Chicago's Biennial

Chicago photographed by Iwan Baan.
Iwan Baan

In what is set to be the biggest architecture event in Chicago since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, notable for Daniel Burnham’s White City, the Chicago Biennale will attract over 100 architects and artists from more than 30 countries. Titled, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” the architecture extravaganza’s co-artistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima have brought together international and local talent to spark a dialogue about the context of Chicago as a stage for the contemporary global discourse.

As part of a robust architectural scene, Chicago practices of late have quietly begun to influence their global contemporary counterparts. The current architectural scene in Chicago is “remarkably vibrant” Grant Gibson of CAMESgibson said. “An ambitious group of (yet to be truly established) designers, educators, writers, and curators are coalescing into an identifiable (but loose) collective,” Gibson went on to say. “Most were initially drawn here by institutions like The Graham Foundation, Art Institute of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, and the other schools of architecture”.

Building on this thought is Stanley Tigerman, the quintessential gadfly of Chicago’s architecture community: “Chicago is more than a city at the center of the United States; it is a city at the center of ideas, within and without architecture.”

The Big Shift by PORT Urbanism.
Courtesy PORT Urbanism
 

It will not be the everyday Arsenale. “This place will be packed to the gills,” said a Biennial organizer when describing the curatorial process. Nooks and crannies, ramps, staircases, and windows will all have installations, but there will be moments of respite, most notably in the event spaces that will continue to house public events and weddings.

The lavish interior space of the Chicago Cultural Center will fittingly be used to hold the events main exhibition. Once a public library, the space has cleverly been altered to serve as a popular public gathering area. Its decorative interiors include two stained-glass domes and several marble-coated spaces that play host to weddings, events, films, and exhibitions. Programming will continue through the Biennial, offering an opportunity for many people to see the architecture on display.

Promising to be a memorable multitude of international biennale culture washed ashore on Lake Michigan, the sheer breadth of the experiments is astounding. Ranging from performance to collages to full-scale homes, the event will tackling issues from housing to ramps to construction and representation.

Chicago’s talent will be on full display across several venues, and the projects are breathtaking in their range: PORT Urbanism will debut their conceptual project “The Big Shift,” a vision of a future where a 1.5-mile stretch of Lake Shore Drive along Grant Park is shifted eastward to create roughly 225 acres of new lakefront real estate and an expanded public realm along the water’s edge. It will be accompanied by an in situ installation of the proposed water line.

A photo from “Reckoning with Vacancy” by photographer David Schalliol.
David Schalliol
 

In a curatorial twist, the small but mighty CAMESgibson will collaborate with corporate goliath SOM on a proposal called “The High Life,” a tower with a set of novel domestic living arrangements that address pressing problems of city life in Chicago with bold compositions and surreal occurrences that attempt to enliven everyday urban life.

Stanley Tigerman will showcase new housing designs for the disabled, showing his way of “giving back to society,” while Margaret McCurry will also address the issue of shelter. Her work, titled “Circle the Wagons,” is a city block of affordable container housing that will place the aesthetics of architecture above all other ideologies.

On the 65 windows of the Cultural Center’s Michigan Avenue facade will be “Chicago, What Do You See?” by Norman Kelley (an architecture and design collaborative not to be confused with the operatic tenor). White matte vinyl drawings of window treatments are layered with single-point perspectival views of Chicago streets, iconic buildings, and neighborhoods, inviting passersby to stop and look twice.

So what does this Biennial have to offer Chicago and the world? Gibson leaves the question open. “There are so many exceptional architects participating—a wide range of the discipline—that I expect there won’t be one discussion, but many varied conversations. Maybe that is ‘The State of the Art’ of our discipline? There is not one, but many ‘Architectures.’”

The Available City by David Brown.
Courtesy David Brown
 

However, there is also a host of off-site programming that will complement the large show in the Cultural Center. It will be more Chicago-centric and look at some of the racial and social particularities that make Chicago such fertile ground for a Biennial. Some would argue that this is the most important part. “There is little question that the city as a cultural idea is ascendant,” said Christoper Marcinkoski of PORT Urbanism, “However, for all the talk of skylines, cultural icons, and architectural spectacle, the thing that ultimately defines a city is its public realm—its ground-plane. The public realm isn’t just the space between buildings; it’s the thing that ultimately makes a city what it is. Everything else is just background.”

The Rebuild Foundation, founded by Theaster Gates, will open in a partially restored 1923 bank at 68th Street and Stony Island Avenue on the Southside. It will be “a hybrid gallery, media archive and library, and community center,” according to Gates. It will open October 3 to the public and will house a host of black cultural archives, including Jet, Ebony, and Negro Digest, as well as the vinyl collection of Chicago house music legend Frankie Knuckles.

There will be ongoing exhibitions that open in conjunction with the Biennial, including photographer Barbara Kasten at the Graham Foundation, architect Ania Jaworska at MCA Chicago, David Adjaye at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a James Wines/SITE drawing exhibition at Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

The context of the Windy City should be interesting both globally and locally as Chicago’s Biennial is approaching that of Venice in scale and prominence, thanks in part to massive corporate and state sponsorship. It remains to be seen how these global and local dialogues will interface in this context, but Thomas Kelley of Norman Kelley is excited about the context of Chicago. “It’s well understood that Chicago has a rich legacy of privileged architectural craft. It’s probably the only American city that values these offerings among their greatest urban amenities. The people are real nice, too.”

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