Chicago Architecture Biennial

Wants to “Make New History”

The Chicago Cultural Center, normally home to the magnificent Tiffany Dome, the Story Corps booth, impressive art exhibits, tours for domestic and foreign visitors and everyday Chicagoans taking a break in the day, will be transformed starting on September 16th into a large Lego stage for architects.

More than 141 architects and firms from over 20 countries will be descending on Chicago for the second architecture biennial. They will explore the show’s overall theme, “Making New History,” through models of buildings, drawn from their imaginations but representations of themes around the concepts of image, materials, and civic histories.

Chicagoans and fellow architects who attend the Biennial will be confronted by new strategies for tackling current challenges of housing, environmental change, social and economic inequality, urbanization and public space to name some of the most salient. While architecture can’t, by itself, cure the full range of social ills, it can focus attention on such matters. “Part of our mission is to take on the future,” says Martin Felsen, head of Urban Lab in Chicago.

Two architectural curators are overseeing this grand enterprise: Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee. They head their own practice, Johnston Marklee, in Los Angeles and assume the mantle that Graham Foundation director, Sarah Herda and curator Joseph Grima wore for the first biennial in 2015.

Stewart Hicks, of “Design with Company,” which, in 2015, showed a tongue-in-cheek “late submission” to the 1925 Chicago Tribune competition believes that the original curators did a good job of “setting a tone and then setting a table upon which other biennials could build from.”

The first biennial had its moments of controversy. Chicago firms were upset at the small number of local entrants and the exclusion of the city’s renowned corporate firms. As a result, large numbers of architects said that they did not visit the expo.

Marshall Brown, a new entrant who teaches at IIT and exhibited at the 2016 Venice Biennale, works on making the new, incorporating elements of architectural history (particularly collage), quite in keeping with this year’s overall theme of making new history.

He is not sympathetic to the corporate firms’ complaint. “I don’t care if large corporate firms are upset that they are not in the Biennial. If they want to trade their multi-million dollar commissions for my spot on the wall at the Cultural Center, have them call me.”

Biennial executive director, Todd Palmer, thinks this year’s event will be less fractious, even though corporate firms are still not represented. He noted that the Biennial’s intent is to bring the thinking of world architects to Chicago rather than to showcase local talent.

Talking with several local architects, I gathered more a sense of excitement than friction about the prospect for a successful show that will enjoy greater impact. They mentioned the longer lead time that this year’s directors have to come up with an overarching theme, unlike the initial expo which was hastily assembled and gave a more wide-open view of architecture at that moment.

Jack Guthman, a prominent land-use lawyer in Chicago who was involved last time, is the chairman for this edition and echoes an optimistic tone. “I’m very enthusiastic. As I read the international press and meet people in the architecture, arts and cultural communities, there is a true enthusiasm, a buzz, about the Biennial.”





















Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona. Jeff Wall, 1999 transparency in lightbox 187.0 x 351.0 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


What gives architects this sense of success? This time, according to Hicks, every room will be more curated. Each has a title and a theme. There are rooms for which Johnston and Lee commissioned all new projects around a theme and other rooms where architects are gathered more loosely.

Johnston spoke of the inspiration the architects can take from the site, the Cultural Center, long a welcoming gathering space in the heart of the city. She says her’s and Lee’s thinking was focused more on the flow of movement in the building so as to “create a collection of rooms that brought coherence to our exhibition design concepts.”

Another plus that chairman Guthman and architects cited are Johnson and Marklee’s impressive credentials. Both are not only respected academic thinkers who know current trends in the profession but are also award-winning architects, making them more sensitive to their peers’ concerns.

Hicks referenced their philosophy and practice in this way: “Sharon and Mark are great architects who have cultivated a practice that relates to art and architecture, photography and theme who maintain a foothold in academia. It will be interesting to see where this show will come out in relation to the other show where the directors were curators.”

Finally, architects are excited by the organizing themes the team wants to explore in the Biennial. Urban Lab’s Felsen says this year’s show is “more like a funnel” in which the exhibits will come together and flow under Sharon and Mark’s main themes. He concludes that their “broader agenda about what architecture can do has people excited.”

Making sure the spectacle comes off as envisioned is the responsibility of Palmer and his staff. Chicago, says Palmer, is the logical place to host such a biennial. “Chicago has the DNA of architecture,” the original home of the modern skyscraper.

