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Chicago Architecture Biennial: 10 things we loved

Model skyscrapers, funky churches, and more architecture abound at the second edition of this sprawling event

The Chicago Cultural Center, main venue for the Chicago Architecture Biennial
Tom Harris

At the press conference to kick off the second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, held underneath the massive Tiffany glass dome of the Chicago Cultural Center, the running joke was that the event was finally “official”— it’s not a biennial until it happens twice. But taking in the massive collection of displays, shows, and satellite events running from September 16 through January 7, it’s clear organizers and participants are keen to avoid a sophomore slump.

Artistic directors, architects, and educators Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, of L.A.’s Johnston Marklee, invited more than 140 participants from around the world to interpret the exhibit’s theme, “Make New History.” Based on the myriad of architectural history, design, and urban planning displays, it appeared to be a wide-ranging prompt. Here are some of the exhibitions and events that stood out during a tour of the main display and many of the off-site exhibitions opening weekend.

1. New takes on a classic skyscraper

Tom Harris

“Vertical City,” an exhibit at one of the main Cultural Center galleries, revisits the famed 1922 competition to design a tower for the Chicago Tribune and does more than just fill the expected quota for skyscrapers in a Chicago architecture exhibition. It highlights design’s evolution over time, showing how three eras approached the same commission.

The original competition, which offered the equivalent of $1.5 million in prize money eventually won by Howells & Hood’s dark Neo-Gothic design, attracted hundreds of entries from around the world, a selection of which line the gallery walls, showcasing history shifting from Beaux Arts to modern (Eliel Saarinen’s famous second-place entry to the contest was considered a forerunner to many modern buildings). Then in 1980, Stanley Tigerman asked the architects of his day, including Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, to add their own “late entries” to the competition, creating another Postmodern time capsule.

The contemporary exhibition takes center stage, giving 16 architects, including Tatiana Bilbao and Francis Kéré, space to create their own takes on a new Tribune Tower, with 16-foot-tall scale models arranged throughout the center of the gallery. The new models aren’t as compelling as the classics, but they do offer a great contrast.

2. Visions of Chicago’s urban future

A new idea for the Chicago River from Sasaki, one of the firms participating in the River Edge Idea Lab
Sasaki

The big advantage of hosting an architecture celebration in Chicago is the city itself, birthplace of the skyscraper and Burnham’s plan. Taking the city’s rich history into consideration, two exciting off-site exhibitions hewed even closer to the theme and explored ways to repurpose some of the city’s forgotten places.

Across the street from the Cultural Center in the Expo 72 Gallery, the River Edge Idea Lab gave nine architecture firms a chance to add to the city’s river system. Traditionally an afterthought compared to Lake Michigan, the river system has recently become a mayoral priority and the focus of new developments, such as the Riverwalk.

The Idea Lab builds on this momentum with speculative bridges, nature areas, pools, and public spaces. A few block south of the main exhibit on Michigan, the Chicago Architecture Foundation should already be a must see for an architectural tourist, if only for its city model. But its own exhibit and envisioning exercise, Between States, offers 50 different ideas for creative reuse and repurposing across the city’s 50 wards.

3. Suburbia, reimagined

Tom Harris

Amid a sea of self-serious displays, satire is much appreciated. In one hallway-turned-gallery, what may look, at first glance, like wallpaper of Old Master paintings, reveals itself to be an clever and amusing take on suburbia—sort of a McMansion Hell fever dream.

Keith Krumwiede’s “A Purloined Argument” features images of what he calls “Freedomland,” a blend of landscape paintings, classical architecture, and the sprawling residences assembled by U.S. homebuilders. According to the designers, it’s a utopian look at communal housing, but considering it’s taken from a book called Atlas of Another America, which actually contains a layout of a “development” called Neo-Palladian Acres, its easy to see this as a look into the suburban psyche.

4. The City of Light, in infographic form

A post shared by DS (@the.purist) on

For this simple yet striking exhibition—named Paris Haussmann after the city’s famous urban planning visionary—a series of posters and minimal graphics that breaks down the urban dimensions of Paris clarifies the city’s history with clever data analysis that tells as much of a story as a Brassaï bar photograph.

Stark black-and-white overlays show the age of the city’s building stock, which gets broken down further in long grids and cut-aways showing the eccentric shapes of 19th century buildings and the elements of classic Parisian facades (one series of displays looks like architectural elements crossed with a dissection display). Produced by the Pavillon de l’Arsenal and conceived by architects Umberto Napolitano, Benoit Jallon, and engineer-architect Franck Boutte, it’s a fresh take on a much-visited historical topic.

5. Images of an underrepresented Chicago

The photos of David Schalliol.
Tom Harris

Architecture, in theory and proposals, often lionizes the past and finds a place for it in the present. But in practice, it often erases or overwrites buildings and communities as new developments get added to our cities. That’s one of the reasons the photos of local sociologist David Schalliol document how efforts to transform the Chicago Housing Authority have impacted the locals and the landscape. His images of the hulking, late 20th-century towers that stood as monuments to lost promise and potential capture poignant moments of change on the skyline.

