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Installation view of the installation ‘Vertical City’ at the Chicago Architecture Biennial (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — The Chicago Architecture Biennial is now officially a biennial, with its second iteration open to the public this past weekend. The free event now stands as North America’s largest survey of contemporary architecture. Curated by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of LA-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee, and organized by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, it brings together over 140 participants from more than 20 countries to showcase projects under the theme “Make New History.”

IIT College of Architecture + SANAA, “Lake 33rd, Bronzeville”

A reference to Ed Ruscha’s eponymous book of 600 blank pages, it’s a broad topic that explores potential futures for architecture that build on the past. The myriad projects on view — manifest in elaborate models, photographs, videos, and more — show how architecture can look to history for inspiration to build environments that meet the needs of today.

And that’s only at the biennial’s primary venue of the downtown Chicago Cultural Center, where Johnston Marklee has redesigned areas of the four-story, labyrinthine building to make visitors’ navigation as streamlined as possible. Outside of the massive Beaux Art building, additional programming takes place at dozens of locations spread across the city, from the Garfield Park Conservatory to the Graham Foundation.

The main show greets you with a whirlwind of takes on what architecture is and can be — a mix of intriguing to madcap what-ifs, in addition to realized projects that grapple with overpopulation, climate change, historical preservation, and emerging technologies. There are conceptual meditations, from “Cosmic Latte” — a visual manifesto by J. Mayer H. and Philip Ursprung that looks at the ubiquity of beige in our built environment — to Marshall Brown’s photo collages that illustrate what the architect calls “creative miscegenation” — the “cross-breeding” of architectural forms throughout time. There are plenty of ideas that deserve individual discussion, and copious wall text explains each one, although much of it is unfortunately too prolix and rife with insider jargon.

J. Mayer H. und Partner, Architekten and Philip Ursprung, “Cosmic Latte”

What’s most accessible is the biennial’s central display, Vertical City, which features over a dozen reimagined versions of the Chicago Tribune Tower, standing 16 feet tall. The installation refers to two parallel moments in history: when architect Stanley Tigerman invited over 100 architects in 1980 to revisit the 1922 brief to design the iconic Tribune tower (won by John Mead Howells) and displayed the designs in the exhibition Late Entries to the Chicago Tribune Competition.

This third iteration of the challenge is memorable mostly for the whimsy of a few proposals. Among these is New York-based MOS Architects‘s tower of cast-glass blocks that appears in the midst of disintegration — a monument fitting for dystopic times. Then there’s Tatiana Bilbao Estudio‘s “(Not) Another Tower,” which appears like a dozen dollhouses integrated into a tower, unlike any skyscraper you’ve ever seen. But its fanciful appearance imagines a necessary solution to densely populated areas with shrinking real estate, proposing a vertical city with an array of civic spaces instead of just a corporate building. The tower features everything from a library to a greenhouse to a chapel.

Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, detail of “(Not) Another Tower,’ part of ‘Vertical City’

Charles Waldheim with Harvard University Graduate School of Design Office for Urbanism and Siena Scarff Design, “Heliomorphic Chicago”

Another smart, ambitious project that sits next to Vertical City is “Heliomorphic Chicago,” by Charles Waldheim in collaboration with Siena Scarff and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Office for Urbanism. Models of red skyscrapers, standing in pairs and assembled like stalagmites, imagine radical designs for some of Chicago’s landmark skyscrapers, from the John Hancock Center to Trump Tower. The architects restructured each building twice over to show what they might look like if designed for optimized solar access and for ecological performance — two alternative options to write the story of a greener Chicago. 

The biennial’s other main attraction is Vertical City‘s counterpart, Horizontal City, an installation that asked architects to each reinterpret a canonical interior of their choosing and create models of their ideas. Instead of reimagining the past, the results consider alternative futures. Many interestingly explore options of collective living or the possibilities of open, rather than private, domestic spaces. Architect Andrew Kovacs imagines Sir John Soane’s famous museum as an eccentric, dynamic site for collective living, where the British architect’s collection becomes an assemblage of habitable objects. Chicago firm UrbanLab thinks on a grander scale, revisiting Superstudio’s radical concept of a continuous, flat living environment with a model that contains a psychedelic, mirrored interior. Most of the displays force you to crouch to properly scrutinize these scaled-down spaces, but there are stools thoughtfully scattered around that invite you to stay as long as you like.

