Notes from the Chicago Biennial

Musings from our man on the street Jeff Parfitt


My first impression of the offerings in the cultural center, which closed in early January, was that it was a good balance of work that is in turns densely theoretical, altruistic, technically Innovative, and expansively imaginative.

One of the remarkable aspects of the Biennial was the aggressively public setting, which means that content most often produced by architects for other architects would be on display for the public at large.  This immediately calls into question in my mind, what will the average citizen make of all this?

Some works grounded in practical applications were self-evident enough to be readily digested without 6-plus years of architecture school, but others less so.

Architects have been notorious for using obscure, to most seemingly meaningless, terms, phrases and concepts.  I would argue that we deserve a generous amount of leeway.  The core of what can be considered architecture, the relationships between building components and the space they enclose, often defy straightforward description.  The description of objects composing the structures come most easily, but will ultimately fall short of describing the architect’s true intent (unless that intent is hopelessly fixated on these materials).  Beyond that, our language does not have a wealth of applicable terms or commonly used idioms.  To the degree that architectural concepts are inventive, available descriptive terms go from elusive to nonexistent.

Some terms are familiar to those steeped in the parlance of architectural criticism, and have a specific meaning to cloistered practitioners of that rather unpopular pastime.  Borrowed concepts and terms from philosophy are highly prized, and if they are opaque and labyrinthine to most, so much the better.  All architecture students will encounter the shibboleth of critical language, and some will take to it more enthusiastically than others.

As students learn to bridge the gap between unexpressed aspirations and intelligible designs, quite naturally the necessity of invention can become a rote requirement for projects seeking intellectual currency.  Questionable jargon will find its way onto a placard mounted next to a model, because the expectation has been set by a culture of intellectual exclusivity. In the way that the fine print on a financial agreement might obscure the fact that the terms of the contract are less beneficial to a consumer than initially assumed, the presence of such language may belie a relatively understandable concept that seems to its writer to be out of place, and so needs embellishment like a blazer hastily draped over a T-shirt clad torso entering a private club.  Ideally, through trial and error, one develops a facility for meaningful expression that becomes honed in the years that follow.

Then follows the great divide in the discipline, which most architects encounter in a transition between school and practice, as they move from an academic setting to one of a service-based profession.  To those so inclined, academia may offer refuge for contemplative theory, but most will go on to design buildings.  Here one is confronted with the pervasive realities of the profession, one being that we are but one component of the building industry, which is dominated by pragmatists with the resources and inclination to hire architects and build buildings.  Most architects as individuals retain a desire to break new ground in the advancement of culture as expressed through building, but most firms are consumed with the formidable task of carrying out the services that clients are paying for.  The self-styled avant-guard of the profession may offer the promise of continuing a purely intellectual exploration of architecture, but to some degree all practices must confront the compromises required by the industry at large. One of the factors to be reckoned with is the impatience of the general public with language they find unintelligible.

With this is a background, most of the language employed in the Biennial was notable its restraint.  Most of the exceptions would be projects that revel in their personal asceticism.  And to be truthful, most of us in the profession would be a little disappointed not to see, here and there, some text such as:

The reasons behind the work are unknown to me, but the path it is taking both demonstrative and absurd, makes this journey, the vectorization of the emergences coming from non-formulated hypothesis, the only reason possibly able to validate them.

It may well be that this text would help a discerning mind appreciate the accompanied video installation by New-Territories/M4; it just so happens I am not in possession of such a mind.

From the standpoint of bridging the divide between architect and layman, I found one of the most successful exhibits to be Sou Fujimoto Architect’s “Architecture is everywhere”.  Here extremely small scale human figures were arranged among small models, some made from common household objects, with a single line of accompanying text.   In a moment a clearly architectural idea was communicated, often with a certain sense of humor that is engaging, avoiding the pitfall of being off-putting and  sardonic.

One could argue that these vignettes were one-liners, so don’t represent a painstakingly synthesized whole that may be more consistent with the common practice of architecture.  Given our place in the world however, I would consider anything that evokes sympathy for, and delight in, creative expression with materials and space to be worthwhile.

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