Chicago-Architecture

Blair Kamin on the Chicago Biennial, George Lucas, and the magic of Jeanne Gang

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has had a lot on his plate lately. The city has become an epicenter for architecture and design. In addition to the architectural biennial, the city is also the future home for two major buildings: the controversial Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on Lake Michigan, and President Obama’s presidential library, which will be located on the south side. Late last year I spoke to Kamin, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and the editor of an upcoming book on the gates of Harvard Yard , about the critically acclaimed biennial, the Lucas dust up, hometown hero Jeanne Gang, and the architectural tastes of Barack and Michelle Obama.

MP:

Let’s start with the recently closed Architectural Biennial. Was the show’s emphasis on socially relevant work a real culture shift, or was it an old story in a new dress, young people pushing the old geezers off stage?

BK:

It’s a complicated question. We certainly saw something here that was different from Venice. The biennial was open to the public. It was free. It was in the middle of the United States, in the middle of a city that’s renowned for its architecture. What was also different is the grittiness of Chicago. That created a certain tension in the exhibition itself. One of the show’s most notable pieces was Jeanne Gang’s proposal to redesign police stations in their communities,  to better build trust between police and residents. This was relevant at the beginning of the biennial and even more so toward the end, with the Laquan McDonald shooting. Here was a classic example of Chicago as urban cauldron, the great American exaggeration, the best of the best—the most visionary proposal came in part in response to the fact that Chicago is also the worst of the worst.

Architects have tried before to address major social problems. That wasn’t new. What was new was a series of new strategies The biennial created an occasion for these proposals to come forth, so in that sense these ideas—what Jeanne called “actionable idealism”—were valuable. The question now is, how actionable will these ideas be? The Justice Department is investigating the Chicago Police Department. So, right now, no one is talking about architecture and urban design as solutions to the corruption that you’re seeing out on the streets. Going forward the question will be to what extent, and when, does architecture and urban design enter the conversation? The biennial was not a new ism. It wasn’t saying “Decon,” or “Pomo”, or “Modernism.” It was saying, here’s a range of things that architects have on their minds.

Blair Kamin

Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

MCP:

That’s a shift, I hope, away from what I would call empty formalism. Shape making for its own sake. Decon and Pomo were critiques of existing aesthetic orders, but they were essentially about formal moves. They were principally about the way things looked.

BK:

Exactly. This was a loosely configured constellation of approaches. It was trying to engage with serious problems and give architects a seat at the table. It also communicated to the public that architects do a lot more than design fancy “iconic” buildings. That’s all to the good. Now, I didn’t get a chance to talk to Zaha Hadid when she appeared here and characterized the show as “cute,” but I did talk to Patrick Schumacher.

MCP:

Who, incidentally, is worse on these social issues than she is.

BK:

I’m reluctant to criticize Zaha for being this out of touch diva. If you read the description for her soccer stadium in Qatar, for example, its second tier will be made out of specially engineered timber, so that by the close of the World Cup that upper deck will be taken down and the wood will be shipped to developing countries. Her brand is “fluidity,” icons, wow buildings. But I’m reluctant to put her in a box that’s anti-socially conscience. There will always be clients who want dazzling, spectacular buildings. To me the broader question is, what impact will architects and urban designers have on the built environment that people engage with everyday?

MCP:

My issue with Zaha isn’t with whether she’s a diva or not—who cares?—but the amount of oxygen her brand of architecture takes up in the larger culture, and the limited perspective of architecture that she provides to the broader public. Having said that, she has been spectacularly impolitic on the issue of worker rights.

BK:

First of all, the BBC was clearly incorrect when it said that 1000 people had died building her stadium. Nonetheless, I think that she, as a Pritzker Prize winning architect and as a leading figure in the field, does have a moral obligation to use her cultural power to try to improve the working conditions of people who construct her buildings. When she said, essentially, it’s-not-my-responsibility-I’m-just-an-architect, I thought that was a cop out. I don’t buy that at all. Adrian Smith here in Chicago has the same responsibility towards the migrant workers who’ve worked on his buildings in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The profession has soft power. It can lead through moral example. Yes, of course, these architects are beholden to their clients, but nonetheless they are not without resources or influence. They can use that influence to help improve the living conditions of the people who make their buildings.

MCP:

Who attended the biennial?

BK:

Sarah Herda, the director of show, has said that based on her observations, it was different age groups, races, a lot of students. The biennial wasn’t strictly for the elite, for the cognoscenti. By virtue of its location and free admission, a fair number of ordinary people, non-architects, went in, looked at it, and debated whether they thought the ideas presented were good or bad. I also think the setting of the city was very important. The show was at its most effective when it engaged the city. Chicago was part of the exhibit and that’s something that no other city can match. New York is an extraordinary place, as is Boston and LA, but what makes this place special is the compactness of it. As Peter Eisenman said, in a rare moment of architectural lucidity, you can sample American urbanism in the radius of the Loop. It’s all there. And people here in Chicago do take enormous pride in the city’s architectural legacy. It’s seen as a cultural touchstone, not just by architects but by the public at large. It’s a bit of a spectator sport.

