The Chicago Cultural Center, where the main exhibit of the Chicago Architecture Biennial will be held. Credit: Norman Kelley

In 1922 the Chicago Tribune held an architectural design competition for its new Michigan Avenue headquarters. The judges selected architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood’s proposal: a neo-Gothic tower, the kind typically seen in 12th- to 16th-century Europe, denoted by a buttressed crown and heavy ornamentation such as gargoyles, fantastical engravings, and scalloping. At the request of Colonel Robert McCormick, who headed the Tribune at the time, correspondents took stones from such monuments as the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and 145 other architectural triumphs. Those archeological crumbs are included in the building’s facade, and according to the Tribune, “symbolized the newspaper’s global reach.” At the time it was built, the Tribune Tower was a revolutionary reprisal of the past: Howells and Hood appropriated an elegant but outdated style and installed it in a city that was in the midst of rapid invention and innovation.

Just as its antiquated neo-Gothic style contributed to a new architectural narrative, Tribune Tower serves as an interesting parallel to this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial and its theme, “Make New History,”—which likewise seeks to envision a new story for the city. The months-long festival aims to examine what contemporary architects are creating and contemplating through programs and exhibitions, primarily at the Chicago Cultural Center but also in various forms and at numerous venues all across the city. For its second iteration (the first took place in 2015), the curatorial team of renowned architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee (of the LA-based firm Johnston Marklee) is planning to revisit Chicago’s rich and vast architectural history—including the Tribune Tower’s design competition. One exhibit, entitled “Vertical City,” is an installation in Yates Hall, on the fourth floor of the Cultural Center, where the lofty ceilings will accommodate 16- to 18-foot towers conceived of as “late entries” to the Tribune Tower’s design competition; the models will be accompanied by two re-creations of the Tribune Tower itself.

While “Vertical City” could potentially produce some noteworthy architectural ideas, the concepts behind the CAB in general pose a number of questions. The CAB is free and drew more than a million visitors in 2015. But whom is the biennial for? Whose history does this exhibition discuss? Is the CAB exclusively for those working within the industry, and does it benefit Chicago only through the revenue it generates from tourism? The theme of “Make New History” is particularly problematic for Chicago, as its architectural and urban-planning histories have not always been on the side of its citizens. Still, the subject offers the CAB an opportunity to examine architecture through the lens of those who use Chicago’s buildings and infrastructure, to create a people’s history that can help other cities navigate and address legacies of injustice.

The way the curators are thinking about ‘Make New History’ isn’t as thematic,” says Todd Palmer, executive director of the CAB. “We’re not looking at it like, ‘Oh, it’s history. We already did that!’ History doesn’t go away.” Palmer instead sees a direct correlation between “Make New History” and the way architects are using their knowledge of architectural history in creating new buildings and city plans. “What’s interesting today is that what is innovative [in architecture] brings in history. One might not think of history as being innovative, so we are bringing these two seemingly opposite words—’innovation’ and ‘history’—together and looking at conditions, preconditions, and precedents in the field.”

Johnston and Lee have recruited more than 150 firms from all over the world whose practices embody the most innovative (and sometimes unusual) ways of applying history to their contemporary work. Many of these firms will be exhibited in a massive installation downtown in the maze of corridors and rooms in the Cultural Center.

The biennial’s artistic statement, issued by the curatorial team, expresses a sense of urgency surrounding the theme. It states, “At a time when there is too much information and not enough attention—when a general collective amnesia perpetuates a state of eternal presentness—the importance of understanding the channels through which history flows in architecture is more important than ever.” For the general public, this rhetoric could be unapproachable. How can the public share the same sense of urgency?

