Opinion: "Architecture as intellectual inquiry needs to take more risks"

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Vertical City exhibition at Chicago Architecture Biennial 2017

"Architecture as intellectual inquiry needs to take more risks"

The second Chicago Architecture Biennial tackles the broad and tempestuous topic of history, but plays it too safe, says Mimi Zeiger in this Opinion column.


I'm not going to define history. No matter how heavily that word weighs on the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opened last weekend. Neither will artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee; although they provocatively titled the second iteration of the event "Make New History", a phrase borrowed from the title of an artist book by Ed Ruscha.

In remarks to the press, they pointed to the many works displayed in the Chicago Cultural Center as explanation. And if these works are to be trusted, then history is not the dark angel haunting philosophers and historians, but rather something lighter: a shiny treasure trove of references – called forth by Google image search – to be appropriated and stylised.

Deadpan Ruscha understood the irony of his slogan. With three simple words he poked fun at the impossibility of escaping our past. An edition of Make New History sits on the shelves of Johnston Marklee's office (or so says editor Sarah Hearne in her introduction to the biennial catalog).

Published in 2009 to mark the occasion of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's 30th anniversary, the book's 600 deliberately blank pages were meant to evoke hope in the future, perhaps, hope in the newborn Obama administration. Eight years later, the title unwittingly captures an anxiety to reproduce novelty and its imperative eerily echoes #MAGA sloganeering.

It is from those white pages that the curatorial framework emerges, and with it an exhibition that reveals a truth about contemporary practice: the desire to surf the wave of history rather than to challenge it. Organised around themes such as building histories, material histories, and civic histories, the overall show indicates a scope of interest internal to the discipline.

A selection of photographs curated by Jesús Vassallo weaves through and across the Chicago Cultural Center's many facades, rooms, and corridors. Dreamlike images by artist James Welling or hyperrealistic digital prints by Filip Dujardin suggest an only slightly wider interpretation of the built environment, as the lens continually points back at an architectural subject – Mies van der Rohe's IIT campus or a speculative Chicago skyline.

The overall show indicates a scope of interest internal to the discipline

This recursive redundancy is in full bloom not once, but twice in the biennial: within the grand hall on the second floor under the title Horizontal City and again on the fourth floor with the Vertical City. In both cases the exhibitors produced original work in response to a brief.

For Horizontal City the two-dozen designers were asked to remake an image of an architectural interior. For example Bureau Spectacular created a fur-covered interpretation of Adolf Loos' Villa Müller and Welcomeprojects offered a surrealist take, complete with oversized popsicles, of Le Corbusier's De Beistegui Apartment.

Riffing on the skyscraper as a symbol of modernity and an ongoing site of reinterpretation, the Vertical City brief asked 16 teams to design a 16-foot-tall tower in the spirit of the 1922 Chicago Tribune competition – of which Loos' oversized Doric column as tower/tower as column scheme is seared into architectural pedagogy – and the even more looping "Late Entries" postmodern revival in 1980 by the Chicago Seven.

Favourites include Sam Jacob Studio's pastiche of 150 other buildings into single wedding cake-like stack, Productora's hand-coloured model (an ode to the labor of scribbling with a BIC pen), and Tatiana Bilbao's collaborative high rise. Her informal pastiche entitled (Not) Another Tower, is a brief within a brief; it aggregates the work of fifteen studios, each asked to design a piece of her "vertical community".

The curatorial difficulty of both Horizontal City and Vertical City, however, is flatness. By soliciting responses to given briefs, the already referential works become even more circumscribed and self-conscious.

It is near impossible for any one work to pop, to transcend the rules of the exercise, or resist the curatorial constraint. The act of viewing becomes comparative (who solved the problem better, wittier?) and the possibility of resonance between individual pieces is radically eclipsed.

It is near impossible for any one work to pop

Which is why in the skyscraper hall it is an artwork that trumps all the towers. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's Beehives with Asteroid and Prototype for Re-entry (2012) – composed of a grid of white standardised Langstroth beehives, an aluminium replica of an asteroid once predicted to collide with Earth and a reproduction of Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space – presents a collection of hyper-charged objects as a reflection on modernism. The work is strange, and it is precisely the artist's ability to amp up uncanny tension that makes it almost vibrate with, well, history.

Given the profiles of the studios represented in the two galleries, it is tempting to ascribe generational divisions between Horizontal City and Vertical City: Millennial versus Gen X, emerging versus emerged practices. Certainly there seems to be a youthful playfulness among the interiors crowd.

Due to dollhouse-like typology, a menagerie of sundries and scale figures fill the models: lawn chairs, golden lucky cats, cacti, Oldenberg binoculars, Doritos. Yet overall, generational conditions may not be as important as historical or cultural conditions in uniting these two groups.

Many of the practices represented were founded or came of age during the Obama administration. Pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Syrian refugee crisis, those years presented a relatively safe space for architects in the US and elsewhere to turn inwards and puzzle disciplinary questions.

Broadly, for those hit by the global economic downturn of the late 2000s there's lingering PTSD and precarity. That double dose of insecurity dampens desires for risk taking or moving too far afield from academic props.

Within the greater context of the biennial and the Chicago Cultural Center, this translates to an exhibition that is uniformly technically and aesthetically virtuous (the "make" is on point), but stuck in the shallows. And yes, exceptions exist.

The exhibition is uniformly technically and aesthetically virtuous, but stuck in the shallows

Some of the best pieces are placed in some of the most awkward places in the building. Under the back stair sits An American Temple by The Empire with Illaria Forti, Joseph Swerdlin, and Barbara Modolo. A black monolith, with echoes of the designs of Aldo Rossi, the piece is a replica of the first nuclear pile, which once sat in a racquetball court on the University of Chicago campus.

An accompanying book of archival drawings and photographs makes visible a dark slice of the past that today's dealings with nuclear ambitious North Korea and Iran make clear is still very present.

Similarly, works that edge towards the interdisciplinary are nimble enough to escape curatorial constraints and may point a new way forward. Bridging architectural history, preservation, and environmental science, Jorge Otero-Pailos's The Ethics of Dust exhibits a series of latex casts of the pollution gathered on monuments around the world.

And Constructions and References, Caruso St John's collaboration with artist Thomas Demand and photographer Hélèn Binet, includes the firm's models as well as large prints of details of the Obama White House and the fake stack of folders President Trump used as a press conference prop.

Among other things, these works prove that formal considerations (historic and contemporary) can not only co-exist with political moments (past and present), but also truly benefit from such frictions.

If architecture as intellectual inquiry (biennials, academy, books) and profession (high rises, houses, mini-malls) is to continue to carry meaning it needs to take more risks and find allies in resistance. History – new, now, and otherwise – has never been a safe space.