Andrew Kovacs, “Proposal for Collective Living II (Homage to Sir John Soane),” part of ‘Horizontal City’

UrbanLab, “Re-Encampment,” part of ‘Horizontal City’

Between these two easily appealing displays, there’s plenty more that shouldn’t be overlooked. One of the most inconspicuous but pertinent pieces is the only project that responds to President Trump’s controversial call for a border wall. The Mexico City-based Dellekamp Arquitectos presents a small model of their ideal wall that features a public space at its top — a border that exists to brings people together rather than to divide.

Other projects are more practical and more readily realized. HHF Architects, for instance, proposes a clever parking garage that cities can begin to adopt. “Parking & More” makes the most out of unused space at a parking facility, integrating gardens, eateries, and shops so the building becomes a hub of activity rather than just a shelter. A project by Beijing-based ZAO/Standardarchitecture similarly injects a traditional building type with renewed purpose, but from a perspective of preservation. One of my favorite works in the biennial, “Make New Hutong Metabolism,” highlights three ways the firm has redeveloped hutongs, or the traditional alleys formed by courtyards commonly found in older regions of Beijing. Many of these spaces have been demolished over the years, and ZAO/Standardarchitecture has converted some into a hostel, an art center, and other contemporary urban spaces that squeeze out the full potential of these tight areas.

Dellekamp Arquitectos, “The Wallderfull”

ZAO/Standardarchitecture, three designs for “Make New Hutong Metabolism”

Ventures such as ZAO/Standardarchitecture’s exemplify the global scope of the biennial, but they also beg the question of how this premier event is engaging with Chicago’s own architectural history. As Anjulie Rao, writing for The Chicago Reader, points out, the theme Make New History can be problematic when one considers Chicago’s history of failed urban planning projects that have victimized residents. At the Chicago Cultural Center, this history is barely recognized — the primary Chicago-related installation, Vertical City, wrestles with one of the most famous architecture-related stories of the city. What about those lesser known ones that affected the everyday lives of its residents?

The biennial is spotlighting some of these at six anchor sites that will each host exhibitions that look into specific local narratives: the DuSable Museum of African American History, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the DePaul Art Museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, Hyde Park Art Center, and Beverly Arts Center. The DuSable, for one, is putting on the first major show of photography that captures architecture on the city’s South Side; meanwhile, at the National Museum of Mexican Art, an exhibition surveys the development of Mexican culture in the neighborhood of Pilsen. With these satellite shows, “Make new history” doesn’t exist simply as a lofty prompt for experts in the field, but remains a loud, encouraging call to average residents as well.

MAIO, “The Grand Interior,” part of ‘Horizontal City’

Sylvia Lavin with Erin Besler, Jessica Colangelo and Norman Kelly, “Super Models”


AGENdA with Camilo Echavarría, “MIES Understandings”

BLESS in dialog with Artek furniture classics, “Bless No. 60 Lobby Conquerors”

Archi-Union Architects, “Robotic Craftsmanship: Making New History with Traditional Materials”

Caruso St. John with Thomas Demand and Hélène Binet, “Constructions and References”

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, “Beehives with Asteroid and Prototype for Re-entry”

Aranda\Lasch and Terrol Dew Johnson, “Baskets”

Point Supreme, “Totems” (2016)

T + E + A + M, “Ghostbox”

WELCOMEPROJECTS, “I see Paris, I see France,” part of ‘Horizontal City’

Andrew Kovacs, detail of “Proposal for Collective Living II (Homage to Sir John Soane),” part of ‘Horizontal City’

The Chicago Architecture Biennial continues at the Chicago Culture Center (78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL) through January 7, 2018.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...