Chicago Hope


Johnston Marklee, View House, 2009, Rosario, Argentina.

The recently appointed 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic directors, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee—in contrast to their predecessors, Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda and international biennial curator Joseph Grima—are not professional curators, but practicing architects. In 1998, they cofounded the Los Angeles–based firm Johnston Marklee, whose current projects include the Menil Drawing Institute, a renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Green Line Arts Center, a project with the University of Chicago and Theaster Gates. Here, they discuss their interest in honing the next biennial’s focus on architecture’s intersections with art, world history, and urban design.Janelle Zara

As two practicing architects, what was your interest in taking on a curatorial role?

Mark Lee: We’ve done guest-curation projects for galleries, as well as academic shows at UCLA and other universities, and for the last biennial, we presented photographs we had commissioned artists to take of our buildings; but we haven’t curated anything on this scale. The last biennial was a great success in the way that it not only drew the international architecture crowd, but it formed a dialogue with people who were not architects. We’ve been working in Chicago for the last couple of years on a couple of different projects, and that kind of engagement was important to us.

As you said, the inaugural biennial was a success as a public event, but the shortcoming most critics cited was its lack of cohesion, noting that it would have benefited from a centralized theme. Although planning is still in the early stages, have you decided on how to address such criticism?

Lee: Last year’s show was an ambitious, grand survey of what’s happening internationally and among different generations; an overview is important to establish. And then it takes a second iteration to make a biennial. The two general thematics we’re thinking about right now are in nascent stages, but we’re interested in the renewed role of history for younger architects, a generation that believes in continuity. They don’t have the stigma of postmodernism; they’re looking at different parts of history and its precedents and how they can build that on current design work. The boundaries of architecture are also becoming more fluid. We’d like to explore the convergence of art and architecture, with the changing nature of public spaces and the proliferation of multimedia art practices. We want artists to participate, and to collaborate with architects.

Sharon Johnston: We’re also in the middle of analyzing the 1897 Chicago Cultural Center and understanding the qualities of rooms, of circulation—and using the historic and contemporary spaces to help organize the design of the exhibition. We’re taking advantage of scale and attributes of the architecture to tell a story, as opposed to a free-for-all of things placed where they fit. We’d like our expertise as architects to be part of our approach to the organization of the show.

With the growing number of design and architectural biennials in the world, what do you hope will distinguish the Chicago biennial on an international scale?

Johnston: The history of architecture in Chicago is exciting to revisit and to resuscitate; for architects globally, it represents a major part of the American landscape. And our role is partly determining how the organization might partner with other institutions, buildings, and parts of the city to more deeply embed itself into the urban fabric.

Conversations about Chicago architecture often use the words “history” and “legacy,” and now “resuscitate,” as if much of it happened in the past. How do you describe what’s happening there today?

Lee: Through the schools and through the Graham Foundation, we’ve gotten to see a lot of work by the younger generation. We find it really refreshing to see that, for them, history is a treasure trove. They don’t feel shame or guilt to retrieve from it. That’s not just a way to resuscitate history but a source to push it much further, a part of the Chicago scene we want to keep present in this biennial.

Tailor Made


Christ & Gantenbein, Kunstmuseum Basel addition, 2016, Basel. Photo: Julian Salinas.

IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE for architects to describe their work as “tailored” to the sites on which they are built, but in the case of Christ & Gantenbein’s new addition to the Kunstmuseum Basel, this is literally true: The geometry of the structure has been ingeniously derived from the different angles of the ancient city’s streets. At the north-east corner of the site, Saint Alban-Graben turns toward the Wettstein bridge. The museum’s entrance runs parallel to this gesture, creating a small plaza defined by the front facade. This concave space reads like an open book, with its left page facing the original museum, which was designed by Paul Bonatz and Rudolf Christ and completed in 1936.

