Exhibition Review: Chicago Architecture Biennial

An installation by MASS Design Group with Hank Willis Thomas displays the personal belongings from victims of gun violence. Photo by Kendall McCaugherty

“This Marble Was Quarried and Assembled by Exploited Labor.” So reads a sign within steps of the entrance to the Chicago Cultural Center and the third installment of the city’s Architecture Biennial. This sobering acknowledgement is one of several—each strategically placed throughout the four-storey building to awaken the silenced history of its magnificent spaces and the deplorable labour practices through which they were procured.

The Biennial’s theme, “…and other such stories,” convenes a cross-section of architects, artists, collectives, and researchers from twenty countries to examine globally pressing and spatially implicated challenges. The result is a searing critique of architecture’s ongoing entanglement with neoliberal economics, mass-incarceration, and environmental degradation. These trends, symptomatic of unhinged urban growth decades in the making, are cast not only as threats to the planet and to our collective well-being, but as professional blind spots in need of critical reassessment. The Biennial is a call to action.

Occupying the Center’s central lobby, an installation by MASS Design Group in partnership with artist Hank Willis Thomas powerfully draws attention to America’s gun violence epidemic. Four glass-enclosed memorial “homes” display an affecting selection of victims’ personal belongings: graduation photos, sports memorabilia, even a cracked cell phone. Typically, such tragedies are reduced to sterile statistics, but in this case the voices of the victim’s friends and family are carried through a more humane and dignified representation.

The Plot: Miracle and Mirage by Alejandra Celedón, Nicolás Stutzin, and Javier Correa explains how The Chicago Boys—a small group of Friedman-trained economists—pioneered Santiago de Chile’s ill-fated “experiment in freedom” by conceiving the wholesale privatization of social services and financial infrastructure during the country’s violent right-wing military dictatorship. The Plot also characterizes Santiago’s economic free-for-all as a contagious “rehearsal” act, swiftly emulated around the world by the likes of Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan in 1981.

For his Anarchitectural Library, architect-trained Adrian Blackwell solicited print materials from Chicago-based organizations combating to preserve public spatial resources, including housing, schools, manufacturing districts and city parks. Photo by Tom Harris

Work from Canadian contributors addresses more local but equally problematic realities. Architecture-trained artist Adrian Blackwell has created the Anarchitectural Library: Against the Erasure of Chicago’s Common Spaces. A collection of books and print materials solicited from twenty Chicago-based organizations and individuals, Blackwell’s installation is dedicated to “combating the contemporary (neoliberal) erasure of four crucial common resources in the City (of Chicago).” Housing, Schools, Manufacturing Districts, and Metabolic Circuits—the latter referring to clean air and water, food security and park spaces—establish zones around which Blackwell’s lithe, concentric library emanates. An additional portion of the library is dedicated to Spaces of Erasure. Here, texts centre on the “proliferation of spaces which remove citizens from its communities,” including local prisons, police stations, and immigration detention centres.

A detail of the Anarchitectural Library. Photo by Cory Dewald

Canadians Tanya Lukin Linklater (artist and choreographer) and Tiffany Shaw-Collinge (intern architect, artist, and curator) have collaborated on Indigenous Geometries. The curved, spine-like, and reconfigurable space is designated for Indigenous performances. Each modular element is composed of laminated bentwood bars, referencing an Alutiiq steam-bending technique used to make visors worn during hunting expeditions. The choice of ash wood, native to the Chicago area, pays respect to the Indigenous people who inhabit land around the city. When assembled, these parts unite into a bulbous form that recalls traditional Alutiiq semi-subterranean homes. According to Linklater and Collinge, performers are encouraged to move the structure’s elements into different configurations, speaking to the ways in which Indigenous social structures have been dismantled by colonial US and Canadian governments and “the continued work of Indigenous peoples toward putting their languages, families, and selves back together.”

Canadians Tanya Lukin Linklater and Tiffany Shaw-Collinge contributed a space designated for Indigenous performances, made of modular elements that can 
be variously configured. The ash wood pieces are shaped in a manner that references an Alutiiq steam-bending technique used to make visors worn during the hunt. Photo by Cory Dewald

The Biennial’s primary takeaway is an entreaty for both awareness and accountability. While the exhibits offer little by way of specific design proposals or solutions, their strengths lie in exposing and connecting how architects’ collective experiments, convictions, and fetishizations are resulting in grave repercussions. Architects can no longer afford to operate in such relative isolation. Like a starling murmuration, “…and other such stories” implores us to change direction and co-opt more meaningful strategies as a profession: to work at the local scale is to resonate within the larger mass.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial runs until January 5, 2020. Admission is free and includes public tours, learning initiatives, public programs and curatorial weekends.

Paul Dolick is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC-AIADO).