By Blair Kamin
The Chicago Architecture Biennial no longer can be accused of indulging in the city’s long tradition of windy braggadocio.
When the big contemporary architecture and urban design exhibition opens this weekend, it will for the first time become an event that occurs every other year. But that is a mere procedural achievement. This edition of the biennial matters because it is thick with strong ideas and is more tightly curated and organized than the inaugural version. Like that first show, it takes the temperature of its time in fascinating ways.
Titled “Make New History” and featuring work by more than 140 designers from over 20 countries, the exhibition reveals many things about the current state of an art that shapes our lives: postmodernism, with its Day-Glo colors and ironic allusions to history, is back in play, no longer radioactive. The influence of digitally-driven modernism, which relies on advanced computer modeling to create visual spectacle, is waning. A new calm has supplanted the frenetic invention of the aughts.
The show nevertheless gives us intriguing peeks into the future, like a parking garage designed to be converted to other uses, anticipating the coming era of driverless cars and reduced car ownership. “Make New History” also offers imaginative responses to the urbanizing present, one of which highlights the show’s Instagram-ready calling card — a spectacular minicity of skyscraper models, each 16 feet tall and proposing a new version of Chicago’s Tribune Tower.
To be sure, much chaff comes with this wheat. But that is the nature of biennials, which tend to be carnivals of experimentation hellbent on violating Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s maxim that “less is more.” This one at least offers an underlying physical order, attained by a striking re-design of spaces within the Beaux-Arts Chicago Cultural Center. Whether you are an architectural theorist or just casually interested in design, you should go. The show tries hard to appeal to a wide range of visitors, though you’ll undoubtedly encounter a fair share of incomprehensible archi-babble in the wall text.
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