“The biennial does operate on different levels,” Palmer says. “Participants will be writing copy that resonates with people at Harvard and Venice and in Shanghai. That’s just a conversation that’s going to happen.” The exhibits will also be interpreted by volunteers, “guides and docents on the floor, who will be available to mediate those conversations” to the public. Palmer also emphasizes the educational opportunities for young people, including field trips; Saturday Studios that, through the Chicago Architecture Foundation, will connect teenage students with architects in an on-site classroom setting; and a teen ambassadors program. According to Palmer, more than 15,000 Chicago Public Schools students will be engaged through the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s youth programs. Yet the attempts to solve the problem of translating the CAB’s theme to the broader public becomes more difficult when the biennial is placed in a city that has a far more complex relationship with its own history of architecture and city planning.

In Chicago, “Make New History” can be problematic. Many neighborhoods still reel from the tragedies in public housing—from the early failures of modernism’s “Tower in the Park” model, which produced Cabrini-Green and the Henry Horner Homes, to the pitfalls of the Plan for Transformation. Many are still fighting for or have only recently regained public amenities such as libraries, parks, and schools after being demolished to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway in the 1960s. Many people whose homes were torn down when the city cleared public housing projects are still waiting for residences that were promised to them decades ago.

Daniel Kay Hertz, senior policy analyst at the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, notes the resonance of architectural and planning decisions in Chicago. “What’s striking is how even well-intentioned, progressive initiatives have ended up historically creating massive disruptions in the lives of people without the political power to defend themselves,” he says. “I think you hear people remembering that when the city promises to upgrade transit, parks, or retail in lower-income neighborhoods—they are met with fear of displacement.” In other words, making new history in Chicago could (and should) mean revisiting past traumas inflicted by the city’s architectural history.

The downtown exhibit will, however, address themes that relate to citizens’ relationships with the built environment. The Cultural Center show will be divided into four themes: building histories (the design of historic architecture and the stories that those buildings tell), material histories (the materials that make up buildings), image histories (how architecture is typically depicted), and most importantly, civic histories—a theme that might manifest itself in works by architects that address the city’s complex relationship with its own design.

It’s difficult to gauge how the international exhibitors might address the challenges and traumas that design and planning have posed and inflicted on cities. In the Cultural Center show, where artistic statements are difficult to grasp and exhibits will require heavy translation, how will civic histories that address Chicago’s complicated relationship with architecture manifest? Yet it’s clear that another component of the biennial is a significant attempt to refocus the conversation around the city’s architecture and infrastructure and its relationship with citizens: the establishment of neighborhood anchor sites.

The DuSable Museum of African American History is one of the biennial’s anchor sites.Credit: Olu Akintorin Jr.

The 2015 biennial was mostly located downtown (with the notable exception of an off-site program at the Stony Island Arts Bank), but this year’s CAB is different. Jack Guthman is a prominent real estate lawyer and current chairman of the CAB. His 50 years of working with architects, developers, and real estate professionals in legal procedures surrounding zoning changes, landmark designations, traffic and transportation, and more has brought him in touch with some of the most influential individuals in Chicago’s design community. Since being named chair in 2016, Guthman has made the city’s residents a major priority of CAB.

“I always talk about the two prongs of the biennial: they’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re both important,” Guthman says. “One, if we don’t put on an exposition of international import, then there’s no reason for us to be. On the other hand, this is in Chicago, funded by Chicago philanthropies, families, and corporations. We have an obligation to Chicagoans and Chicago communities to continue this enormous growth.”

In addition to facilitating the opening of the biennial alongside Expo Chicago, Guthman also began thinking about how to incorporate neighborhood museums and institutions into the overall planning for CAB. He enlisted six neighborhood museums to host local exhibits for the biennial: the DePaul Art Museum in Lincoln Park, the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, the Beverly Arts Center in Beverly, and the Hyde Park Art Center.

“It occurred to me that I had relationships with five of the six directors,” Guthman says. “I knew they are diverse, and I knew they have quality curators.”

All exhibits will be organized, curated, and executed by the local staff, something that Guthman made a priority. “Each [site] has chosen topics that should resonate,” he says. “You don’t impose. We want to come to your community and keep to your mission and vision and program.” Guthman submitted the proposal to the Chicago Community Trust, which provided $200,000 for each site.

