Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic director David Brown Credit: Nathan Keay

How, in the throes of a raging pandemic, do you plan and produce an international event?

That’s the question that the board of the Chicago Architecture Biennial was facing a year ago. Kudos to them for not simply 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 runs through December 18.

But like so much else now, it’s different from what came before.

The biennial launched in 2015. It was an idea that came out of Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 Cultural Plan, primarily intended to build Chicago’s reputation as a global city and increase its tourism business. That first edition ran for three months, had 120 architectural firms from all over the world participating, and reported more than a half-million visitors, mostly at its main venue, the Chicago Cultural Center, where exhibits took over the entire building.

What we have this year is less wonky museum piece and more Chicago block party. Or, as CAB put it: “a new approach to the biennial model, bridging from an exhibition format to a deeper engagement with the local community.”

Translation: Architects and designers from all over have been paired with neighborhood groups to create “collective spaces,” mostly in the vacant lots that are spread across the west and south sides of the city.

“The Available City” is an ongoing research project of UIC professor and 2021 biennial artistic director David Brown, who’s been working on it for more than a decade. An examination of what can be done with Chicago’s huge inventory of more than 10,000 city-owned vacant lots, it was a ready-made theme for an event staring down quarantines, closed borders, and capacity restrictions. Brown says the fact that it’s “about outdoor spaces” was a major advantage.  

Brown says the central programming for this year’s event consists of 15 commissioned projects on 12 sites—everything from a play lot and a stand of trees, to murals and meeting spaces. Along with these commissioned works, there are dozens of programs presented by “partner” organizations, multiple online panels and events, and two exhibition venues, the Bronzeville Artist Lofts and the Graham Foundation. Even in this COVID-era edition, on a budget that CAB director Rachel Kaplan says has dropped from about $4 million to $1.8 million, there are more than 80 contributors and over 100 cultural partners. It’s still big, unwieldy, and entirely free; check the biennial website for the full listing.  

Travel and capacity restrictions aren’t the only issues CAB’s had to contend with. Brown says they were caught off guard by some things that “weren’t on the radar” in the beginning: supply shortages, skyrocketing construction costs, and how hard it was this summer to find fabricators. As a result, some projects are still in process: an orientation center at the Cultural Center, for example, wasn’t yet open last week.

One commissioned group, In c/o Black Women, recently withdrew, citing their reasons in an open letter. Their plan had been to build a gathering space and skate facility near the site of a historic, demolished CTA station. But, they wrote, “across a planning process spanning 6 months,” problems of “over-promising and under-delivering” and “entitlement to Black women’s labor without proper compensation from municipal agencies and arts and culture institutions, including CAB became the norm.”

In c/o Black Women concluded that “Chicago Architecture Biennial is not creating community-led spaces or relationships that will last beyond the performance of their exhibition.”

Brown says the withdrawal was unfortunate. “It’s a tight time frame and the construction issues I mentioned presented hurdles.” But he adds, “I can understand the frustrations, things did take more time than was anticipated. And I respect their decision. I thought there was a good overlap with what they’re interested in and ‘The Available City,’ in terms of my research, and I told them I had interest in working with them at some point in the future.”

According to its official statements, the 2021 pivot “has required CAB to consider new ways of engaging with local and global audiences that will likely impact our model moving forward.” Kaplan, who’s been with CAB since 2014 and was promoted to the director’s job in March, says this means they’re doing more digital programming.

But does it also mean that the biennial will be this kind of more local, hands-on event going forward?

“The biennial always starts by looking at Chicago,” Kaplan says, “but it’s always going to branch out into a global dialogue. At its core, it’s an international platform.”