MANY OF THE designs on display at the first-ever Chicago Architecture Biennial could be implemented anywhere. But the event’s creative team was thinking of the Windy City, specifically, when it organized BOLD: Alternative Scenarios For Chicago, a collection of radical, Chicago-centric proposals from more than a dozen local offices.
The show-within-a-show was organized by Iker Gil, director of local firm MAS Studio. Like most speculative work, the plans require some willing suspension of disbelief in terms of their scope and implementation. But most contain smart suggestions for a metropolis whose basic infrastructures have been in place for well over a century.
“They are looking at the future, but they are still very grounded in the realities of the city,” said Gil, who also serves as editor-in-chief of the design quarterly MAS Context. “We want to make people think about how new ideas like these could be implemented.”
The variety of designers—from emerging to world-famous—and approaches—from region-altering master plans to offbeat architectural innovations—gives the series what Gil calls a “comprehensive view” of the city, and “the role of architects at all scales.”
“They don’t just do houses,” he says.
Some proposals take a singular approach, suggesting grand urban transformations. UrbanLab’s Filter Island imagines bioswales, wetlands, and other natural filters for the Chicago River’s pollutants as elements in a vast and colorful public park. Port Urbanism’s The Big Shift proposes moving Lake Shore Drive—currently a barrier past which development is prohibited—eastward, and, through landfill and road tunneling, clearing the way for a new skyline and 150-acre public waterfront.
“The fact of the matter is Chicago’s really big urban moves are in the past. To not look forward to how the city might transform in the next century is a missed opportunity,” said Port Urbanism’s Christopher Marcinkoski
Others opt for a more organic, infill-focused approach. The Available City—a project coordinated by David Brown, associate professor and associate director at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture—explores the urban design potential of Chicago’s fifteen thousand city-owned vacant lots. It encompasses proposals from nine firms, including raised parks, multi-use education spaces, wellness centers, maker spaces, community kitchens, and micro-housing. Outside the city, Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape proposes Logistical Ecologies, spurring growth and activity in rural areas of northeastern Illinois by combining housing with a network of re-purposed railways, warehouses, and distribution facilities.
A few teams combine architecture, urban planning, and technology, creating new typologies altogether. SOM and CAMESgibson’s The High Life suggests a new skyscraper type where cantilevered “trays” extending from the building’s core would be developed as neighborhoods, creating a new vertical public domain and leaving room for individuality in an area that’s usually predictable. Design With Company’s Late Entry To The Chicago Public Library Competition creates a sort of city within a building, clustering 24 structures—including quirky landmarks and famous edifices from the past— within a new library, theoretically replacing the unpopular Harold Washington Library Center. And Weathers’ Second Sun creates a park whose features respond to the various forms of energy—thermal, acoustic, kinetic, electromagnetic, etc.—being produced within its boundaries.
The show has already prompted discussions about how the city might adapt in the future, not just among the thousands who have attended the Biennial, but among the officials who make decisions about this type of work. Gil said Mayor Rahm Emanuel had great things to say about the proposals, but for him that’s not enough.
“I want to take it to the level where it’s not just they’re excited, but they want to sit down with us and we can talk about the challenges the public sector is facing.”
“We hope we can kickstart a conversation about how Chicago could be, in addition to how it is now,” added Stewart Hicks, of Design With Company. “We’re all waiting to see how this pans out.”