The State of the Art of Architecture, According to Sarah Herda

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South Shore Drill Team in action, looking south. Photo Credit- ©Andrew Bruah 2015,

26_Tom_Harris, Sitting
The End of Sitting–Cut Out, by RAAAF: Photo Credit: Photo Tom Harris, Copyright Hedrich Blessing

If you are in the Chicago area for the holidays, go check out the Chicago Architectural Biennial, the first of its kind for the city that loves its buildings.

Sponsored by BP, warmly promoted by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, CAB was curated by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima and offers a look at nothing less than the “state of the art of architecture” at this point in the 21st century — and it comes to an end in early January, 2016.

But don’t expect to find showy formal experiments or a definitive new architectural “ism.”

To the extent there is a unifying theme in the display of speculative projects by 120 architects and artists, selected from over 30 countries on six continents, it is a modesty of scale and “the agency of the architect.”

What this means, explains Herda, is that architects are “really carving out new ways to practice and challenging the notion that an architect is sitting at a desk waiting for the phone to ring. A lot of the projects that we show in the Biennial are self-initiated projects, by architects who are identifying something in the world and employing architecture and design to address specific issues.”

Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda
Joseph Grima, left, and Sarah Herda; photo courtesy of Sam Deitch/

Those issues might include ergonomics — a workspace without desks and chairs by RAAAF (top image); class, race and policing — a police (“polis”) station that serves as a community center by Studio Gang; and global finance — a skyscraper reconsidered to enable less formulaic design and uses, by SOM + Camesgibson. These ideas are explored through full-scale mock-ups, more traditional models and drawings, and dance and film.

All of this has led some Biennial visitors to bemoan the lack of actual architecture and others to applaud what appears to be the heralding of a post-starchitectural era.

And it has brought in thousands of curious viewers, from inside and out of the architecture world, and from Chicago and far beyond. Herda points out that with some biennials “the opening is the big moment. We’ve experienced a constant building of interest, with on average 20,000 people a week in the main exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.”

To learn more about the thinking that went into assembling this giant panorama of architectural experimentation, DnA spoke with artistic director Sarah Herda. Read on for answers.

on show in the Chicago Cultural Center, Millennium Park, Graham Foundation and multiple other venues
CAB exhibits can be seen in the Chicago Cultural Center, Millennium Park, Graham Foundation and multiple other venues; photo Photo Tom Harris, Copyright Hedrich Blessing

DNA: Why the Biennial and why in Chicago?

Sarah Herda: I think that there are too few public forums dedicated to architecture and the ideas that both shape the field and where we live. And so the Biennial presents an opportunity to bring together a wide range of audiences — from architects and designers to the general public and citizens of the city–to engage with those ideas.

DnA:  You have very large range of projects on show. What have people been gravitating towards?

SH: You know there’s so much diversity in the work that’s on view. If I was to sum up the state of the art of architecture right now I would say it is diversity. It’s not about a one kind of ideological project or another ism — modernism, postmodernism, etc.. It’s really a kind of heterogeneous field with people doing all kinds of different things.

DnA: You say that these projects do not add up to any overarching kind of “ism.” So in a way they’re sort of collectively anti-ism. Was there was a strong theme out there that you and your fellow artistic director Joseph Grima wanted to stay away from?

SH: I don’t know think we’re really reacting to a specific theme but I think that’s the point. There isn’t one dominant idea in architecture right now. I think that there is a full spectrum of interests — from the social and political to the formal and a whole range mixing that up in-between.

But one thing that really stood out was the agency of the architect, really carving out new ways to practice and challenging the notion that an architect is sitting at a desk waiting for the phone to ring.

A lot of the projects that we show in the Biennial are self-initiating projects, by architects who are identifying something in the world and employing architecture and design to address specific issues.

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground for a community in Scotland was selected for the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

DnA: The British group Assemble does exactly what you’ve just laid out — socially oriented, collective design projects that are trying to take action in blighted parts of the UK — and they have just been awarded the prestigious Turner prize, which is typically given to a contemporary artist. Would you say that choice vindicates your approach?

SH: They have a project on a playground that they designed for the Biennial. Assemble has something like 16 partners, it is completely horizontally organized. I think that it represents a really new way of working. Their practice embodies a lot of the spirit that you can find in other participants in the Biennial.

DnA: One might say the issue of scale is in question. We’re seeing cities turning into megalopolises, we’re seeing global finance channeled into colossal skyscraper projects. But largely you’ve selected projects that have a delicacy of scale and a more modest approach to the built environment. Is that fair to say?

SH: I think so, and we were actually really interested in this issue of scale and looking at offices like Assemble or maybe Rural Urban Framework which is based in Hong Kong and doing small projects in rural China. At what scale can change happen? The ways in which these different architects are enacting change at this scale maybe doesn’t require extensive financial backing and systems, etc., behind it.

