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08.25.2014
Editorial> Make Chicago's Biennial Count
Chris Bentley lays out some hopes for Chicago's new architecture expo.
Decay of the Dome exhibit at the 2010 Venice Biennale.
Lu Wenyu

News broke in late June that Chicago plans to kick off a new tradition in 2015. Every two years the city will host North America’s biggest exposition of international and contemporary architecture—its own biennial, taking after the famous gathering in Venice that has inspired global design pilgrimages since 1980.

The goal of the event is to renew Chicago’s vaunted place among the international design community, and to nab tourism dollars for economic development. It’s a bombastic proposal, perfectly in line with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promotion of cultural tourism.

And why not? Chicago’s history as a center for modern architecture is evident to anyone who has strolled The Loop or surveyed contemporary design history. Two of the stars on our municipal flag are for expos (the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933–34), so maybe it’s in our DNA to seek out the world stage through such shows.

Ironically there’s a certain parochialism that comes with Chicago’s desire to host an international design expo. Implicit in the announcement is a bit of boosterism—as much as the aim of the event is purportedly to survey contemporary design from around the world, it wouldn’t merit mayoral fanfare without the requisite language about Chicago’s integral place in shaping the discipline throughout the 20th century, and its “world-class” scene today. It’s the Second City complex: we want the cultural influence enjoyed by New York and L.A.

So let’s celebrate our industrial heritage—trains, stockyards, manufacturing—Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Adler & Sullivan, Holabird & Root, and so on. Sure, show off the reborn riverfront to signal the return of urban waterways thanks to environmental protections and investments in public space. Hold up resurgent downtown real estate, bike lanes, and high-tech jobs bringing young people back to cities that used to make up the Rust Belt.

But if this exhibition is more than a tourist brochure, it should delve into our challenges as well as our victories. Let’s see exhibitions on poverty, crime, and segregation. Show off gun violence, class divides, and the concentration of wealth and political power among a proportionally smaller group of individuals than at any time since the Gilded Age. Hold up our nation’s struggles with its successes, and then we’ll have a show that people will travel far and wide to see.

After all, it has been said that Chicago is the most American of American cities. These are American problems, and they deserve solutions. It’s the first American biennial; what’s more American than public debate? This is a perfect time and place to put big questions to our designers, artists, and architects, pressing them to start a conversation that will go beyond the expo pamphlets and cocktail parties.

Chris Bentley