Biennial Interviews

Sun, 2017/10/08
Peter Rigali

Editor's note: The following is the transcript of an interview between Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize (MCHAP) Coordinator Sasha Zanko and IIT X SANAA team member Peter Rigali in S.R. Crown Hall on September 25, 2017:

Peter Rigali: How did MCHAP get formed? How were you involved in its creation?

Sasha Zanko: In 2012, the IIT College of Architecture (CoA) was searching for a change in its direction and leadership. MCHAP was one of the tools to position the IIT College of Architecture as a participant in the global network of architectural centers that create collective and ongoing architectural projects throughout the world -- seeking collaboration, academic exchanges, and research partners.

Rigali: How were you involved in its creation?

Zanko: I am a formally trained architect with years of experience as a cultural manager, most of my focus has been in the realm connecting academic world and world of practice and politics. It wasn't until my family was on a move to Chicago that I heard the Illinois Tech CoA was in the process of creating a new prize in architecture. That sounded like an ideal job for me, together with Wiel Arets and Vedran Mimica, both of whom came from the Netherlands to work for IIT.  Both had the knowledge and experience working on the European Mies van der Rohe Prize. We created the first frameworks for the MCHAP Organization as a whole.

Rigali: Who were its initial co-creators, and what were its goals for the IIT CoA community?

Zanko: MCHAP is the prize conceived in 2012 by Wiel Arets when he became dean. It was constructed as a strategic device for a school - The College of Architecture - to become a space for dialogue on the character of architectural thought in the Americas. The person that brought MCHAP to Chicago and Chicago community to MCHAP was Dirk Denison.  He was asked to be a director of the prize, and under his directorship MCHAP become what is it today, it can be described as a biennial prize awarding the best architecture on the North and South American continents.  

Rigali: What was the reception like early on from the CoA and Academic staff here at IIT?

Zanko: Simply put: at the beginning - curiosity. Then - where is our place in it? Now - let’s evaluate pros and cons. In principle, I would say that school recognizes the benefits of MCHAP for better visibility and connectivity. We are now entering the third cycle and learning from previous experiences. I would say that more efforts must be done involving the students and faculty and find more ways where school curriculum and prize program overlap.  

Rigali: How was SANAA selected as the first firm for this program?

Zanko: SANAA is a MCHAP Winner, and as part of the prize, they agreed to collaborate with The CoA. What makes MCHAP different in relation to many other architectural prizes, it is its connection to academia. Winner is actually not getting a check, but prize is actually a research funding. This is used to support a production of publications with the content drawn from the result of the collaboration between MCHAP Winner and College of Architecture. In SANAA’s case collaboration took a form of a model for Chicago Biennial. The research and design concept undertaken for Biennial will be further elaborated with an upcoming publication.

Rigali: What were some difficulties with working with SANAA?

Zanko: Of course there were a lot of cultural differences, but more then that we are dealing with extremely busy architectural firm. That we are asking to slow down and focus on production for Chicago Biennial. This became more complicated once the school and students were involved. While the process was in the end successful; one issue that we will remember in future will be the time frame for initial design. It took the team as a whole to long to start creating ideas, and that caused some problems with planning and implementation.

Rigali: How did they originally react and how has their enthusiasm been through this process?

Zanko: Thrilled to receive the prize. Kazuyo Sejima, one of the main partners in SANAA, was genuinely surprised and excited when SANAA’s name was read as a winner of MCHAP 2014-15 at the Award Ceremony last October in S.R. Crown Hall.  Obviously, the SANAA team was a bit less enthusiastic once they realized the amount of work we eventually put in front of them. We were still flushing out the process and that was our fault for not being as upfront as possible. I remember a moment when 4 SANAA team members together with our students were sleeping on the floor of G.A.R. Rotunda in Chicago Cultural Centre when it hit crunch time building the model. In the end, I felt extreme pride and satisfaction coming from SANAA and Sejima, as well as gratitude and enjoyment in having an opportunity to create this impressive model with help of ambitious and enthusiastic group of students.

Rigali:How was the initial round of student participants decided and subsequently chosen?

Zanko: We asked IIT Faculty to invite their best students to apply for a CAB project with SANAA. The SANAA team were sent the documents and conducted interviews. From what I gathered it was an incredibly quick turnaround. Leaving us with a little over a week to plan flights and housing for 2 of the students to assist in the main office.

Rigali: The catch phrase for this Biennial is “Make New History”. What does that mean to you?

Zanko: To refer to Mark Lee, and his CAB curator statement. It is Important to continue producing architectural ideas through different mediums, not just buildings, then use this to influence the state of the discipline today. “We think that producing ideas through different mediums—perhaps before one achieves the chance to build buildings, or maybe in lieu of that work—is relevant to the changing state of the discipline today.” - Mark Lee. For me, in the world a of architecture where making it (architecture) is by creating a successful space for discussion. One must alway strive for inclusion of the broader public into discussion of architecture. This intern enlarges its potential to be relevant, to be part of the history.

Transcript of an interview between the Chicago Architecture Biennial Manager of Exhibitions and Productions Rachel Kaplan and IIT X SANAA team member Peter Rigali in the Chicago Cultural Center on September 25, 2017.

Peter Rigali: To get this started, how did the Biennial get brought to Chicago?

