The launch of the fourth edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial marks a shift in the program’s spatial and ethical concerns. As in previous years, the Biennial is primarily a showcase for ideas about design and architecture—an odd but rich mixture of design geekdom and glamour. But what distinguishes this Biennial from earlier editions is its insistence on a social agenda in a city where, as artistic director and architectural scholar David Brown contends, “current and past inequities are made clear through the urban landscape in this stark contrast between development and underdevelopment, investment and disinvestment.” Entitled “The Available City,” the Biennial’s organizing idea—based in Brown’s decade-long preoccupation—is that a patchwork of vacant, underused spaces, when viewed from a certain vantage, will resolve into a legible geography: concrete enough for a policy proposal, loose enough for imaginative design experiments. Borrowing the vocabulary of jazz music, participants in the Biennial are working in an improvisational mode, constrained yet infinitely permissive.
This issue of Newcity is also an improvisation on a theme. It leans away from reportage and into reflection; it offers at least as much curiosity about the ideas of the Biennial as coverage of its programs. And like any jazz date, this issue is a record of conversations among dedicated, knowledgeable, creative practitioners. Dig it: here are a few riffs from Ernie Wong, founder of Site Design Group, who talks about his own patient art of landscape architecture and the urgency of investing in neighborhood spaces now. Here’s a poetic solo in photography by the talented Biyun Feng, who documented Biennial sites, still under construction, still emerging. Here are two duos, side by side: Graham Foundation’s Sarah Herda talks about psychology and place with public artists of Outpost Office; Chicago’s housing commissioner Marisa Novara debates ethical questions with renowned architect and academic Craig Wilkins. Restating the theme is director of the Chicago Design Museum Tanner Woodford. These pieces hang together in an open arrangement, commenting on one another, touching on similar concerns, testing new thoughts.
As guest co-editors of this issue—or, to extend the jazz session metaphor, as its sound engineers—we are grateful to be in such distinguished company. We’ve spent many weeks developing an issue that highlights the voices of colleagues and amplifies the important message of “The Available City.” And, in the same spirit, we, too, jammed out on what the Biennial means to us, in a dialogue that follows. Lean in. Tap your feet. Or just jump in—this jam is an open mic.
—Kekeli Sumah and F. Philip Barash
FPB: Let’s start with the big idea. I know the title of the Biennial, “The Available City,” is meant to be both polemical and practical. It’s polemical in that it asks us to speculate about Chicago’s fallow land as a single interconnected ecology, a kind of archipelago. But it’s also practical in that it proposes specific interventions for individual parcels, addressing the vacancy in tangible terms. This has been surprisingly emotional for me, grappling with the theme. I grew up in Detroit, where vacancy isn’t a thought experiment or a design provocation but an inescapable political and economic reality—as well as a fact of daily existence. As in Chicago, Detroit’s vacant land is concentrated in areas that are already deeply challenged. And density (or lack of it) being the determining factor in the provision of municipal services, transit, access to jobs, food, and schools, neighborhoods marked by vacancies are locked in a vicious cycle: fewer people mean fewer amenities and fewer amenities mean fewer people. So there are clear policy and economic implications here. And yet policy and economics fail to fully describe the value of this land, to account for embedded histories and belongings, to recognize that an empty lot is full—brimming with stories and significations. I share all this because I want to know what response, on a visceral level, this theme has provoked in you. I want to know if it connects you to memories of home or of travel or of leaving things behind. I want to know if this geography of emptiness even makes sense to you.
KS: I think it makes sense that it hits us on an emotional register. These issues aren’t abstract, they affect us in real and immediate ways. They are ever-present, lingering in the afterimages of our thoughts and in the contours of our emotions. I asked one of our contributors—Biyun Feng—to conduct a photo story of some of these vacant sites and she not only came up with some beautiful images, but also noted down some incredible stories and encounters with local residents and neighbors eager to have their stories told and their transformative efforts documented. Seeing images of urban landscapes across the spectrum of occupancy: between overgrown weeds in a fenced-off rectangle and vibrant community gardens felt very emotional. In looking at every image, I realized that although these sites were vacant, they were not empty. There was always a trace of human activity—people making the most with what was available to them. This definitely made me think of the many homes I’ve lived in, traveled through, and left behind. It’s not emptiness per se, its occupancy simply looks different. One of the things I take away from the theme of the Biennial is the sense of agency it offers. Take what is available, what you have and do something transformative with it. As someone who didn’t grow up in Chicago, this kind of optimism has both immigrant and Midwestern work ethic overtones. Knowing that you too have an immigrant history, I wonder what you make of these overtones? Having lived in Detroit, Chicago and Boston—is it a fair assessment of a Midwestern attitude? And is that attitude productive? As you’ve rightly pointed out, the challenges of vacancy still live with us in Chicago as well as in Detroit.
