Ultramoderne, Chicago Horizon, 2015. Photo: Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing.

Ultramoderne, Chicago Horizon, 2015. Photo: Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing.

the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Ultramoderne, Chicago Horizon, 2015. Photo: Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing.

ON THE BANKS of Lake Michigan some weeks ago, a scrum of international journalists huddled inside an open-air pavilion designed by the Providence, Rhode Island–based architecture office Ultramoderne. Constructed for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), and winner of the biennial’s competition for an off-site kiosk, Chicago Horizon consisted of a roof made from the largest commercially transportable unit of timber—a cross-laminated slab fully fifty-six feet square—hoisted atop slender, angled pilotis to produce a kind of lumberjack’s homage to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. After brief remarks by office principals Yasmin Vobis and Aaron Forrest explaining the origins of the design, the project engineer, Brett Schneider, nodded thoughtfully and addressed the crowd. “That’s the basic story,” he said, considering the details of the project’s fabrication and assembly. “But it’s actually much more complex than that.”

Oh, yes. It is much, much more complex, and not just structurally. For starters, no one really seemed to know what the pavilion was for or how long it would be there.At least during the opening week, this was a kiosk with no kioskiana, merchandise being conspicuously absent from its empty chain-link booth. And since it was part of CAB—an event of far-ranging but indeterminate ambition—it was by no means clear to anyone present whether the building was meant as a temporary installation or a permanent fixture, with biennial curators Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda describing it variously as a “model for the future” and as part of their show’s “legacy.”

But for the assembled crowd, as for most of CAB’s visitors, there was no time to figure it out. Grateful to get out of that morale-destroying wind, the journalists scrambled back into their tour buses and down the waterfront to artist Theaster Gates’s digs on the South Side. One of the biennial’s brighter ideas is to keep its attendees (some thirty-one thousand at the opening) the hell out of such archi-tourist traps as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park. Most of the programming outside the main venue, the Chicago Cultural Center on East Washington Street, is in such places as the National Public Housing Museum—lodged in the ruins of the former Jane Addams Homes, and exhibiting the engaging House Housing study from Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center—or the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mies’s Apollonian campus just beyond I-55, whose chapel hosted a dopily primitivist dance-installation combo by Mexico City–based architect Santiago Borja. Festivalgoers bounced down and around, taking tips and lifts from whoever was going wherever.

Gates, who has lately transformed the long-defunct Stony Island Arts Bank into a neighborhood arts facility and center for urban counter-Kulturkampf, presided over two days of festivities that mixed what he called “the high and the low,” drawing together the local community, Chicago politicos, and the global architecture world. Opening just in time for biennial kickoff week, the refurbished space as well as the creative practice behind it seemed in tune with much of what CAB is meant to accomplish: a broadening of architecture beyond its prescribed disciplinary limits and an opening to conceptual and social approaches that have previously been more the demesne of the art world. It also brought into relief the wild improbability of the whole affair and the rudderless, incidental accelerationism that seems to underwrite it. At CAB, the recurring feeling of bewildered frisson has less to do with the presenters than with the fact that their investigations into architecture’s assorted problematics—power, urbanism, gentrification, and so on—kept running smack into the problematics themselves. Or as Gates put it, “You’re not going to find a regular taxi here to get you back to the Loop. . . . You’re going to be getting Ubers.”

Seen in the right light—that of a sunny autumn day in Chicago, for instance, with the Trump International Hotel & Tower all agleam, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel bounding up the splendid beaux-arts staircase of the Cultural Center past architect Jeanne Gang as she explained her latest ideas about police stations—architecture resembles nothing so much as politics played backward. While the grinding action of political power refines even the biggest human questions into anodyne crumbs of procedure and paperwork, design usually does the reverse, starting out with technical and academic bits and bobs only to transform them into. . . well, everything, from teapots to apartment blocks. Look closely and you might find that the two operations are connected: Bureaucracy turns out the statistical slurry, and architecture reconstitutes it into built form. And since the actual process of making architecture occupies the lower half, as it were, of this digestive cycle, it is generally held to be an ancillary thing, tedious and occult.

Given the popularity of this perception, it’s understandable that the field of design is seized by a sneaking inferiority complex—which is why, from time to time, architects must meet up to remind the world, and one another, that what they do is Important Shit. “We wanted to make the assertion that architecture matters at any scale,” said Herda, walking through the upper floors of the main exhibition, “The State of the Art of Architecture.” To that end, she and her codirector have assembled some ninety practices from around the world.

