Re-Shaped by Crisis, an “Anti-Biennial” Reimagines Chicago

Oct. 2, 2021 Ι Bloomberg CityLab 

The 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial was held, like its two predecessors, in the Chicago Cultural Center, a sumptuous late-19th-century meeting hall in the downtown Loop. Two years later, rocked by Covid-19 and local protests against police violence, North America’s largest architecture and design show finds itself in very different surroundings.

Instead of having international design elites gather in the Cultural Center’s ornate Beaux Arts galleries for months of parties, chatter and provocative ideas, the 2021 CAB, which opened on Sept. 17 and will run until Dec. 18, is centered on more than a dozen site-specific installations mostly located in struggling neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. It’s a world away from where architects usually set up to kick the tires on experimental design.

Biennial attendees might find themselves, for example, in places like a school-run food forest in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale. There, Antonio Torres and Michael Loverich, partners in the design firm The Bittertang Farm, have erected otherworldly wooden pillars, seeded with fungi spores in the hopes of growing mushrooms. Eventually, the tree canopy overhead will intertwine with these carved totems, coalescing into a chaotic and generative sanctuary of biomass. Unlike most biennial flash-in-the-pans, the installation is meant to be permanent.

“We’re going to see what kinds of things actually begin to emerge out of these natural substrates,” Torres says.

The theme of this biennial is “The Available City,” a long-running inquiry by artistic director David Brown into unleashing design imaginations to re-envision Chicago’s approximately 13,000 vacant lots. By placing installations on these empty or under-utilized spaces, Brown pushes the international design exhibition circuit toward making a material improvement in places that had previously only been offered charitable worry and rousing discourse.

This biennial directly addresses why massive swaths of the South and West Side are so available. “Let’s be clear,” says contributor Paola Aguirre of Chicago-based Borderless Studio, “The ‘Available City’ only exists because of racism. The only reason we have all this vacant land is because resources have been continually extracted from our Black and Brown communities for decades.”

The 2019 biennial also displayed an activist bent, critiquing the ways that architecture is used to uphold and reinforce systemic inequality and oppression, and it moved a few exhibitions into the city with grassroots partners. This trajectory was hastened in 2021 by the pandemic’s need for outdoor social space. But the 2021 CAB’s flight from the galleries downtown seems to have also been driven by the uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. It became clear that the only morally responsible place to put this displaced activist energy was in neighborhoods where residents might justifiably fear being the next George Floyd.

By pairing designers with community organizations and letting them lead the way with long tails of public programming, Brown is positing Black Chicago as the relevant venue for architectural imagination. With its community gardens, building-scale murals and pavilions, the mission of this biennial is to “engage designers, but to introduce that they are working in collaboration with these organizations, and that there is an intent [to be] a lasting value that’s introduced through the spaces being created,” he says.

Brown teaches architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago alongside Torres. And selecting the cheerily unsettling biomorphic forms of The Bittertang Farm to work with a community garden was a canny choice, enhanced by Bittertang’s long-running relationship with CCA Academy, which established the Lawndale food forest in 2017.

For their installation, called “Living Room,” Torres and Loverich worked with CCA students and faculty to establish an Edenic clearing formed by a ring of chainsaw-carved wooden loops stacked high on columns. These encircle polished granite and marble slabs that provide a surreal juxtaposition of textures. Willow branches are twisted into elongated tear-shaped scaffolds; live willows will eventually assume this form and grow into shapes of their own. It’s a peaceful space, self-assured and a little bit weird.

CCA’s food forest uses permaculture — an agricultural philosophy prescribing planting and maintenance regimes that rely on the resilience of wild ecosystems instead of energy-intensive industrial farming techniques — as its guiding principle. “Living Room” is surrounded by three-year-old fruit trees, just now beginning to yield food. “The whole concept of permaculture is that we don’t always have to intervene in the process,” says Myra Sampson, principal and chief education officer of CCA. “Antonio and Michael bought into that concept and what they planted complements everything that we’re doing and enhances it.”

Torres describes “Living Room” as “an infrastructure substrate for other things to take on as the project evolves over time,” which is something of a metaphor for how this edition of the biennial is supposed to work. With community leaders determining the vision, designers set up the material framework for collaboration, getting more robust, diverse and powerful. Located in a place bled by austerity that hasn’t reduced its capacity for experiment and caprice, the installation also demonstrates that buildings conceived with an explicit mandate for social justice don’t have to be dour or minimalist. It’s good enough to ask: Why wait for a biennial do to this sort of thing?

