Legacy at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Chicago has a long history of reinvention. After the Great Fire of 1871, the city has had to think big, dream boldly and push the boundaries of what is possible in the urban landscape. From the world’s first modern skyscraper to the iconic bungalow, Chicago has always used architecture and design to continually transform itself and its identity. This past weekend, marked another milestone for the city with the opening of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the first and largest exhibition in North America dedicated to contemporary architecture.

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The majority of the exhibition is housed in the “People’s Palace”, a.k.a., the Chicago Cultural Centre, located in the the heart of the city. This public building sets the stage where over 100 participants from over 30 countries are featuring their work specifically created for the Biennial. From housing to urban planning, artistic installations to lectures, this is the epicenter where the conversation about the future architecture begins.

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But, it’s the many neighbourhoods throughout Chicago where the real dialog about new possibilities in placemaking start to unfold. Like many American cities, migration over the past decades has created many vacant and abandon lots in once vibrant neighbourhoods. The Color(ed) Theory is a series of painted houses by artist Amanda Williams. Located in Chicago’s most dangerous community for crime and violence. Williams uses Englewood as her canvas and brings awareness to the many deserted houses in the district. The red X is a mark left by local firefighters indicating that if the house were to catch on fire they would not waste resources to save it. By painting these residences bright colours, Williams is redefining their narrative from zero-value dwelling to art piece, creating a conversation that transforms their identity from victim to protagonist.

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Where Amanda Williams sheds light on vacant buildings through colour, Theaster Gates, Founder of the Rebuild Foundation, is putting a spotlight on race, class and culture in Chicago’s south end. Gates is creating a new kind of cultural amenity and a new kind of institution from a once derelict building. The Stoney Island Arts Bank is a building specifically built for the people of the neighbourhood to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage. The centre, which is now open, will be a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists and a platform to showcase future leaders. It’s through this kind of attitude that Chicago has been able to reinvent itself, again and again, creating a legacy through vision and innovation.

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In addition to the Biennial sparking conversations locally and internationally, artistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima saw an opportunity to create a legacy project along one of Chicago’s celebrated and heavily used public spaces. The lakefront is a major destination for both visitors and local residents. It features over 20 miles of public parks and beaches, as well as pedestrian and cycling routes. In an attempt to unify the 40 kiosks that punctuate the shoreline the Biennial held an international competition to activate these spaces and create architectural structures that rise to the level of their surroundings.

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Titled “Chicago Horizon,” Ultramoderne’s kiosk is a quest to build the largest flat wood roof possible within a limited budget. Using Cross-Laminated Timber, a new carbon-negative engineered lumber product, in the largest dimensions commercially available. Despite it’s expansive roof, it echoes a post-modern form that is widely recognizable throughout Chicago. It’s erection during the fall season is unfortunate as citizens will have to wait another 8 month to really experience it’s full potential.

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Perhaps the most successful public space interventions in the Biennial are the ones that are positioned where the people are. Situated in Millennium park two installations flank Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. Summer Vault consists of basic geometric shapes that allow visitors to interact, photograph and gather within and around the peculiar structure. ROCK, on the other hand is a pop-up of just that, limestone rocks elevated on platforms. The beauty lies in its simplicity and size. The elements are arranged to create an impromptu stage in the middle where the purpose of the rocks are ever changing and transform depending needs and imagination of the users.
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Chicago has once again set the stage and foundation for architects, designers, artists and urban planners to come together and create a discussion around contemporary architecture and what it will mean for future generations. Where creativity, innovation and ideas will radically transform and improve the way people live and experience public space.
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