Mimi Zeiger on lessons from the Chicago Architecture Biennial

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The 1977 State of the Art of Architecture symposium organised by Stanley Tigerman

"Architecture is finally moving beyond a homogeneous status quo"

Opinion: the Chicago Architecture Biennial's diverse range of participants and mediums offers hope for the future of the discipline, despite protestations from self-appointed "gatekeepers" of the profession like Patrik Schumacher, says Mimi Zeiger.


There is a letter in a drawer in Chicago's Graham Foundation library; a sheet of Orange Coast College stationary dated 8 April 1980. The letter is from artist Barbara Kasten to Florence Henri, a photographer (then in her late 80s and living in Paris) who had been contemporary with many avants of early 20th-century Europe: Jean Arp, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, who she studied under at the Bauhaus. In it, Kasten asks to visit Henri and interview her as part of NEA-funded project to videotape six female photographers who had made "major contributions in the field" – figures whose work was troublingly dropping out of the historical narrative.

The exhibition Barbara Kasten: Stages is exquisitely hung in the Graham's Madlener House. Tracking close to five decades of her career, the show is the first major survey of the Chicago-based artist. It was first mounted at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, but in her hometown it deepens its meaning.

Kasten's large format Cibachorme photographs of quasi-architectural compositions resonate with the details of the domestic galleries and her textile pieces from 1972, three Thonet chairs topped with knitted seats suggestively anthropomorphic, are both political and beautiful. The geometric props she used in her scenarios echo some of the emergent formalisms on view as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial over at the Chicago Cultural Center.

It was the single sheet of correspondence, however, that stuck with me in the days following the biennial's opening celebrations, especially as a photograph of six men engaged in a panel discussion at Chicago's Congress Plaza Hotel began to circulate across social media.

There in the gilded ballroom sat Patrik Schumacher, Peter Eisenman, Jeffrey Kipnis, Reinier de Graaf, Robert Somol, and Theodore Spyropoulos. A debate poised on the brink. The group had been tasked with the question: "What should be the agenda for 21st century architecture?"

Biennial artistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima have curated a decidedly more diverse than average exhibition, drawing together an international body of work and representing women and people of colour in larger percentages than typical events of this nature. Speaking about the origin of the title The State of the Art of Architecture, Herda explained the homage to a Graham Foundation symposium organized by Stanley Tigerman in 1977 and then noted about the update "we added more women".

In a letter to Chicago Architect, Tigerman laid out the numbers: "The 2015 Chicago Biennial is nothing if not global: five continents are represented with less than one third from the United States. The average age is mid-30s to mid-40s and one third of the invitees are women."

So why were the usual suspects the ones determined to set the agenda for architecture's future? Privilege? Sure. Arrogance? Fear? Maybe.

Perhaps it is because these days when discourse travels across the social web, the recognisable is reinforced more than the unfamiliar. An Instagrammed moment of what panel organiser ArchAgenda Debates called "six celebrated architecture thought-leaders" eclipses the complexities of a nascent narrative being written by Herda and Grima. The debate prompt promised provocations couched in positions formed over the last two decades – a past to inform the future. Did it deliver? I don't know. I'd have to check the Twitter feed.

Akin to the parable of five blind men and the elephant, this inaugural biennial (more than Koolhaas' Fundamentals or previous Venice incarnations) has a way of mirroring back already held assumptions and beliefs about the state of architecture.

If Kasten's exhibition is entitled Stages, maybe the biennial curators should have gone for the plural too. Instead of The State of the Art of Architecture, the 2015 détournement could be The States of the Arts of Architectures. Indeed, while touring the galleries and watching performances, I found compatriots determined to express what Grima calls "architectural agency" using every medium at their disposal: models, film, curtains, furniture, dance, illustration. Others found Postmodern derivations, Oedipal complexes, oil slicks, and mayoral frustrations.

Schumacher, wont to take his venting to a Facebook audience begging for a viral hit, toured the Cultural Center and found cause for complaint as he interpreted the architecture exhibition as a morbid celebration of social justice design, aestheticised poverty, and art.

"The State of the Art of Architecture delivered by the Chicago Architecture Biennale Exhibition must leave lay-visitors bewildered by one overwhelming subliminal message: contemporary architecture ceased to exist, the discipline's guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, driven it to self-annihilation and architects have now en masse dedicated themselves to doing good via basic social work," he wrote. His eulogy reads strangely akin to grievances from Wolf Prix after the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, who took to the airwaves to call that event "an expensive danse macabre".

In the timeline comments to follow (as well as in an abbreviated tweet), Schumacher appointed himself arbiter, questioning whether an architecture biennial should give space to art such as Amanda Williams' project Color(ed) Theory writing, "How is this more relevant to contemporary architecture than contemporary architecture itself?" he asked.

Williams, a Chicago-based artist who trained as an architect, makes work that is directly aligned with questions of contemporary architecture. The abandoned houses she paints on Chicago's South Side address urbanism, gentrification, media and race – all issues of contemporary culture in which architecture is implicated. Moreover, her self-declared identity as "a female Gordon Matta-Clark parading around as a Black Josef Albers" reveals her debt to the aftereffects of Modernism. Far from aestheticising poverty, her work, like the Flamin' Hot Cheetos house on view, uses abstraction in order to enter into what Theaster Gates might call the "high" discourse of art and architecture as opposed to the "low" of community-based organising.

Yet to defend Williams' place in the biennial is to fall prey to Schumacher's grift: the gatekeeper's narrative of entitlement. It crackles with justifications for cannons and agendas that are more old-fashioned than future-oriented. Multiplicity is not a crisis or the end of architecture, it's a present that offers a wealth of possible new conditions for practice.

In an interview in the catalogue that accompanies the Barbara Kasten exhibition at the Graham Foundation, Kasten was asked about her letter to Henri, which would later result in the 1990 film High Heels and Ground Glass, and if she was an activist. She replied: "I wasn't promoting my own narrative, which I think was how I understood activism and feminism at the time... What I wanted was to be just as good an artist as anybody, men included. I believed that one of the ways to do this was to make work that would compete [with] and even be better than the men's."

Indeed, to simply position against antique beliefs is to revert to a debate that goes back decades. Meanwhile, the discipline, as illustrated by the biennial, is finally showing glimmers of moving beyond a homogeneous status quo.

Top image of the 1977 State of the Art of Architecture symposium organised by Stanley Tigerman.


Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. She is the West Coast editor of the Architects Newspaper and has covered art, architecture, urbanism and design for a number of publications including The New York TimesDomusDwell, and Architect.