As a result of this carefully contextual gesture, the new building does not feel tacked-on, like a traditional wing or extension. Indeed, the architects chose to connect the new museum to the old only through a lofty underground passage, which functions as an additional exhibition space, allowing the two buildings, which have the same height and possess a similar monumental presence, to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with each other and the city at large.

The building’s site also influences the organization of the interior: The floorplans of the spaces inside are organized from the outside in. All of the rectilinear galleries are placed along the angular exterior walls, which lay tangent to the property line. The somewhat eccentric geometry of the site itself is a result of the organic growth of Basel, a fact the architects chose to embrace and accentuate with the lobby’s grand staircase, a triple-height space that echoes the site’s unique contours, anchoring the building in the medieval city and at the same time creating a dramatic contemporary interior. This link to the surrounding urban environment is continued throughout the museum’s exhibition spaces, where carefully placed windows frame views of the city.

If the museum’s massing and organization is consistently thoughtful and successful, the architects’ material choices are only sometimes convincing. The understated gray brick facade establishes a subtle urban presence, yet also contains a sophisticated signage system that allows curators to display the title of the current show over the upper part of the building. This blur of pixelated text adds a faint glow to the faceted monolith, seeming to bringing another dimension to its uniform grayness—yet the effect is playfully inconsistent, as the sun sometimes outshines the hidden LED light diodes. On the interior, the extensive use of gray Carrara marble and rough plaster in the circulation spaces can be seen as a provocative statement. Instead of receding into neutrality, the materials are bold and draw the eye to themselves, forcing visitors to consciously focus on the architectural elements.

It is difficult to understand why the gray plaster reappears at each passage between exhibition spaces. It distracts from the experience of the art, and accidentally touching it isn’t pleasant either. To use galvanized steel for the gates of the main entrance might make sense, but the excessive placement of a material generally praised for its weather resistance feels ostentatious inside the museum. The shiny, metal-clad walls behind the ticket counter, in the bookstore, and the bathrooms are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silver factory. But unlike Billy Name’s intervention in Warhol’s first loft, the spacious museum is in no need for a boost of amphetamine stimulus, or the effects of visual enlargement. While the galvanized steel feels too cold and industrial, the yellowish oak floors throughout the exhibition spaces are too warm and domestic. Over time the floors might lose some of their coziness, but for now the wood and their grid created by grout joints is in conflict with the art placed directly above it, and the walls around them. The scale of some of the architectural elements too seems distractingly disjointed. Several of these elements are disproportionate in relationship to the human body. In particular, the wide marble balustrade of the staircase, which rises up to shoulder level, dwarfs visitors as they traverse the stairs.

  • Christ & Gantenbein, Kunstmuseum Basel addition, 2016, Basel. Photo: Stefano Graziani.

  • View of “Sculpture on the Move 1946–2016,” 2016. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel. Carl Andre, 10 x 10 Altstadt Square, 1967.

Then again, these limitations are easily forgotten in the presence of some of the best art of the twentieth century. The collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel is in no way overpowered by the architecture that houses it, and many of the pieces look even better in this new setting. By rejecting the art world’s penchant for “versatile” or “flexible” spaces, the new building is bold in its permanence—undiluted by moving walls and structural indecision. This spirited building is a particularly welcome shakeup in Basel, where more established players have dominated the city’s development.

While climbing the new stairs to the lobby of the older half of the museum, I rediscovered Bruce Nauman’s seminal neon piece: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967. The last time I saw the work was in 2009 in Venice where Nauman installed an edition in a window of the US pavilion, a location quite similar to the one in which it was first displayed in his San Francisco studio the year it was created. If that setting was almost effortlessly natural, in Basel the piece seems slightly foreign, almost as if it is rubbing against the rough gray plaster behind it. In the glow of the neon, the wall appears newly cloudlike and soft, a fresh transformation suggesting that Christ & Gantenbein have successfully created a museum that reveals new truths for its collection, and for the city to which it belongs. 

Christian Wassmann is principle of Studio Christian Wassmann, based in New York.