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Building a Biennial

Filled with unexpected curves and angles as well as light, airy planes, the architectural creations of Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee range from a Taurus-shaped home in Argentina to a vaulted home on the California shore. The pair established their firm, Johnstonmarkee, in 1998 in Los Angeles, and have since built throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Now, the pair is redesigning the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and curating the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which runs from September 16th through January 7th. Below, the pair describe what they love about the city and what we can expect from this year’s biennial.

Describe your relationship to Chicago and how your perceptions of the city have changed since you’ve begun working on the MCA redesign.

Over the years we have always enjoyed our visits to Chicago to revisit the great architectural icons of the city. Since 2014, we have been spending more time here working on the MCA project, which has given us the chance to get to know neighborhoods like Logan Square and our favorite dining spot Lula Café, and the creative communities on the South Side of the city. The MCA community brings together so many different creative people and we appreciate how diverse artistic practices collaborate across the city, hosted by established institutions and local enterprises like those that make up the Arts Block on Garfield Boulevard. The broad support that the Chicago Architecture Biennial program receives from political, business, and cultural leaders, speaks to the character of Chicago and everyone’s willingness to make ambitious programs like this a reality.

What new elements most distinguish the upcoming Chicago Architecture Biennial from the 2015 and other previous editions?

The 2017 exhibition will only be the second edition of the Chicago biennial program. We have envisioned the 2017 exhibition as part of a collection of shows—where five biennial exhibitions may define a decade. Part of our initial research included reviewing the work of the 2015 exhibition, which was an incredible survey of diverse global practices, and just the right way to inaugurate a biennial program in Chicago.  For the 2017 program, titled, “MAKE NEW HISTORY,” we have focused on an interest of many contemporary practices related to an engagement with history that we also saw in some of the work in the 2015 show. Many younger practices today do not see history as an encumberment the way previous generations of modern architects did. For this generation, history is understood as knowledge accrued over time that the newest and latest innovations could be built upon.

This year we also focused on engaging the architecture of the Cultural Center with site-specific installations that enhance some of the special historical details and functions of the building, which was initially designed as the central public library. Many projects on view will include innovative approaches to adaptive reuse, such as imagining the future of parking garages in carless cities, or the future of skyscrapers. Mark Kelly, the Cultural Commissioner who leads the Cultural Center, worked with our team to imagine how aspects of the 2015 & 2017 exhibitions might live on as legacy projects that could improve the function and experience of the building. This year visitors will discover interactive plazas and furniture landscapes, immersive arcades, and a Vertical City with 18 scaled models over 3 meters tall that will approximate a hypostyle hall.

Describe your role as artistic directors for the biennial and your collaborative dynamic in planning it.

We set the general artistic vision for the show at the outset for the exhibition based on our observations of a wide range of international contemporary practices.  We traveled and discussed our ideas with colleagues around the world, which led us to discover many new practices and projects that fit well with our themes. We were quite open in our conversations with each of the teams as they developed their projects. As the work developed, certain subthemes began to emerge in the projects within the overarching theme of MAKE NEW HISTORY, including Building History, Material History, Image History, and Civic History. As architects, we recognize the challenges of producing projects like these for exhibitions, and along with our creative team in Los Angeles and Chicago, we found ourselves doing many different jobs from curator, producer, to exhibition designer. And we won’t be done fine-tuning the show until the moment it opens!

We are also putting together a program series including conversations and readings throughout the opening days and through the run of the show which will include curated symposia led by the design schools at Harvard, Columbia, UIC, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and IIT. With CAB now aligned to the opening of EXPO, we have organized a special conversation that will take place as part of the EXPO programming series, between a select group of artists and architects whose work will be part of the architecture biennial.

What are your favorite Chicago architectural destinations? 

  • Graham Foundation
  • Stoney Island Arts bank
  • Arts Club of Chicago
  • James Charney House
  • Monadnock Building
  • Auditorium Building
  • Inland Steel Building
  • Crown Hall
  • Museum of Contemporary Art
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Glessner House