again this year, because he believes that they have a positive impact on transforming that building as it continues to evolve from a library to a cultural center to an active exhibition venue.

Given its central location and how popular the first biennial was, what do you want non-architects to get out of the biennial?

Sharon: We hope we can continue to deepen the discussion about design and the legacy of Chicago through the production of the exhibition, and we hope that that happens at many different levels, both at the exhibition itself and as we work through programming events that will happen through the run of the show.

Mark: I think for us it’s really ultimately about why architecture is still important, and why it should remain important. This whole experience of experiencing something physically as opposed to through media, and something about being in the space — being enveloped in a space, walking through a space — I think the physicality of the experience is still important.