Behind the Biennial Curtain:
A Conversation with Mark Lee,
the Co-Artistic Director


Tom Mullaney: I’m curious about how you and Sharon (Johnston) arrived at the number of 141 participants in the Biennial. There are, if I’m not mistaken, 22 repeat participants who also appeared in the 2015 Biennial.

Mark Lee: On the selection process, I’d say there were three separate approaches we used in arriving at the list. I would say most were based on our knowledge of their work and which ones we felt would fit our criteria and sit well within the Biennial. Sharon and I then asked them to think specifically in the RFP about what they could contribute on the basis of the schematics (Image, Materials, Building and Civic Histories). The third approach would be specific installations with which we felt the architects would work well. Generally, we worked with those three approaches.

NAE: Sharon participated in the 2015 Biennial. What did you and she feel were lessons learned that you wanted to improve this time around?

Lee: Well, there were a lot of things around organization that we were not privy to. Being involved with it for a year, we see how much is involved on the basis of the organization of the work. With this insight, we really appreciate all the work that the team at the first Biennial did.

NAE: Did you, during this process, touch base with Sarah (Herda) and Joe (Grima) on how they handled some issues?

Lee: We touched base with Sarah for sure but not so much with Joe except at the beginning. With Sarah and myself, being out-of-towners, at least a base, a network had been established with the first show. And Sarah, being at the Graham Foundation and being in Chicago, we really relied on her, other members of the Board and chairman, Jack Guthman, and Todd Palmer, the executive director.

NAE: Let’s move on to a more contentious matter, which is your theme, “Making New History.” Perhaps you were being quite crafty in thinking, “Let’s make this as ambiguous as possible.” I understand, from some architects, I’ve spoken to, that your’s and Sharon’s tendency is a little more on the historical end and the past.

I can see your desire to repair the rupture between the past and modernism. Can’t new history also mean doing a complete break with the past and going in a complete 21st Century direction?

Lee: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. We wanted to establish the theme but we allow participants to take whatever direction they like, whether a reformist position or an extremist position; whether you intend to blend with history or break with history. We just think the interest in history, not only with our work, but also with the abundance of information and images circulating around the end of history collapses history into the present and everything becomes ahistorical at this point.


















Menil Drawing Institute—West Elevation at Dusk by Johnston Marklee.


NAE: I think you are making a case for looking at architecture in the context of history. I read “Architecture can say what prevails and what does not and how to recognize the significance of ‘untold narratives’. Can you explain the ‘untold narrative’ part that you feel needs some historical input?

Lee: Yes, for example, I think that the public thinks the Bauhaus school of Modernism was completely against history. But, around the same time, there was a lesser-known group of Italian rationalists, led by Giuseppe Terragni, whose work looks modern but was very grounded in the old typology. There were courtyard buildings and palazzos whereas the language of the building is very modern.

For Sharon and me, we thought this was an important link where newness is grounded in the larger context of history. So, today, with some of the participants we’ve invited, you also see architects who have been exploring with the latest type of digital technology or computer-aided construction systems, who are also looking at older systems. They are looking at the Chinese architects Zao/Standard Architecture who have been exploring new possibilities for the traditional Hutong type (a system of alleys and courtyards) and how they evolved. So this is an example of where the past and future can merge.

NAE: What makes me lean in the direction of the “New” is that we are living in an era where the themes of public space, cultural identity, social practice architecture and new communication modes have taken on greater importance than at the last Biennial. So, will there be a greater emphasis this time on exhibits that address these newer realities?

Lee: Yes and I think what we did was to include many architects whom we know have this position in their work. And we invited them to practice but we didn’t foreground that aspect. We kind of put it under the rubric “History.”

There is this Belgian office, 51N4E, that did work in Tirana, Albania. They just finished a public square that united a federal building with a mosque and their whole approach was about this participating community approach with all the people involved. They not only showed the project but also showed the process behind it.

NAE: One thing different from 2015 is that you and Sharon have tried to organize the Biennial around various themes. In terms of the themes, what will visitors encounter when they first enter the Cultural Center? How are you trying to lead them into your narrative?

Lee: What we tried to do, curatorially, was to put together, in close proximity, projects that have certain similar thematics. So, perhaps the visitor can see one approach to a project in Africa and right next to it is an approach for Suburbia, U.S.A.

It’s not a clear formula. Sometimes, it’s thematics where we group them together or a similar type of building. For me, it’s important to reach out to a very large audience of architects or people who are just genuinely interested in architecture. Right now, we’re getting close to the finish line and trying to pull everything together.

NAE: With having to serve a large and varied audience, is there a way that the wall text material can help lead the public through the connections and juxtapositions? Can the text lead them through the thematics?

Lee: Right. Well, we are working on it right now. We’re trying to make it as palatable as possible. I think the first year, there was a combination of texts that were directly contributed by the participants. This year, we are having curators and associate curators unify texts so that it has a more palatable feel.


















