An Activist Architecture Stirs in Chicago

The Atlantic’s CityLab Ι Oct. 9. 2019

Perhaps the most compelling installation in this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial doesn’t feature a single architectural model, rendering, or image of buildings (or of anything else).

It’s a series of short blocks of text, probing the Chicago police’s killing of Harith Augustus on the city’s South Side in July of last year. The text, white and hung in a matte black gallery, details Augustus’s killing after a police stop and its aftermath across several timescales.

Assembled by the London-based investigative designers Forensic Architecture and a Chicago investigative journalism nonprofit, the Invisible Institute, this installation does not show video reports reconstructing the incident. Instead, it points to where visitors can find those, on Forensic Architecture’s website and at the headquarters of the Invisible Institute. (Warning: the videos are disturbing.) This is to spare visitors yet more imagery of an African-American man being killed by police, and to avoid flattening Augustus’s life and legacy to its violent end.

At a press conference after Augustus’s killing, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson explained the shooting by saying that “the decision to use lethal force is made in a split second.” The Forensic Architecture and Invisible Institute investigation explodes this split-second moment, defeating the idea that it’s an indivisible amount of time where measured action and reaction aren’t applicable. In architectural terms, the video reports are the equivalent of cross-section drawings, peering into a moment to uncover the spatial relationships that defined a set of events.

Forensic Architecture is a research group that, as its name suggests, combines forensic techniques with spatial analysis to reconstruct the scenes of human-rights violations and environmental abuses. Housed at Goldsmiths, University of London, it has mapped torture and detention sites in Africa, assessed culpability for faulty fire-emergency measures in factory buildings in India, and tracked the disappearance of dissident students in Mexico. Its investigation into the origins of tear-gas canisters and bullets used against civilians contributed to the resignation of Warren Kanders from the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art (Kanders owns companies that make those weapons).

Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture, says its mission is to “invert the forensic gaze” by contesting official narratives. “We are investigating the investigators,” he says.

So what does this investigation have to do with architecture?

In situations where investigators don’t have a single omnipotent video or data set explaining how an event unfolded, the best option is to use contemporary media-rich environments to create a composite model. “We need to compose the relation between multiple videos, and the only way to do it is by building an urban model, and the model becomes the means to synchronize, locate, and map the relationship between the videos,” says Weizman. “Our relationship to images is one of navigation. We move in real time, inside the space we’ve constructed, and capture the different perspectives.”

Forensic Architecture’s digital models of the scene of Augustus’s killing on 71st Street clear out visual noise and abstract the figures involved, clarifying spatial relationships. The isolation of various points of view in this way suggests that police escalated the situation.

The joint investigation into the killing of Harith Augustus challenges the official narrative, asking grave and sadly recurring questions about Chicago’s police. This willingness to engage antagonistically with state actors using the tools and language of design is perhaps the most concrete and striking example of the biennial’s search for new ideological foundations for architecture.There’s a “recurring pattern,” says Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute, “of police behaving in ways that manufacture and produce the split second, and then respond within the split-second, and then [get] a pass under the law because we give such deference to police officers acting in the split second. We want to disrupt that paradigm.”

The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on this case. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which performs investigations of police misconduct, also declined to comment on the culpability of officers involved in the incident, citing an ongoing investigation into the matter.

Now in its third edition, which is titled …And Other Such Stories and runs through January 5, 2020, the Chicago Architecture Biennial brings 50-plus teams of designers and artists to Chicago for an architecture festival spread across the entire city, with most exhibits held at the ornate Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop, and others at satellite neighborhood sites. Led by Artistic Director Yesomi Umolu and curators Paulo Tavares and Sepake Angiama, this biennial is the best one yet.

The truth-to-power stance of Weizman and Kalven fits into a curatorial outlook that is anti-racist, occasionally anti-technocratic, and firmly anti-colonial. Here, the value of “politicizing design” is never debated. It’s understood that design and architecture are political tools, and the biennial offers up revisionist histories that have been marginalized by the power structure that has defined the built environment everywhere (and that many other design exhibitions still venerate).The biennial points toward an architecture that is built by and for an intersectional working-class movement. It doesn’t speculate on the specific forms of such an architecture; the implication is that, first, we must usher in political and economic reforms that will empower the clients who can call this architecture into the world. The result is that there are a lot of bold ideas to catalyze design, but not many actual designs for architectural spaces.

The festival takes a long view of Chicago’s history, with the genocide of Native Americans as a consistent undercurrent. At one of the Cultural Center’s main entrances, a land acknowledgment highlights this history as soon as visitors enter the building.

Decolonizing the Chicago Cultural Center is a subtle and artful reframing of the gallery spaces, which might otherwise appear to be a contextless “neutral container” for the work. Glass panels call out the exploitative history of the very materials that make up the Cultural Center, and the ways the building was used to obscure the racist history of American westward expansion. (The installation is by the American Indian Center and the Settler Colonial City Project; the panels were designed by Chicago’s Future Firm.)

“If they took the longest duration [of history], we took the shortest one,” Weizman notes.

The event recognizes that to meet the challenges of the future (climate change, widening inequality, an atrophied public realm), architecture can no longer serve the traditional development apparatus that, in many cases, has been complicit in these fissures. In its search for a new social contract, it’s investigating other creative mediums, design traditions, narratives, and communities. In Chicago, these are found in unexpected places with unexpected pairings.

At a Modernist knockout of a local elementary school, shuttered in 2013 in the largest mass public-school closure in any major American city, urban designer Paola Aguirre worked with architects and designers from across the world to animate its grounds, hallways, and classrooms with installations, many of which come with a long tail of community programming. Like Forensic Architecture, this international set of designers is here to make a difference, not to parachute in for champagne toasts.

But with its lack of purely architectural representation, there’s the sense that architecture has perhaps failed as a discipline. The emphasis on research, narrative, and history could prompt an architect to ask: So what can I do at my desk right now?

The Forensic Architecture and Invisible Institute collaboration is perhaps the most radically revisionist answer the show offers. It demonstrates levels of agency that many architects—frustrated by having to work within the confines of what their clients, such as developers and healthcare executives, will pay for—say they crave. Not coincidentally, FA works out of a university, and with an alternative network of NGO clients. Socially and politically driven architects can’t all try to recreate that model if they want to pay their rent. However, they can advocate for bringing these values closer to the mainstream, either at the office or at the ballot box.

The sense of crisis of the past few years has generated prompts to re-conceptualize the public realm and the built environment—first among these, the possibility of a Green New Deal. But in the meantime, the Chicago biennial has some very simple advice for architects: Use your skills to start solving the problems that need to be solved in your own backyard. That might not even call for a building.