Across the city’s neighborhoods, Chicago Architecture Biennial settles in for a few months

By Rick Kogan

CHICAGO — One slogan of our city is “urbs in horto,” a Latin phrase meaning “city in a garden.” There it is on the official city seal, created a few months after Chicago became a city on March 4, 1837, when something in the neighborhood of four thousand people lived here.

I doubt if any of the 2,746,388 people who live here now (according to the 2020 census) might warm to that slogan. The city is now too complex, too big and many of its neighborhoods too beleaguered and disenfranchised for such easy and upbeat mottos.

David Brown arrived in Chicago in 2004. Born and raised in Nashville, he came here after teaching for some years at Rice University in Houston. He came here to work at the University of Illinois Chicago where he is now a professor at its School of Architecture.

“I was surprised by the density of the city, how close buildings were to one another,” he told me. “I was also surprised by the number of vacant lots here. I did not expect so many vacancies.”

Those vacancies, vacant lots owned by the city, then numbered some 15,000 (now around 10,000) and inspired Brown to create a project called “The Available City” that has become the guiding force for Brown, who has long been exploring with energy and vision — and a few frustrations — how these vacant lots might be transformed into usable public spaces, might enrich and redefine the city

As the artistic director of this year’s fourth Chicago Architectural Biennial, the global architecture festival, which formally begins Sept. 17 and continues through Dec. 18, Brown is proud that his “The Available City” is the theme of this year’s event.

The Chicago Architectural Biennial calls itself “the largest exhibition of contemporary architecture, art, and design in North America” and its previous editions here have been greeted enthusiastically by many, including my former colleague, the Tribune’s former architecture critic Blair Kamin.

He wrote of that the inaugural CAB in 2015, in which Brown and his “The Available City” modestly participated, “added a new jewel to the city’s architectural crown and articulated a vision for the future that pointed the field beyond ‘look-at-me’ icon-wannabe design. From its splendid Beaux Arts headquarters at the Chicago Cultural Center, which showcased work by more than 100 designers from around the world, to its South Side outpost, where artist Theaster Gates turned a once-decrepit, neoclassical bank into an arts and cultural center, the biennial provoked thought and controversy with its declaration that design has a role to play in addressing such pressing contemporary issues as housing shortages, climate change and racial polarization.”

In 2017 he wrote that the “CAB was thick with strong ideas. … Like the first show, it takes the temperature of its time in fascinating ways … featuring work by more than 140 designers from over 20 countries.”

And in 2019 he called its third edition “a provocative, often-powerful exhibition of contemporary architecture and design that is anything but a fluffy, style-obsessed art show.”

You, of course, will be the judge of this year’s Biennial. More than 80 contributors from more than 18 countries will be involved; you will be introduced to such local organizations as Borderless Studio, Englewood Nature Trail and ProjectHOOD; sample online activities, such as conversation with international architects; learn of guided tours, lectures and on and on.

It’s a lot of take in but it is also make one optimistic about the city’s future.

While previous editions of the biennial made spectacular use of the Chicago Cultural Center as a stage to showcase models, drawings and installations by architects, designers and artists, this year’s festival will mostly take place across the city, in such neighborhoods as North Lawndale, Woodlawn, Bronzeville, Pilsen, South Loop, the Loop and Edgewater. There, teams will participate in hands-on, community-driven design projects. Beyond vacant lots (many of which are in use as gardens and small farms), there will be work taking place in shuttered public schools and storefronts.

Brown lives near the UIC campus and is understandably busy, but he has time to speak enthusiastically of his ongoing relationships with community groups and of his hopes, one of which is that this biennial will address the need to rethink other aspects of urban life such as health, sustainability, equity and racial justice.

“This is a neighborhood-centric format,” he says. “Yes, it is an organizational challenge, but it is worth every minute.”

The events are free to the public. Previous Biennials have drawn more than half a million people a year, according to city estimates. Who knows how many might attend this year? Those who do will likely see neighborhoods they have not seen before, hear ideas new and hopeful, and come to understand where the city has been and where it might be going.

The Chicago Architectural Biennial runs Sept. 17 to Dec. 18. The 2021 edition “The Available City” is at various Chicago sites and online; free, more at chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org


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