A more local Chicago architecture biennial

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How, in the grip of a raging pandemic, plan and produce an international event?

This is the question the board of directors of the Chicago Architecture Biennale faced a year ago. Kudos to them for not just folding.

Their answer is “The Available City”, the 2021 edition of “North America’s largest international survey of contemporary architecture”. It opened this month and will run until December 18.

But like so many others now, it’s different from what was before.

The biennial was launched in 2015. It was an idea stemming from Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 cultural plan, primarily aimed at strengthening Chicago’s reputation as a global city and increasing its tourist activity. This first edition lasted three months, brought together 120 architectural firms from around the world and brought in more than half a million visitors, mainly in its main venue, the Chicago Cultural Center, where exhibits took to the entire building. .

What we have this year are less wobbly museum pieces and more Chicago block parties. Or, as CAB put it: “a new approach to the biennial model, moving from an exhibition format to a deeper engagement with the local community”.

Translation: Architects and designers from all over have partnered with neighborhood groups to create “collective spaces,” mostly in the wasteland spread between the west and south sides of the city.

“The Available City” is an ongoing research project by UIC professor and artistic director of the 2021 Biennale, David Brown, who has worked there for over a decade. A review of what can be done with Chicago’s huge inventory of over 10,000 city-owned vacant lots, this was a ready-made theme for an event highlighting quarantines, closed borders and capacity restrictions. Brown says that the fact that these are “outdoor spaces” was a major plus.

Brown says the core lineup for this year’s event consists of 15 commissioned projects across 12 locations, ranging from a playground and tree to murals and meeting spaces. Along with these commissioned works, there are dozens of programs presented by “partner” organizations, multiple panels and online events, and two exhibition venues, the Bronzeville Artist Lofts and the Graham Foundation. Even in this edition of the COVID era, with a budget that CAB Director Rachel Kaplan says has grown from around $ 4 million to $ 1.8 million, there are over 80 contributors and up. of 100 cultural partners. It’s still big, heavy, and completely free; see the Biennale website for the full list.

Travel and capacity restrictions aren’t the only issues CABs have faced. Brown says they were caught off guard by things that “weren’t on the radar” at first: supply shortages, skyrocketing construction costs and how difficult it has been this summer. to find manufacturers. As a result, some projects are still underway: an orientation center at the Cultural Center, for example, was not yet open last week.

A mandated group, In c / o Black Women, recently pulled out, citing their reasons in an open letter. Their plan was to build a gathering space and skate facility near the site of a historic and demolished CTA station. But, they wrote, “during a 6-month planning process”, the problems of “over-promise and under-execution” and “access to work by black women without adequate compensation for the part of municipal agencies and artistic and cultural institutions, including the CAB, have become the norm. “

In c / o Black Women concluded that “the Chicago Architecture Biennale does not create community-led spaces or relationships that will last beyond the performance of their exhibit.”

Brown says the withdrawal was unfortunate. “It’s a tight schedule and the construction issues I mentioned presented obstacles.” But he adds: “I can understand the frustrations, things took longer than expected. And I respect their decision. I thought there was a good overlap with what they were interested in and ‘The Available City’, in terms of my research, and told them that I had better work with them at some point in the future.

According to its official statements, the 2021 pivot “has forced the CAB to consider new ways to engage with local and global audiences that will likely impact our model going forward.” Kaplan, who has worked for CAB since 2014 and was promoted to director in March, says that means they’re doing more digital programming.

But does that also mean that the Biennale will be this kind of more local and practical event in the future?

“The Biennale always starts with looking at Chicago,” says Kaplan, “but it’s always going to turn into a global dialogue. Basically, it’s an international platform.


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