With the kickoff of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, the eyes of the world are on the city's much-vaunted architecture scene like never before.
￼Dutch photographer Iwan Baan’s aerial photographs of the city are one of the focal points of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Although well-known architecture biennials regularly take place in cities such as Venice and São Paulo, none has ever been held in North America. That curious void will be filled this fall when the inaugural edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial opens October 3 and runs for three months at five venues across the city.
As far as event co-artistic director Sarah Herda is concerned, it’s about time. “It doesn’t matter where you studied architecture in the world, you learned about Chicago,” says the Windy City resident, “and that shared knowledge and [the city’s] tradition of experimentation and innovation make it the perfect backdrop to bring the world together to have a conversation about the present and the future.”
The convocation will mix exhibits with an array of lectures, symposia, and other supporting programs. Herda and fellow co-artistic director Joseph Grima (an architect, writer, and curator based in Genoa, Italy) selected more than 100 predominantly up-and-coming international architects and designers to take part, ranging from Vo Trong Nghia Architects of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Amanda Williams of Chicago.
Event organizers hope to draw a local and international audience of more than 200,000 architects, designers, tourists, and design enthusiasts.
“The breadth, variety, and geographic diversity of the participants is what makes the group very compelling for both architects and visitors,” notes preeminent Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, a 2011 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient. “It might not be full of the names everyone already knows, but the point of the show is to expand our understanding of contemporary practice.”
Organizers are reluctant to forecast the attendance of the event, which is being privately funded with a budget of $6.5 million—but Herda says they certainly hope to exceed the 200,000 visitors that the Chicago Cultural Center (the biennial’s main venue) averages during the same period. With no admission fees, organizers expect to draw not only architects, designers, and cultural tourists from around the world but also enthusiasts from across the Chicago region. “Architecture is something that affects everybody every day, whether the architecture is good or bad,” says Herda, who also serves as director of Chicago’s Graham Foundation, a major benefactor in the architectural realm.
Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, sees Chicago as the ideal place for such a biennial, given the city’s rich architectural history as the birthplace of the skyscraper and the vibrancy of its current scene. At the same time, he believes the event could be a “game-changer” for the city, helping to shift the feld’s intellectual center of gravity from the East Coast to a part of the United States that is too often treated as “flyover country in terms of architectural dialogue.”
The big question, of course, is whether the organizers can pull off the event and make it sustainable. Kamin notes that a biennial is “notoriously difficult” to mount, because it presents models and renderings and not actual buildings, and it can too easily turn into a “mishmash” of ideas. “It’s like a sports team,” he says. “On paper, this is a pretty good lineup. It looks like an exciting bunch. But until they take the field, we really don’t know how the game is going to play out.” October 3–January 3, various locations, 312-854-8200