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Design

Notes on the State of Architecture Today

Dispatches from the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the first architecture fair in North America.
October 8, 2015, 5:10pm
Iwan Baan 2015 Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial

The architect Daniel Burnham is famously quoted in Erik Larson’s book, The Devil in The White City, as saying, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” before he erected a neo-classical “white city,” along a desolate stretch of lakeshore ahead of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The Beaux-Arts style buildings helped put Chicago on the map, architecturally. Yet over the last two centuries, Chicago has continuously turned to question what architecture can achieve.

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Housing nearly 100 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes, more than 40 modernist structures of glass and steel by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and contemporary buildings by both Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano, the city is where competing schools of architecture converge. But, “What is the state of the art of architecture today?” That’s the question more than 120 architecture and design offices are trying to answer at the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial.

“More than anything we wanted to try and capture the diversity of approaches and voices in the field today,” says Sarah Herda, who co-curated the Chicago Architecture Biennial with Joseph Grima. “We wanted participants from around the world to tell us what was important and most urgent in the field today opposed to us assuming that we knew as curators.”

Tatiana Bilbao S.C. (Mexico City, Mexico) Sustainable Housing, 2013-2014 Photo by Steve Hall, Copyright Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

The more than 93 projects on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, along the lakefront, and throughout neighborhoods in Chicago call attention to the fact that architecture as a practice is changing to meet the demands of the modern city. The projects presented seem to respond to the social needs of cities around the world. “One of the most recurring concerns presented in the projects in the biennial, is the agency of the architect,” Herda tells The Creators Project from the exhibition hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Typically architects look for clients and wait on briefs to build projects catered to the luxury market, yet the most compelling projects at the biennial use architecture to elevate the lives of the disadvantaged. Participating architect Tatiana Bilbao’s Sustainable Housing project responds to the dire housing shortage in Mexico. She rendered the archetypical house based on interviews and workshops with families that would potentially live in the affordable housing.

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Vo Trong  Nghia  Architects  (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) S House, 2014 Photo by Tom Harris, Copyright  Hedrich  Blessing Courtesy of the Chicago  Architecture  Biennial

Another sustainable housing project, S House, came from Vo Trong Nghia Architects for residents living in the Mekong Delta who live on less than $130 per month. The $4,000 S House can be converted into a school, office, or community center, and the $8,000 Sustainability Housing pitched roof house can be expanded in phases according to each family’s budget and desires.

Theaster Gates uses architecture to explore urban planning concerns in an area of Chicago that has an estimated 13,000 vacant lots. Through the Rebuild Foundation, Gates’ created physical spaces on the Southside of Chicago, like The Black Cinema House, The Dorchester Projects, Currency Exchange Café, and the newly opened Stony Island Arts Bank, a new exhibition space that aims to be an international platform for contemporary art and cultural space for the local community. The ultimate success of Gates’ architecture-as-art project will be defined by the people from the community who use the space to enhance their cultural capital and the quality of work the artists, who will take up residencies at the Bank.

Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank Photo by: Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

Conversely, Amanda Williams uses her Color(ed) Theory project to mark the end of the life of a building. The once vibrant South Side of Chicago has experienced a mass exodus of its black residents. In the predominantly black Englewood neighborhood, Williams illegally paints abandoned buildings, vibrant monochromatic colors—“Ultra Sheen” blue, “Currency Exchange” yellow, “Harold’s Chicken Shack” red—to stake claim to the roots of the neighborhood and it's black popular culture.

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“As an architect I wanted to know if there was a role I can play in the marking of this thing at the end of its life,” says Williams, a practicing architect before she became a painter. “This final mark is a way to acknowledge that these building were important. I purposely picked houses that were slated for demolition because I wanted to inscribe in the cultural memory of the city that they were there and represented black space.”

In painting houses colors that denote products black families consume—and on houses once occupied by black families— Williams shows that the act of removal is powerful. In painting the final house of the series during the opening weekend of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Williams shows that the fair isn’t only focusing on architecture as a practice of addition or marker of gentrification. Color(ed) Theory remembers the people who once gave meaning to the houses on the South Side of Chicago.

The projects on display at the Chicago Architecture Biennial represent interventions by architects that are seeking to remake cities around the globe into spaces where the people who live in them have a say in imagining the future of the landscape as equitable spaces. “This exhibition is really important for architecture,” says Herda, the current Director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. “It is a space where architects have come to test ideas and put something in the public realm to communicate what cities can be.”

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Amanda Williams (Chicago, US) Color(ed) Theory, 2014-2015 Photo by Steve Hall, Copyright Hedrich Blessing Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

The Chicago Architecture Biennial runs through January 3, 2015 at various locations throughout the city. Click here to learn more.

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