Sushi grass, spider webs, and Piranesi’s circus: The state of the art of architecture?

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Sou Fujimoto, Architecture is Everywhere.

Have you ever pulled the plastic grass strip out of a sushi container and wondered: what do I do with this? Sou Fujimoto Architects has an answer: make tiny people—just a quarter of an inch tall—to inhabit a world enclosed entirely by such plastic grass strips. Their Architecture is Everywhere installation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial reframed ordinary objects as architectural worlds. Rows of staples neatly stacked, a kitchen sponge, and even a pile of potato chips were rendered giant and architectural by the addition of tiny people in their midst.

Fujimoto’s project was just one of nearly one-hundred installations that made up the core of the gutsy and vast first Chicago Architecture Biennial, organized by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima. The Chicago Cultural Center housed most of the Biennial projects, but there were a handful scattered across the city from the Water Tower and the Graham Foundation to the Stony Island Arts Bank and Millennium Park. Entitled “The State of the Art of Architecture,” the organizers intentionally sought breadth over depth, diversity over unity, and global reach. The result was a dizzying array of installations comprised of videos, architectural drawings and models, photo-montages, three-dimensional timelines, full-scale mock ups of homes and rooms, a slide archive, and even an interactive area where participants could make their own drawings and models.

To grasp the sheer size of the Biennial consider this: if you just spent twenty minutes with each of the 94 installations (ignoring all of the events associated with it) you would need 1,880 minutes or 31.3 hours to see it all. While the size and lack of a cohesively articulated agenda made taking all of this in a challenge, careful attention paid off. There were themes that emerged as most clearly on the minds of architects across the globe, categorized here as: Housing; Form, Space, and Fantasy; Building Technology and Environmental Sustainability; and Re-envisioning Chicago.

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Amanda Williams, Color(ed) Theory.

Housing

Chief among the concerns of the architects represented at the Biennial was housing. The explorations into questions of domestic design ranged from affordable and post-disaster housing to suburban McMansion re-inventions and do-it-yourself-housing. Amanda Williams’ Color(ed) Theory installation stood out among these by offering a last rites ceremony for homes set to be demolished. A native of Chicago, Williams created a local palette of colors such as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos red and Ultra Sheen grease. Williams painted each home a different color and exhibited photographs of these now demolished homes at the Biennial. In doing so, Williams drew attention to the simple beauty of the homes as objects in the landscape and raised questions about their impending fate such as “What color is urban? What color is gentrification?”

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Tatiana Bilbao S.C., Sustainable Housing.

Tatiana Bilbao S.C.’s full-scale installation Sustainable Housing was part of her work with communities in Mexico. The home was designed to be constructed incrementally: the structure and basic enclosure are provided from the start while residents fill in the rest of the necessary walls and amenities as they can afford to do so. Made of oriented-strand board and wood studs, the design of the home was elegant, thoughtful and realistic. The home itself was complemented if not overshadowed by Bilbao’s drawings of the project—stunning in their simplicity and clarity.

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Vo Trong Nghia Architects, S House.

Another design for affordable housing was the S House, by Vo Trong Nghia Architects, designed for residents of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. From the exterior of the full-scale installation, the home was an architect’s fantasy—capturing the order and clarity of modernism but dressed up in a vernacular sheathing made of local palm leaves. Inside, a grid of pristine pre-fabricated steel supports was revealed and this was where the fantasy started to unravel. The architects claimed the tiny home could be produced for just $4,000, and that it could be assembled on site without skilled labor. The extensive use of pre-fabricated steel, however, made this difficult to believe. Vo Trong Nghia Architects, continue to refine their S House prototype to make it more economical and light; hopefully they manage to turn this fantasy into reality.

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Lateral Office, Making Camp.

One of the questions any curator of a show about architecture faces is whether to display documentary exhibitions showcasing the best built work from around the world or whether to exhibit more speculative and fantastic installations. The Biennial curators mixed the two types of work creating a tension between the purpose and values of the Biennial. Even the best built projects displayed in photographs, videos, and models struggled to garner attention when showcased, for example, next to the playful Making Camp model of Lateral Office.

Nowhere was this tension between the built and the speculative clearer than in the room which housed the S House and the Barefoot Architecture of Yasemeen Lari + Heritage Foundation of Pakistan. After an earthquake struck Pakistan in 2005, Lari developed the KaravanShelter, an affordable housing design that utilizes local materials such as bamboo and mud and can be built by locals—usually women who undergo sustainable construction training led by Lari. These women, in turn, have used these new skills to make and sell products such as eco-toilets and stoves. To date 40,000 KaravanShelters have been built in over 1,700 different villages across Pakistan. In other words, Lari has done what Tatiana Bilbao and Vo Trong Nghia Architects aspire to do—provide affordable housing to thousands of people in need. Furthermore, Lari is economically empowering women in Pakistani villages through construction training. But when represented only by a series of photographs and text, the KaravanShelter was lost in the shadows of the life-size and occupiable S house across the room.