Shijia Village House Prototype, by Rural Urban Framework

DnA: So to some extent you are taking a position against the steroidal scale of some architectural projects?

SH: I think that we’re interested in telling stories about architecture that are often overshadowed by large-scale spectacular projects. When you think of new architecture and China you might be thinking of a skyscraper in a central business district or a new city of over a million. And in the work of Rural Urban Framework (RUF) they are working at the scale of a school, a house, or a new community space in modest materials that are addressing issues in rural China, which is part of the country that doesn’t dominate headlines and news.

DnA: You have a number of Angeleno firms in your show — Johnston Marklee, Besler and Sons/ATLV, Bureau Spectacular, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, and Bryony Roberts, who is working at the scale of performance and installation and has done a very interesting project that’s not a building, it’s a piece of choreography. Talk about that.

SH: So the project is We Know How to Order and was actually one the first projects we selected for the Biennial. The title of the project is taken from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem and Bryony collaborated with the South Shore Drill Team, which is an organization from the South Side of Chicago that works with predominantly African-American youth to help cultivate order and sense of community. They produce precision-based, traditional, drill performances mixed with contemporary dance.

South Shore Drill Team in actiona. Photo Credit- ©Andrew Bruah 2015
South Shore Drill Team performs We Know How to Order, choreographed by Asher Waldron. Photo Credit- ©Andrew Bruah 2015

Bryony had sent us a proposal to produce a large scale choreographed piece in the Federal Plaza which is designed by Mies Van Der Rohe. She had the idea of taking this kind of iconic architectural space and inhabiting it and transforming it through performance. She got connected with the South Shore drill team and the project took on even greater relevance by really occupying this governmental space, a highly ordered space within a kind of strict median grid.

These were actually opening ceremony performances.

South Shore Drill Team in action, looking south. Photo Credit- ©Andrew Bruah 2015,

DnA: Clearly it received a lot of interest. Were you bemused that a non-building had received such attention?

I think that was again one of our goals — to really push both the architects in the exhibition and the public in engaging in these ideas of what is an architectural project, and how ideas about architecture are communicated.We have people using all kinds of mediums — performance, film, installation — to explore architectural ideas, and I think the result  creates many different access points for different publics.

DnA: As you know, there are certain people in the field who think architecture is pretty much exclusively about building and you had criticism leveled at you from Zaha Hadid’s office for example. What would you say to those that critique the show on the grounds that it is not sufficiently and exclusively about built form?

SH: Well. I mean it is also about built form; there is again such a wide range of work. I’m not sure if you can be everything to everyone, so that [critique] may be more of a reflection of what they’re interested in. But really, there are formal and very disciplinary investigations as well as more performative and art-related explorations of architectural ideas, or literally work by artists.

Jeanne Gang _ Polis Station 3
Jeanne Gang’s “Polis Station” showed how a police station could be embedded in the heart of the community.

DnA: Given the troubles in Chicago right now with the release of the video of the police shooting, I’m wondering just how the South Shore Drill project and other works in the Biennial might touch on the issue of policing and racial tensions. 

SH: I don’t think those issues are Chicago’s alone, and certainly architecture itself is not a very diverse profession, or hasn’t been historically. But there are a number of projects that I think directly tackle issues of race and also different social issues. There’s one project very specifically which is Studio Gang’s “Polis Station,” which responded to these very high profile police shootings of African-Americans and a report that the Obama administration issued, which reflected on policing in the 21st century.

In this report, there was no architectural or physical or design aspect to the findings. But Jeanne Gang started to think about the role of the police station itself and asked, could the police station be transformed into a space that police and the communities they serve could use to build more normalized relationships — relationships that are not based on the enforcement of law but on everyday activities, so that the police station could become a kind of community center where you could vote, where you could have access to job training or sports events or basketball courts, for example?

Increasingly police stations have almost become kind of fortresses. But could they have a completely different function and role in the communities in which they’re located?

DnA: And how has that project been received?  

SH: From the very moment we opened, it certainly resonated with people. And this is something I think that is very interesting about an exhibition; it really is a platform to make ideas public.

This is a self-initiated research project by Studio Gang. Studio Gang is an office that builds big buildings in Chicago and increasingly across the world. But research is also a really important component of the office. And so the Biennial was the platform to share that idea with others.

The office then focused on a very specific station in the 10th District on the West Side of Chicago. They used that as the site for these speculative ideas, and there was such interest in the project that actually during the opening weekend (of the Biennial) they already broke ground on a basketball court that will take over a portion of a parking lot at the 10th district’s police station.

We really want to show that a biennial or an exhibition of architecture can be a resource to all kinds of decision makers. They can be political figures, they can be developers, but they can also be citizens. We’re all making decisions about design and the world we live in every day. And we want the Biennial to be a place to expose people to the wider range of ideas that are shaping the world we live in.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial will be open through January 3, 2016.

Photo Tom Harris, Copyright Hedrich Blessing
Photo Tom Harris, Copyright Hedrich Blessing