Visual Culture

10 Architects Designing the Future at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Anna Kats
Sep 19, 2017 7:25PM

The 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial’s titular imperative, “Make New History,” posits history as a kind of design project: The exhibition’s more than 140 participants are implored to refashion the architectural past by borrowing liberally from it in the present. Los Angeles architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, co-artistic directors for the biennial’s second edition, frame the discipline’s past as raw material for current architects to mine and reconfigure into a distinctly contemporary project—not, as it were, an authoritative or untouchable canon. Sprawling across four floors of the Chicago Cultural Center through January 7, 2018, the biennial includes four themed sections—Building Histories, Civic Histories, Vertical City, and Horizontal City—as well as an architectural photography display of brand-new commissions, and a slew of off-site collateral exhibitions.

Vehemently derided by modernists and revered in turn by postmodernists during the last century, history no longer evokes any totalizing value judgment in the architectural milieu. Instead, the most compelling practices at this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial digest history with highly varied, diverse creative mechanisms—they share, however, an abiding belief that architectural history is as ripe for a redesign as the built environment.

SO-IL and Ana Prvački

Based in New York and Los Angeles

Presenting “L’air pour l’air”

Installation view of SO-IL and Ana Prvački, l'air pour l'air, 2017. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Steve Hall © Hall Merrick Photographers.

Prvački, a Los Angeles-based artist, and Florian Idenburg, an architect and co-founder of New York studio SO-IL, jointly conceived an interdisciplinary offsite project at the verdant Garfield Park Conservatory.

Dressed in mesh sculptural forms that obscure their faces and instruments, wind musicians and a vocalist from the Chicago Sinfonietta wander among the greenhouse’s proliferation of plants; the encasings filter air as the wind instruments are played, creating a feedback mechanism whereby the music cleans the air that in turn produces the music.

Bak Gordon Arquitectos

Based in Lisbon, Portugal

Presenting “Desenhos de Trabalho” (“Working Drawings”)

Installation view of Bak Gordon Arquitectos, Desenhos de Trabalho (Working Drawings) with Studio Mumbai's Prima Materia, 2017. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Kendall McCaugherty © Hall Merrick Photographers.


Bak Gordon’s expressive study drawings—27 of them, all in crayon on vellum, on view in the Building Histories section—are rare hand-drawn illustrations among the Biennial, and some of its most visually arresting material. The displacement of freehand drawing as the preferred mode for developing and communicating architectural ideas is by now a matter of fact, what with the ubiquity of digital rendering software, but Bak Gordon’s display is hardly a nostalgic exercise in antiquated technique.

The iterative sketches suggest a creative process marked by spontaneity—with certain drawings evidently produced in rapid succession—and attest to the highly evocative function of simple geometric volumes, gradations in shading, and contrasting hues in conceptualizing a building. Because these ethereal sketches preserve a multitude of impulses, desires, and intimations, they signal both potential directions for ensuing built work and a more imaginative realm of perpetual possibility.


Based in Beijing, China

Presenting “Make New Hutong Metabolism”

Hutongs, alleyways of central Beijing’s historic urban fabric, are threatened by both the blank slate strategies of real estate developers and the reactionary nostalgia of restoration advocates who supplement the extant network of dwellings and pathways with new additions inspired by the historical designs. Zhang Ke, founder of ZAO/Standardarchitecture, suggests an alternative approach in his ground-floor biennial installation.

By treating the historic center of Beijing as a living organism, Ke has realized several new buildings within Hutong localities. These structures absorb scale, density, and physical elements from the surroundings while inserting complementary contemporary materials and services that seek to preserve the communitarian social dynamics enabled in the Hutongs’ environs. Make new history, indeed, but keep the old.  

Sylvia Lavin with Erin Besler, Jessica Colangelo, and Norman Kelley

Based in Los Angeles, California

Presenting “Super Models”

Installation view of Sylvia Lavin with Eric Besler, Jessica Colangelo, and Norman Kelly, Super Models, 2017. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennia. Steve Hall © Hall Merrick Photographers.

A preeminent architectural historian, Lavin led a team of UCLA colleagues in conceiving a scale replica of 12 models collected by the German Architecture Museum in the 1980s. The replica is arranged in an installation that imitates a photograph taken shortly after the inauguration of the Frankfurt museum, itself housed in a building designed to imitate the toy-like quality of a model.

Models are typically prized in exhibition settings if they originate from the hands or studio of a master architect. However, Lavin, Besler, Colangelo, and Norman Kelley underscore that models are not necessarily less valuable when they cease to merely represent the built highlights of architectural history and instead become the autonomous subjects of historical inquiry. Divorced from their full-scale canonical referents, these miniatures belong to a more ambiguous history in which individual authorship is no longer the point.  


Based in Berlin, Germany

Presenting “BLESS No. 60 Lobby Conquerors”

Installation view of BLESS with Artek furniture classics, Bless No. 60 Lobby Conquerors, 2017. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial. Steve Hall © Hall Merrick Photographers.