“This is a no-brainer,” says Torres. “[Neighbors] see the value of the work within their immediate environment. You have to do this kind of work in these neighborhoods.”

Architecture biennials are famous for addressing architecture as an autonomous process of cultural production, unmoored from moral or fiduciary responsibility; they often exist to maximize architects’ creative freedom and sense of self-worth. This biennial, in contrast, uses Chicago’s legendary history of racial and class conflict as a historical text and a prompt to build. But Soil Lab, the installation most focused on making, has little formal presence. Assembled by a collective of Danish and Irish architect-designers, the project consists of wood frames clinching rammed earth walls and bricks together, a table for art-making, a kiln under a canopy, and a few soil samples on a shelf.

Instead of a building, Soil Lab is more like an open-air community construction site on a formerly vacant lot. Working with a constellation of local groups, the installation invites residents to participate directly in the rebuilding of their disinvested West Side neighborhood. Soil Lab members Eibhlín Ní Chathasaigh and James Martin arrived in North Lawndale in July and introduced neighbors to the process of making ceramics and bricks (a storied Chicago tradition). They brought rammed earth demonstrations and clay samples, “so people could touch and feel and have a conversation about soil,” says Chathasaigh.

After the biennial, the installation will be disassembled and “rehoused in another form” in the area, says Chathasaigh, but the group hopes that Soil Lab leaves an enduring legacy. “The material is secondary,” she says. “For the community to continue to build with the skills they now have is more important than our structures being permanent.”

In the Pilsen neighborhood, Studio Ossidiana’s installation, “The Garden Table,” will be entirely permanent, reinforcing the biennial’s strongest moments of connection and centered in the nexus of food, play and communal joy. Grafted onto the El Paseo Community Garden on a former railyard brownfield site, the installation consists of a modular piece of infrastructure that serves as the beginnings of a community center. Pale pink concrete blocks are cast into playful cubes, triangles and circles; it’s a game board, an outdoor kitchen, a table and a playscape. As Paula Acevedo, community garden co-director, explained how it works, her son clambered through its tunnels and on its steps, providing proof of concept. From the grill grate, you can reach just a few inches to pull herbs off of planted beds while you cook.

Because Pilsen, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, faces intense gentrification pressure, “The Garden Table” may serve its purpose best as a venue to build solidarity among existing residents. As such, Acevedo is working with the Chicago Infrastructure Re-Use Network led by the Trust for Public Land and others to establish models for how large-scale community-managed land can function.

“How do you keep power within the community, instead of people bringing cool things into neighborhoods that completely change them and uproot neighborhoods?” she says. She’s looking for structures and management regimes that are “rooted in community, rather than money.” Community gardens are often thought of as “an amenity, but we really think it should be normalized,” Acevedo says. “It shouldn’t have to displace people.”

This reckoning with the fact that the people who most need architectural services are seldom the people that can afford to pay for them isn’t new. Architecture moves cyclically across a spectrum, with facilitating social welfare as the overriding value on one end, and navel-gazing obsessions with formal extravagance on the other. The last turn of critical activism happened in the 1960s, with the establishment of community design centers to service communities cut off from private capital’s good graces.

Without connections to systems that run on democratic consent instead of privately marshaled investment dollars, architects’ visions are frequently weaponized into the tip of a spear used to mutilate and disassemble. That’s a process detailed in several of this biennial’s gallery exhibitions, especially in “Up from the Past: Housing as Reparations on Chicago’s South Side” by Isabel Strauss of Riff Studio. Strauss’s collection of archival photos and drawings on display at the Graham Foundation of the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood implicates the titan of Chicago Modernism, Mies Van Der Rohe. The architect designed the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, which stamped out acres of homes and businesses in one of the few neighborhoods available to Black Chicagoans. Among them was the Mecca Flats apartment building, a cradle of the city’s Black cultural renaissance that was razed in 1952.

Drawings of Mies’ inscrutable International Style plan show rectilinear bars self-replicating like computer chips on a circuit board. In photos, the exhibit confronts the aftermath: tumbledown brick piles, widespread vacancy, a landmark Louis Sullivan-designed church ablaze. These architectural interventions and so many others, completely central to the city’s identity, arose from an external coalition that saw the South Side as a blank slate for their sectarian dreams and ambitions, without any mandate from the community that lived there. It is, in fact, a big part of why we’ve arrived at “The Available City’s” pervasive vacancy in the first place.