The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture (NMPRAC) is mounting a permanent rotating exhibition that encompasses stories of its home in the Humboldt Park Stables and Receptory. According to the museum’s director, Billy Ocasio, who was also alderman of the neighborhood for 16 years, NMPRAC plans to cover the long history of diverse populations in the area.

“We have a very unique neighborhood and building that talks to architecture,” Ocasio says. “But we’re mounting an exhibition that goes beyond the architecture. It will talk about the the building, but also who lived in Humboldt Park, the lifestyle they had, their contributions and their struggles.”

Germans and Scandinavians replaced Danish and Norwegian residents in Humboldt Park during the late 19th century, and beginning in the 1950s the neighborhood became home to a thriving Puerto Rican population. Today Humboldt Park is experiencing yet another transition: rapid gentrification. According to Ocasio, all populations will be represented in the exhibit, through partnerships with the Swedish Museum, Polish Museum of America, DANK Haus German American Cultural Center, and more. These institutions will provide a connection between the vastly different racial and social groups that have occupied the neighborhood. Partner institutions will provide artifacts and photographs from each demographic at various periods in time, yet the common thread between each exhibit phase is the idea that Humboldt Park has always been a meeting place—whether for Germans or Puerto Ricans or, hopefully, for the newest wave of residents moving in. “This is a place where concepts got developed, where ideas came from,” Ocasio says. “Humboldt Park has always been a meeting place across all nationalities where they talked about their struggles, their futures.”

The DuSable Museum is taking a more specific look at Chicago’s south side through the lens of architectural photographer, critic, and now vice president of the DuSable Museum, Lee Bey. Bey’s photographs have documented the unique structures at the University of Chicago, including its hodgepodge of neo-Gothic buildings and works by modern masters like Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, as well as the surprising appearances of stark modernist structures, such as Pride Cleaners on 79th Street. At the upcoming exhibit, entitled “A Southern Exposure,” Bey’s images will continue this tradition in a manner that asks how the neighborhood, and the broader city, might go about making a new history for this area.

“There’s two narratives for the south side,” Bey says. “First, there’s absolutely nothing there. It’s bombed out, jacked up. There’s crime. Or, second, that there’s the Obama Library coming and there’s great things that are going to happen. The exhibit will address the history of the south side going forward as somewhere in between.”

While much of his photography exclusively showcases buildings, Bey’s work in “Southern Exposure” will include people—residents and passersby—as a means of elevating the architecture and the people who use it. In many ways, the exhibit is actually making new histories. “Too often, the history of the neighborhood stops when black people move in,” Bey says. “This isn’t some place that got left behind when the white people left. There is a really rich vein of architecture, and there are people who live there and who are taking care of these buildings or buying these buildings, who are loving and using these buildings.”

Though the DePaul Art Museum will display works by an international artist in the upcoming exhibition “Ângela Ferreira: Zip, Zap, and Zumbi,” museum director and chief curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm sees the DAM’s role as connecting international perspectives with local opportunities. Portuguese artist Ferreira will be reconstructing unbuilt works by architects Mies van der Rohe and Pancho Guedes as a way of unpacking issues of colonization and race in architecture. Guedes’s building was originally designed for a South African organization called Zip Zap Circus that seeks to empower postapartheid youth after decades of racism and denigration.

“We’re connecting [the work] back to Chicago by inviting local youth-empowerment groups to use the artist’s reconstructed forms for performances, classes, and meetings for students, filling these structures with locally relevant [youth] enterprises,” Widholm says. “We’re outside of downtown, but still in an affluent area. We are thinking of how we could use this platform to create space for people who are ‘on the margins.’ How do we give them visibility?”