A design collective that works on clothes and products, Bless partnered with Finnish furniture manufacturer Artek to create customized “garments” and add-ons for Artek’s ubiquitous Kiki lounge chair. One no-longer-standard modernist seat is transformed into a semi-private chamber with add-on walls where visitors can nap throughout the day. Another seat expands to facilitate social interactions.

Angela Deuber Architect

Based in Chur, Switzerland

Presenting “The Great Hypostyle Hall”

In Horizontal City, a biennial section where 24 architecture practices modeled new projects by interpreting well-known images of architectural interiors, many exhibitors show assemblage-like models of found objects and contrasting materials (like aggregates of faux fur, toys, and mirrors). Among such expressive neighbors, Deuber’s model is an elegant study in reductivism.

Responding to a canonical photo of the namesake hall at a temple in Karnak, Egypt—monumental columns set in close proximity dominate the original image, reproduced nearby—Deuber made a model that depicts the implied, negative space between four columns as a single volume on an otherwise empty plinth. The historical photo of Karnak shows how the Hall’s massive columns simultaneously delineate both interior and exterior space, and Deuber’s monochrome white model collapses that distinction completely by exposing the utterly undefined space in between.    

Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Based in Concepción, Chile

Presenting “Finite Format 04”

Installation view of Pezo von Ellrichshausen Arquitectos, Finite Format 04. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennal, © Tom Harris.

Each of the 729 watercolor studies in Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s biennial installation depicts a tower-and-plinth structure with six planes. The works depict all of the possible geometric combinations that can be used to produce distinct buildings from an inverted T-shaped form that was selected as the point of departure for this exercise.

Hung systemically in neat rows, these uniformly sized pages initially suggest repetition, but closer inspection reveals the sheer multiplicity of different spatial configurations that a single structure can generate.

6a architects

Based in London, United Kingdom

Presenting “Returning”

Installation view of 6a architects, Returning, 2017. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, © Tom Harris.

Led by Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald, the British practice, noted for designing galleries for the likes of Sadie Coles HQ and the Victoria and Albert Museum, produced an exquisite corpse for the Vertical City section of the Biennial. A conjectural recasting of the influential 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower design competition, the section sees 15 contemporary architecture practices produce hypothetical skyscraper designs in the shape of 16-foot-tall columns arrayed in a grid across an expansive gallery.

6a responded to the artistic directors’ prompt for the section—to consider the Chicago Tribune competition’s history and the specificity of the skyscraper typology in creating a novel display object—by plumbing their own portfolio. In 2009, the architects incorporated a wood-paneled 18th-century period room, first shown in Chicago concurrently with the Tribune Tower competition entries nearly a century ago, into an extension they designed for a London contemporary art center. Moved by the use of rehabilitated historical elements in that project, the architects invited 28 Midwestern chapters of the American Association of Woodturners to produce bowl-shaped elements of the tower. The individual pieces are now fitted together into something different altogether: a sculptural totem that bespeaks the ways in which both buildings and their histories can be reconstituted to suit the times.


Based in Brussels, Belgium

Presenting “The Room of One’s Own”

Installation view of Dogma at Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2017. Courtesy of Dogma.

The speculative design practice of architectural historian and theorist Pier Vittorio Aureli and architect and pedagogue Martino Tattara takes the private room as its primary subject matter, positing it as a potentially subversive—and definitively overlooked—site of architectural production. The duo emphasize that domesticity and interiors are conditioned by sociopolitical norms, and therefore the single chamber is a prime site for examining and undermining accepted standards of class and gender affiliation.

Dogma’s project, presented in three large-format books, contains a historical narrative of the single chamber as architecture, room plans, and 48 perspectival line drawings illustrating specific significant rooms that also hang in neat rows on a nearby wall. Their broad remit includes the private chambers of certain notorious individuals, including Steve Jobs, Lenin, Martin Luther, and Le Corbusier, and examinations in type, like a cleric’s study and an evicted artist’s room. Each interior conveys a pronounced aesthetic ethos—be it the ruffles and other modest signifiers of coziness in the female worker’s cramped room, or the stark dearth of personal property in the artist Absalon’s cell—underscoring how architecture has transformed the private room into a space of liberation or alternately, drudgery, across history.

Luisa Lambri

Based in Milan, Italy

Presenting “Farnsworth House”

Installation view of Luisa Lambri. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial. Steve Hall © Hall Merrick Photographers.

As part of an architectural photography section organized by Rice School of Architecture assistant professor Jesús Vassallo, Lambri produced a new series of photographs that depict the storied glass-enclosed residence as an atmosphere rather than architecture. Designed by Mies van der Rohe in nearby Plano from 1945 to 1951, the Farnsworth House is rendered nearly immaterial in Lambri’s images. Modulated daylight streams in through a curtain; the abstracted quality of a window mullion is registered in close-up; and the surrounding foliage is framed by the architecture (not, as is so often the case in photographs of this most famous residence, the other way around).

Lambri reconfigures standard narratives of the canonical building—with their emphasis on the architect’s intent—by articulating in her photographs a decidedly subjective, personal experience of the home.

Anna Kats