Starting October 1, over 100 architects and artists from more than 30 countries will convene in the Windy City for what can only be described as an architectural extravaganza. The Chicago Architecture Biennial is titled “The State of the Art of Architecture,” and its co-artistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima have assembled a roster of international and local talent to spark a dialogue about the context of Chicago as a stage for the contemporary global discourse. It is arguably the biggest architecture event in Chicago since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, famous for Daniel Burnham’s White City.
For the last several years, Chicago has been quietly influencing practices around the globe. “Chicago and a group of architects associated with the School of Architecture at [University of Illinois-Chicago] UIC are engaged in an ongoing experiment about the role of drawing in architecture that we find inspiring,” said Dan Wood of New York–based WORKac. “People like Jimenez Lai, UrbanLab, and others have been producing some fantastic drawn images that we see as an important context for our material produced for the Biennial.”
Echoing this sentiment is Mason White of Toronto’s Lateral Office. He referenced the strength of Chicago’s cultural institutions, like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), UIC, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. White said he admires the generosity of SAIC and the Graham Foundation, as well as impressive start-ups like MAS Context.
The main exhibition will be hosted in the Chicago Cultural Center, one of the country’s most intriguing indoor public places. The former public library has been repurposed as a popular public gathering space. Its lavish interiors include two stained-glass domes and several marble-coated spaces that are host to weddings, events, films, and exhibitions. This programming will continue through the Biennial, offering an opportunity for many people to see the architecture on display.
This will not be the everyday Arsenale. “This place will be packed to the gills,” said a Biennial organizer when describing the curatorial process. Nooks and crannies, ramps, staircases, and windows will have installations, but there will be moments of respite, especially in the event spaces that will continue to house public events and weddings.
It promises to be a spectacular survey of international biennale culture washed ashore on Lake Michigan. The breadth of the experiments is astounding, ranging from performance to collages to full-scale homes, tackling issues from housing to ramps to construction and representation.
The projects are breathtaking in their range: New York–based studio MOS will build a full-scale plywood model of a prefabricated modular home “somewhat based upon the corridors of suburban houses,” a collection of architectural fragments based on “abstracted vernacular.” Fellow Big Apple practice SO-IL will build a series of portals on the ramp that address the condition of being on a ramp. Fake Industries of New York will present a ten-meter long panorama of images that maps media, capital flows, gentrification and post-traumatic conditions the recent histories of cities.
Lateral Office will explore the relationship between architecture and the “great outdoors” with five models of proposed campsites which each come with a fold-out user’s manual. In one of the wildest collaborations, the radical art collective Ant Farm will pair up with WORKac to re-examine their 1970s projects (the House of the Century, Convention City, and the Dolphin Embassy), and together produce a new project—a floating city-slash-cruise ship.
So what does this Biennial have to offer Chicago, and the world? As Michael Meredith of MOS told AN, “Everyone in the Biennial works within the global malaise, the heap of architectural production, media, press, etc. If you think of architecture through solely through images, it seems less and less tied to context each day.”
However, there is also a host of off-site programming that will complement the large show in the Cultural Center. It will be more Chicago-centric, and look at some of the racial and social particularities that make Chicago such fertile ground for a Biennial.
The Rebuild Foundation, founded by Theaster Gates, will open in a partially restored 1923 bank at 68th Street and Stony Island Avenue on the Southside. It will be “a hybrid gallery, media archive and library, and community center,” according to Gates. It will open October 3 to the public and will house a host of black cultural archives, including Jet, Ebony, and Negro Digest, as well as the vinyl collection of Chicago house music legend Frankie Knuckles.
The context of the Windy City should be interesting both globally and locally as Chicago’s Biennial is approaching that of Venice in scale and prominence, thanks in part to massive corporate and state sponsorship. Florian Idenburg of SO-IL said bluntly, “Previous arrogance has possibly isolated US cultural exchange. Now there is an opportunity to enrich, convolute, and expand strands of ideas beyond the notion of nationality. Where as Venice is country-centric, I believe Chicago can pride itself in being truly post-national.”