During the opening days of the Chicago Architectural Biennial, as first the press and then the public (including some irascible architects) filed through the Chicago Cultural Center to see the dozens of projects on view, AN’s Mimi Zeiger sat down with Joseph Grima, co-curator of the inaugural exhibition, to discuss the urgencies of architectural practice.

Mimi Zeiger: The title of the biennial, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” references the 1977 conference organized by architect Stanley Tigerman at the Graham Foundation. Is this show about the present, the past, or the future condition for architecture?

Joseph Grima: I think it is very much grounded in the present, although it’s also about what’s possible. It was very important for us to lay the foundations for future exhibitions. 
The statement is: This is where we are now. What is possible in the future? How can we build on this and create new realities? And that was a very important thing to do for various reasons. Mostly because this part of the world, this continent, has never before seen an exhibition of this scale and with this kind of wide-ranging scope.

In architectural culture in this part of the world there is a very strong binary division between the academic and the theoretical and the excellence of practice and the brilliance of creating very good high quality architecture. But in between those two there’s kind of a third condition of what I guess you could describe as research and development. Or, the point of encounter between ideas and reality where reality takes form and coalesces around the speculative.

The Biennial is what we see as the expression of what is critical and what is urgent, taking a kind of direct look at it at this particular moment in time and make a statement to the public about what architecture is today. From there we can go off in many different directions, but first it’s really important to clarify architecture’s diversity. It’s not simply about producing shelter or producing security; architecture is more diverse and imponderable in a way. And that’s the role of the Biennial, to provide that platform for free and open thinking.

You’ve used the term “agency” to describe how the participants represented in the Biennial approach their work.  It’s a term that’s often associated with social justice or social impact. What do you mean when you talk about “architectural agency”?

I think architectural agency doesn’t have a single definition, but one of the fundamental steps we go through in making a practice is deciding on and setting out the kind of terms of what agency is.

Some participants included actively take on questions of social justice and engagement, but it would be unfortunate if we were to become limited to that sphere. It’s really important to understand that architecture of all possible directions is a matter of agency, of establishing and enforcing agency. That’s something that I think we easily forget. And it bears reminding.

The Biennial represents a broad international group of practices. How has it been for you seeing this whole group here in Chicago? Can you talk about the curatorial approach to making connections between works?

Our primary approach was to actually think spatially about the [Chicago Cultural Center] spaces and attempt to create a balanced flow of content. We didn’t try to cluster all the houses in one place and all the drawings another place and so on. We really resisted the thematic route. But once we had roughly put together a kind of possible direction, a possible outline, or possible groupings for the different spaces, then it was very interesting to see how there were unexpected resonances, probably resonances we wouldn’t have thought of if we had consciously sat down and decided which project goes where.

We didn’t take a systematic approach when we invited people to participate, I would say the vast majority we had no idea what they would actually do. So it was more basing their participation on what they’d previously done or their attitude. To see who is thinking these bold thoughts, who is making some sort of courageous statement about the field.

A question that has come up in the art community here in Chicago is why invest all this money in an architecture exhibition, especially with BP as a corporate sponsor, when the city is closing schools and cutting public mental programs? Not to put you on the spot to make a defense of mayoral policy, but how can we reckon the exhibition with the real needs of a city?

I think it’s a very thorny question and it’s one that goes very quickly into the political with a capital P. It’s something that I don’t think has a straight and simple answer. What I do think is that we can't really view culture as something that is only a luxury or say that we can only afford to have a biennial or platform of this kind in the city once everything else has been sorted out. I think that’s very dangerous logic—one doesn’t follow the other.

Being able to understand the value of architecture and to bring this into the realm of the public is why this biennial is so important. To uncover in the very direct gaze of the public the extraordinary possibilities that design offers is a political act.

[Architecture] is a fundamentally important act in order to be able to achieve social justice and to be able to achieve great quality of life in a city. It’s something that without which we will never actually get beyond the problem of public space. One of the reasons we have public spaces being shut down is because there is a lack of understanding of the value of culture. So there’s circularity to this discussion.

It’s fundamentally important we invest in these things and keep our sights on the bigger vision unless we become caught up in the present. We need to do both. We need to invest in the present and build a better future.

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