Chicago Architecture Biennial: A Californian survives actual winter (for 2 days)
Braving single digit temperatures and frozen landscapes, I travelled to Chicago during the first weekend in January to visit the second annual Chicago Architecture Biennial. With the title, Make New History, the biennial took place from September 2017 to January 2018 and was curated by Artistic Directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee. The installations were housed in the Chicago Cultural Center and featured over 140 participants from 20 countries. This year’s theme focused on architects and artists whose designs explore how architecture can make new histories, often through referencing the past. The artistic statement for the biennial’s theme succinctly states:
“Despite the seemingly smooth horizon of historical information in which we find ourselves, there is a great diversity in the ways and means with which architects approach and redefine the past: from increasingly visible practices of referencing and resampling in image making, to reassembly of as-found and original materials, to the site specific practices that engage with heritage in unexpected ways. These paths all foreground historical narratives, forms, and objects – yet, their reconstitution is utterly contemporary.”
The referral to history led to some truly unique installations. Marshall Brown’s The Architecture of Creative Miscegenation sought to address the fact that every architecture is “infected” with references from history. His collages of building typologies digitally stitched together offers a new architecture of synthesized parts.
Keith Krumwiede’s wallpaper, Visions of Another America, is based on The Monuments of Paris by Joseph Dufour. His work examines the 19th century's fascination with recreating romantic landscapes and geographies in paintings and drawings for decorative display. In Krumwiede’s wallpaper, historically significant architecture such as the Louvre or Porte Saint-Denis are replaced with images of fictional developer homes that he first showed in Atlas of Another America, which introduced the idea of a fictitious yet familiar suburb known as Freedomland.
So many designers examined ways to reference and reflect on the history of architecture in their work, yet Jorge Otero-Pailos’ The Ethics of Dust literally put this physical history on display. The Ethics of Dust is a series of casts that are the results from cleaning pollution from monuments around the world. Otero-Pailos applies liquid latex to monuments; once dried, he removes the latex and along with it years of pollution, dust, and debris. These casts are not only visually stunning, but also show the impact that humans have on our architecture and environment.
Sponsors of the Biennial included SC Johnson, who offered free bus tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the company’s global headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The aptly named “Wright Now” tour included the administration building, research tower, and the newly built Fortaleza Hall by Foster + Partners.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the campus continues to be regarded as an ideal of the modern workplace. Wright’s design included an emphasis on natural light and collective workspaces, while also using the unique building technique of laying Pyrex tubes on top of one another instead of glass windows. Apparently Wright was not a fan of the local landscape, and felt that the workers did not need to look at the view when they should be working. While it’s definitely an eye-catching design, it did have some pitfalls - scientists in the research tower complained that it was too bright for them to adequately do their work, and requested that sunglasses be provided. The 43 miles of tubes used were also not able to stand up to the local weather - leaks were a regular occurrence until new sealant was installed. Throughout the campus, Wright also utilized tapered columns of his own design called “dendriform” to allow in light while also minimizing the floor print they occupied. Our tour guide relayed a story about how the Wisconsin Industrial Commission did not believe that these columns, which are 90-inches at the base and 18.5 feet at the top, would be able to handle the weight of his building. Wright decided to test their load-bearing abilities in public, putting sandbags on top to prove the design’s strength. After 60 tons were loaded on top of one (when only 12 were needed to prove his point), he was given his building permit.
One of the most stunning aspects of the tour was the Administration Building’s Great Workroom. Spanning half an acre, this space supported the work of 200 employees. Wright designed every aspect of the building, from its architecture to the furniture, and emphasized an open and bright environment as a way promote efficiency and direct contact between workers. The space feels like a cathedral, and certainly would have been an awe-inspiring space to work in.
Photography was not allowed inside buildings on the tour, but a recent Vox video emphasizes the significance of Wright’s design while also providing stunning visuals. Follow this link to watch.