At the Chicago Architecture Biennial: Architecture Everywhere, If You Care to Look
Enter the Chicago Cultural Center from Randolph Street, and the third edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial greets you with MASS Design’s offering: a set of four house shapes, built in a typical gable-roof form out of white-painted wood arranged to look like the mortar between bricks, then clad in glass. From afar they seem monolithic, impenetrable. Approach and enter, however, and its fragility reveals itself. Small, personal objects—high school class portraits, a basketball jersey, an Appalachian Trail badge—fill the nooks created by the wood structure. Hidden speakers play recordings of people talking about losing loved ones to gun violence. As the sound fills the air, the objects are revealed to be not just random artifacts, but mementos, small remembrances of those lost. Moving through the four houses, each playing a different recording, the feeling is one of captured endlessness, a containment of memories, of loss, of despair, of love. And, at the same time, these spaces aren’t isolated; the grid of the glass-covered wood always allows a view out, a connection to the surroundings: the person sitting on a bench, reading a book; another, bolting up the stairs to see the rest of the show; someone else on the way out. Maybe they’ve seen the mementos and heard the recordings. Maybe they haven’t, even though it’s right in front of their faces.
This piece, titled The Gun Violence Memorial Project, is a strong opener (or closer, depending on how you move through the space) for this edition of the biennial. This is, after all, how people use architecture. They display important objects. They share their pain. They, as the title of this year’s edition suggests, tell stories in it.
“…and other such stories” is indeed centrally concerned with the stories that happen within, around, and because of architecture. Few parts of it seem concerned with the actual, physical, spatial stuff of the discipline of architecture, or architecture biennials for that matter (Mimi Zeiger has written incisively on this). Meditations on materiality, theses on form, hypothetical interventions into possible architectural futures, even models and drawings—all are largely absent from the exhibit. Instead “…and other such stories” presents us, in many cases, with raw material for observation and interpretation. Video, text, image, protest signage: it’s all there for direct engagement, with very little architectural intervention to mediate, interpret, or offer a solution.
There are exceptions, of course, like Vincent Meessen’s SIISIS, a “labyrinthine” structure designed in dialogue with the work of the Situationists. Its site is a for-sale island in Greece, and its purpose is to house refugees. The structure is barely that: a series of brick walls that spread at right-angle turns across the irregular surface of the island. A partial full-scale model sits in a gallery on the second floor of the cultural center. Through its spare form and austere materiality, the project seemingly embraces the solace and despair that seeking refuge must undoubtedly bring. Why not propose parks and beaches, libraries and pools, comfortable homes and places to heal to people seeking to escape the horrors of life in a war zone? Or, alternatively, why not put forward a pure formal speculation, without a social agenda, as a response to the work of the Situationists? It’s the suggestion that delving into the latter might do something to address the problems presented by the former that’s jarring, and perhaps what the curators of this year’s show are reacting to.
The overplaying of architecture’s power to solve societal issues has been a problematic trope in biennials. It’s come to a head multiple times, perhaps most recently and explosively in 2016, when the U.S. Pavilion’s Venice Biennial exhibit, “The Architectural Imagination,” which presented speculative projects for a post-bankruptcy Detroit, was occupied by Detroit Resists. The protest’s leaders insisted on architecture’s “political indifference,” and that “the U.S. Pavilion, precisely as an attempt to advocate ‘the power of architecture,’ is structurally unable to engage this catastrophe and will thereby collaborate in the ongoing destruction of the city.”
The curators of “…and other such stories”—Yesomi Umolu, Sepake Angiama, and Paulo Tavares—do not seem to believe in the power of architecture to enact political change. What’s on show at this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial is, perhaps, the start of a different theory of change altogether.
