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Trojan Horse or Matryoshka?

In this era characterized by the multiplication and saturation of information channels, architecture has taken up biennials as a mechanism for assessing the state of the discipline. These events are beginning to take on a role somewhere between the one formerly occupied by print magazines, which documented and offered critical perspectives on practice in a more or less deliberate way, and the flatness of the accumulation of unbridled topicality that tends to engulf digital portals. The public component of biennials gives them a broader scope than a specialist conference, but it also conditions and mediates the disciplinary discourse at the same time. They are usually situated within a sphere of reflection, where the material derived from professional practice is combined and offset by disciplinary discourses intended to relaunch it, with the optimistic goal of generating a relationship of feedback. They are celebratory encounters bringing together academia and professional practice, with cultural pretensions. And there has been a growing proliferation of this type of events, each aiming to differentiate itself from its peers by cementing a recognizable profile. And yet they always oscillate between three pillars: the biennial as a reflection of practice; the biennial as a promoter of a certain disciplinary discourse; and the biennial as a tool for the diffusion of architecture. The most interesting among them are the ones that navigate between the three, achieving an unstable equilibrium that makes them vibrant and profound, openly conditioning the architectural culture of the moment.

We have recently seen the conclusion of the second edition of the Chicago Biennial, one of the youngest biennials on the globalized map that is increasingly saturated with this type of event. The Chicago Biennial is a pioneer in meetings of this kind in the United States, and it has been possible thanks to a commitment on the part of the authorities to recognizing architecture as one of the motors driving the city that is its host. At a time in American politics when there has been a dampening of the globalizing exuberance of the power centers and cultural hubs on the east and west coasts, in a trend toward a more closed and protectionist discourse, this biennial, held in the heart of the American Midwest and in one of the Meccas of modern architecture, is a prime opportunity for building up leverage against the conservative forces laying waste to the American cultural landscape.

The first edition in 2015, co-directed by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, marked the launch of a project that generated some enormous expectations for itself about the role it could play in American architectural culture. That first biennial focused on bringing together a group of young studios, without any conceptual or geographical framework beyond the attempt to spark a debate between a diverse series of approaches. This first edition could be understood as the design of an institutional apparatus – the biennial itself – headquartered in a particular building, the Cultural Center, which is difficult as an exhibition space but has great visibility and public accessibility due to its location and because it is open and free of charge. It was a biennial meant to serve as the foundation for a project that could generate its own unique profile over successive editions. It was an ambitious event that made good on many of its original intentions. It concentrated the architectural debate in Chicago, relaunched architecture as an important discipline in the eyes of the general public, gathered together the city’s most active young studios for a few months, and set up debates and events. It also transformed the building where it was held, kicking off a process of architectural renovation that is still ongoing, and it mobilized the American architectural community toward a debate engaging peers and institutions that had not taken place in recent years. It also got stuck at half throttle in other equally ambitious attempts, such as the program of pavilions that was intended to institute a stable legacy of interventions in the city, but which knocked up against economic difficulties, a lack of ambition, and a poor understanding of the workings of the different city agencies that control public space.

In any case the project showed a strong start, and all sights immediately turned to a second edition. The expectations for this year were different, since the debate had shifted from the institution itself to the content and its effects on architectural discourse as a whole.

The event, curated by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee was presented under the title Make New History. In a context lacking a broad discourse to unite the discipline, the question of history was imagined to be well-aimed, and it hinted at a discourse that might close the ranks of a disperse profession. The event, however, has proven problematic in both its format and its aims. On the one hand, it can be read as an attempt to restore disciplinary discourse based on a certain nostalgia or idealization in response to the uncertainty of the present and the future. On the other hand, it attempts to lend a cultural patina to the growing banalization and digital mediatization – Instagramization, if you will – of many young postmodern practices. Significantly and somewhat paradoxically, in taking up such a critical and complex question – the role of time and accumulated culture – the production appears, in its immense majority, to have been approached by many participants in a fairly immediate way.

I am afraid that the three goals of the biennial – reflecting on the discipline, constructing discourse, and disseminating the discipline – have been sequestered by the institutional steamroller of architecture in the United States today. Although it was not the directors’ intention, the growing divorce between professional practice and American academic practice resulted in this biennial shifting away from the unstable and fruitful balancing act between academia and the profession in favor of the former. And it crudely revealed the contradictions that abound in that realm in the United States today. In theory, the space that should be characterized by the greatest cultural ambition and the highest capacity for experimentation, and a bucking of the status quo, has been turned into a consumer environment with media value and its own hand in protecting the system. What should be a territory for debate has become a mirror held up to the existing powers. The exhibition is a reflection of academic hierarchies, with young architects (Assistant Professors) doing in photographic restoration exercises in the room called Horizontal City, emerging practices (Associate Professors) doing tower exercises in the Vertical City room and more established architects (Full Professors) doing free exercises (Option Studios). The call launched by the curators – answered often with ingenious responses, with varying degrees of ability in standing out from the crowd – was reduced to an exercise in collective celebration that made many of the projects seem fatuous and superficial. It is not surprising that the most interesting proposals were those on the sidelines or the periphery of the exhibition, and they were the least photogenic. The transformation of the hallways by Camilo Restrepo with Camilo Echeverri and Camilo Echavarría, or the room showing work by Carsusso St John and Thomas Demand, or the exhibition on the Planta project for the Sorigué Foundation by Ábalos Sentkiewicz with Armin Linke, Five Rooms by Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, or the chapel by Yunya Ishigami were all areas with a refreshing intellectual autonomy that stood as oases in a panorama of proposals that were, in many cases, utterly replaceable.

And so, what should be an event that could act as a Trojan horse against cultural Trumpism, works more like a set of Russian nesting dolls, with academic institutions inserted into cultural institutions, both devouring what should be a motor for independent reflection. The result of this multiple institutionalization of the event is counterproductive in terms of the mobilizing effect that an exhibition of this kind should have. Its economic power and its co-option by large-scale academic institutions leads many young practices to sacrifice their independence and talent, conditioned by the expectations of a conservative cultural market. The resulting panorama becomes an officialization of a restrictive discourse, limited to an understanding of history that is confined to a linguistic and pseudo-artistic approach, as opposed to serving as a mechanism for an expansion of disciplinary culture, harnessing all the technical and artistic complexity that belongs to architecture.

08.Mar.2018 2412 views
Lluís Ortega

Lluís Ortega is a PHD Architect by the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), MA in Philosophy by the Universitat de Barcelona, and Master of Science (AAD) degree from Columbia University. At present, he is Distinguished Research Professor Beatriz Galindo at UPC, Associate Professor at IIT in Chicago (on leave) and Visiting Professor at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires. Previously, he taught at UIC (Chicago), Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Universidad de Alicante, Harvard University and Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien. He is principal of JL Office together with Julia Capomaggi. He was the editor of several publications, including Quaderns d’Arquitectura i Urbanisme (2003–05). In 2013, he was awarded a Graham Foundation grant for his work with Ciro Najle, Atlas of Suprarural Architecture (Actar, 2016) and in 2015, for The Total Designer: Authorship in Architecture in the Postdigital Age (Spanish Edition, Puente Editores, 2017; English Edition, Actar, 2017).

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