One particular image, of boys shooting basketball with a building in the background, mid-demolition, is striking. And the Biennial’s interaction with the city’s neighborhoods doesn’t end there—as part of its program of off-site displays and events, satellite events at other cultural institutions explore the history of the city’s built environment through different lenses. Local architecture expert Lee Bey's large-format photos of buildings of the city’s South Side, displayed at the DuSable Museum of African American History, give an overlooked section of the city the spotlight.

6. Creative reuse in China

Archi-Union’s pedestals were as much a part of the display as the models
Steve Hall

Historical renovations and infill projects epitomize the Biennial’s theme, showing classic styles and torn, faded parts of the urban fabric cut, re-stitched, and re-appropriated. A few displays within the Cultural Center showcased a country where, to no surprise, very sensitive and skilled versions of this kind of work is being done.

“Make New Hutong Metabolism,” by ZAO/standardarchitecture explores how the traditional courtyard and alley system in Beijing is being both preserved and updated for the 21st century. Many of the additions and extensions, which often repurpose open spaces between sloping, traditional roofs, look like they belong in the pages of Dwell.

In another section of the galley, a series of projects from Shanghai’s Archi-Union Architects shows off the work of a firm that blends technology and robotic assembly techniques. A series of models, one with an undulating, seemingly impossible brick facade, and another boasting a curved roof that bends traditional tiles in the form of a figure eight, shows a firm embracing a new approach to traditional beauty.

7. The unexpectedly radical designs of Polish Churches

A Polish church documented by Snopek, Cichonska, and Popera.
Photo by Igor Snopek via ArchDaily

Displayed in a series of small images and text, it’s easy to miss when strolling through the ground floor gallery. But once your eye zeroes in on these abstract houses of worship—odd polygons and flowering forms that seem akin to the fantastical work of Bruce Goff or Gunnar Birkerts—you’ll be captivated. And then when you take in the entire story of how these churches were made before Poland escaped communist rule, you may be blown away.

According to the designers behind the exhibit, Kuba Snopek, Iza Cichonska, and Karolina Popera, Polish architects and worshippers collaborated on more than 3,000 Catholic churches between 1945 and 1989, supernatural structures built under the table, so to speak, as a form of protest. Since these buildings weren’t state sanctioned, they were constructed by the community at night, in a communal fashion. Sometimes parishioners even built their own factories to churn out bricks. It’s an amazing story of architecture as a source of hope and resistance.

8. A highly engineered look at an architecture firm’s own history

It’s hard to escape the shadow of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. Quite literally, since the global firm is responsible for the city’s most famous two skyscrapers, the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Center. In keeping with the company’s engineering prowess, this off-site exhibit, running at the Mana Contemporary Gallery in the city’s West Loop, gives visitors a delightfully nerdy walk through the science of architecture.

Tables contain displays illuminating different types of trusses and joints, and an entire room is filled with small models of skyscrapers, further broken down with a wall display explaining the names and forms of each major type of design. Amid an event filled with theoretical ideas, fluffy explanatory wall text, and abstract images, “SOM: Engineering x [Art + Architecture]” offers bit of a palette cleanser to really geek out about buildings.

9. Rooms of ones own

Establishing a relatively simple perspective for comparison, this exhibit by the studio Dogma offers a rather simple scope of inquiry: How have rooms changed over time? Domestic architecture, wrapped up in so many cultural, social, and economic issues, becomes a little clearer in this display, a historical compendiums of drawings and explanation.

Simple, straightforward illustrations—thin lines, no color—show famous bedrooms throughout history, running the gamut from prehistoric to prophetic (where else would you see images of Martin Luther, Lenin, and Steve Jobs’s living room on the same wall?). Two large books let viewers flip through scores of different spaces, offering plenty of space for inquiry and exploration.

10. Nick Cave and Jeanne Gang’s riotous, relevant dance party

2017, Courtesy of Navy Pier, © James Richards IV

A special limited performance held the Wednesday before the Biennial’s grand opening proved to be one of the most majestic, energizing, and multi-layered moments of the opening weekend. Billed as a collaboration between two Chicago artists—the noted performance artist, known for his colorful Soundsuits, which function like movable sculptures, and one of Chicago’s most beloved architects—”Here Hear” offered a stage for Cave to shine (Studio Gang’s contribution, concrete buoys with reflective panels, were more a flourish than central part of the show).

After a slow, processional suiting up, the dancers rose and explored the stage, moving together at points in ways that recalled a New Orleans parade. Speaking to Cave the day after the show, he said the symbolism was more serious than some may have assumed, especially considering the riotous ending where the dancers, with costumes half removed, playfully bounced around the stage. The adding of costumes explored ideas of transition and transformation, for fatherless boys, the vocalizations, liberation, and urgency of now. In an art and architecture festival filled with abstract, theoretical, and creative pieces, Gang and Cave’s show was a thought-provoking, engaging part of opening weekend.