In Chicago, even those typically immune to the charms of architecture can easily get lost in what Nelson Algren once described as a “peculiar wilderness” forged out of “steel and blood-red neon.” As much as Chicago is famous for buildings that already exist—towering Art Deco skyscrapers, dozens of Frank Lloyd Wright homes—the city has a long history of thinking about those that should exist, beginning with Daniel Burnham’s 1909 “Plan of Chicago,” which laid out a bold, progressive vision for the city in magnificent, large-scale illustrations that you can still see in the basement of the Art Institute. That same tendency to think, if not dream, about the role that architecture can play in the life of a city is on full view in Chicago’s first architecture Biennial, supposedly the largest collection of contemporary international architecture in North America, which runs through January 3.
Pitched as an odd-year counterpart to the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Chicago event seems both more preoccupied with local issues and more socially conscious than Venice. Most of the exhibits are concentrated in the Beaux Arts rooms of the Chicago Cultural Center, an oddly lavish setting—loaded with gilt, marble, mosaic, and Tiffany glass—for so much problem-oriented architecture. There is a very timely exhibition by Jeanne Gang on improving police and community relations that imagines police stations doubling as civic centers and offering things like free Wi-Fi, mental health counseling, daycare, even basketball courts.
While not starchitect-free, only a few big names are on the bill. Tatiana Bilbao contributed an installation, a kind of bare-bones $8,000 wooden house meant to address Mexico’s acute affordable housing shortage of 9 million homes. Bjarke Ingels, the dreamy, in-demand Dane, has offered a prototype of the steam ring generator his firm crowdfunded for a power plant (and ski resort?) in Copenhagen that will puff out a magical cloud ring for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted by the plant.
In another room, Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto has arrayed a collection of wooden pedestals containing what looks like found objects—a loofa, a squished soda bottle, blocks of staples. The placement of tiny human figurines alongside these pleasing piles of junk turns them into little architectural curios, complete with thought-provoking commentaries like: “When things gather, there is faint order, there is the beginning of architecture.”
Lesser-known architects contributed some of the coolest exhibits, including one about the (potentially vertical) future of campgrounds and another, by Tomás Saraceno, about spinning actual spider webs into architectural expressions. Many critics have commented on the jumbled, grab-bag nature of the event, but its organizers say creating this feeling was kind of the point. “We didn’t want to constrain the work with a theme,” cocurator Sarah Herda told The Guardian. “We went out into the world and asked architects to tell us what they think matters.”
The section of Michigan Avenue facing Millennium Park, the epicenter of the Biennial, seems like a natural focal point, since this area is already home to splashy architecture, including Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion as well as structurally minded sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa. I’m told it was once a chore to find a decent meal or cocktail around here, until the arrival of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, which has become a clubby dining and drinking destination, as well as a great base for traveling architecture buffs. The project, completed just this spring, transformed a venerable men’s club, built in the 1890s, into a swank hotel. The restoration of the gorgeous, sprawling Venetian Gothic lobby is as impressive as any of the Biennial’s exhibits: It took nearly three years to pull off and code all the millwork and restore the giant manly fireplaces into honey traps for wintertime whiskey drinkers like me.
Right across from the CAA hotel is the Art Institute of Chicago, which has also caught the architecture bug: Its big fall exhibition, running through January 3, is a mid-career retrospective of the work of the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. Included in the exhibit is a model of his ziggurat design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is currently under construction on the National Mall. (Not included is any of the speculation that Adjaye may soon be chosen to design the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.)
Of all the exciting architectural activity here, the season’s most impressive contribution wasn’t designed by an architect at all. Opening as part of the Biennial, Theaster Gates’s Stony Island Arts Bank in an underserved area of the South Side of Chicago is just the latest example of Gates’s inspired urban interventions. In 2013, he bought a crumbling Prohibition-era bank building for $1 from the city and helped finance its exquisite partial restoration by parodying his own artistic celebrity, selling signed marble blocks from the old building as $5,000 “art bonds” during Art Basel.
Inside are special collections, each of which has its own remarkable story. A jaw-dropping central library space holds the magazine and books of John H. Johnson, who founded Jet and Ebony magazines. Elsewhere are timeworn cabinets and cubbies containing 60,000 glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute; the huge record collection of the DJ and house music progenitor Frankie Knuckles; even a collection of “negrobilia,” or racist memorabilia, that the banker Edward Williams and his wife Ana bought in great quantity in order to take out of circulation. All this cultural “currency,” open to the public, capitalizes on Gates’s idea that this space is still a bank—just one that values and protects something besides money. As Gates recently said, “The city is starting to realize that there might be other ways of imagining upside beside return on investment and financial gain.”
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