Chicago Architecture Biennial confirms its fourth edition and announces 2021 director

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Chicago Architecture Biennial confirms its fourth edition and announces 2021 director

The Chicago Cultural Center, a vast historic structure opposite Millennium Park that once housed the Chicago Central Library. The Center has served as the main venue of past editions of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. It is unclear as of now how much it will be used for the 2021 edition of the exhibition. (Brian Crawford/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The organizers of the 2021 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) have announced that the show will indeed go on under the artistic directorship of David Brown, a designer, educator, and researcher based at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This follows a period of speculation as to whether or not it would be held at all as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the Midwest. The official September 2021 opening of the exhibition, however, is still a way out as CAB plots and plans a hybrid biennial comprised of in-person and virtual events.

As the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin noted following the announcement that the fourth edition of the Biennial will proceed as planned, events will be held both indoors and outdoors although that could shift depending on how things stand from a public health and safety perspective next fall. Previous editions have largely centered around a central indoor venue, the Chicago Cultural Center, although the 2021 Biennial, The Available City, will inherently be more neighborhood-focused. Speaking to the Tribune, biennial chairman Jack Guthman called the scenario an “exercise in flexibility.”

Another major architectural happening in the Windy City, the currently underway (and recently extended a week beyond its planned closing date) Open House Chicago, normally includes a considerable number of indoor tours and events. For its 10th edition, the Chicago Architecture Center shifted its robust programming schedule to take place either virtually or outdoors including a variety of self-guided, neighborhood-based tours.

portrait of david brown
David Brown, artistic director of the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. (Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial/Nathan Keay, 2020)

“The Biennial board recognizes the challenges inherent in planning an event of this scale for a year as unpredictable as 2021, elaborated Guthman in a statement. “We are nevertheless confident that the support of the Biennial by the global architecture community and by the city’s civic, cultural and philanthropic communities will foster and sustain our efforts notwithstanding these uncertain times.”

Aside from the shifting logistics regarding how the latest edition of the Biennial will be presented, transformative change is baked into the curatorial theme of the event, which bills itself as the largest architecture and design exhibition in North America. “Through a reinvented and responsive global platform, the Biennial will create opportunities for conversations about the intersection of architecture and design and such critical issues as health, sustainability, equity, and racial justice leading up to and throughout the run of the edition,” explained a press release.

The Available City concept was first explored during the 2015 edition of the Biennial as part of a Brown-led exhibition that imagined creative, community-benefitting new uses for the 15,000 city-owned vacant lots concentrated on the South and West sides. For the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the framework created by Brown and collaborators will be expanded to consider a larger global platform, “engaging both local and international projects and practices that reflect new concepts for shared space and collective agency in the city.”

“I am especially thrilled that the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial will be focused and grounded in our neighborhoods that can benefit from it the most, said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement. “I look forward to seeing how the Biennial enriches our entire City by amplifying and showcasing innovative ideas in design, community building and creative placemaking.”

First announced in October 2019, one of Lightfoot’s signature (and most closely-watched) initiatives is Invest South/West, a $750 million community improvement platform that has set out to boost the economic livelihoods of ten South and West Side Chicago neighborhoods through the revitalization of key commercial corridors with pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects. While the general scope of The Available City and Invest South/West obviously differ, there are geographic commonalities in that both aim to bring positive change to specific areas of Chicago that have historically suffered from underinvestment.

In addition to naming Brown as artistic director and confirming that the exhibition is still on track to open next fall, CAB has also announced a major partnership with the Danish Arts Foundation, which will commission a work by a Danish artist or artistic team that responds to the themes explored in The Available City. The work will be executed by the artist/artistic team in collaboration with community residents and stakeholders according to CAB.

What’s more, CAB is hosting a virtual biennial kick-off event of sorts scheduled for October 27: a talk between Brown and MacArthur Fellowship-winning landscape architect and 2019 Biennial contributor Walter Hood of Oakland, California-based social art and design practice Hood Design Studio. As part of a new programming model that aims to engage audiences during the project development-focused lead-up to the opening of the biennial next year, CAB will announce additional online and in-person events over the coming weeks and months.

“Platforms such as the Biennial offer a unique space for exploring and experimenting with new ideas and projects,” elaborated Brown in a statement. “Since 2015, collaborations with CAB have helped shape The Available City 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.”