The Gun Violence Memorial Project Credit: MASS Design Group

Architecture biennials are created to take the pulse of the profession, to display what architects are making, thinking about, and valuing. If a pulse is what we were looking for, I would have put the Chicago Architecture Biennial in an ambulance years ago. Past editions were missing the critical, complicated histories of segregation and redlining; the grand, hopeful construction and spectacular destruction of large-scale public housing were glossed over; the seemingly unfixable disrepair that blight clearance brought was barely addressed. It’s less complicated to focus on what’s easier on the eyes: wealth, intellectual analyses, and sexy historic buildings make for a comfortable and satiating architecture survey. Yet the new exhibition opening on September 19 might revive this corpse by presenting something different, exciting, and deeply uncomfortable: architecture as a form of power.

The first two CAB editions both focused on issues surrounding history with exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center. The first, in 2015, was titled “The State of the Art of Architecture” and addressed how the past affects the present; the great rifts between history and modernity. The 2017 exhibition, titled “Make New History,” examined how the past affects the present; the great rifts, et cetera. In many ways being hammered by history felt like an unwavering, unstoppable homage to dead white men, a reminder of conventional narratives that neglect the myriad ways architecture has victimized communities of color or left them out entirely.

The 2017 edition included satellite locations that, as I wrote for the Reader at the time, were some of the redeeming elements of a lackluster exhibition. In that piece, I also posed two directions the biennial could take after 2017: the way of more easy-on-the-eyes architecture, filled with boat tours of tall buildings and endless installations of illegible design-speak you’d find at an insufferable cocktail hour; or toward an exhibition that inspires the public to see architecture and the building of cities as a part of a political process in which they have a megaphone.

The third edition of CAB promises to be just that. Curator Yesomi Umolu, director of the U. of C.’s Logan Center Exhibitions, together with Europe-based curator and educator Sepake Angiama and Brazilian architect Paulo Tavare, has produced a show that appears to examine how architecture is addressing issues like land ownership, environmental degradation, erasure of peoples’ histories, rights to housing, and more. Says Umolu, the biennial’s theme, ” . . . And Other Such Stories,” “points to an expansive and inclusive view of architecture that explores the multiplicity of narratives that can describe our environments. The title is purposefully open-ended, suggesting an unfinished conversation.”

Based on many of the contributors’ projects, the theme references the ways architecture has been negligent of the environment and destructive to already-disinvested communities. It’s these “other stories”—the uncomfortable, unsparkling stories—that are front and center at this year’s biennial, with Chicago, in all of our complexities and discomforts, acting as a lens through which they’re told.

In 2017, Blair Kamin wrote in the Chicago Tribune that he hoped CAB could “displace, if only temporarily, the drumbeat of bad news about gang-related shootings.” In 2019, instead of hiding from the city’s traumas surrounding gun violence, Boston-based MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group has constructed a memorial to victims of gun violence that includes personal items donated by family members. They have built four structures shaped as gabled-roof workers’ cottages, with walls creating 700 unique shelves for victims’ donated belongings and a plaque with their name. With shelves surrounded in glass, the memorial becomes beautiful and fragile, akin to the process of healing.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project
The Gun Violence Memorial ProjectCredit: MASS Design Group

While MASS has created a space for tenderness and remembrance, the biennial will also showcase the violence inherent in architecture. I’m particularly impassioned by the Settler Colonial City Project, led by architect-scholars Ana Maria León and Andrew Herscher. Their publications, programs, and interventions will “decolonize” the Chicago Cultural Center by revealing the “hidden stories of colonial violence embedded in the building”; for example, signage against the building’s marble interiors reads, “This marble was quarried and assembled by exploited labor.” The project’s premise is a perfect example of evolved architecture programming: celebrating beautiful buildings is a skin-deep practice; a thorough airing of problematic histories of buildings and the people who made them is greatly needed.

Addressing gentrification and displacement as architectural issues is rare; even more rare is architecture addressing those issues through an emotional lens. An ongoing project titled Community Futures Lab, by interdisciplinary artists Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips, aka Black Quantum Futurism Collective, will collect stories from Chicagoans about housing displacement and belonging. If the project is similar to the Futures Lab conducted in Philadelphia in 2017, visitors can look forward to learning more about capturing trauma and transforming community narratives. The project ties these stories together with concepts from Afrofuturism, manipulating time and consciousness to reimagine or map a better future.

Cultural Center visitors can also expect to encounter installations about a range of inherently political/architectural issues including ethical landlords, affordable housing scarcity, and access to clean drinking water, as well as several projects that address water and land use through indigenous practices and perspectives—voices lacking in prior biennials. All of this is in addition to more than 40 satellite installations across the city that discuss contested spaces, including closed schools and former public housing developments.

<i>Cabbage Patch</i> at the Garfield Park Conservatory
Cabbage Patch at the Garfield Park ConservatoryCredit: Brian Kinyon

The only questionable project is Cabbage Patch by Danish artists Gamborg/Magnussen at the Garfield Park Conservatory, at which 10,000 cabbages have been planted in the rear grassy field designed originally by Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. The installation also includes a functional kitchen and is intended to create “a gathering spot for local community groups, school programs, and visitors to Garfield Park.” Organized by the conservatory as a partner project, low expectations abound: While the Danish invade a park designed originally by one of their own, how does the cabbage patch address East Garfield Park’s condition as a gentrifying Black neighborhood? Or its history as the site of the MLK riots of 1968? And why cabbages? Though it’s a cute idea, it’s another reminder of how easily architects can enter a community and erase that community’s history by focusing on the white, European figure within their field.

On the other hand, at the last remaining of the Jane Addams Homes, in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, Johannesburg-based Keleketla! Library will collect audio and video from visitors as they pass through the site, which will then be woven into an audio tapestry and broadcast into the Cultural Center. The group creates these sound tapestries as a way to tell stories about heritage and place that, as they say, “can exist parallel to each other in order to challenge dominant narratives.”

Challenging dominant narratives might be one way to make sense of the “pulse” of this year’s biennial; Umolu sees it rather as a process that “reveal[s] and share[s] narratives that probe the histories and politics of our environment. This expansive view of architecture and cities resonates with a growing interest within the spheres of design and architecture, but goes beyond these fields to put forward a diversity of perspectives on issues that concern all of us.” As we seem to endlessly grapple with an uncertain future of climate collapse as well as small and large-scale human displacement, this year’s biennial is shaping up to be a bold statement on the problematic nature of the built environment. “We hope to involve the full city and engage as many Chicagoans as possible in conversation about what it means to be a city and a community, while revealing connections on a global scale. We want visitors to walk away from the biennial with a new understanding of the role of architecture in our everyday lives,” Umolu explains.

Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed in the first two editions of the Chicago Architecture Biennial; the pulse of the field they articulated sat deep within the heart of the architecture profession, away from the challenges, fears, and futures of the people who live in and work within buildings. This new pulse sees architecture as a practice that expands to include issues of harm, connection, trauma, and access—all ideas and experiences that combine to create, subvert, take, or co-opt power. This new biennial might have a pulse that beats within us all.  v