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Forget Esoteric Ideas — Here’s What Really Matters at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

At this year’s Biennial, architecture’s longstanding tradition of esoteric discourse has been eschewed in favor of tangible, tactile representations of design ideas.

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The theme of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, “Make New History”, works on so many levels. Now open to the public, the exhibition takes stock of contemporary architectural practice and construction in a period following “one of the most dramatic ruptures in the evolution of architecture in the last century”: the ideological and formal battle between history and modernity. Chicago provides the perfect setting for such an examination, given its legacy of disruptions by 20th century architects that constantly strived to make their own “new history” — big personalities have continually bent the theoretical discourse to their will in the Windy City.

On arrival at this year’s Biennial, though, it is immediately clear that today’s architects are beginning to break free from unending ideological arguments, instead focusing on constructive ways in which history can help inform a better future for urban populations.

Andrew Kovacs’ contribution to “Horizontal City”; photograph by Paul Keskeys

This requires a careful consideration of history, a recognition of one’s peers and an open-mindedness towards collaboration. As artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee explain, “the Biennial aims to examine the interplay of design and the broadening access to, as well as recall of, historical source material.”

This effort to “broaden access” extends to the exhibition itself, where architecture’s longstanding tradition of esoteric discourse has been eschewed in favor of tangible, tactile representations of design ideas. Stripping away the kind of contrived intellectualism so often present in large-scale cultural festivals, key moments of clarity begin to emerge. Reflecting that fact, here’s what the Biennial really tells us about architectural practice today:

Photograph by Tom Harris

1. When architects and makers unite, magic happens.

It is no secret that architects are striving to integrate their create processes more closely with other players in the construction industry, collaborating with the manufacturers and craftspeople behind the materials that help make their visions a reality. In between the art and abstraction of many projects at the Biennial, good, old-fashioned architectural prototypes are a clear highlight in communicating the value of architecture to a broader audience.

Take, for example, Studio Gang’s full-scale mock-up of a tensile timber façade section for the acclaimed Writers Theater in Glencoe, Illinois, which features innovative “cat’s paw” connection details. Gang developed this unique structural solution in collaboration with local timber specialists and engineers, using Port Orford cedar and applying techniques akin to traditional Japanese joinery methods to create a supremely elegant building envelope.

Photograph by Steve Hall

2. Full-scale architectural experiments make for perfect exhibits.

In a world where architectural exhibitions remain dominated by traditional mediums of representation — primarily drawings and scale models — those that boldly squeeze in full-blown prototypes stand out for their physical impact and conceptual clarity. As well as Studio Gang’s towering façade fragment, Los Angeles-based Zago Architecture contributed a huge, kaleidoscopic wall of perforated steel, a test for the Visual and Performing Arts Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Zago’s design attempts to invert the traditional hierarchies of Modernism, which promoted the primacy of form over the “distraction of color”, and the firm’s inclusion of a fabricated sample alongside regular scale models makes its proposal instantly legible. The vast installation effectively breaks visitors free from the confines of a conventional museum setting and places them alongside the project site, allowing them to decide for themselves if the experiment succeeds or fails.

Photograph by Paul Keskeys

3. Architects are upending conventions with traditional materials.

The title of this year’s Biennial may be “Make New History”, but no one said you couldn’t use historic materials to do so. Numerous architects exhibited their inventive use of clay, concrete, steel and wood, proving that it is possible to reinterpret entire typologies — from Beijing hutongs to the Chicago highrise — with tried and tested materials.

The work of Shanghai-based practice Archi-Union Architects is a case in point: The practice merges the craftsmanship seen in Chinese wood joinery, ceramics and masonry with their research into future construction technologies, illustrating the potential of these hybrid fabrication techniques to astounding effect. Of three models on display — each of which sits on a plinth made from the showcased material — the undulating brick façade of Chi She (above) is perhaps the most striking.

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4. Architecture and engineering have never been more intertwined.

As well as collaborations between architects and makers, there is a conscious focus on the role of engineers in both the past and future of the urban landscape. This is particularly fitting given Chicago’s legacy in steel frame construction and pioneering high-rise design, and is evidenced perhaps most clearly by the prominence of Source firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at this year’s Biennial.

The international, multidisciplinary practice presents SOM: Engineering x [Art + Architecture], an entire exhibition celebrating its collaborations with both engineers and artists via the medium of hand-drawn sketches and beautifully crafted models. For once, we see structural engineers sharing the cultural spotlight with architects and artists, symptomatic of the 2017 Biennial’s commitment to exploring cross-disciplinary practices.

Tatiano Bilbao’s “(Not) Another Tower”; photograph by Paul Keskeys

5. Architecture doesn’t need to be so serious.

Just as in Chicago’s inaugural Biennial, where Design with Company’s architectural satire was one of the highlights of the event, architects have shown once again that humor and even joy can be part of the discourse. The evolving fabric of the urban landscape is reflected in Andrew Kovacs’ extraordinary contribution to “Horizontal City”; the Chicago-born architect asserts that “architecture can be made from architecture”, and his chaotic collage of found objects infuses profound ideals with an unadulterated sense of fun.

Finally, Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao conceived a wonderful architectural totem for “Vertical City”, a collection of 16-foot-tall models that reinterpret the famous competition brief for the Chicago Tribune newspaper’s iconic tower. Comprising modules designed by numerous American and Mexican studios, the tower reads as a vibrant stack of social and cultural entities representing the contemporary city.

The trends identified here just scrape the surface of a global exhibition that is increasingly ambitious in both scale and theme in just its second iteration. However, many of the works on display prove that while architectural discourse may be complex, it need not be esoteric — and the Biennial is all the more enjoyable for that.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is open now through January 7, 2018, and is located at the Chicago Cultural Center with additional satellite exhibits.

Top image: Installation in the “Vertical City” exhibit in Sidney R. Yates Hall; photograph by Paul Keskeys