a postmodernist homage: the 2017 chicago architecture biennial

On the top floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, the home base of the 2017 Chicago
Architecture Biennial, one is greeted by a large Hollywood-style sign by the firm
Monadnock. It reads, “Make Big Plans,” echoing of the Biennial’s theme of “Make New
Histories.” Yet, after spending upwards of six hours exploring the three exhibition
floors, I am left wondering where exactly the “new” is to be found. Rather than address
contemporary issues of homelessness, climate change, the refugee crisis, and new
fabrication technologies, the second Chicago Biennial is mired in a neo-postmodernist
curation of pretty collages and objet-touvés.

(Not) Another Tower - Tatiana Bilbao Estudio
(Not) Another Tower – Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

While certain of the exhibitions can be said to push boundaries — such as SANAA’s
Lake 33rd, Bronzeville and Adamo-Faiden’s From Mix-Use to Diff-Use — the Biennial’s
overall atmosphere is one of nostalgia, with countless references to Mies van der Rohe,
Superstudio, Le Corbusier, and Adolf Loos. The two linchpin galleries, Vertical City and
Horizontal City, best demonstrate this harkening back to the past. In the former, fifteen
architects present sixteen feet high models of “contemporary” proposals for the
Chicago Tribune Tower, in homage to the original 1922 competition. Of these fifteen,
nine directly reference historical architecture, with six employing the term column to
refer to the tower, in the tradition of Chicagoan Louis Sullivan. Barabs Lopes’s golden
tower directly references Adolf Loos’s original runner-up Doric column entry. 6a
Architects puts forward a slender wooden column created from Rococo panels. Sam
Jacob Studio’s model, entitled Chicago Pasticcio, is “composed of varied architectural
references fused into a new whole,” so that “a new kind of tower is made out of
fragments of history.” Yet, this tower is merely Neoclassicist. Others make more recent
references: Ensemble Studio’s Big Bang Tower and Kéré Architecture’s Tower of
” both allude to Metabolist structural cores.

Horizontal City is likewise composed of about fifteen works, each one a play on the
diorama paradigm. Some of these are literal recreations of modernist and
postmodernist projects, such as Le Corbusier’s Beistegui apartment in Paris. Sauter
von Moos’s Sonsbeek Readymade is an homage to Aldo van Eyck’s Sonsbeek
Sculpture Pavilion, filled with oversized Pop Art-esque objet-trouvés, such as a wine
glass and spring. MAIO’s The Grand Interior directly alludes to Marcel Duchamp’s
double-framed door, erasing architectural mass and defining space with furniture. Then there is UrbanLab’s A Room Enclosed by Hills and Mountains, which re-imagines
Superstudio’s Supersurface of the 1970s, complete with the same hippie family cutout.
Numerous other works throughout the Biennial directly draw on the past, and more
particularly, a postmodern past. A 1:2 scale model of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel is
reimagined in a playful postmodern style with contemporary scenes drawn on the
interior by baukuh and Stefano Graziani. Keith Kramwiede’s wallpaper motif, Visions of
Another America
, collages Joseph Dufour’s 1814 motif of Parisian monuments with
American suburban development homes. Meanwhile, Stan Allen Architect displays a
new balloon-frame model mounted on an actual balloon-frame. Yet, no architect is
more alluded to than Mies van der Rohe, almost to the point of obsession. Photographs of his Crown Hall and Farnsworth House by various photographers line the walls while curtains hung in the style of his Tugendhat House define alcoves for more photographs of his Lake Shore Drive towers.

The Biennial’s rhetoric looks backward instead of forward. The descriptions of
many of the pieces refer to themselves post-modernly as “sculptural objects” (Éric
Lapierre’s 365 Student Housing tower) or as “as-found objects.” Ornamental motifs are
prevalent: Barozzi/ Viegga’s “structure as continuous ornament” tower, or Studio
Mumbai’s gold-leafed Prima Materia bamboo studies. Ironically, it seems as though
Venturi snuck up on the curators as they wrote the texts of these modernist homages,
or even upon the architects themselves. (Not) Another Tower by Tatiano Bilabao
Estudio is a perfect example of Venturian appropriation as it amalgamates thousands
of found-objects, including a Buddha head, into the structure. In fact, the Biennial’s
artistic directors, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, are so concerned with seeking the
past that they required “each participant to submit three reference images that
informed their work.” Thus, it would be more apt to name the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial the 1977 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Cosmic Latte Architecture Beige Manifesto - Jürgen Mayer H.
Cosmic Latte Architecture Beige Manifesto – Jürgen Mayer H.