Rachel Kaplan: So, the Biennial was sort of born from the 2012 Cultural Plan started by Michelle Boone, the cultural commissioner. The goal of the plan is to celebrate the diverse cultural histories and identities here in Chicago. So architecture being such a great attribute of the city, they agreed it was worthwhile to have a focus on that. The Biennial in history has been a sort of mini-world's fair; where the world convenes in one place to explore and discuss across different platforms. This made sense to have a Biennial to begin the conversation on architecture involving a global scale. The idea being to gather leading designers to explore and exhibit. Sarah Herda, the curator of the first Chicago architecture Biennial, really used her connections within the industry of architecture to foster the gathering of participants for the first Biennial. In turn this set the standard for what this can be and what it can mean for the city of Chicago. The first Biennial was called “The State of the Art of Architecture.” Its goal was to survey the current agendas of different architectural practices, posing the question: what is important for contemporary architecture? So it wasn’t a heavily curated show in the sense that it needed to be centered on strict themes and concepts but instead what is important in architecture generally. One of the projects form the first Biennial was a house shipped from Vietnam to examine sustainable design practices while being affordable. Another example was a prototype for a sustainable housing project in Mexico. This begins to show how diverse the backgrounds of each participant were. What’s interesting, is that all the funding comes from the Biennial, this gives the offices a unique opportunity to continue but also explore what is important to them as a practice further. So this goes full loop, Chicago has a very diverse history and to the goal was to match this with a diverse gathering of design practices on a global scale.

Rigali: What is the future for the Biennial, should we be expecting a return?

Kaplan: So the Biennial as a whole started about a year out from the opening date, giving it a very quick turnaround time. All the administrative work and hiring all began within a year. This was good because after the first showcase we were able to spend the following months really analyzing what was successful and how it can be sustainable for Chicago. Also what was the impact at the respective offices and what it's doing for them. What's important going forward is that everything is not for profit. This requires a substantial fundraising campaign. Most of this funding comes from Grant Foundations and Sponsorships. For the most recent Biennial it wasn’t really confirmed that we were ready to proceed until summer of this 2016. Right now the plan is to continue the Biennial every two years, and not to follow the Venice Biennial route which is the traditional switch between art and architecture. It’s important that we continue programing in the off year, to not let the momentum die between exhibition years. Going forward we would like to lengthen the time for research and prep so it’s not just a year out. This is to more promptly allow for the preparations on the participant's side. Hopefully, this will expand the conversations happening around the Chicago but also between the offices.

Rigali: What were the difficult aspects of working with such a diverse group of firms?

Kaplan: Communication is key when dealing with 140 firms from all over the world. Dealing with timezones, dealing with language, schedules and shipping. It’s a lot to manage, mostly comes down to logistics. It was important that once the idea has been approved by the curatorial team that everyone is moving forward. So you need to be aware of payments, to ordering materials, to hitting shipping deadlines and finally installation. The biggest problem is we're having a million conversations, getting everything in place and then things changing once you're actually in those spaces in the Cultural Center. So a part of it s just waiting until everything is onsite and reevaluating. Like will it fit through the door? Will it light up if it’s plugged in? So this means a crucial skill is just being patient and waiting so that you can effectively troubleshoot in that crunch time.

Rigali: Is there anything in particular that couldn't be done? What were some of the restrictions of the spaces?

Kaplan: It really is a relative. You consequently start out with a really robust idea, then you need to think about the building and weight limitations/ materials. So there definitely is a process for editing down to what is approved. Successful projects have answers for the questions like; will it stand if someone bumps into it? This comes into conflict when you're working with artists that have a very specific way they want to showcase their ideas. Not fun but definitely necessary.

Rigali: How the original firms chosen?

Kaplan: For the first two Biennials all the firms were invited. So for the first Biennial, Sarah Herda did a ton of research looking at firms from across the world that were just doing interesting work. So their was a swell of firms invited to submit proposals and then there was a series of juries that selected firms based on the proposed concepts and the diversity of ideas. Diversity was super important to showcase the global aspect of the Biennial. So this year, the focus was on history/modernity and there axis points within architecture. Mark and Sharon did extensive research on firms doing work that was already embedded in these topics. The goal of course being to really focus on history and modernity within art and architecture. So you'll see a good mix of built pieces but also photography. The photography aspect was of course highlighting photographers that focused on architecture for the body of their work. This was mixed with a selection of artists whose focus is on the indirect abstractions of architecture.

Rigali: The catch phrase for this Biennial is “Make New History”. What does that mean to you?

Kaplan: I think I see it in line with Mark and Sharon, where things are constantly in the process of being redone and redesigned. Their really is endless opportunities to look at things and curiosity really makes that possible. So really digging into ideas and researching histories. This allows one to really frame things out. In a way that wouldn't typically get the attention it might deserve. Again one of the great things about the Biennial is that the funding is supplied, really allowing the artists the ability to rediscover and reimagine ideas and then put them in a public platform for people to also dig into them further. Being curious, keeping opportunities open, and not letting you feel limited because something many have already been done.

Rigali: What projects do you feel were really successful with Mark and Sharon’s plan?

Kaplan: I think each project has a different relationship with the Biennial, the public. This make each one stronger in certain aspects, some being easier or harder to unpack. I would say the Yates Hall with the Tribune Towers and the GAR Gallery looking at all these historic interiors. These are really well curated and accessible, making them great entry points into the exhibit as a whole. The process of allowing present architectures to reopen and abstract makes it possible for a reexamining of history in new ways. Taking it in a nice direction away from a textbook. A lot of these are very formalized but through this exhibit they are opening up in a way that allows different understandings. Making history something more tangible and able to be manipulated in interesting and refreshing ways.