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Bye-bye Biennial: Reviews mixed as Chicago Exhibit Closes

Bye-Bye Biennial: Reviews mixed as Chicago exhibit closes

Window dressing? Despite record traffic at CAB's Cultural Center HQ, some still wondered, "Is that all there is?"

Window dressing? Despite record traffic at CAB's Cultural Center HQ, some still wondered, "Is that all there is?"

B     I     E     N     N     I     A     L         D     I     S     P     A     T     C     H     E     S

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by JOHN GREGERSON, Last in the series | Jan 14, 2016

After a whiz-bang October kick-off that drew 31,000 attendees within days, the three-month-long Chicago Architectural Biennial, billed as the “largest exhibition of contemporary architecture in the history of North America", quietly wound down last month before concluding Jan. 3.

In the interim, the Biennial's 120 exhibits, the majority on display in Chicago's Beaux-Arts Cultural Center, by turns elicited delight, debate and, in some instances, dismissal. Ditto for dozens of programs and events that united experts from across the globe to address issues ranging from design in the public realm to urban planning to figural monuments – meaning roadside signage.

Taken on its own terms, the Biennial was an “unequivocal success,” as besieged Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted in a recent statement. The event drew participants from more than 30 countries, making for a true international gathering. It enhanced Chicago's preeminence as an architectural capital, in this case for promoting contemporary thought as much as for its storied skyline. According to organizers, the event drew more than 500,000 visitors, exceeding expectations and boosting tourism. Finally, the Biennial established itself as a counterpart to Venice's Architecture Biennal, with the Mayor vowing its return in 2017. Assuming it becomes permanent, Chicago would hold future Biennials in odd-numbered years as a complement to Venice's schedule of even-numbered years.

PASSAGE: This "ambitious" display from Brooklyn-based, next-gen design firm SO-IL was among those that impressed.

PASSAGE: This "ambitious" display from Brooklyn-based, next-gen design firm SO-IL was among those that impressed.

AIA's Esposito

AIA's Esposito

The main hitch was choosing between competing programming on any given day, says Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of AIA Chicago, a partnering organization behind the event. Given its scope, “It was a true embarrassment of riches,” he says, “and an amazing first time out. This could have begun as a conference or series of conferences that gradually emerged as a biennial. (But) due to thoughtful planning, we wound up with a purposeful and ambitious event from the outset.”

With programming ranging from “Polis Station”, an ambitious plan by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang to improve public-police relations in crime-plagued neighborhoods, to an adjunct exhibit of Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye, now a finalist to design the Obama Presidential Center, little of the Biennial went undocumented by the media, whether local, national or international.

As the British newspaper The Guardian gushed, “Chicago's Architecture Biennial secures the city's place as a mecca for building buffs.”

Mission accomplished.

Kudos notwithstanding, there were notable hits and misses, depending on opinion, taste and expectation. Perhaps the most common criticism was the lack of a unifying theme on the part of Biennial co-curators Sarah Herda, director of Chicago's Graham Foundation, and Joseph Grima, former editor of Domus, an Italian design magazine. It wasn't an oversight, according to Herda, who told The Guardian, “We didn't want to constrain the work with a theme. We went out into the world and asked architects to tell us what they think matters.” The intent, she said, was to create a “site of experimentation – not a place to look at pictures of buildings, but (to) figure out the future of making buildings.”

On those terms, the Biennial may have only partially succeeded.

3D-printed potato chips? Admittedly, some new age design displays left many visitors more baffled than inspired.

3D-printed potato chips? Admittedly, some new age design displays left many visitors more baffled than inspired.

True, programs and displays brought fresh perspective on the role of architecture in climate change, affordable housing and urban violence. Enchanting as it was, however, some found it difficult to discern how spiders weaving webs in vitrines -- the subject of one exhibit -- figured into the future of building design. Even Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, a Biennial enthusiast, found the variety of displays, including a three-legged rock sculpture (albeit robot-made), somewhat “bewildering.”

Absent a theme, Esposito speculates that some attendees and would-be attendees may have been overwhelmed by the Biennial's sheer breadth and diversity, prompting some of them to “tune out.”

Some detected a common thread among the diverse offerings – or believed they did. “It seemed caught between a socially relevant approach to architecture and an approach that placed emphasis on artistic, experimental forms,” notes one prominent Chicago architect who asked not to be identified. The dichotomy failed on both counts, the architect believes. “Many of the social themes, such as affordable housing, didn't do much to advance ideas that have been under discussion since the 1960s,” the architect noted. “The architectural forms presented featured little functional relevance and made no sense in terms of constructability.”

Some also questioned the point of the Biennial's most publicized interaction with the general public, a Lakefront Kiosk Design Competition. Simple though it was, the winning entry (below) did not seem in danger of being built any time soon, much less solving any pressing urban design problem. 

Chicago Horizon: Designed by Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest, Brett Schneider, this "ultramoderne" kiosk boasts a large flat wood roof that employs cross-laminated timber, a new carbon-negative engineered lumber product.

Chicago Horizon: Designed by Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest, Brett Schneider, this "ultramoderne" kiosk boasts a large flat wood roof that employs cross-laminated timber, a new carbon-negative engineered lumber product.

Nevertheless, there was still a sense of the proverbial torch being passed from one generation to the next. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Chrisopher Hawthorne wrote the Biennial placed particular emphasis on “a major generational shift, a changing of the guard.” As such, architects born in the 1970s, including Spain's Andres Jaque, Mexico's Tatiana Bilbao, Denmark's Bjarke Ingels and Japan's Junya Ishigami and Sou Fujimoto were given their due. Older practitioners, including Frank Gehry and United Kingdom's Norman Foster were not.

“If this Biennial were a heist movie, there'd be a scene at the end where Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Gehry, Renzo Piano, Foster, Jean Nouvel and Kazuyo Sejima are rescued from a locked closet and gasp for breath after the strips of duct tape are ripped from their mouths,” Hawthorne wrote.

As it happened, Hadid did present a Biennial Pritzker Laureate Lecture in December. “I think it's a cute show," she said then. "[But it] doesn't give me an idea of what to expect in the next 10 years.”

A valid critique, but some might counter that there was more on exhibit than met Zahid's eyes.

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