November 11, 2019

The Chicago Architecture Biennial Pushes Past Cook County

On display in the Chicago Cultural Center since September 19, the third edition of the Chicago Architectural Biennial is a profound array of exhibits seeking to redefine viewers’ understanding of architecture and privilege on local and global levels. Titled “...and other such stories,” the exhibition was curated by Sepake Angiama, Paulo Tavares, and Yesomi Umolu, who is also the director and curator of exhibitions at the Logan Center.

This year, the biennial purposefully highlights the narrative of the “other”—the stories of communities on the periphery of discussions regarding urban development and architectural innovation. The Biennial presents “architecture and the built environment as prisms through which to reflect upon social, geopolitical, and ecological processes that affect our collective past, present, and future.” So, do not go to the Biennial to learn about the latest chic architectural advances. Instead, experience architecture as a medium to challenge views and redefine how the city of Chicago is understood.

This year’s Biennial boasts more than 80 contributors and designers from 22 different countries. The expansive collection addresses multiple global communities, with several exhibits focusing directly on the city of Chicago. For example, Maria Gaspar’s piece Unblinking Eyes, Watching reflects upon the impact the presence of the largest single-site jail in the United States has on nearby La Villita. Using vinyl to depict a large stone wall of the Cook County Jail, Gaspar’s work is an almost overwhelming portrayal of division within Chicago communities, exposing the impacts of incarceration on those within and outside the prison walls.

Another especially powerful Chicago-based exhibit is the Sweet Water Foundation’s, a growing community-based land trust that focuses on the revitalization of vacant spaces in the South Side into productive community areas. Titled Re-Rooting + Redux, the exhibit is a large structure made of Douglas fir, reclaimed lumber, and polycarbonate that converts a workers’ cottage (one of the city’s first forms of standardized affordable housing) into a gallery space. Representing the possible positive impacts of urban renewal in long-standing South Side communities, *Re-Rooting + Redux* exemplifies the goal of the Biennial to tie architecture to social change.

Not all exhibits, however, are as large in scale. Akinbode Akinbiyi’s contribution, Easy Like Sunday Morning—North Lawndale, is a photographic project that highlights the subtle differences between North Lawndale and other Chicago neighborhoods. Akinbiyi’s work forces the viewer to draw comparisons that reveal inequalities between Chicago neighborhoods.

Complementing the various exhibits tied to Chicago communities are projects from around the globe. Do Ho Suh presents video footage of a public housing development in East London with forgotten utopian aspirations—the buildings were torn down within 50 years of their construction. FICA, a crowdfunded real estate fund managed by a nonprofit made up of activists, designers, and architects, displays a 500-square-foot representation of an affordable housing project that could be used to address the housing crisis in São Paulo, Brazil.

The Biennial also navigates the relationship between architecture and ecological progress. RMA Architects from Mumbai presents Sanitation and Equity, an interactive exhibit made of large hanging prints that viewers can walk through to visualize what sanitation, or the lack thereof, looks like for the city’s inhabitants. The exhibit posits that architecture and urban design have some responsibility in addressing the intrinsic link between sanitation and equity. Although the idea of tying architecture to environmentalism is present in RMA Architects’ exhibit, the Biennial could have benefited from more exhibits focused on this theme.

It is essential to spend an adequate amount of time considering the message of each exhibit in the Biennial—they are often subtle and raise complex questions about who has access to the benefits of progress in these fields. The official tour is limited as it rushes viewers through each exhibit in a matter of minutes and ironically focuses more attention on the architecture of the Cultural Center itself rather than the work of the contributing designers. To truly enjoy the exhibition, go on your own time and at your own pace. Aspects of text blocks explaining the exhibits are dense and overly lengthy, but the diction is accessible to most audiences and does not rely on heavily technical architectural jargon.

The exhibition is extremely informative and forces a reconsideration of what you know about architecture and its role in our lives. It prompts you to confront issues that often cause discomfort, making it a must-see exhibition.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial closes on January 5, 2020.