Answers to partially stated problems: Sammy Medina on the Chicago Architecture Biennial
Source:The Art Newspaper Author:Samuel Medina Date: 2015-12-21 Size:
“Architecture is always political.” The phrase, regardless of its many variations, is a kind of slogan in progressive architectural circles……

Bryony Roberts's project, titled We Know How to Order, with the South Shore Drill Team, for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

“Architecture is always political.” The phrase, regardless of its many variations, is a kind of slogan in progressive architectural circles. It is a rallying cry for the young and young-ish (architects mature slowly), and it is these architects that the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial puts on most prominent display.

Officially, there are no claims that directly position the biennial as a foil to the Venice Architecture Biennale, which was founded in 1980 to herald architectural postmodernism. The Chicago curators, Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda, instead, have upstart intentions. Here, unlike in Venice, there are no national pavilions. There are only a handful of recognisable architects involved. Admittance is free. And in lieu of an overriding theme, there is a wilfully ambiguous non-theme: the State of the Art of Architecture. The title is taken fr om a 1977 conference held at the Graham Foundation, where Herda is the current director, which sought to expose the hollow corporate core of modernist architecture and replace it with a promiscuous building vocabulary; it ended up prefiguring postmodernism’s victory lap in Venice three years later.

Regardless, much of the work in Chicago hews closely to political themes, often unsuccessfully. The nadir is surely the French designer Didier Faustino’s BUILTHEFIGHT (2015), an asinine display of twisted steel tubing and plywood conceived as a riot shield for protesters. In a pathetic gesture, neon script glows with bland verbiage (“occupy,” “resist”) that ventriloquizes dissent. In the adjacent gallery, Pedro Reyes’s People’s United Nations: pUN (2013) ties geopolitical redress to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, here recalibrated in quaint dimensions with nothing but a sad couple of cutout figures for company. They are flat stand-ins for the two “conferences” Reyes staged at the Queens Museum in 2013 and at the Hammer Museum earlier this year, where he cast 193 gallery visitors in the role of United Nations representatives. The idea is to construe international diplomacy on an everyday scale, but in the end, it simply signals the limits of participatory politics.

Where is the architecture in all this? There is a long, colourful history of architects inhabiting disciplines outside their own, from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who famously advocated “learning” from Las Vegas and its panoply of populist imagery, to Peter Eisenman’s explorations of philosophical Deconstruction. This legacy of interdisciplinary influence and exchange is pervasive at the biennial, but it often settles into tokenism. A collaboration between WORKac and the collective Ant Farm to reanimate a few of the latter’s decades-old projects relies too heavily on the badly halcyon imagery of radical 1960s environmentalism. Similar in spirit but better in result is an installation by the Chilean architects TOMA, who conducted an archeology of Santiago, mapping, with Situationist-esque diagrams, the entrails that tie the Chilean capital to the Chicago school of economics. They staged their investigation in a gallery across the street from the Cultural Center, tacking up bits of evidence on a corkboard to humorously implicate Milton Friedman in the neo-liberalisation of Santiago.

Inside the 19th-century Beaux Arts Cultural Center, the show’s main venue, the Chicago architect Jeanne Gang reimagined the city’s police stations as transparent bastions of community life. A handsomely produced timeline tucked into one side of a stairwell niche charts the evolution of police violence as it has (and hasn’t) had to adapt to increasing social liberalisation. Presented as a panacea, the architect’s proposal is spectacularly misjudged. It speculates that around-the-clock surveillance can co-exist amid a constellation of playing fields, co-op gardens and organic markets.

Andrés Jaque Architects, SUPERPOWERS OF TEN (2013). Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Gang will never be mistaken for anything other than an architect, but Andres Jaque is more difficult to pin down. The founder of the Office for Political Intervention, Jaque resists traditional disciplinary roles: he is an artist, joker-provocateur, and was, at least for the biennial’s first few days, the director of a hit one-act performance. His project, SUPERPOWERS OF TEN (2013), reinterprets Charles and Ray Eames’s IBM-produced short film Powers of Ten (1977) with the production value of a grade-school play—papier-mache heads, outsize props and all. Originally produced for the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennial, the performance was retooled for its new setting and included a building maquette of the Union Stock Yards, Chicago’s former meatpacking district. Placards with working-class slogans gestured to the city’s fraught history with labor, but on the whole, the performance stumbled over cutesy disparities of scale and childish techniques.

It is difficult to detect the architecture—let alone the “art of architecture”—amid these Fisher Price histrionics, but it is everywhere else in Chicago. Visitors leaving Jaque’s play can walk outside in any direction and stagger across an important work of architecture, such as the high Modernist Federal Center by the émigré Mies van der Rohe, wh ere Bryony Roberts staged a memorable performance by the South Shore Drill Team. The choreographed pirouettes of these Chicago teenagers enlivened Mies’s ghostly gridiron a few times a day throughout the biennial opening. As a critique of Modernism, it was par for the course; in the context of the biennial, however, it was one of the few convincing cases of “cast[ing] into doubt our certainties about what architecture is”—Grima and Herda’s benchmark for their biennial—precisely because it begins with Mies as its premise and then goes on to scramble the public’s perceptions of his architecture.

This thread is picked up by a few of the biennial’s better works. For her Color(ed) Theory (2014–2015) project, Amanda Williams painted foreclosed or abandoned homes in Chicago’s South Side with offbeat, monochromatic colors like red Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake Williams for a psychogeographer with a paint roller. But the architect, who was born and bred in the South Side, and who self-identifies as a “female Gordon Matta-Clark” and a “Black Josef Albers,” doesn’t merely highlight the blight of the area. Rather, she exposes the stigma of urban blight and the politics of exclusion that undergird it.

Much of the rest of the work sequestered away from the rich architectural history of Chicago, on the other hand, suffers. This is the perennial problem with displaying architecture like art. It would be conservative to insist that architecture is only about making buildings, but it is a tyrannical mandate that architecture and politics must be found in everything. Architecture is political; how can it not be? But politics has many dimensions. Too often, an architect’s imagination in these matters begins and ends with a schematic proposal for democratic, “bottom-up” strategies of development. At the biennial, that impulse dominates. Proposals like Tatiana Bilbao’s design for a 463-square-foot plywood house that can be built for just $8,000 are earnest, but they obscure the knotty complexities of housing policy and real estate development. They are inventive answers to a partially stated problem.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern