When the Chicago Architecture Biennial was first announced, skeptics were quick to point out that there wasn’t a whole lot of there there. At the summer ceremony, a processional was led by the mayor, who was flanked at the dais by brand-name designers. But the ubiquitous pair of Jeanne Gang and Theaster Gates didn’t mask the absence of a plot. Nor did a check for $2.5 million, underwritten by BP. Nor did the repertoire of stock expressions about Chicago’s status as “design capital” and its “world-class architecture.”
You didn’t have to be a scholar of hermeneutics to wonder what was behind the dais and the donation, the rhetoric and the ambition. Around town, conversations have since been drifting into questions of content and execution: what will the Biennial show? And how will it show it?
Last week’s announcement that Ty Tabing—he of downtown retail recruitment, he of State Street public art, he of all-night Looptopia events, he of economic development on the balmy shores of Singapore—has been appointed as administrative head of the Biennial is reassuring. Tabing’s hire makes it likely that questions surrounding the event’s theme, programs, partnerships, scope, budget and impact will be addressed. Maybe even soon.
A description for Tabing’s new gig hasn’t surfaced and, if our colleagues at Crain’s have the story right, he was selected without a formal process. But the job’s responsibilities are, at any rate, self-evident: with exactly a year counting down to the opening date, Tabing’s mandate is to produce an event that, as its name suggests, ought to be organized in twice that time. In full disclosure, I once worked alongside Tabing at the Chicago Loop Alliance. There, his motto was to “get shit done” and was so well-trusted and well-verified that we staffers had considered embroidering it on polo shirts. There’s no reason to suspect that Tabing’s assertive approach was mellowed by the two years’ heat of Singapore.
Tabing’s appointment bodes well for the Biennial as do rumors that its makeshift offices at the Graham Foundation will soon be aswarm with bright young things who can freely discourse about the dissolution of plastic form-making in a post-media landscape and who, perhaps, may even get the pronunciation of “Biennial” right. And there’s hope that, with a public affairs agency having recently been retained, specifics about the event will be released with speed and unblinking certainty to the public. For now, the public waits for news in the same queue as Chicago’s design elite, excited and hopeful, yes, and just a little anxious. (F. Philip Barash)