In the next Biennial—and hopefully there will be a next one—it might be productive to separate out these two types of projects so that stellar built work represented humbly through photographs and text on a wall has its own space in the exhibition. This would allow visitors to mentally prepare to engage in a different type of looking—more focused and serious and not be distracted by the most eye-catching or fantastic installations. It would help ensure that work of great consequence, which might not win the battle for attention in the current staging, nevertheless gets its due.

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Ant Farm and WorkAC, Dolphin Embassy.

Form, Space, and Fantasy

A handful of architects used the opportunity of the Biennial to create something far outside the boundaries of everyday practice. In doing so these architects helped remind us of the power of the architectural imagination and tools of representation to render the familiar strange, to inspire, or to bring fantasy to life.

A collaboration between Ant Farm and WorkAC, for example, illustrated the power that architectural drawings and models have to make the bizarre and strange seem believable and almost buildable. Taking three 1970s era Ant Farm’s projects—the Dolphin Embassy, the House of the Century and Convention City—as a starting point, the team created new drawings and models using contemporary representation technology but keeping the spirit and style of the original designs to bring these forgotten projects back to life. In an era where we increasingly experience reality through representations on our screens it is not hard to buy into the fantasy world of the Dolphin Embassy, for example, when it is so delightfully alive.

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Tomás Saraceno’s spider web.

Tomás Saraceno attempted to render nature architectural by asking: is a spider web architecture? Saraceno’s dark room at the Biennial was full of intricate and glowing spider webs suspended in glass cases. As each spider was spinning its web, Saraceno would turn the glass box to force a new relationship to gravity. Whether or not these gorgeous creations proposed “utopian conditions for sustainable societies” as Saraceno suggests, was questionable. Nevertheless, these man and spider collaborations do remind us to appreciate the beauty in the architectural forms of the natural world. And that is something.

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Atelier Bow-Wow, Piranesi’s Circus.

Atelier Bow-Wow showed us how to look around and find ways to infuse the ordinary with imagination. They saw tremendous opportunity in an enclosed and inaccessible courtyard of the Cultural Center. Windows throughout the building look into the courtyard making it an ideal stage for action. In Piranesi’s Circus, Atelier Bow-Wow sought to bring G.B. Piranesi’s legendary drawings to life by inserting a swing, hanging stairs, a ladder and a walking platform into the courtyard. Each element suggested human movement and beckoned us to move through the space, to try out the swing or cross the space on the hanging stairs. As one progressed through the Biennial, Piranesi’s Circus kept re-appearing through different windows, from different angles, like a recurring dream. Atelier Bow-Wow brought this once forgotten space back to life through allusions to our subconscious memories and imagination.

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Onishimaki and Hyakudayuki Architects, Children’s Town.

A slightly more real, though no less fun, play on fantasy was the Children’s Town designed by Onishimaki and Hyakudayuki Architects. The little playhouses that made up Children’s Town were part of the “House for All” project, which provided playhouses to children in Japan after the 2013 tsunami. Each colorful house appeared as a childlike distortion of an almost platonic form—a cone, a cube, a pyramid—rendered slightly organic with gentle curves. Each home was sheathed in two tones of textured wallpaper like shingles. The playhouses were originally on wheels so that children could move them around, rearranging their very own town and perhaps gaining a sense of much needed control over their environment at the same time. Meandering among the houses it was easy to sense the latent magic in this make-believe realm.

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Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich + Self-Assembly Lab, MIT, Rock Print.

Building Technology and Environmental Sustainability

The collection of projects showcased at the Biennial illustrated how concerns for environmental sustainability and experimentation with building technology have become threaded throughout contemporary and speculative practices today. Only one project, Rock Print by Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich + Self-Assembly Lab, MIT, for example, was purely an exploration into forms made possible through the use of robots; the design team three-D printed a giant tooth-like form from string and rocks without mortar.

A few installations sought to open our eyes to our energy consumption and its effects on the landscape. Counterspace, for example, sought to draw our attention to the environmental degradation of the mining landscapes of Johannesburg, South Africa in Lost and Found: Phantoms of Spaces and Times. In Steam Ring Generator, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) also aimed to visually heighten our awareness by making energy consumption visible in Copenhagen. A steam ring generator will emit steam circles above a power plant to illustrate the amount of carbon dioxide produced.

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SO-IL, Passage.

Judging by the Biennial, architects are just as fascinated with the question of how to make new forms out of old technology and materials as they are with robots and routers. In Passage, one of the best of such explorations, SO-IL used ordinary steel studs to create a series of portals marking the procession up a ramp in the Cultural Center. The exposed studs were twisted gently to create a sense that they are almost walking with you. This clever site-specific installation rendered the familiar strange by first exposing the skeletal structure of the buildings we inhabit and then by subtly giving them an anthropomorphic twist; it is eerie—as if a skeleton in a natural history museum was waving at you.

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Studio Gang, Polis Station.

Re-envisioning Chicago

Architects are trained to work within specific constraints of program, budget, site, and client. At many places in the Biennial it is clear that such constraints often foster spectacular creativity and visionary solutions.

