The Chicago Architecture Biennial might want to consider adding a special award category.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial might want to consider adding a special award category. Credit: Paul John Higgins

Yo! Summer is here! The river is flowing, the beaches are glowing, the bullets are flying, and the city is at its annual peak of fabulousness! Everything looks great—including the plans for two major new arts initiatives the city recently rolled out.

The first one we heard about is the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Offspring of a partnership between the city and the Graham Foundation, it bounded onto the scene late last month, set inaugural dates of October 1, 2015, to January 3, 2016, and proclaimed itself “the largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America.”

This is an inspired idea. As many folks tried to tell those out-of-town consultants who wrote the Chicago Cultural Plan (which, by the way, proposed some sort of international festival)—the city’s most distinctive cultural asset is its spectacular, ever-evolving architecture and its history as the birthplace of architectural modernism.

The plan is to invite architects, designers, and critics from all over the world to contribute large-scale exhibits and participate in cutting-edge seminars and programs. The primary exhibit venue will be the gorgeously nonmodern Chicago Cultural Center, but there will also be (the now requisite) installations in the neighborhoods. Coartistic directors have already been appointed: they are Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda and architect and former Domus magazine editor Joseph Grima.

The fact that Grima was cocurator of an inaugural design biennial in Istanbul in 2012 raises the question whether we might be coming late to the biennial party. But the organizers have thought about the competition: the odd-year launch was chosen so as not to compete directly with the well-established Venice Architecture Biennale, which runs on even years and isn’t likely to be shaking in its handsome Italian boots.

According to the announcement, the Chicago biennial will be privately funded (BP has signed on with a lead gift of $2.5 million), and Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasts that it will “showcase the city’s widely respected architectural heritage” while promoting our “thriving creative sectors” and, of course, delivering an experience to the neighborhoods.

The first annual Chicago Chutzpah Award could be bestowed at the architecture biennial, followed by a little excursion to the Streeterville clearing where Prentice so recently stood.

Never mind that the mayor just let Northwestern University tear down one of the most unique 20th-century buildings in the world, over the objections of 80 of those same renowned international architects he’s hoping to draw here for the 2015 event.

They all signed a letter begging him to save Bertrand Goldberg’s jet-age Prentice Women’s Hospital, with its “floating” concrete cylinders and myriad oval “eyes.” In spite of their protests, it bit the dust.

But that was last year. Rahm’s ready to let bygones be bygones.

For which he ought to get the first annual Chicago Chutzpah Award. It could be bestowed at the biennial, followed by a little excursion for the architects to the Streeterville clearing where Prentice so recently stood.

Still, this event could be a winner. Unlike the ill-conceived Chicago Fire Festival, which even in its current revised form casts Chicagoans as victims, the biennial seeks to showcase a real strength. At worst, it’ll turn out to be a less-than-scintillating three-month exhibit at the Cultural Center, mostly seen by locals. At best, it’ll build on the city’s glory.

The second event, announced last week, is practically upon us. The first annual Fifth Star Awards will be produced by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and will recognize “exemplary” Chicago artists and arts institutions working in art, architecture, dance, music, and theater. It’s set to debut September 17 with a free program at Millennium Park, and looks to be our own version of the Kennedy Center Honors.

September 17 just happens to be the evening before the VIP opening of the Expo Chicago contemporary and modern art fair, which is hoping to pull in one-percenters from around the globe—or at least from places like Minneapolis and Milwaukee. So the free program with a “diverse lineup of performances” at the Pritzker Pavilion, touted by the mayor as “a celebration of Chicago, for Chicago,” could turn out to be an Expo kickoff, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Fifth Star is a reference to the Chicago flag, which sports four red stars between two blue stripes on a white background. A city spokesman says the flag will still have just four stars, though the city will give out five awards. Winners will be chosen by DCASE and “select members” of the Cultural Advisory Council, a board of some two dozen mayoral appointees.

The criteria: “artists whose work has forever changed and enhanced our city; artists who have made Chicago their muse, their stage, and their canvas; artists who have been our ambassadors, bringing Chicago to the rest of the world, and the world to Chicago; and artists who have inspired and mentored new generations of artists who call Chicago home.”

The Kennedy Center invites public nominations for its awards, and though public input on potential Fifth Star winners hasn’t been solicited, it would be interesting. It might even influence the choices. But the announcement is imminent: we’d need to get on it, before the decisions are handed to us.

Who would you pick from Chicago’s rich stew of talent and achievement?

Only one category is a no-brainer. That would be architecture. Posthumously, to Bertrand Goldberg.