Chicago Architecture Biennial


at Chicago Cultural Center

View of Tatiana Bilbao’s proposal (Not) Another Tower, 2017, at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.


Chicago is a city that tells its architectural history obsessively. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s acclaimed boat tours are arguably as important to the tourist trade as visits to Wrigley Field. The advent of the skyscraper (Louis Sullivan), the development of the Prairie Style (Frank Lloyd Wright), and the spread of the International Style across America (Mies van der Rohe) is such a well-known incantation that it has, perhaps, lost a bit of its power. With all that attention to history, Chicago has lacked a grip on its architectural future. It seems fitting, then, that “Make New History” is the theme of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial, a sprawling exhibition housed primarily in the Chicago Cultural Center, formerly the main building of the city’s public library, located opposite the iconic Millennium Park.

“Make New History,” which encompasses models, plans, and other materials by some 140 firms, is curated by Los Angeles–based architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of Johnston Marklee, who say in a statement that they are motivated by a desire “to examine the paradoxical resource and restriction that the horizon of historical materials presents us with.” They produce elegant and sophisticated work, and are immersed in the art world. Johnston Marklee recently remodeled the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and designed the Drawing Institute at the Menil Collection in Houston.

These art-centric architects cribbed their theme from a 2009 book by Ed Ruscha, but the figure who looms larger in their show is the prominent Chicago provocateur Stanley Tigerman, who briefly recharged Chicago’s architecture scene in the 1980s. The homage to him is most explicit at “Vertical City,” an exhibition of models inspired by a 1980 paper architecture project by Tigerman that itself revisited a 1922 brief for a new tower to house the Chicago Tribune’s offices. The Biennial’s centerpiece, “Vertical City” fills what was once a grand reading room with totems that, while striking, lack the groundbreaking yet grounded-in-reality quality of the original competition entries and the provocative imagery of Tigerman’s postmodern redux. Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao contributed (Not) Another Tower, a kind of vertical favela that stacks structures conceived by different designers and groups. The project is intriguing if unlikely, more of a commentary than a concrete proposal. More representative of “Vertical City” is Sam Jacob Studio’s tower of layered fragments of historical architecture—Tigerman’s postmodernism warmed over.

“Horizontal City,” the Biennial’s other large grouping, pays geometric homage to Mies van der Rohe’s plan for the Illinois Institute of Technology’s low-slung campus. Displayed on short plinths, the projects here frequently revisit real or fictional histories. Chicago-based Norman Kelly created a model based on a Jeff Wall photograph of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, while Meyer-Grohbrügge & Chermayeff reconstructed the bar painted in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. For the most part, these projects rely on quotations and produce merely ornamental effects.

Designers who create intriguing new structural systems and forms with traditional techniques and materials produced some of the Biennial’s highlights. Most of these projects are located in the Cultural Center’s ancillary rooms. Shanghai-based Archi-Union Architects fuse digital form-making with ancient elements like roof tiles and wood joinery, as represented here in both intricate models and large-scale photographs of built works. Aranda\Lasch collaborated with Native American weaver Terrol Dew Johnson to create delicate sculptural pieces out of wire and natural fibers, the results resembling loosely woven baskets inspired by the work of Lee Bontecou.

The opening of “Make New History” coincided with Expo Chicago, the city’s largest art fair, and the two organizations partnered on programming and promotions. Johnston Marklee’s exhibition design, with its meticulous gridded layouts and seductive uses of repetition, appears to be aimed squarely at an art world audience. The rarefied air of “Make New History” makes for pleasant viewing, but the emphasis on pictorial and formal strategies also neuters the role architecture can play in shaping lives, communities, landscapes, and the environment. This twee interiority and disengagement from architecture’s social agency is particularly disconcerting given Chicago’s real challenges and President Trump’s routine framing of the city as an urban war zone. In this exhibition, history turns out to be more of a restriction than a resource.