Chicago Architecture Biennial: Iwan Baan’s Quiet Comment
Iwan Baan has been chosen to document Chicago for their first ever Biennial.
If you think about it, this is kind of a funny thing to say. Chicago is already articulate about its architectural identity:
- – it has a well-established architectural foundation
- – it has architecture tours (the river cruise!)
- – it has its own comprehensive physical model of the city
- – it is one of the few cities in the United States with its own architecture critic (keep up the good work, Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Blair Kamin)
From its earliest years to now, Chicago’s architecture has been and continues to be pretty thoroughly examined, explored, debated, and documented. This leaves Baan’s assignment feeling less like news and more like parents commissioning a family portrait for a special occasion: “Now put on your best smile and square those big shoulders* to the camera, Chicago!”
Co-directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grimes have said that their ambition for this first North American architecture biennial was to organize a survey of architectural practice and expression in this moment in time. The goal was to take a snapshot, in a way, of how architects are thinking about spatial, environmental, material, and human relationships. They were strongly averse to framing a single provocation; their implication is that it is up to future biennials to take up that gauntlet, and that specificity is best left to future exploration. This is one reason Herda and Grimes selected as the theme of the first Chicago Architecture Biennial “The State of the Art of Architecture.”
For this commission, Baan has chosen to take aerial photos. This is a departure from much of his other work, and yet represents a strong visual affirmation of that theme. His architectural photography is often characterized by its rank humanity (a radical departure from much of contemporary architectural representation): buildings with people in them, or taken from a street-level perspective, or generously inclusive of the glorious mess of everyday life. His special gift is coaxing adjacencies into telling stories. As one can see in his TED talk, his photos are extraordinary not simply their subjects, but for the stories their contexts tell.
In contrast, much like the Biennial itself, Baan has taken a large-perspective, general survey. In the Chicago images, one can still see this special gift at work, but now it is on an urban rather than an individual or a building scale. In one photograph, one sees how Millennium Park nests within the city. In another, the Magnificent Mile and Chicago’s ‘skyscraper subdivision’ gently transitions into the rest of the city. In the photo above, Lakeshore Drive flirts boldly with both the city and Lake Michigan.
In these grand images, we are denied any Baanian glimpse of how individuals contend with all this urban largesse, there is no glorious old mess; or rather, there is the glorious new mess of urban accretion, a rational but thoroughly complex palimpsest of two centuries of accumulated behavior. With these images, Baan has also taken the conversation about architecture entirely away from the distorted province of “starchitects” and relocated it squarely – properly – in the authentic, remote plurality of the city instead. Perhaps, then, that is the most telling silent statement of all: that how we as individuals engage our environments is less important than how we as a people create those environments and how we, over time, subsequently manage them.
For “The State of the Art of Architecture,” Iwan Baan’s aerial photograph series is a mutely evocative echo of the ideas at stake.
*One of Chicago’s nicknames is “The City of Big Shoulders”.