The Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) pushes through, even in challenging times. Returning with a timely theme, The Available City, and under the guidance of designer, researcher and educator at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Architecture, David Brown, the 2021 CAB will be unlike any that came before. Featuring free, public programming in neighborhoods across Chicago as well as on digital platforms, the goal for the fourth edition is to expand access to architecture and design, facilitate dialogue by engaging new voices, as well as to spark conversations about the intersection of architecture and design on critical issues such as health, sustainability, equity and racial justice.
“Since 2015, collaborations with CAB have helped shape The Available City,” Brown says, “and I look forward to how this next phase of the project will bring new perspectives to my work with community organizations and residents while also broadening the conversation—as amplified by current issues—about the role that collective space can have in cities around the world today.” Brown’s decade-plus of research has prepared him for this role. In conversation with Newcity design editor Vasia Rigou, he talks about his work, the past, present and future of CAB and the state of architecture and design at-large.
Could you talk about this year’s theme and its connection to your practice?
As my research—I don’t know if I would call it a practice, but with the Biennial it may be evolving into one—The Available City is the identification of the 10,000 city-owned vacant lots as a large, dispersed landscape and an urban design proposal considering that landscape’s potential as a collective space system. Informed by organizational structures in improvised music, The Available City is an improvisational framework that is intended to develop over time and operates at two scales—individual sites or spaces developed by community organizations and the ensemble, the diverse collection of those spaces.
Consistent with that framework, the presentations of The Available City in publications and exhibitions are different instances. Each drawing, model and written work can change from instance to instance in demonstration of different aspects of its potential and as The Available City continues to develop.
I’ve been working on The Available City for over ten years through models, drawings and essays. Following the 2015 Chicago Biennial, I’ve been working to implement instances of collective space through conversations with community organizations and residents in North Lawndale to try to construct a set of spaces.
With The Available City as its theme, the 2021 Biennial will be the latest instance of the project. The 2021 edition will focus on community organizations, residents and designers from around the world working generatively to develop ideas for other collective spaces that are potentially equal to the number of city-owned vacant lots. That’s more than 10,000 collective spaces, and the properties of each could differ in response to the missions and ideas expressed by community organizations and residents in neighborhoods where the lots are prevalent working collaboratively with designers.
How are you planning to develop the exhibition from a curator’s perspective?
A major component of the exhibition is active thought about collective spaces developed in relation to community organizations. An ambition in this edition of the Biennial is to provide tools and resources that can guide similar activity beyond the event. Consistent with the urban design proposal, some of those conversations and speculations can lead to the design and construction of other collective spaces in relation to other community organizations after the Biennial ends.
I’m also interested in exhibition components focused on new forms of collective space, latent possibilities for cities introduced by shifts in thought and policy about elements within it, and improvisational and related (open form, weak form) frameworks. Those components situate the ideas in The Available City—that missions of community organizations can be understood as urbanisms, through a change in policy related to the city-owned vacant land the urban design is a future we could have today, and an improvisational framework structures the space as a diverse ensemble of sites, situations, ideas and designs.
How has your background prepared you and how will it inform your role?
Most directly, The Available City has developed to date through participation in Biennials. I participated in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale through an invitation by Alexander Eisenschmidt, for CityWorks alongside Stanley Tigerman, Studio Gang, UrbanLab and Alexander. That instance introduced the general idea and the possibility for an outcome that was collective spaces implemented by community organizations and collective spaces within buildings.
Within the Chicago Architecture Biennial, I participated as an exhibitor and offered partner programming. As an exhibitor I presented a second instance of The Available City in Bold, which Iker Gil organized. Additionally, The Available City was the basis for Nine Responses within that Biennial. Iker asked nine Chicago-based architects and firms—Ania Jaworska, 3D Design Studio, JAHN (Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido), JGMA, Krueck Sexton, Landon Bone Baker, Margaret McCurry, Central Standard Office of Design and Stanley Tigerman—to design a project in relation to The Available City.
In 2019, I also participated in CAB through partner programming in the form of Youth Studios and workshops. That’s where I invited Antonio Torres to collaborate with CCA Academy PermaPark and Ania Jaworska and Eric Hotchkiss to collaborate with MLK District Garden. Additionally, this summer I worked with Haman Cross III of Freedom House Studios to organize workshops with participants in a One Summer Chicago program to develop ideas for a hard-surfaced playlot in North Lawndale.
All of these experiences have helped to prepare me in different ways for orchestrating a mass collaborative production of collective space possibilities within The Available City.
What is the importance of a festival like CAB amid a pandemic and a time of social and political unrest?