In one of the first-floor galleries, the installation “How Together,” by Berlin-based CONSTRUCTLAB, puts on display slogans from architecture studios, community groups, activist collectives, and similar organizations from around the world. The slogans are carefully drawn in a deeply pigmented blue on large, white-painted plywood panels, sometimes outlined in an equally intense yellow. The panels wrap around the room, a space that can be used for ad-hoc gathering and programming. Alongside the invitation to gather is also an invitation to dialogue. The piece subtly calls on visitors to use pink Post-its placed in the middle of the room to write their own slogans, thoughts, or reactions and stick them on the existing ones. This is a common schtick in biennials and similar events; usually, people write greetings, the city where they come from, their names. But the content of these paper squares is different, perhaps because of CONSTRUCTLAB’s selection of slogans, or maybe because of the urgency of our particular political moment, which the whole exhibit does everything in its power to put in front of us.
A panel featuring a slogan from Brazil is covered with #ELENÃO, the popular chant against Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. A panel with a slogan in Spanish invites many different visitors to echo what has been a rallying cry across Latin America: Aborto legal, seguro y gratuito (“Legal, Safe and Free Abortion”). On another, a discussion about architects’ complicity in gentrification unfolds:
“What does decolonizing spaces mean? Definitely not to the highest bidder.”
“Architecture can solve housing issues.”
“If I hear ‘new luxury condos’ ONE MORE TIME… Architects and developers have the power to change housing projects, but just want the $$”
This exchange is particularly pointed, given that one of the top sponsors of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, alongside British Petroleum, is Magellan Development, a company responsible for some of Chicago’s shiniest, most luxurious developments. Such towers are nowhere to be found in this year’s biennial—a conspicuous absence, given that 2017’s pièce de résistance in Chicago was the 17 large-scale models of prominent contemporary architects’ reinterpretations of the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition brief. A documentary video by Sammy Baloji and Filip de Boeck, The Tower: A Concrete Utopia, does its part to fill the skyscraper void. In the film, a character we only know as “Docteur” (it is unclear whether he is an actual doctor) leads the camera through a tower of an unclear number of stories that only he inhabits and is responsible for developing. The rooms are bespoke, each designed to fulfill a specific need. Beds double as storage spaces. Balconies double as examination rooms for patients we are not sure exist.
The utopian nature of the project, the derelict condition of the tower, and the sunny, friendly disposition of Docteur transport us into a world where architecture’s supposedly world-changing potential has been harnessed, though it is unclear exactly to what end.
Videos like this abound: about the building of Brasília, about encampments of unhoused people in Chile, about women’s movements around the world. On the first floor, Forensic Architecture’s contribution reminds us of the relentless gun violence in Chicago. How are architects supposed to fix that? The firm has made an effort—not at fixing, but at uncovering, using architectural and spatial methods to analyze camera footage and reveal that Harith Augustus’s death was a result of racist police violence. The piece on show doesn’t give viewers the satisfaction of seeing the images, though. Forensic Architecture presents its project as a series of short paragraphs of white text on the walls of a large room painted black. There’s not much content to take in; the point of the piece is the space it holds.
And maybe that’s the point of the biennial, too. The curators seem to have few illusions that architecture can change the world; indeed, the exhibits reveal how complicit architecture is, and has been, with the status quo. This comes through most clearly in Settler Colonial City Project’s contribution, a series of clear acrylic signs painted with messages like “THIS MARBLE WAS QUARRIED AND ASSEMBLED BY EXPLOITED LABOR.” The project unpacks the dark history behind the production of our buildings and cities and puts it on display. It’s perhaps not what visitors came to look at, but it’s what they’re being asked to see.
The curators have also taken this righteously hamfisted approach, putting in visitors’ faces all of the world’s injustices and the movements that fight against them. What isn’t on display, but rather lies just below the surface, is the biennial’s well-known complicity in culture-washing one of the biggest, dirtiest fossil-fuel companies in the world. The curators could have chosen to sever this connection by, for example, boycotting the biennial, as ArchiteXX and others have. That’s an unenviable choice to have to make. The biennial afforded the curators some room to bring the eyes of architects to things they maybe wouldn’t normally see. They seem to have gladly taken that space and filled it with things totally un-biennial-like. Social justice has little to do with architecture, they seem to be saying, but everything to do with architects.
Feature image: The Gun Violence Memorial Project by MASS Design. Photo via Chicago Architecture Biennial.