Art Seen: Chicago

CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE BIENNIAL // INTERVIEW

by Joshua Michael Demaree

An Interview with Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima

We live in a consumerist age. This, of course, is not a surprise to anyone, especially architects. Perspecta 47, the newest edition of Yale’s student-edited architectural journal, takes this question head on by emblazoning its theme in big gold lettering across its front: MONEY. These architects-of-tomorrow have no blinders; they already understand that regardless of whatever endlessly hyphenated names scroll at the top of their studio’s letterhead, money is the real boss. They ask: “Does architecture reach its potential when untethered from economic realities, or must it harness them to contribute meaningfully to the built environment?”

With Chicago’s all-to-recent loss of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, the perpetually tenuous line between haves and have-nots came crashing down into a complex mire of cultural capital, design history, and architectural preservation. We know that the money-question lingers long after the building is complete (leading all the way to death’s door, in fact) and it is a question some of us are still asking.

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Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City, Mies van der Rohe IBM Building. Photo by Assaf Evron, 2014.

Enter the Chicago Architectural Biennial (CAB), recently announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the city’s post-Prentice wake. With this most recent collectivization of the city’s architectural community alongside its larger arts & culture communities, the time surely felt ripe to put this mass into force for the city and its treasure trove of architectural feats.

Currently in the planning stages, the CAB is promising to be innovative in approach and design, and a critical step in Chicago’s reclamation as an arts & culture powerhouse both domestically and internationally. It will be a space to explore not only trends in international architectural thinking and design, but to work out the complexities of our own relationship with architecture: How do skyscrapers in the Loop impact the arts and culture of South Chicago? What power do students have to forge the environment of their own future profession? Which is more important: purpose or cultural history? Will we ever see the Chicago Spire?

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with the co-artistic directors of the CAB, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima. Herda is a mainstay of the Chicago arts & culture scene as director of the Graham Foundation, while Grima—the former editor of the famed Domus Magazine—is now in the middle of several curatorial positions for design and technology biennials in both Europe and the Middle East.

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Joshua Michael Demaree: The press release notes that the biennial will be a space to investigate “the social, environmental, aesthetic, technological, and economic issues that shape the world we live in.” It is refreshing to see a mission of applicability for a biennial, a form of exhibition seen as largely out-of-touch with the general American public. How do you see the CAB as distinguishing itself from other biennials?

Joseph Grima: I think the CAB is an opportunity precisely because there is no tradition of this kind of event anywhere in the US. A biennial is fundamentally different from a museum or gallery precisely because it offers a regularly recurring moment of intense debate around a topic chosen by its artistic directors, which allows it to drill much deeper and cast a wider net than most museum exhibitions. In terms of the international scene, I think Chicago’s role as a sandbox of modernism gives it the authority to speak incisively not only on the past, but also on the future of architecture—and that is something that is desperately needed right now. Starting from scratch is a rare opportunity to consider what is really needed today.

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Mies van der Rohe 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments. Photo by Assaf Evron 2014.

JMD: Joseph, in several of your past curatorial projects you have pushed a critical investigation of how our rapidly-evolving technology changes the most inherent aspects of design and, in turn, affects our everyday lives and spaces. How do you hope to incorporate this same technological investigation into this biennial?

JG: It would be disingenuous to speak of architecture and the city today without considering the vastly disruptive effects of technology—both for good and bad—in terms of what has been made technically possible, and the way in which it has changed us culturally. How we socialize and the way we interact and behave in the city are questions for designers, not just for technologists—yet critical investigations into architecture (books, exhibitions, journalism, etc.) tend to either opt for a very disengaged analysis of the technical innovations in the construction industry. At best, it is done at a cursory glance of what these innovations mean for design, or in a politicized, more theoretically driven critique of network culture that is disconnected from everyday life.

The only serious debate surrounding the so-called “smart home” right now, for example, is taking place in technology and civil liberties circles, despite the fact that the technological saturation of connected, networked, information-gathering devices built into the very fabric of every home represents a critical juncture in architecture—as both a challenge and an opportunity. I think questions of this kind are as relevant and interesting to the general public as a professional audience.

JMD: Sarah, the Graham Foundation is a bastion for individual artists and smaller arts and cultural institutions. Will this same investment in the independent spirit be afforded through the biennial and in what ways?

