If Joseph Grima could have his way, he would forego declaring a nationality. The 38-year old architect, curator, and writer hold British citizenship, but he was born in France, has a Maltese grandfather, and spent most of his life in Italy. This makes for a rather elaborate answer to the question “Where are you from?” but then again, Grima—who has directed a nonprofit (the Storefront for Art and Architecture), edited a magazine (Domus), and organized several exhibitions (including the 2012 Istanbul Design Biennial)—doesn’t seem keen on singular identities. “If you can’t claim no nationality,” he says, “then maybe you should try to have as many as possible, and they’ll cancel one another out.”
Grima is based, at the moment, in Genoa, Italy, where he operates his design and research practice, Space Caviar. But he spends only half of each working month in the ancient port city: The other half puts him in Chicago and New York, where he’s currently organizing the Chicago Architecture Biennial (with co-artistic director Sarah Herda, who’s also executive director of the Graham Foundation) and the New Museum’s Ideas City festival, respectively.
Those planning to visit the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial this October (through Jan 3, 2016) will have the added distinction of attending the first-ever architecture biennial in North America. Its theme, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” pays tribute to a conference of the same name organized by Stanley Tigerman in 1977. One could read the title either as “architecture’s state-of-the-art” or “the state of architecture as an art form,” and this ambiguity is deliberate. “[The practice] is evolving very quickly,” Grima says. “The state of the art of architecture is something that’s indeterminate. We left the title as open-ended as we could, in the hopes that future editions will be less referential to the past and more open-minded to the present.”
Chicago is in many ways the ideal place for what is to be the largest architecture exhibition on the continent; after all, the Windy City, birthplace of the skyscraper, is where many leading architects, from Daniel Burnham to Mies van der Rohe, revolutionized the world of design. The biennial’s main hubs will be near their seminal projects in the commercial heart of town, at the Chicago Cultural Center as well as commissioned pavilions in Millennium Park. But organizers will also bring a showcase to the Stony Island Arts Bank, a formerly condemned building restored by the artist Theaster Gates, on the city’s South Side. “The biennial will create a dialogue between two profoundly different parts of the city,” Grima says, “one of which is the historic center on modernity and the other one of the more deprived parts of the city, where architecture is most desperately needed.”
This dialogue, Grima adds, is an opportunity to show visitors two faces of the metropolis, a duality emblematic of many other cities. The ever-widening gap between wealth and poverty, the breakneck pace of development versus the disgrace of civic neglect—these familiar issues have become major concerns for architects, and they will be key themes for exhibitors at the show.
Similar topics will be examined this month at another biennial event helmed by Grima, Ideas City: New York, whose third installment will take place from May 28 to 30, in partnership with Manhattan’s New Museum. As director, Grima will bring together panel discussions, workshops, commissions, and a daylong street fair, all organized around its titular theme, “Invisible City.” Every municipality is really many cities in one—the festival’s title pays homage to an Italo Calvino novel that explores this concept—and Grima hopes to highlight the conflicting and sometimes imperceptible social dynamics within it. “It’s those processes that to many people are completely invisible and imponderable,” he says, “that are critical in giving shape to the city.”
For someone with the job of analyzing city-making, the architect also thinks quite a bit about something more intimate in scale: the home. Space Caviar’s recent projects for Interieur Biennale, in Kortijk, Belgium, and Salone del Mobile, in Milan, explored the shifting nature of domestic space in the digital age. (Last year, the firm released a book, SQM: The Quantified Home, on this very subject.) Your dream house, Grima says, now comprises packets of data that you follow on Pinterest and Instagram; home can be the social force field you create when you look at your smart phone in a public square. But with increasingly invasive and sophisticated data collection systems, he adds, the surveillance of vicarious experience has reversed, and “it’s actually your home that’s watching you.”
So what does the ever-itinerant Grima—who is also the artistic director of Matera 2019 (the Italian city will be the European Capital of Culture that year)—consider home? “Right now, it’s Genoa,” he says, “but it’s also pretty much every airport lounge. And that’s definitely not unique to me. Among other things, I think the biennial is very much a product of the culture of mobility, where we don’t want to just read about things or look at pictures, but actually travel to and experience them ourselves.”