Vault House by Johnston Marklee


NAE: We will have a review in the issue of a fascinating book published by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, “No Small Plans,” that is a graphic novel. CAF will also distribute it to 30,000 Chicago high school students. They are trying to get teenagers to understand concepts of land use, urban planning and gentrification. My question is “Why just teach teenagers?” We adults also need to understand how city decisions are made. Do you agree that we also need adult education on such matters?

Lee: I completely agree. Sharon and I were quite impressed by the first Biennial. We were there the first weekend and came back several times for work on our Museum of Contemporary Art project. And, every time we stopped by the Biennial, we were surprised at how few people there were at the Cultural Center compared to other biennials we have been involved with such as Venice and the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale. It was crowded for the first week or two but when you came back a month later, it would be you and a few cats.

NAE: Perhaps it’s a question of having robust ancillary programming like symposia or a roundtable debate among architects on city planning issues and, of course, marketing and good media attention.

Well, biennials have mushroomed. They are not just in Chicago. Since your expo will open the same week as the ExpoChicago art fair, do you think that biennials may be becoming for architecture what art fairs are for art? We may need more  biennials because of new media making it the way the profession talks to itself.

Lee: Well, one difference is that, with architecture biennials, no transactions happen whereas art fairs are transactional. People and institutions go there to buy art. But the genius of having the rhythm of one every two years is important. When everything can be accessed by the internet, going to a place physically and seeing installations physically—this is why we like having larger than life exhibitions so it’s not just a matter of looking at screens. You can experience it. People yearn for it, some physical experience.

NAE: This question is from an architect. Why should we care about the theme of history because we know it is so skewed and relative? How can we trust history as a guide for architecture?

Lee: Right. Well, history has certainly been skewed but it is being constantly rewritten over and over again. Over time, there are different paradigms and different angles on how history has been revised. And, for us, we don’t see History as a guide but as a reference. We don’t see it as a straitjacket or handcuffs that tie architects the way the Beaux Arts did in the 19th Century, for example, stating “You have to do this, you have to do that.”

History is an accrued reservoir of knowledge built over time that architects can tap into. We see history as a positive as opposed to something that is top-down and very dominating.


View House by Johnston Marklee.


NAE: There are so many issues that architecture and society are dealing with, such as income inequality and environmental degradation. An architect I interviewed said it’s not architecture’s role to cure the ills of society but it does have a role to play. Could you say what that role is?

Lee: That is essentially a great question because Sharon and I have always felt that architecture has often in the past been underestimated and overestimated. There was a time when architecture was asked to cure tuberculosis. But architecture can only do something when it hosts the world and makes suggestions as opposed to being the “silver bullet” that solves the ills of the world.

I think a good architect steps back and asks, with the problems in the world, what is the best way architecture can contribute rather than thinking of architecture as the “all remedy.” A clear understanding is more important than a certain bravado.

NAE: I have been told that, in the 20th Century, architecture was chasing after painting while, at the present time and what I think relates to making new history, it is racing after photography; with contemporary architectural photography being much more important than in the past. Can you tease out that observation?

Lee: Sure, sure. For us, that’s not a grand statement. Certainly, in our show, we invited a lot of photographers to take images not only of the city but to take portraits of important buildings.

I would say that, in the 20th Century, in all the mediums of Art, painting has been at the forefront in its influence on architecture. A lot of rules of painting were applied in the evaluation of architecture. And, maybe in retrospect, that’s a little too restraining. Certain things like pictorial depth and phenomenal transparency.

On the one hand, I think back 60 or 70 years ago, that was radical but I think they’re too incompatible. They’re both visual but, sometimes, to apply one rule can trap architecture more than it advances it. We just think photography has a certain immediacy but I think it’s also that, in this photo-obsessed period, the single image is real. It’s a very direct way of addressing people’s concerns rather than with renderings.

NAE: What 5 living or dead architects would you invite to your next dinner party?

Lee: (Laughter) Well, that’s really a great question. Sharon and I gave it some thought. I think the ones we would like to invite are: Austrian architect, Otto Loos, would be one. Another would be the Dutch architect, Aldo Van Eyck, then Aldo Rossi, the couple Robert Venturi and Denise R. Brown. The last would be (Jacques) Herzog and (Pierre) de Meuron. So we have 3 dead ones and 2 pairs that are alive.

NAE: What Chicago building is your favorite?

Lee: Ah, this is a tough one. There are so many. Off the top of my head, I would say the Inland Steel Building. And the Monadnock. I like how Inland, over time, ages a little with the panels. I really enjoy how the building reflects the light and I always make it a point to stop by when I’m in Chicago.


Besides Mark Lee, Tom Mullaney has interviewed numerous architects including Ronald Krueck, Mark Sexton, Rafael Vinoly, Stanley Tigerman  and R. Buckminster Fuller.



Mark Lee, Photo by Eric Staudenmaier.



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