Platforms like the Biennial have the distinct and exciting challenge of rethinking and testing ideas for public gatherings and events. Given the organization’s dedication to responding to the most pressing issues and questions facing the field, it’s important for the Biennial to carry on this work while fully respecting safety protocols.
In terms of content, the direction for the 2021 edition is relevant to the pandemic and current social and political unrest. The concept of the city as a collective of dispersed, small and outdoor collective spaces supports the idea of physical distancing in ways that larger parks and public spaces cannot. Additionally, The Available City proposes a reimagining of the city that enables new, necessary opportunities for community organizations and residents—specifically, in the case of Chicago, those residents in Black communities on the South and West Sides of the city.
What boundaries do you feel you’re pushing, curating the Biennial at this moment? What challenges do you expect?
Let’s start with the challenges. Part of the planning has to acknowledge the possibility that we can’t have large gatherings and travel might be limited. So questions for the Biennial include: How do you enable international participation? And how do you engage a broad local and international public in a Biennial that may be primarily remote?
Those obstacles can also be seen as opportunities for the Biennial. The Biennial can be an active platform to facilitate a conversation about the possibility of vacant land. The Biennial enables thinking at the scale of the 10,000 with community organizations and residents in Chicago and national and international participants. I’m interested to explore how to foster significant conversations between local and global participants, where both benefit from the exchange.
This is a unique opportunity to organize smaller virtual conversations that could be richer and more immersive than might occur in a larger programmatic format setting—especially if you can get groups to participate in repeated and extended discussions with one another.
The spaces in neighborhoods provide another experience. They are intended as active components of the neighborhood that residents can interact with on any given day. Again, it’s an idea of greater immersion and understanding produced over time through repeated engagement that’s atypical of physically going to biennials.
The Biennial as an event in these formats can be generative. It can be about making new content as much as presenting content.
What are you hoping the viewers will take away?
Specifically, recognizing that the city-owned vacant land in Chicago—as well as Detroit, St. Louis and elsewhere—can be understood as a large, seemingly random, dispersed site that presents a unique opportunity to introduce a new kind of space in neighborhoods and the city.
More generally, there’s the role that design can have within dialogues about issues, such as the ones we face currently, in addition to the impact of vacant land on neighborhoods. Design can’t solve those issues, but it can influence and shape our thinking about aspects of those issues by setting forward new ideas about society and the city.
The pandemic is challenging us to rethink, primarily within streets, spaces and how the city is organized. New street plazas and reappropriated monuments are direct responses to equity and justice issues.
The Available City directly questions the degree to which the large quantities of vacant land contribute to perceptions of neighborhoods and who lives in them. And in relation to the possibilities for that land, it raises the questions: Who do designers design for? Who gets to participate in the design of spaces in a neighborhood? Who gets to participate in the design of the city? What impact do those spaces have on the neighborhood? And the city? What impact do those experiences have on the participants—residents, community organizations, designers? What impact does their participation have upon the way they are perceived within the city and around the world? Those are questions we can raise and try to respond to or answer within the Biennial.
What are you most excited about?
I’ve been working on some of the projects within The Available City for quite a few years, so I’m looking forward to seeing those develop as part of the Biennial. I’m excited to see what that fosters for the partners I’ve been working with and for the communities with high quantities of vacant land.
The prior instances of The Available City only allude to the potential of its overall extents. However, the Biennial is an opportunity, through its speculative conversations and production, to develop ideas for all of the lots. In this manner, The Available City is itself an enactment of the urban design at its full scale and possibility.
That will be fantastic to see. Not so much for its direct implementation, but as a collective vision that in the long term could inform and shape continued thought about the possibility of new kinds of collective space as well as spaces that might get built.
As I mentioned, I do think The Available City is a future we could have today. Its enactment within the Biennial can enable other previously unforeseen futures to be perceived and encouraged to emerge.
What’s a positive and inspiring message you’d share with our readers as the future of art, design and the world at-large remains unknown?
The Available City is a project that I have been pursuing for over ten years, and the issues it addresses are ones that I have been thinking about for twenty years or more. Ten years ago, I thought the project would be enacted then. But it’s been enriched by my continuing to work on it and now is the moment when others can see its value.
If you think about it, the future of art, design, and the world at-large have always been unknowns. That’s amplified currently in a way that most of us have never experienced. However, that amplification is an opportunity for us to think about ways that things we have previously understood as set norms could be otherwise. It’s not easy, but all of us should be attentive to those openings and work to maintain, rather than forget, the best of those opportunities for change.
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