Chicago Announces Architecture Biennial


Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel has announced plans for a new international architecture exhibition which he hopes will attract cultural tourists and situate the city at the forefront of contemporary architecture and design.

The first Chicago Architecture Biennial (Oct. 5, 2015-Jan. 3, 2016) will take place in the Chicago Cultural Center, an 1897 Beaux-Arts gem in the heart of downtown. The exhibition will be co-curated by Sarah Herda, director of Chicago’s Graham Foundation, and Joseph Grima, former editor in chief of the Italian Domus magazine. The curatorial duo has been developing the project for the past two years, and has assembled a powerhouse advisory board comprising figures such as the architects Elizabeth Diller, David Adjaye, Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang, curator/critic Hans Ulrich Obrist and Pritzker Prize jury chair Peter Palumbo.

The new biennial is one of the major initiatives in Emanuel’s new cultural plan, which has been in the works since he took office three years ago. “Architecture is an incredible asset for Chicago, but it’s also an underutilized asset,” Herda told A.i.A. in a phone interview. “Chicago is the most important city for architecture in the country and it’s astonishing that such an event hasn’t taken place yet in North America. It seems like a great opportunity and an important time to convene the world.”

Chicago has a rich architectural and urban heritage, extending from the Columbian exhibition in 1893 (which, in part, inspired the establishment of the Venice Art Biennale), through the modern architecture of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, to more contemporary examples like the renovation of Millennium Park and Rem Koolhaas’s Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Chicago has secured a $2.5 million grant from British Petrol-similar to the capital budget of the Venice Art Biennale—and city officials are planning to raise at least $1.5 million more from the private sector. Although Chicago enjoys a head start, at least in terms of budget and institutional support, it may struggle tom compete with other architecture biennials in Shenzhen, São Paolo, Istanbul and, first and foremost, Venice, which has established a loyal following and international reputation.

Although the biennial is planned to take place in odd-numbered years in order to avoid clashing with Venice, it remains to be seen whether it will attract the same impressive level of participants and whether the fall-and-winter timing will prove attractive. Herda is well aware of the inevitable comparisons with the roundup in la Serenissima. “Venice is an incredible institution with incredible history and legacy, yet there’s room for such an event in North America. People speak about biennale fatigue, but how could we be tired of them when there’s none here?”

David van der Leer, executive director of New York’s Van Alen Institute, believes the biennale is a great opportunity. “Even though around the world we could safely speak of biennial madness, I welcome all attention we can generate for architecture and design in the U.S.—a country that could see a tremendous increase in well-being and productivity as a result of better-designed cities and buildings.”

“The curators should create a project that truly connects design to society and promote its possibilities among new and surprising audiences in Chicago, around the U.S. and beyond,” he added.

Unlike the Venice Architecture Biennale, whose 14th edition is now on view, the Chicago biennial will be based on one central exhibition, without any national pavilions. However, the curators are planning to extend the event into other sites in city, including Millennium Park and the South Side, where Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates will create an installation. There are also plans for a legacy project that will remain standing after the conclusion of the event.

Herda is convicted that the biennial will become a staple of Chicago’s culture: “The mayor wants it to become a Chicago institution,” he told A.i.A. The theme and a full list of participants will be announced in the coming months.