A/D/O by MINI | Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019

Journal

Architecture

Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019

The biennial's third edition uses marginalized voices to help the architecture profession better understand perpetual issues, rather than patting it on the back for attempting to solve them.

At the top of the grand flight of stairs inside the Washington Street entrance of the Chicago Cultural Center is a land acknowledgement statement, written by the American Indian Center of Chicago. The large text informs visitors that the city is the “traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: The Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi Nations”, was once home to many other tribes, and currently has the third-largest urban population of Native Americans in the United States. Land acknowledgement, a sign of respect towards Indigenous peoples and their territories, is becoming an increasingly popular practice at public events across North America.

This sets the tone for the third Chicago Architecture Biennial, which uses the Cultural Center – a former public library building – as its principal venue. Titled ...and other such stories, the exhibition is curated by artistic director Yesomi Umolu, along with Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares, who have used the city’s history as a diverse and ever-changing community as a jump-off point for their explorations.

Visitors to the biennial are met by a land acknowledgement statement. Photo by Kendall Mccaugherty

Starting with the center’s Beaux-Arts building itself, more notices have been placed throughout its spaces to inform visitors about the darker and often overlooked side of its history, as part of the Decolonizing the Chicago Cultural Center project. Some of the signage refers to the exploited labor used to construct the building, while other plaques point to its materials – like mahogany doors and Carrara marble surfaces – obtained via colonialism. In the ornate Yates Gallery, giant lettering applied to the windows facing Millennium Park and Lake Michigan beyond reads “You are looking at unceded land” – referring to the landfill area east of Michigan Avenue, which did not exist when the Three Fires Confederacy signed the Treaty of Chicago 1833 and ceded their homeland to the US government.

Instances of "settler colonialism" are highlighted around the Cultural Center. Photo by Cory DeWald

The word “indigenous” appears multiple times throughout the exhibition – a welcome change from the previous biennial, where the most noticeable recurring theme was Mies van der Rohe (yet without any explanation of who the modernist architect was, or why he was important). This year’s showcase is noticeably more sparse than in 2017, but by highlighting and commissioning projects by Indigenous artists and designers, rather than the same architects that appear at many of these myriad global events, the curators have brought to light work that is fresh and unexpected. 

Examples of such designers are Joar Nango of the Nordic Sámi people, who has created a sculpture made from halibut stomachs stretched across wood, onto which video is projected to form a reinterpretation of a “window”. Artist and choreographer Tanya Lukin Linklater worked with architect Tiffany Shaw-Collinge on a small pavilion based on temporary Alutiiq architecture from southern Alaska. The circular space, formed by repeated laminated-ash beams, will host Indigenous performances.

Commissions for the biennial include Indigenous Geometries (right). Photo by Kendall McCaugherty

Another aspect of colonialism highlighted in the biennial is the extraction of resources (linking back to those mahogany doors). South America is the subject of a thorough investigation, conducted by the Somatic Collaborative team led by Felipe Correa, into how the continent’s cities developed around commodities ranging from water to gold. London-based Territorial Agency’s research delves into the influence of North American oil fields on global economics and environmentalism, and architecture’s role in reshaping the associated infrastructure as our reliance on the fuel declines.

On a much smaller and local scale, Walter J Hood has created a trio of sculptures using wood felled from the Jackson and Washington parks in Chicago’s South Side – the former where the Obama Presidential Library is planned to be constructed. The tree-like objects, also named after the three aforementioned presidents, are installed in a courtyard to represent supplanted histories.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project is one of the most powerful on show. Photo by Kendall McCaugherty

One of the most powerful installations at the biennial is The Gun Violence Memorial Project, created by Mass Design Group and several partners. Four greenhouse-like volumes are lined with shelves shaped like open-sided bricks behind the transparent walls. Some of these cuboids are marked with the names, and years of birth and death, of gun-violence victims, and filled with items donated by their loved ones. Photographs, diaries, mementos and children’s toys provide a deeply personal and emotional insight into those who have died.

Just as compelling is Forensic Architecture and Invisible Institute’s examination of the 2018 police shooting of Harith Augustus in Chicago’s South Shore, which uncovered evidence that police withheld information about the case from the public. The visual material created during the project was intentionally removed from the exhibition (but can still be viewed on the Forensic Architecture website), leaving a black room intended to serve as a space “for important discussions about police violence and the politics of representation”.

Projects involving Palestine include Refugee Heritage. Photo by Kendall McCaugherty

Scattered through the biennial’s various exhibition spaces, which are mostly grouped by theme, are several projects connected to the Palestinian state. The Refugee Heritage project by the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency presents lightbox-mounted photographs of Dheisheh refugee camp, established in 1949, and forms part of a discussion about the implications of nominating the area to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Meanwhile, an installation of 50 “digital flowers” represents the same number of villages in the region undergoing restoration by architectural conservation center RIWAQ, and a seed library intends to preserve the land’s threatened natural flora.

Theaster Gates is presenting documents from his property acquisitions. Photo by Kendall McCaugherty

Another topic picked out by the curatorial team is regeneration. A long corridor is dedicated to revitalization plans for nearby city Detroit, which has suffered continuing population decrease since industrial decline in the 1970s. A clip of Do Ho Suh’s film documenting the final days of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in East London, which controversially began demolition in 2017 to make way for private development, is played on loop in another gallery.

Local artist Theaster Gates has displayed the land deeds and legal documents for over 35 properties he has acquired in Black communities across three cities. He has turned many of these sites into community spaces and creative hubs, demonstrating “potential political power in seemingly under-resourced communities”. Racial integration versus segregation is tackled by Center for Spatial Research’s project Homophily: The Urban History of an Algorithm, which uses graphics and data visualizations to demonstrate “the tendency for friendships to form between people ‘of the same kind’” in urban environments.

The biennial also includes live performances. Photo by Alexandra Pirici

What this biennial does differently to other events of its kind is ask architects, and the wider industry, to acknowledge and more deeply understand today’s issues before simply claiming, and presenting ways, to be able to solve them. By assessing the state of the world through past and perpetual grievances, and using these as lessons for the future direction of practice, the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial might actually succeed in altering professional discourse.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is free and open to the public September 19, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

Text by Dan Howarth.

Images courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial. Main photograph by Francis Son.