“The torrent of architectural news in the last few weeks — the Lucas Museum, Wrigley Field signs, plans for a new skyscraper — has obscured what may turn out to be the biggest story of all: Chicago’s push to host an architecture biennial next year. Expected to showcase cutting-edge ideas for cities and buildings, the global exhibition, billed as North America’s largest survey of international contemporary architecture, is a potential game changer for a city already known as a design capital.
Why? Because buildings shape our world and ideas shape our buildings. Those ideas exert an influence that is far greater than any individual structure.
While Chicago has big brains like architect Stanley Tigerman in addition to its celebrated big shoulders, the center of intellectual gravity in the U.S. still resides in the Northeast, at architecture schools like Harvard’s and in the publishing offices of New York. The Chicago biennial can be counted on to challenge that order as well as the vaunted Venice Biennale, whose international architecture exhibition has been framing global design discourse since 1980.
After Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Chicago biennial on June 24, the event’s curators heard from a slew of the architecture world’s leading figures, including Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture; Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal; and such architects as David Adjaye, Bjarke Ingels and Denise Scott Brown.
‘The overwhelming response was that the people are excited for a new forum,’ said the event’s co-artistic director, Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation, a Chicago grant-making architecture organization that will present the biennial with the city of Chicago. ‘In a way, many people are surprised that something like this hasn’t happened already in the U.S., much less in Chicago.’
A telling comment came from the Dutch architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout, who emailed: ‘Love the gritty upstart Midwestern urban vibe that Chicago can present as an alternative to the old Europe decadence of Venice.’
Tradition and authority associated with the Venice event are also ‘its great limitation,’ said Herda’s co-artistic director for the biennial, Joseph Grima, former editor of the revered Italian design magazine Domus. ‘It’s a very slow-moving and lumbering machine.’
In contrast, the Chicago biennial will be the ‘the first major architecture biennial to be born in the 21st Century. … We have the opportunity to build a new platform for innovation, experimentation and research in architecture from the ground up.’
Plans call for the event to be held in odd-numbered years, avoiding direct competition with Venice, where the architecture world gathers in even-numbered years.
Still, the curators face enormous challenges as they prepare for the biennial’s three-month run at the Beaux Arts Chicago Cultural Center starting Oct. 1, 2015.
In addition to competing with other art biennials for talent and tourists, the curators must winnow their list of more than 500 potential exhibitors — architects, critics, theorists — to about 100 or more invitees. And they must select a compelling theme, which they plan to announce Oct. 1. With half of the world’s people now living in cities — and that share expected to rise to 70 percent by 2050 — the character and quality of urban life are a natural starting point.
‘One of the things we keep coming back to is the future of the city,’ Herda said. ‘That is an organizing principle for more specific issues. It could be housing. It could be education. It could be public space. It could be new technologies.’
Architects, she and Grima stressed, can upgrade urban life at a wide range of scales, not just the ‘no little plans’ take of Daniel Burnham. And their contributions can include temporary designs, not just buildings meant to last millenniums.
Grima cited the young London firm Assemble, which converted a shut-down gas station into a temporary movie theater. The architects hung a theater curtain from the underside of the station’s roof and inserted tiered seats. At the end of films, according to the firm’s website, the curtain would rise, extending the experience out onto the street. It would be fun to see an encore in Chicago.
From the dense Loop to its depopulated, Detroit-like neighborhoods, Chicago offers a vast array of what ‘urban’ means today. ‘Urban’ is defined by the sprawling shantytowns of Mumbai as well the high-rises of Manhattan.
The curators envision installations in the neighborhoods whose life span could extend beyond the biennial’s closing on Jan. 3, 2016. One neighborhood site is a long-vacant Greek Revival bank at 6760 S. Stony Island Ave. Celebrated Chicago artist Theaster Gates is turning the bank into a cultural center and archive for the holdings of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines.
The interplay between the biennial’s highflying architectural experiments and the grit associated with Chicago’s real-life urban laboratory could make for a bracing ideas fest, one that avoids the trap of preciousness and draws vivid links between how we build and how we live. ‘For me,’ Herda said, citing past shows she’s organized, ‘the most experimental projects were the ones that resonated the most with the general public.'”