MCP:

Speaking of spectator sports, let’s talk about the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects. You’ve been critical about it. Where does the man and woman on the street stand on it?

BK:

I think there’s a split. There’s the let’s-build-it because it will help the economy and draw more tourists camp, which is certainly the Rahm Emanuel view. The mayor’s other line of reasoning is, this is currently a parking lot. So he calls Friends of the Parks, the civic group that’s fighting the museum in federal court, “friends of the parking lot,” which is a pretty good line, I have to admit. But there’s clearly still a strong sense that this arrivist, George Lucas, is coming in here with a museum that has nothing with do with Chicago and is going to crowd an already crowded portion of the lakefront with more big buildings. This one will be as tall as Soldier Field. I thought it was really funny at the biennial to hear Zaha come in with this curveball and say, “Hey, this is my Dubai Opera House!” That was ironic, because the proponents of this proposal have been saying: We need a bold design! We need something in the tradition of Chicago that’s innovative and original! And then Zaha comes in and says—she didn’t say it outright, this is a rip off of my work by a former student—but that was certainly the implication. Anyway, the deal right now is that it has has been approved by all of the city boards. The only person with the power to stop it is a federal judge. The next hearing on the case is February 4th.

There’s clearly still a strong sense that this arrivist, George Lucas, is coming in here with a museum that has nothing with do with Chicago and is going to crowd an already crowded portion of the lakefront with more big buildings

MCP:

So Friends of the Park will have no other recourse, should they lose that?

BK:

That’s right. They’re essentially arguing that Lucas could turn this into a promotional vehicle. That it wouldn’t strictly be a museum, in the same way that the Field Museum or the other institutions are, selling all this Star Wars stuff and promoting his films. I don’t think that’s the mission or motive of the Lucas Museum, but I do wonder whether this whole narrative art theme is going to have lasting value, in the way that the other museums on the museum campus do. The curators have this crazy job of trying to figure out, how do we organize all this crap that’s in George Lucas’s attic? A lot of the public thinks this is going to be a Star Wars Museum. It isn’t. And I wonder if this thing will be jammed for the first six months to a year, and then see a major drop in attendance.

MCP:

And it’s huge,  so it will need extensive programming too.

BK:

It’s a big building. Even now, shrunken and on a diet, it’s three times larger than the one he wanted to build in San Francisco. At this point I think there are a lot of reasons for skepticism.

MCP:

Jeanne Gang seemed to be in the news for about a month straight. She created the piece de resistance for the biennial, she has another high rise residential tower, and her scheme for the Museum of Natural History in New York was unveiled. She is hitting on all fronts: social, aesthetic, financial, even populist. In the way that Hadid is almost doing everything wrong, at least from a “branding” perspective, Gang seems to be doing everything right.

BK:

I don’t know if Zaha is doing everything wrong. But I do think that Jeanne personified the spirit of the biennial: the changing focus of the field on teamwork, socially conscious work, but also on work that is formally inventive. In other words she’s engaging problems with a big agenda. Look, Jeannie is not an angel. I’ve been critical of projects she’s done, like the work she did for the MoMA show on low income housing. I thought that was too formalistic, quite frankly, and less attuned to users than it should have been.

MCP:

She’s also part of the Lucas design team as well.

BK:

Yes. So, no architect is perfect, but Paul Goldberger’s piece in the New Yorker on Jeanne was subtitled “The Anti-Diva,” and that clearly was a shot at Zaha and her emphasis on formalism. That doesn’t mean that Hadid is a one-trick pony, solely devoted to formalism, but Jeanne is one of many architects in the biennial who are trying to move the field in a different, more humanistically-focussed direction.

It’s funny. On the first day of the show, I said, “Hey, Jeanne, this kind of looks like New Urbanism. The Polis station plan.” And she said, “When was the last time you saw New Urbanists engaging problems like this? Haven’t they been in green grass suburbs all this time?” Now that’s partially true, at best. There are New Urbanists who have done urban infill projects. So her criticism is off base. The underlying ideas that she explored in the police station proposal have a lot in common with New Urbanists like Michael Pyatok, the great Oakland architect who has been an extraordinarily underrecognized figure, who gets his hands dirty, understands how people live and designs accordingly. People like Mike are my heros. Because they believe that architecture has a humanistic core to it. At her best, Jeanne’s work represents that, too.

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