In the summer of 1922, the Chicago Tribune held a competition for architects worldwide to design its new headquarters on Michigan Avenue–“a thoroughfare,” in the paper’s own estimation, “that soon will be the most impressive street in the western world.” Party due to the Trib’s own hype, partly due to the prize money ($50,000 for the winner, or about $695,000 in today’s dollars), the competition became a national spectacle, and an associated traveling exhibition drew crowds in more than two dozen cities. For a while, Chicago was the world capital of architectural debate, and while the winning tower, a neo-Gothic number with sky-high buttresses, is still in use, today it’s the unbuilt proposals–especially Eliel Saarinen’s streamlined modernist design–that crystallize the manifold possible futures of building in a new age.
No on needs another art biennial, but large-scale exhibitions of contemporary architecture are few–and the new Chicago Architecture Biennial, the first of its kind in North America, offers America’s second city a chance to reclaim its preeminence as capital of the building arts. The biennial will orbit around the Chicago Cultural Center, the neoclassical landmark in the Loop, though the exhibition will extend to temporary new structures, chosen by a jury that includes hometown hero Jeanne Gang. The biennial’s artistic directors, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, were still finalizing their list of participants when this magazine went to press, though one promising contributor is the artist Theaster Gates, whose salvaging of numerous houses on Chicago’s blighted South Side recalls the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys.
Architecture has long been the poor cousin to art on the biennial circuit–you usually get just models and photos of new work, accompanied by lots of lame pop-up pavilions and more or less nifty tech showcases. But last year in Venice, Rem Koolhaas dramatically raised the stakes of architecture biennials by turning away from starchitecture and presenting a research-intensive showcase of the fundamentals of building. (If you missed it, there’s always the 2000-page catalogue.) If Chicago plays for similar stakes, then the adopted hometown of Mies van der Rohe may yet reemerge as the nexus of debate over the future of American architecture.