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Chicago Architecture Biennial: Hit or Miss? A Review


Let’s say you’re throwing a big party.  You take a few weeks to sort out the menu, invite all your friends – you even make sure you clean the bathroom (for real this time).  By the time the last drink is drunk, the last dish piled up in the sink, and the last person tumbling tiredly out the door, you have a pretty good idea whether it was a good party by whether or not everyone had a good time.  But…what if you couldn’t tell whether anyone was enjoying themselves?

Chicago Architecture Biennial: Is it good or not?
Chicago is throwing that big party.  They’re calling it the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and this three-month international architecture exhibition (3 October 2015 – 3 January 2016) has multiple locations scattered across the city, most of which are free and open to the public.  Almost 20,000 visitors attended the opening weekend, and it will probably see a steady stream until it’s over.  So…is it a good party, or not?  Another way to ask the question is: does this event matter?

The answer is a little harder to give than one might think.

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Chicago Architecture Biennial: The State of the Art of Sustainability

Chicago is hosting North America’s inaugural Architecture Biennial this fall (3 October – 3 January).  Titled “The State of the Art of Architecture,” architectural firms and practices from all six continents have been invited to display their work.  Spanning all sizes and kinds of projects, the Biennial is showcasing solutions to design problems from spiderwebs to social housing.

U.S. buildings use around 40% of all the country’s energy consumption.  It is a disconcerting truth that even if every building starting tomorrow were to be net-zero energy and net-zero water, we’d still be on a crash course draining more naturally-available resources than our one planet can permanently sustain.  In this environment, architectural designers have a special responsibility to educate themselves about innovative sustainable design techniques, from those that have worked for thousands of years to those that, as the Biennial’s title hopefully suggests, are state of the art.

So what does the Biennial have to say about sustainability?  Below are five different approaches at five different scales: material, building, resource, city, and the globe.

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Chicago Architecture Biennial: The Memes

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is an unbelievably rich, dense, colorful survey of architectural thought all over the globe.  Everything from paper collages to massive urban revitalization projects are represented, and the ideas and conversations being had sparkle with excitement.  Excitement…and, sometimes, the way the architects describe their own work is just a little too distant from how it actually plays out in the real world.  Below are a selection of projects with two descriptions each: how the architects described them, and the too-long-didn’t-read (TL;DR) synopsis.

(warning: some adult language ahead)


Sou Fujumoto, Architecture Is Everywhere; image credit Jessica A.S. Letaw

Architecture is Everywhere
Sou Fujimoto: “Architecture is first found and then made.  Just as our ancestors found their habitat in caves and woods, we discover ours among the many things we encounter in the immense urban jungle.  The notion of “found architecture” is represented by juxtaposing human figures and ordinary objects found in everyday life with contexts that might seem coincidental at first, if not fortuitous.  This operation makes us start to read these objects as architectural spaces.  While we might find these serendipitous pairings interesting for their discrepancy in scale, what lies beyond them might well be the prelude to a new architecture.  Fujimoto’s approach can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades or John Cage’s series of chance operations – specifically, the act of discovering by chance rather than creating with intent.  Architecture Is Everywhere aims to radically question the boundary between “found” and “made” architecture.”


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Chicago Architecture Biennial: The Most Outstanding Entries

The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial is almost through its first month (it runs now through 3 January 2016).  Playing off of the internationally renowned Venice Architecture Biennale but with a distinctly different flavor and approach, each of the 100+ entries, installations, kiosks, and events brings something unique to the overall Biennial experience.  See below for the 10 strongest installations that cover the spectrum of representational type, scale, and subject.

1.  Atelier Bow-Wow, Piranesi Circus

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Chicago Architecture Biennial: The Definitive Visitor’s Guide

As a crucible for contemporary architectural practice and thinking, there is nothing quite like a biennial, which is why it’s so extraordinary that Chicago is currently hosting North America’s inaugural Architecture Biennial event. Practices from all over the world come together to showcase their responses to specific themes. It’s a time for fast and intense idea proliferation, and the pavilions are mined and examined for useful ideas by architects for years afterwards.

Rather than national pavilions, as with the Venice Biennale, Chicago has invited individual firms to participate. Some were invited to respond in particular ways, from building a full-scale home to documenting speculations about Chicago; the rest were encouraged to share how and what they are working on right now. In this way, the organizers of the Biennal hopes the exhibit will serve as an accurate and comprehensive survey of what is happening globally at the bleeding edge of architecture.

The Chicago Architecture Biennal is comprised of over a hundred installations in multiple areas throughout the city and is being accompanied by dozens of events, either specially planned for the Biennial, or already as part of Chicago’s naturally vibrant architectural scene. While the Biennal website does a thorough job at outlining everything that’s available, it can be daunting to know where to begin. Architectstasy is here to help: here is a snapshot guide for how to approach the exhibit and avoiding Biennial fatigue.

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Chicago Architecture Biennial: Preview With Photos

The “State of the Art of Architecture,” North America’s inaugural architecture biennial, is now firmly underway in Chicago.  Over a hundred practices from all over Chicago and the world are displaying projects covering the gamut of types and ideas at stake.

An architecture event of this magnitude demands a thorough review. I will be writing a series of critical articles starting 10/26 going over the concept and execution of this Biennial as well as some of the works shown inside it.  Until then, here is a tiny peek at what’s in store.

Hollow Trunk, Plan:B Arquitectos

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Chicago Architecture Biennial: The Breakthrough

Sound the alarm: the women are missing!

Equity By Design (originally named The Missing 32%) is an advocacy group for women architects in the United States.  It started, perhaps inevitably, in San Francisco; architects like Dr. Ila Berman, Cathy Simon, Anne M. Torney, EB Min, and others had begun puzzling over the numbers of women in architecture.  It’s a well-known fact that in architecture school programs, the number of women and men is essentially even (and in graduate school, women often have the slight balance); another well-established fact is that only around 18% of licensed architects are female.  Which led this group to wonder…where is that missing 32%?

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is providing a surprising clue.

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