While at first blush, for example, current tensions between police and citizens seem to have little to do with architecture, Studio Gang showed us otherwise. Their Polis Station used Chicago as a case study for contemplating how architecture might be utilized to help improve relationships between police and the communities they serve. Polis Station began with a timeline documenting the evolving relationships among the physical instruments of policing including uniforms, stations, and weapons. By drawing our attention to the dates when the first patrol car or handcuffs were introduced, Studio Gang reminds us that these are relatively new instruments of power and protection and thus invited us to question them.

In “From Policy to Architecture,” the second section of Polis Station, the six pillars of recommendations from a Presidential Task Force on Policing were listed and we were asked: “How can design help carry out the six pillars…?” With the 10th district of Chicago as a case study, Studio Gang attempted to answer this through a series of proposals for redesigning the physical relationships between police and communities at every scale. They raised timely questions about the ways in which building typologies segregate us and in doing so engender fear and isolation. How, for example, might the relationship between communities and police evolve if they brushed shoulders every day at the basketball court? What if we interacted with police officers on a daily basis during moments of peace, boredom and routine, rather than only during moments of crisis and drama? In Studio Gang’s re-envisioning, police stations were no longer envisioned as fortress like enclaves. Police stations were community centers with free wifi, libraries and playgrounds, where the community and the police interact every day.

Viewed through Studio Gang’s lens, even a skeptic was forced to admit that the architectural expression of the police station as fortress is a reflection of a troubled relationship. In fact, Studio Gang’s proposals to consider the physical and architectural realm as part of the means to improve relations are so utterly convincing they seem obvious—one wonders how could we not have seen that fortresses are problematic? And while ensuring safety and security in a facility that mixes community functions with policing needs would be complicated in terms of circulation and security—architects are well trained to design for such complexity.

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David Brown, The Available City.

In BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago organizer Iker Gil further demonstrates that constraints—real sites and problems—can showcase the visionary potential of architects. The projects included consider everything from the future of the skyscraper to how to re-imagine the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Among the projects in “BOLD,” The Available City organized by David Brown stood out as one of the best projects in the Biennial. Brown asked nine teams of architects to imagine what could become of some of Chicago’s 15,000 vacant lots owned by the city. The different models and drawings of the architects, which ranged from the sincere and pragmatic to the breathtakingly bizarre, were displayed side by side allowing the visitor to take in the range of visions as a whole.

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Left: JGMA, Re-imagining Wellness in Humboldt Park. Right: Jahn, KTC234: Knowledge Trade Center.

At the wild end of the spectrum was JGMA’s Re-imagining Wellness in Humboldt Park, a gravity-defying exercise in treating landscape as malleable form without structure. In contrast, Jahn’s project was disguised to appear utterly pragmatic and inevitable. In KTC234: Knowledge Trade Center, Jahn presented an eerily pristine white and geometric future world as utterly modern and sensible. It was as if the hyper-perfect and endlessly designed world Superstudio illustrated in their 1969 Continuous Monument Project had been transformed into a building for an empty lot in Chicago.

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Landon Bone Baker, Small Industries in South Chicago.

In contrast to such outlandish and dystopian visions, both Margaret McCurry and Stanley Tigerman’s teams took recycling shipping containers for housing as the premise of their vacant lot designs. Nearby, Landon Bone Baker’s “Small Industries in South Chicago” stood out for its seriousness, simplicity and elegant shaping of form and space; it was just good architecture without gimmicks.

The brilliance of The Available City as a whole was that it presented a range of exploratory practices at work today and thus allowed us to better understand the value that each individual team brought to addressing the problem. Arranged side by side, we could comparatively analyze how each team sought to address a common problem. In a sense, “The Available City” illustrates, more clearly than any other installation at the Biennial, the full range of potential of the architectural exhibition.

 

The Next Chicago Architecture Biennial

The open-ended character of the 2015 Biennial theme—“The State of the Art of Architecture” and the scale of the event undoubtedly seemed necessary to the organizers; they had to go big and wide for the first Biennial. With the pressures of being first out of the way, one hopes that the second Biennial might be more selective and focused. The 2015 Biennial suffered from the enormous scale and scope; it felt almost under-curated, random and even unattended to at times. The need to be smaller and more focused was made most evident in the lonely exhibitions housed across the street from the Cultural Center at 72 E. Randolph St. Wandering into the small room where Open Architecture Spirit of Space’s film OPEN Manifesto was supposed to be playing, a screen saver was projected on one wall, while the other wall displayed a virus software update message. There was no one in sight to attend to the problem.

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Sou Fujimoto, Architecture is Everywhere.

This lapse highlights the challenges presented by the size of the event as well as something key about the use of film in the exhibition as a whole. The many films presented in the Biennial struggled to compete with the architectural models and drawings on display making it easy for OPEN Manifesto and many other films to be overlooked by visitors. While this might be a shame for the filmmakers it felt like a victory for architecture. At a moment when we all spend too much time staring at screens designed to capture and hold our attention it was nice to see visitors old and young pass by the moving screens and find delight instead in a playhouse, a world of sushi grass or a pile of potato chips. With some software updates installed and more careful editing, the next Biennial could screen out the less than stellar projects and allow us to focus our attention only on the best of the best.

Stephanie Pilat

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