On the first floor, “BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago” highlights daring schemes for remaking the city’s physical plant, from the creation of a landfill neighborhood beyond the present shoreline to the marshaling of unused urban space for scads of densification projects. Across the hall, a group from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation offered “Contact High,” a presentation on a semiforgotten experiment in visual pedagogy from the 1960s. There are winks at postmodernist historicism (a Thomas Demand–like cutout city of fragments from LA’s Bureau Spectacular) and technologism (a towering pebble pile, the 3-D-fabricated Rock Print, 2015, by Skylar Tibbits and Gramazio Kohler) as well as straight-up social-media catnip (Sou Fujimoto’s Architecture Is Everywhere, 2015, comprising potato chips and Ping-Pong balls formed into tiny buildings). There are few marquee names in evidence (though the specter of Frank Gehry hangs over the scene through the window in the form of his Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park) and almost no discernible curatorial program, save for a vague commitment to diversity and progressive thinking.

There is a newly opened retrospective of Anglo-Ghanaian superstar David Adjaye in the Art Institute of Chicago just next door to the Pritzker, though its overreliance on wall-hung photography and videos does not compare favorably with the more innovative fare across the street. The retrospective is not part of CAB’s official programming, but Adjaye was in town just the same for the biennial’s opening, and his presence pointed to the politics that enveloped the proceedings. Emanuel’s administration has made the case for Chicago as a city for great American architecture, bringing to town a profusion of high-profile projects; not least among these is the upcoming Barack Obama Presidential Library, for which Adjaye is widely considered a top contender. In a city where the mayor’s office has such a profound influence on what goes up and everything that goes down, one might be well advised to show up and press the correct flesh.

Certainly Emanuel’s personal support was decisive in CAB’s own development, and when the incumbent was threatened by a primary challenge last spring, the future of North America’s largest-ever architecture exhibition appeared to hang in the balance. With his reelection, it was on with the show, thanks in no small part to all the corporate patrons Emanuel’s team was able to wrangle—in particular, oil-and-gas giant BP, CAB’s primary sponsor.

Now that it’s there, the biennial seems natural to its environment. As Grima pointed out repeatedly, Chicago more or less invented the idea of architecture biennials with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, which provided the pattern that would be taken up most famously by the Venice Architecture Biennale. Venice is the gold standard for such festivals worldwide, but its division into so many national pavilions can make it feel a bit like the world’s worst meeting of the Model UN. In Chicago, things feel more fluid, cosmopolitan. Venice suffers from another problem as well: As scholar Felicity Scott put it during a recent symposium on the 2014 show, “The Biennale is a means of stocktaking”—stocktaking being, in architectural circles, an uncommonly popular activity, a way for the design community to shore up its fragile ego by showcasing the breadth of its own productivity. The Biennales of recent memory, up to and including Rem Koolhaas’s most recent edition, have been fairly bursting with assorted evaluative criteria for figuring out just what is really going on with architecture today. CAB’s greatest strength was in its curators’ conscious neglect of any such organizing scheme, letting the hot mess be a hot mess.

No biennial can truly prove that “architecture matters,” and the fact that the curators believed theirs had to do so only shows how deep the discipline’s insecurity really runs: Would anything short of a country crafts fair feel compelled to claim that “art really matters”? But when you’ve got the South Shore Drill Team tossing toy rifles in Federal Plaza in a collaboration with designer Bryony Roberts; when you’ve got a panel with Chicago’s grand old man of design, Stanley Tigerman, railing against the recent destruction of such landmarks as Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital; when you’ve got people debating media culture one second, dashing out to check the score on the Cubs game the next—when you’ve got all that, then good, bad, or just unaccountably exposed to the weather, the work on display is going to be worth seeing, at least insomuch as it accentuates some of the profession’s more arresting contradictions. At large in the real-life landscape of the city, CAB careens and confuses, eliciting not a didactic lesson but a general feeling, an affect, even, in response to architecture’s fraught “state of the art.”

Chicago has to prove that its new biennial will actually be biennial. But if it comes back in two years’ time, and if it can preserve its formula without becoming formulaic, CAB will have qualified its existence even in the crowded field of architecture biennials cropping up from Tallinn to Shenzhen to London. Emanuel will still be in office in 2017, so CAB has a fighting chance to emerge as the leader in its field—though in his remarks at a preopening dinner, the mayor was uncharacteristically charitable in discussing his competitors. With one caveat—a warning against poaching his sponsors: “You can’t have BP,” he said, laughing. “That’s mine.” There it was again—design and power, locked in an uncanny embrace—and the architects laughed along. That they were in on the joke, and also the butt of it, was the funniest thing about it.

Ian Volner has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, and The New Yorker online and is a contributing editor of Architect and Surface. He is currently writing a biography of architect Michael Graves for Princeton Architectural Press.