Art, Architecture, History + Identity: The Chicago Architecture Biennial

Chicago may be known as the Windy City, but for architecture aficionados, the metropolis is a veritable treasure trove of world-renowned architectural gems. From historic structures including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (1910), Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center complex (1974), and Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City (1964), to more recent structures such as Studio Gang’s Aqua (2009), Chicago boasts numerous architectural landmarks. Though our firm of Salt Lake City and Los Angeles architects are based in the American West, we nevertheless have closely followed the most recent incarnation of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a showcase of over 140 architects and artists, exhibitions and events across the city, free and open to the public. Hurry! The events come to a close in early January, so if you find yourself in need of inspiration to start the new year, make haste to this cultural hub and take advantage of the truly breathtaking array of architectural wonders on offer.


Chicago Architecture Biennial Projects by (L to R) Atelier Bow Wow, “Piranesi Circus”, Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing; So-IL, “Passage”, Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo: Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing

The second Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) is the largest architecture and design exhibition in North America, and makes use of the city’s breathtaking backdrop as the gallery for internationally-acclaimed presentations “showcasing the transformative global impact of creativity and innovation in these fields”. Make New History is the theme of this year’s CAB: practitioners representing over 20 countries were invited by the CAB’s artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee (of the firm JOHNSTONMARKLEE) to participate in this city-wide presentation of thought-provoking creations and explorations of urbanism, the evolution of community identity and the impact of looking to the past to inform the present.

This is a deeply evocative and moving exploration of architecture that travels well beyond traditional presentations of architectural discourse. We are particularly impressed with the CAB’s emphasis on narrative, cultural examination, and the advancement of architectural design within a framework of accumulated conventions. How do we, as modern practitioners, assert our own identity and create the “new” when we are undoubtedly indebted to precedent? Indeed, the CAB seeks to explore this dichotomy and to highlight the ways in which architects, artists and designers working today are shunning the need to create the unparalleled in favor of incorporating historical models into their work; in other words, “committed to progress, but always from within an architectural tradition,…producing innovative and subversive works grounded in the fundamentals of the discipline.”


Chicago Architecture Biennial Project by Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich + Self Assembly Lab, MIT, “Rock Print”, Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing

With this powerful statement in mind, the overriding purpose of the CAB and Make New History is to invite members of the public and well-versed practitioners alike to explore the ways contemporary architecture has the ability to assert an historical impact globally, irrespective of site and geographical boundaries. Topics include Image, Material, Building, and Civic Histories, and highlight a myriad of creative methods of architectural expression, from drawings, experiential environments, and performances to books, films, design objects and academic analyses of architectural thought. These topics unite the shared interests, concerns and practices of architects, artists and critics who are helping to shape the future – and, therefore, the history – of the industry and field. As Mark Lee explains, “buildings are not always the end result…We think that producing ideas through different mediums – perhaps before one achieves the chance to build buildings, or maybe in lieu of that work – is relevant to the changing state of the discipline today.”


Chicago Architecture Biennial Project by Amanda Williams, “Color(ed) Theory”, Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing

The main exhibition takes place in the Chicago Cultural Center, which Johnston and Lee have transformed into complex, intertwined corridors, galleries, arcades and salons dedicated to juxtapositions of past, present and future incarnations of architectural design. For example, an exhibition of innovative experiments in contemporary architectural photography, curated by Jesús Vasallo, is on display, as well as a reconsideration of the landmark 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower. Numerous satellite events at off-site locations include educational programs with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and free tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson headquarters. The platform offers a unique assemblage of exhibits, large-scale installations, and creative programming with which visitors are encouraged to actively engage and consider through a global, critical lens.


Chicago Architecture Biennial Project by Aranda\Lasch, “Budidesa”, Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing

Presentations such as the Chicago Architecture Biennial are key to the advancement of our field. They help underscore disciplinary concerns, draw new audiences to architecture and aid in the development of new architectural identities and modes of expression. If you were able to take part in this year’s CAB, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the event, and hope to see you in the Windy City for the CAB’s next installment in 2019!


The Chicago Architecture Biennial