Other neighborhood sites plan for exhibits that make clear associations with their immediate architectural and civic assets. Beyond the NMPRAC and DuSable, anchors like the Beverly Art Center are exploring their neighborhood’s unique architectural legacy on the fringes of Chicago. Its exhibit, entitled “Elevations,” will be divided into three parts: the area’s real estate history and its unique topography (Beverly is the highest elevation point in Chicago), as curated by architectural historian James Gorski; the present (contemporary architectural photography by photographer Rebecca Healy); and the future, in the form of urban planning and architectural drawings. The Hyde Park Art Center will focus its efforts on material studies: architect Amanda Williams will draw on her practice of highlighting blighted or discarded buildings to lead a seminar with Illinois Institute of Technology students that discusses reused and salvaged building materials. Their explorations will be displayed in one of HPAC’s galleries. The Art Center will also mount a large-scale installation by artists Sara Black and Raewyn Martyn that reconnects architecture’s relationships with Chicago’s former lumber industry.

Anchor sites are more than museums: they’re also works of architecture that exist as a result of communities’ efforts to take control of their abandoned infrastructure. The National Museum of Mexican Art, for example, was created as the result of an agreement between community members and the Park District that converted an old boat craft shop in Harrison Park into a vibrant arts hub that celebrates Mexican art and culture. The Roundhouse wing of the the DuSable Museum—a Daniel Burnham-designed Park District building located in Washington Park—will be reactivated after almost 80 years of dormancy, per Guthman’s arrangement with Expo. After the NMPRAC survived a major arson incident in 1992, a community group co-led the building’s restoration alongside the Park District.

The anchor sites are repurposing architectural history into case studies that demonstrate how citizens are engaging with architecture and planning by taking ownership over their built environment. Within the anchor sites, the CAB no longer becomes about ideas, but about power.

Architecture is an instrument of power,” says architect Marshall Brown, a professor at IIT and Cultural Center exhibit participant. “It is never apolitical, and I am suspicious of architecture being disengaged. . . . It doesn’t produce social conditions but reflects them.”

The curatorial team echoed this sentiment in an interview given to Curbed Chicago in April 2017. When asked about the biennial’s ability to respond to social issues of our time, Mark Lee stated, “It’s very important to understand the role of the architect in the built environment, in the sense that the role of [an architect] is [as] one of many players, and as participants. And oftentimes the role of the architect is to give form to forces that are already there. I certainly think that an architect has a position to make certain statements about these social-political issues, but it’s also a very limited one.”

As a medium architecture is magnified by its size, price tag, and lasting effect on the community in which it is built. Architecture does not inherently cause social or economic stratification, but to separate the maker from the medium means the architect bears no responsibility for the health and equity of communities. The anchor sites, however, recognize both the impact that people can have on their built environment and the historic impact that architecture has had on people. Taking the biennial outside of the Loop provides opportunities to address power: who has it, who’s willing to give it up, and what’s possible when local groups are given agency to reclaim it.

Bey sees his project, as well as the CAB’s expansion into neighborhoods outside of downtown, as an opportunity to provide quality case studies for how citizens regain an ownership stake in their built environment and work toward solutions to architectural problems, including blight. His photographs of the Auburn Lakes, for example, are more than an opportunity to depict the beauty of south-side Auburn Gresham—they tell a story of how residents worked with the Park District to restore a once-neglected natural area, eliminating a potential barrier to future development. The site hasn’t become a thriving community, but as Brown noted, even if the park’s restoration didn’t successfully lead to residential development, it reflects a neighborhood dedicated to trying to make improvements.

Recognizing the power of infrastructure necessitates that architects do more than converse with each other in the great halls of gilded buildings—it requires that power be ceded and redistributed. That recognition warrants more than docent tours and “translators” for complex ideas placed on display. Palmer’s plans for student programming will enrich the young people’s educations and spark their interest in the built world. But when students return home to their neighborhoods, what will they see?

In his earlier coverage of the 2017 CAB and its pairing with Expo, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote, “The pairing of the art and architecture shows also could displace, if only temporarily, the drumbeat of bad news about gang-related shootings.” CAB is an opportunity to put forth new narratives, allowing the residents of neighborhoods to respond to a physical environment that has historically segregated and victimized them.

The hope is that the 2017 CAB becomes, metaphorically speaking, more than a room full of Tribune Towers. It has potential to inspire residents to see their city not simply as a place. Rather, it’s a process that they can control.  v