“It’s so completely obvious why it should be in Chicago. It almost doesn’t need any argument to go with it,” says Joseph Grima, referring to the Chicago Architecture Biennial opening on October 3. Sitting in a café in the Brera district of Milan this spring, the Genoa-based curator explained the reasons behind launching the first North American biennial in the Midwest. “What’s interesting about Chicago is its centrality, history of modernity and beyond that, how the city captures so many of the challenges that are facing other modern cities,” says Grima, 38, who directed the Istanbul Design Biennial and the Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk, Belgium.
Three years ago, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events—led by Commissioner Michelle T. Boone—began exploring the concept of a global event that would highlight architecture as one of the city’s main attractions. Sarah Herda, the director of The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts since 2006, was involved in the early stages of deliberation. The Seattle native previously worked in publishing before running The Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Herda’s successor at Storefront was Grima, who departed to become editor of Domus, an Italian design magazine in Milan, and the pair has played leapfrog ever since—with Grima brought on in 2013 to help define the biennial in a more expansive way. “We each bring something different to the discussion,” Herda says about the British architect, editor and her co-artistic director. “We introduce ideas and projects that we would not have included on our own. Fundamentally, we challenge each other,” she adds.
Jeanne Gang, principal of Studio Gang Architecture, a MacArthur Fellow and one of the many Chicago architects participating, says, “As the first show of its kind in the country, it is crucial to set a high level of critical thinking, and that can’t be done by committee.” Herda says that a pitfall of biennials is that you are often only speaking to your peers. “The Chicago Biennial will be different,” she says. “We are creating a place where different types of audiences will converge.” Yet there’s been an ongoing debate about biennials, and the function they serve given blogs, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, which contribute to the accessibility of architecture without the need to travel at all. Grima insists, “There needs to be a link to bring a critical discourse to the public realm.” And that discourse will include a number of challenges that face other cities, including affordable housing, inequality, segregation, infrastructure and social engagement, to name a few.
“We chose the title ‘The State of the Art of Architecture,’ which is not a theme, exactly, but something much broader and more inclusive,” says Herda about their inspiration from Chicago-based Stanley Tigerman’s 1977 conference on American architecture, which used the same name. Grima cites Kazuyo Sejima’s exhibition “People Meet in Architecture” at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennial as an example of mass appeal. “It had strength, great authority without being excessively theoretical,” he says, adding, “We’re not trying to emulate that, but it spoke of architecture’s ability to speak to people in a visceral way.”
After reviewing work by 500 architects and designers, the curators chose nearly 100 participants from 30 countries with the majority exhibiting in the Chicago Cultural Center. “They call it the people’s palace,” says Grima about the stately Beaux-Arts building that will be open to the public free of charge and function as the biennial hub. “It’s been exciting to select the projects, and in arranging the exhibition put them in dialogue with one another throughout,” says Herda about the curatorial process. In addition, the Chicago Architecture Biennial is collaborating with over 90 partner institutions while multiple interventions will be held at prominent Chicago institutions around town, including The Graham Foundation; the Farnsworth House; the Art Institute of Chicago and the new Stony Island Arts Bank—an ambitious project by Chicago artist Theaster Gates, to be installed with a site specific project by Barcelona-based artist Carlos Bunga.
While not a commission, Studio Gang’s project is one of the more topical entries, and an issue worth addressing as part of a public dialogue. Inspired by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the task force mission stated, “to identify best practices and make recommendations on how such practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.” According to Gang, her firm is using that theme to explore how the architecture of the police station can be reimagined spatially, physically and programmatically. “We are exhibiting strategies and ideas we hope can be replicated in communities around the country that are struggling with the same issues.”
Surrounded by architectural gems built by Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Herda explains that “while the exhibition is international in scope, Chicago is by no means absent from the conversation. For more than a 100 years it has been a laboratory of experimentation and advancements in architecture. The city provides the perfect context to have a conversation about the current state—and future—of the field.”
And that sentiment stretches from the city center to its shore. “Our parks are a vital part of our city’s heritage, and the Lakefront Kiosk Competition is an opportunity to bring progressive design to one of Chicago’s most celebrated urban spaces,” says Mayor Emanuel. That competition was announced late last year in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the Chicago Park District with support from BP. The winning entry, Chicago Horizon, by Providence-based Ultramoderne, includes a sleek modernist two-story viewing platform and lending library to be built in Millennium Park this fall before moving to Lakeshore Drive next year.
Three additional kiosks created by international firms partnering with local schools will be sited around 20 miles of parks, beaches and paths. Included in the mix are the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Chilean studio of Pezo von Ellrichshausen; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Amsterdam-Lagos based architect and urbanist Kunlé Adeyemi; and the University of Illinois at Chicago, with Chicago architect Paul Preissner, and Denver-based Paul Anderson of Independent Architecture who designed Summer Vault, a steel arched structure with two triangular spaces at each end, both enclosed by translucent screens.
When queried about the “state of the art of architecture,” Preissner, a professor at UIC says, “What’s going on now feels more liberated. Architecture in Chicago previously drew very heavily from its geographical metaphors, the landscape or the pragmatism of industry. Now it seems free and liberated in a way, like L.A. in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he says. “Previously they had to come from a particular metaphor. Now they come from anywhere and everywhere.”