FPB: You and I share an immigrant’s critical distance. I have lived in and with and amid this land for decades yet I retain the capacity to be shocked, and shook, anew—both by the seemingly inexhaustible creative energy, the optimism you’ve pointed out, and by the profoundly destructive impulses of my adopted country. The condition that the Biennial is addressing—a landscape of desolation and devaluation caused by decades of strategic disinvestment in communities of color—should rightly be declared a national epidemic, a public health crisis. This is not a geographic crisis merely because of its ubiquity; it is a moral crisis because we’ve come to treat it with a shrugging cynicism. I sometimes think about this condition as a collision between two bearded Victorians: Freud’s death drive barreling head-on into a Marxian warning about converting everything—land, home, family, history—into a fungible commodity. It would all seem very bleak indeed were it not for the inevitable observation that, despite the destruction and the exploitation, people continue to generate meaning, to make art, to imagine, hustle and thrive. This, for me, was a fundamental learning of arriving to Detroit as an immigrant kid: the will of communities to resist the gray erasures of capital with a kaleidoscope of acts of creative resistance. To be less abstract, let me reduce this dynamic to an example: techno music—Detroit’s floor-shaking cultural export—is rooted in Black communities that reimagined empty factory floors and cold electrical circuits as generative assets. When capital abandoned Detroit, community took hold. This is a very broad gloss on a very complex topic and I don’t mean to trivialize it; I am merely restating the premise of “The Available City:” that emptiness is simultaneously fallow and fertile.
I am reminded that in the run-up to the first edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, I called up Stanley Tigerman, who served as a kind of provocateur of the entire thing. (In fact, the first Biennial borrowed its title—”The State of the Art of Architecture”—from Tigerman.) As I interviewed him—for a story in this magazine—I tried to establish provenance for the Biennial; I kept pushing him, for instance, to talk about a conference he organized in the seventies. But Tigerman had no interest in that kind of retrospection. “The more brave you are, the more willing you are to engage the problems of the day,” he told me, referring to the curatorial mandate of the Biennial. I wonder if you see this edition as doing that—as addressing the massive challenges that bear upon the city from all directions. Certainly the Biennial is signaling its intention to be embedded in the community, to seek ideas that build on neighborhood assets and speak to residents. Yet these actions can seem small compared to the scope of issues in the city, from its brutal history of racial segregation to the current escalation in gun violence. Do you think it’s possible for architecture—and for this architectural discourse—to meaningfully “engage the problems” of our day?
KS: It’s fascinating that you were able to engage with Tigerman in that way! His presence, influence and legend extends widely in Chicago, especially in the design and architecture community; I really wish I got to meet him because I agree with him on this. In a way, the problems of the past have been addressed, even if they’ve not always been solved. Any contribution you make builds on past iterations and can be seen as one of many possible solutions. This can shield you from public criticism and scrutiny. It’s really brave to make an earnest and sincere effort at addressing a problem—especially a public and charged one—in the age of the internet, where the world is full of critics. I think this Biennial is attempting to act on the ideas that it proposes. It takes what is typically concentrated economic and cultural capital at the Chicago Cultural Center and disperses that into Chicago communities. The dispersion means there is a real risk that there is a loss of potency, as you’ve pointed out. Yet, I still believe that architecture as a discipline and medium can address the problems of our day, insofar as architects are willing and able to integrate the forces that are embedded in this practice, namely: building technology, politics, capital, communities. And that’s really hard! It requires a force of imagination and the ability to persuade multiple stakeholders; it requires resilience.
FPB: We arrived at our co-editorial assignment from different places and perspectives. But this space is familiar to both me and you. I’ve spent my entire career writing, curating, presenting, persuading, making noise—all with the ambition, or at least a vague hope, to situate design within a context of social relations that it participates in. Over and over, as a writer and educator, I encounter practitioners who may be highly technically gifted and skilled, but who focus narrowly on object-making. They are indoctrinated into a way of seeing architecture as the discipline of creating buildings. And while that is certainly true, it is true in a limited sense, for architecture is also a means of creating communities and shaping worldviews and expressing values and shoring up real estate markets and many other things besides. That’s why I think that the discursive view of architecture, as an agent in a complex network, is so important to express—both to public audiences and to practitioners themselves, as a reminder. This issue, as we’ve talked about, is itself part of the discourse, a voice lending to the conversation, or perhaps to the cacophony. I am curious how you see the role of discourse in the architectural field, where it might be of most impact, and what relation it bears to the physical act of architecture. And I’m curious, too, about how you see journalism, and our work together on this issue in particular, contributing to the noise.
KS: This is a tough set of questions to answer, especially for someone like me, who’s relatively young in their thoughts and engagement with the discipline and practice! But to answer your provocation, I do believe that architecture is wider than object-making, in fact, that’s what got me interested in the field in the first place. The discursive and creative practices that crossed over into other types of objects, installations and social relations intrigued and excited me. Architecture is indeed many things and I think it’s important for those other things to circulate as much as the images of beautiful drawings, and renderings and buildings we’ve come to love and admire. My desire is to see things integrated and whole: discourse and practice flowing into one another such that we’re thinking about what we’re making and we’re making the things we talk about. As such, I imagine that our work together on this issue helps to bring in an often underrepresented stakeholder and that is the public. It is work that is multimodal and so requires our efforts to be multidisciplinary, as architecture is many things. That’s why I love the approach we’ve taken in this issue; where we’re taking the thematic material of the Biennial and making it available to writers, designers, critics, curators and artists in a discursive process that makes visible the many ways architecture expands beyond building.