Yesomi Umolu on Directing the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial and Being a Global Citizen

Umolu discusses architectural tradition and “architecture as an international dialogue.”



Yesomi Umolu

By Sebastian Von Stauffenberg

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an introductory event at the Chicago Cultural Center for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, a forum showcasing different projects, ideas, and approaches to architecture presented around the globe. The event highlighted a clear objective to mobilize the way we see space and recognize the way it has changed over time. Artistic director Yesomi Umolu described how she made plans to tackle “the expanded field of architecture” and allow people to recognize both the artistic and cultural importance of transforming spaces. Umolu believes Chicago holds a unique position as a “prototype for a certain form of urbanism” because of its migration-rich history that is “woven into the fabric of the city”. 

With the opening of this event, we will hopefully see the growing and expansive “world of what we think an architect is.” Leaders in the field will build “a broader civic conversation” for how architecture can build communities through a “layering of different spatial transformations”. 

Below are Umolu’s written answers to interview questions. They highlight her ideas for the development of this forum and how her unique multicultural background helps her be an interlocutor to architects around the world.  

Did you find it daunting to be put in charge of this event? Do you feel that you’ve made it different from ones in the past? 

Above all, I’m honored and excited to serve as the 2019 Artistic Director and I have a highly equipped curatorial team behind me, which is extremely comforting for such a big undertaking. 

Sepake [Angiama], Paulo [Tavares], and I are all very interested in looking at how the built environment affects people’s experiences and the way we live our lives. Chicago is a highly cultured city that already has an amazing interest and dialogue going on about this, but the biennial provides an incredible platform to engage the city as a whole in the conversation…  

It’s always been our mission to explore the relationship between architecture and the production of space, both in Chicago and around the world. This year, we’re expanding our reach by broadening our view: We aim to increase conversations around the world to include not just architecture, but the other studies that impact it: sociopolitical and economic changes in society, civic movements, environmentalism, etc. We’re looking beyond the traditional definition of architecture and viewing it as space, the positive and negative space, that affects how people live their daily lives. 

An article on the Chicago Architecture Biennial website said that you wanted to explore the “emerging practices and global locations that are developing new approaches to architecture, urbanism, and spatial practice.” What are some unique creative pieces that you think should be highlighted? 

Our pre-biennial research leverages a diverse group of individuals from various disciplines including architects, urbanists, artists, designers, writers, members of social movements, community groups and everyday citizens in the cities of Chicago, São Paulo, Johannesburg, and Vancouver. At each location, we’ve applied a forward-thinking approach by studying how spatial practices—including land and occupation, nature and ecology, monuments, and memorials as well as rights and civic participation—influence communities and the built environment. 

It’s important to understand these entities work holistically to impact our communities and our lives. By studying the relationship between them—between, say, nature, occupation, and civic participation—we can see what’s working, what can be improved, and we can make projections on how that will shift in the future. That sort of unique thinking is a real highlight of the process so far. 

You received your master’s degree in architectural design from the University of Edinburgh and another master’s in art curating from the Royal College of Art in London. Have you recognized any differences from across the pond in how people choose to approach architecture? 

The differences in how people approach and understand architecture worldwide is fascinating. During my time in London, what really affected me was the shift in the dialogue around architecture from a more traditional study of buildings, to a study of the production and use of space in a broader sense. The reappropriation of spaces, the renegotiation of the built environment and the role of the architect was a critical topic as I was learning the practice of architecture, and that has had a significant influence on how I see my role as a curator in the field. 

How do you feel you’ve balanced both honoring the architectural tradition of the city as well as providing room for new ideas? 

The biennial is designed to celebrate Chicago’s architectural history, cultural institutions, and civic engagement. The city’s reputation and position as a central hub allows it to be a conduit to convey its rich surroundings with the world while also serving as a stage to amplify trends taking place in other geographies or cultures. Local mores mix with global influences to create something that’s new while also inherently “Chicago” in nature. It’s that amalgamation that shapes the future of architecture in the city and beyond. 

You have previously described yourself as a “global citizen.” How do you feel this has impacted your work? 

I was born and brought up in Lagos. I moved to London when I was 10. I’ve spent a lot of my life in Europe and the United States, and I have the good fortune as a curator to be able to travel all over the world and experience different types of urbanisms. This has helped me to really open up my perspective on architecture, and to understand the field as an ongoing conversation, with innovations and breakthroughs happening across the world and in unexpected places. It has opened up my idea of what a city is and how it’s experienced in ways that I bring to my work as a curator at the Logan Center. For the biennial, it’s let me approach architecture as an international dialogue, using Chicago as a prism to explore how the conditions of this city resonate globally. 

Do you have any advice to aspiring young architects? 

Listen to people and look to the world around you—architecture is so much more than physical structures. It shapes community, thought, and the lives of the people around it. Architecture is, in many ways, the study of how we use and understand space. It is deeply personal and collective ways. Look to the history of architecture and spatial production, but also look to the leading edge of innovation and thought across fields to figure out how to translate the changing way people live and communicate to architectural practice.