Nevertheless, there are progressive works on display. Most notably Lake 33rd, Bronzeville by SANAA in collaboration with the IIT College of Architecture; From Mix- Use to Diff-Use by Adamo-Faiden; Parking & More by HHF Architects; Robotic Craftsmanship: Making New History with Traditional Materials by Archi-Union Architects; Cosmic Latte: Architecture Beige Manifesto by Jürgen Mayer H. & Philip Ursprung; The Ethics of Dust by Jorge Otero-Pailos; and Make New Hutong Metabolism by ZAO/ Standardarchitecture. These push conventional architectural notions in relation to contemporary issues of development, technology, and theory. Lake 33rd, for example, imagines a new kind of campus for IIT composed of unique mountainous structures that serve equally as public parks and classroom and recreational space for the college and community. Parking & More likewise incorporates future development into an elegant parking garage in Basel’s former industrial zone. The Ethics of Dust develops a new latex material gathered from the dust and pollution accumulated on ancient monuments during cleaning. Meanwhile, Robotic Craftsmanship applies new technological fabrication methods to traditional Chinese ceramics, carpentry, and masonry in order “to reinvent the expressive possibilities of building surfaces.” Most radical of all though is Comic Latte: Architecture Beige Manifesto, which states, “We want to locate a new architectural paradigm. Cosmic Latte shows the big in the small — and the small in the big. It is a cosmology of the architecture of our time.” And yet, the manifesto still offers no insight into what this new paradigm could be.

Many of these more progressive works also still allude to the past, particularly a postmodernist past. Parking & More cites Cedric Price. Make New Hutong Metabolism preserves the traditional Beijing courtyard typology, and From Mix-Use to Diff-Use employs cartoonish speech bubbles in the style of Venturi. So what makes them different from the other exhibitions? What makes them seem more progressive? Perhaps it is the difference between mimicking history and being inspired by it.

The majority of the Biennial’s works are postmodernist testaments to the past and offer little in terms of novelty. Yet these few later works posses a unique quality in that they do not directly copy the past’s forms, but adopt its ideas for today’s world. Make New Hutong Metabolism, for example, is not building traditional hutong houses, but breathing new life into them with contemporary forms and programs, while Robotic Craftsmanship employs new digital modeling and fabrication on traditional materials to generate textural massings. Indeed, there is a fine line between inspiration and mimicry, and of the nearly 200 projects on display, it is these seven that navigate it fluently.

Portraits I-IV - ETH Zurich and the Accademia di Architettura Mendrisio
Portraits I-IV – ETH Zurich and the Accademia di Architettura Mendrisio

One work in particular speaks to the Biennial’s obsession with history. Portraits I-VI,
curated by students of ETH Zurich and the Accademia di Architettura Mendrisio,
ironically collages and juxtaposes drawings, images, and photographs of various
architectural monuments and historical moments onto a salon wall that curves forward,
as though buckling under its own allegorical weight. A mirrored floor reflects the wall
back upon itself, as though to say that history is a reflective cycle. Yet, Portraits I-VI is
not an homage to the past; it is a commentary on the influence of history in
contemporary design. History should not weigh us down, but inspire us to push

In a rapidly changing world, I struggle to justify the 2017 Chicago Architecture
Biennial’s reference to a past that seems ever more divorced from our contemporary
politics and lifestyles. Charles Waldheim & the GSD’s Heliomorphic is the only exhibit
to discuss climate change, yet offers no practical solutions for sustainability. There is
no mention of the refugee crisis, and housing takes a back seat to the generation of
majestic models and aesthetically pleasing collages. The Biennial is a pastiche of
historical references that attempts to spawn a neo-postmodern movement detached,
just as the original was, from the needs of contemporary society in favor of pretty
colors and gold-leafed materials. Now is not the time to be nostalgic for a past that has
failed to meet the needs of a globalized world.

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