3rd Chicago Architecture Biennial


One of the first things you see when entering the Chicago Architecture Biennial, from either entrance, is a gray land acknowledgement sign with crisp white type: “Chicago is part of the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations. Many other tribes—such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Sac, and Fox—also called this area home. . .” Such recognitions have become more visible in recent years, but this text, prepared by the American Indian Center of Chicago, functions differently within its context than on, say, the bottom of an institutional website or in the opening remarks of an academic event. The entire biennial proceeds from and revolves around its abiding message—at the north entrance, you have to walk behind the land acknowledgement to read the exhibition’s introductory wall text.

Titled “…and other such stories,” the biennial emphatically, if quietly, rejects the civic boosterism and avant-garde posturing of past editions. Both “The State of the Art of Architecture” (2015) and “Make New History” (2017) were heavy on homage and very on-script. Each reinforced, clearly and with little complication, a triumphant tourist board narrative: Chicago is the greatest city for architecture in America. This year’s artistic director, Yesomi Umolu, alongside curators Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares, chips away at some of Chicago’s, and architecture’s, foundational myths, starting with the displacement of Indigenous communities by settler colonialism. One of the biennial’s satellite venues is Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville, among the nearly fifty educational facilities in communities of color closed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose legacy is defined by this and other austerity measures, plus gun deaths and police brutality (the biennial was spawned by his administration, with the help of a cultural consultancy). The most-discussed work in the exhibition, The Killing of Harith Augustus, 2019, is an investigation by Forensic Architecture and Invisible Institute into the 2018 police killing of a local barber.

Chicago, in the curators’ telling, is being continuously made and unmade along a horizon that extends far beyond the modern high-rise. “Sitting at the crossroads of the Great Plains and the Great Lakes,” their statement begins, “Chicago’s urbanism is inextricable from the flows of people, goods, and capital—and the concurrent exploitation of bodies, labor, and nature—that have contributed to its making.” Without the description of physical geography, this statement might apply to almost any city. Which is, of course, the point.

The displays make this argument more suggestively. A run of three galleries—the so-called Chicago Rooms in the Chicago Cultural Center, the biennial’s main venue—is bracketed by two large-scale works that fill their respective walls. At one end, Maria Gaspar’s Unblinking Eyes, Watching, 2019, a high-res photograph of the concrete perimeter wall of the nearby Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the United States. At the other, Do Ho Suh’s Robin Hood Gardens, Woolmore Street, London E14 0HG, 2018/19, a hypnotizing moving image work that seamlessly combines time-lapse photography, drone footage, 3-D scanning, and photogrammetry into an impossible interior portrait of the Alison and Peter Smithson–designed housing estate on the eve of its demolition in 2017. Between them is Theaster Gates’s Landed: Gates et al., 2019, a reinterpretation of Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971. The artist displays documentation—titles, plat maps, and other legal paraphernalia—related to his property acquisitions in Chicago’s Grand Crossing, a predominantly black neighborhood where Gates has directed profits from his artmaking. Gates’s installation shares a space with Vincent Meessen’s SIISIS, 2016, which proposes, based the Situationists’ idea for a labyrinth city on a deserted island, an experimental metropolis for and by asylum seekers from the African-Eurasian supercontinent.

Careful sequences like these, and a reduced number of contributors, create a far more satisfying, and intellectually rigorous, experience than past editions. For once, the curators have made use of gaps, pauses, silences, decompression. Corridors function, for the most part, as corridors, not compromised galleries. No clear Instagram moment sticks out, either—nothing like Sou Fujimoto’s found object maquettes from 2015, or the alternative Tribune towers from the biennial’s last iteration.

Another noticeable scarcity: architects. This time around they are outnumbered by artists and less determinant spatial practitioners, which aroused palpable anxiety among some students and professionals attending the opening. At a Q and A with the curators, an audience member asked if they might have prepared the same exhibition for an art biennial—a good question undermined by an accusatory delivery. Considering how much architecture—by virtue of its historical constitution and ongoing entanglement with power—has neglected, it comes as no surprise that architects are incapable of telling the whole story. There are other ways of caring for and configuring land, other constellations of agents through which spatial needs and desires can be fulfilled (for one, the biennial leadership could start by dumping its founding sponsor, British Petroleum). Some of the most fascinating contributions to the exhibition are from collectives active in securing the right to housing, like Usina-CTAH in São Paulo and the international consultancy network Urban Front, which is working with activists to develop affordable housing on Barcelona’s trade fair complex. Sweet Water Foundation, a community land trust, is doing similar work in Chicago’s South Side. Such practices are often characterized as bottom-up, but in the presentations here, their work appears more lateral than vertical.

The distribution of contributors is meaningful, but the dearth is less some strident antidisciplinary polemic or prioritization of artists above designers than the inevitable result of the epistemological shift that undergirds the biennial. If you have as a priority—as this exhibition does—acknowledging indigenous cosmologies, challenging anthropogenic dominance, and highlighting struggles against dispossession and displacement, you’re unlikely to find many representatives within a Renaissance invention whose calling card remains, by and large, rationalism.