Sarah Herda: Absolutely. We are invested in identifying and presenting the fine grain of ideas that are shaping architecture discourse around the world. We want to challenge preexisting conceptions of where important ideas about architecture come from—they can come from anywhere and anyone. Ultimately, we want to bring together diverse ideas that will spark debate about the future of architecture and the city.

JMD: While this is a chance for Chicago to showcase internationally, its Midwestern spirit comes with a certain (very healthy) self-serving attitude. Laura Washington wrote a wonderfully engaged and emotional piece for the Chicago Sun-Times about her grandmother living in Frank Lloyd Wright’s now-demolished Francis Apartments and her excitation of south Chicago being included in the biennial by way of artist (and South Chicago cultural embassador) Theaster Gates. It is refreshing to see a kind of social activism take a forefront and inherent design in the biennial. Can you speak more about the decision process to include “neighborhood sites” to ensure the biennial is reached beyond the Loop?

SH: Very early on, we began thinking of the city as the site of the Biennial. The Chicago Cultural Center will be the hub of activity—a central node that sends people back out into the neighborhoods to experience the legacy of Chicago’s architecture. But the neighborhood-based projects are also important because they center the conversations in multiple contexts. With the Biennial, we are also looking at architecture as a cultural practice that has incredible potential to impact the future of the city. This isn’t a discussion to only have downtown, but throughout the city. We are actively working on identifying additional partners and projects to engage other parts of the city.

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Frank Gehry, Pritzker Pavilion. Photo by Assaf Evron 2014.

JMD: I recently interviewed Chicago-based artist Jeff Prokash for THE SEEN on his sculpture, Prentice Windows, which is made from the last three surviving windows of Bertrand Goldberg’s (in)famous Prentice Women’s Hospital. Public discussions and exhibitions in the fall of 2012 to save the building coincided with my move to the city and were my first introduction to the collective power and voice of the city’s architecture community. Do you foresee a space in the biennial to reflect on the loss of Prentice and current debates in architectural preservation?

JG: I think it’s too easy to fall into the binary discourse of preservation being good and demolition being bad, even in the case of significant buildings such as Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital. Cedric Price, the anti-hero of radical British architecture whose work has now been officially canonized with exhibitions all over the world and who inspired extraordinary works such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, repeatedly endorsed the idea of demolishing York Minster, one of England’s most revered cathedrals, because it no longer served its purpose. The question of preservation is an important one that deserves to be presented in its full complexity. Ultimately, the demolition of significant buildings is a symptom—we should perhaps expend more effort on investigating the conditions that lead to it. We see the Biennial as a platform for these kinds of debates.

JMD: This city has a history of being a site of preeminent architectural education. With students being one of the most easily activated and engaged cultural groups, what role do you envision for local universities and schools to have in the biennial?

SH: Chicago’s architecture schools are stronger than they have been in years. Under the leadership of Bob Somol, the director of the School of Architecture at UIC, the school has put Chicago back on the higher education map by assembling a dynamic group of young architects from around the word to teach and lecture at the school and creating new programs—such as a masters in architecture criticism. Along with Weil Arets, Dean of IIT, and Jonathan Solomon, now at the helm of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC) architecture school, Chicago’s schools have tremendous potential to shape architecture discourse both locally and internationally.

The participation of students and faculty from these institutions, and other important educational institutions in the city, such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Columbia College, and others, is essential for the success of the Biennial. We envision working with these groups in multiple ways—from the development of programs, to hands-on engagement the participants, and participation in international debates. We are also developing ways to engage schools nationally and internationally, and hope to bring students from around the world to Chicago for the Biennial.

We are working with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to create opportunities for K-12 students throughout the city to engage the projects and ideas presented in the Biennial.

JMD: Not only is Chicago known for its contrarian spirit, but it is specifically famous for its architectural protest as well: Richard Nickel, the Chicago Seven, and the fight for Prentice. Do you anticipate any critical counteraction to the biennial?

JG: We definitely hope so. I can’t think of a single meaningful statement in architecture that hasn’t sparked some sort of controversy or pushback. I think the absence of criticism would be the most damning indictment.


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Joshua Michael Demaree lives in Philadelphia where he works at an independent bookstore. He is both a licensed driver and a dedicated taxpayer.

The Chicago Architectural Biennial will take place October 1, 2015 through January 3, 2016.

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