The new artistic directors have said their goal is not to produce an overview of the state of architecture today but an exhibition where there is “space for debate, dialogue and the production of new ideas.” A cornucopia of programs, symposiums, receptions and art installations at six satellite facilities around the city guarantee an abundance of opinions and contentious chatter. The Biennial has 100 sponsors who will be contributing to the programming. One sponsor, the Chicago Architecture Foundation will supply communication materials to help visitors comprehend the biennial themes better.

“Make New History” is an ambiguous term. Lee speaks of the past as a signpost rather than a firm command.  Hicks calls the title “clever” for its dual meaning. “People can see it in multiple ways, as a jumping off-point as a way of saying, ‘we’re making new history’ and rewriting the book or as a connection with a long lineage and understanding one’s place in that lineage.”

Another firm returning is Kelley/Norman which, in 2015, covered all the Cultural Center’s Michigan Avenue windows with 65 images of window dressings—ranging from the familiar to the canonical—that would mitigate one’s view from inside looking out and vice versa.

This year, their exhibit will be of interiors. It will fill one room with 24 miniature scale models of canonical interiors throughout time, “riffing on the Art Institute’s room of miniatures” (Thorne rooms).

Tom Kelley calls the Biennial “Janus-headed,” looking both to the past as well as facing the future. “I think the worst thing you can do for architecture is try and bottle it into easily digestible types. I think a biennial is an opportunity for someone outside the discipline of architecture to appreciate how complex all of these issues are at all times and for all projects.”

I asked Brown the value of being in a biennial for smaller firms like his and others who are pushing more radical, innovative ideas. “It has many values. For smaller practices that haven’t had as much exposure yet, it’s hugely valuable. It’s valuable as a base for sharing ideas with either like-minded or opposing voices. It’s a great way to get advanced architectural thinking out in front of the public. When a quarter of a million people are walking through Venice or the Cultural Center and see these visions of alternative worlds, it can’t help but make an impression, for better or worse. And I think it expands their imagination. And these things go into the history books and become part of making new history.”

Above all the grand plans and strategies, the organizers want their peers to grapple with a single pressing concern: what is the agency of the architect?

The conception of architects as stars of the built environment pervades popular portrayals of a noble profession. Such modern masters as Burnham, Wright, Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Mies, Saarinen, Kahn, Gehry have contributed to the legend.


























Crown Hall by James Welling.


However, in today’s high-stakes, mega-project world, the stakeholder who has gained most control over the planning and building process has been the real estate developer. A new book, “Developing Expertise” from Yale University Press, charts that figure’s growing influence over the last half-century. And other stakeholders like municipal officials, lawyers and bankers also play important roles in the decision process.

That reality has diminished the role the architect plays. At times, it can seem like a miracle that good architecture actually gets built, though there is a growing awareness that striking design can be both beautiful, profitable and make a substantial enhancement to the community.

The Biennial will feature a number of accompanying off-site shows playing to architectural themes. There is the Amanda Williams exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an architecture and design show at the Art Institute of Chicago, a Palais de Tokyo exhibit featuring 11 emerging artists from the France and Chicago art scenes and a show titled Between States: Design Solutions for Chicago’s 50 Wards at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Additional programs can be found throughout the expo at

All the themes proposed by Johnston and Lee and modeled by the 141 showcased firms plus heated debate about the architect’s and architecture’s role gets underway on September 16 and runs through the first week of January, 2018. It is a show not only for architects but a rich showcase of ideas for citizens everywhere who wish to become engaged with public policy issues and shape wise choices on urbanization in general and Chicago most of all.



Tom Mullaney is the New Art Examiner’s Senior Editor. He wrote on the 2015 Biennial and maintains an active interest in the built environment.



Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee.

Todd Palmer, CAB executive director. Photo by
Zachary Johnson.

An architectural collage by
Filip Dujardin.



Art may have its capitals in New York, London and Paris but, in Chicago, architecture is king. For 125 years, starting with Daniel Burnham’s plans for the

 Columbian Exposition, Chicago has enjoyed being the leader of the building art.

It has given America the first skyscraper and such icons of architecture as the Monadnock and Auditorium buildings, Robie House, Crown Hall, Inland Steel and Sears Tower.

This month, Chicago plays host again to a gathering of international architects, the Chicago Architecture Biennial, that will “take the temperature” of the field, as one participant put it.

In this special issue, the New Art Examiner brings its art-based perspective to a sister art form.We have assembled five features and reviews that offer a Biennial overview, record the views of one of its artistic directors, looks at underrated ­Chicago architecture, reviews a graphic novel and exhibit by an architect/artist. Happy reading!


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