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The 2019 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), entitled “. . . and other such stories,” opens on September 19. Under the leadership of artistic director Yesomi Umolu, the director and curator of the Logan Center Exhibitions at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, this third edition of the biennial addresses four themes: No Land Beyond, Appearances and Erasures, Rights and Reclamations, and Common Ground.
Whitewall spoke with Umolu to hear more about CAB’s greater engagement with Chicago, her research-heavy approach, and what we can expect from participants like Do Ho Suh, CAMP, Borderless Studio, Maria Gaspar, and others.
WHITEWALL: This edition of CAB draws on, more than ever, the city of Chicago to consider spatial and architectural issues of land, memory, rights, and civic participation. What makes the city of Chicago a worthy jumping-off point for these ideas?
YESOMI UMOLU: Chicago is the perfect city to host a biennial that considers questions of land, memory, rights, and the civic as they relate to architecture. It has been shaped by numerous forces that link into these themes and questions—from the geological forces that created the Great Lakes and the Great Plains to the waves of migration that have brought people and cultures to the metropolis. Chicago was and continues to be the site of social movements around segregation, civil rights, and public housing, and as such it illuminates many of the most important issues confronting architecture and urbanism today.
WW: You began the curatorial process with an intense research initiative that included looking at cities like São Paulo, Johannesburg, and Vancouver as well. How do those cities relate to Chicago?
YU: In São Paulo, we were able to follow the thread of connection between the two cities in the way that their development as metropolises mirror one another. Our conversations and research focused on the concept of “the city as a right,” as we learned how social movements, architectural practitioners, activists, and indigenous communities situate space as a means of advocacy for social justice and civic participation.
In Johannesburg, we looked at the ways that political ideology shapes the urban environment, contrasting both cities’ histories of segregation and racial division, and how they have shaped the built environment. We also found a similar upwelling of youth activism in both cities, where young people are reclaiming space in new ways.
In Vancouver, we learned about concepts and strategies of land sovereignty and stewardship through the lens of indigenous history and context. In Chicago, indigenous history has been obscured by its built environment, but the fact remains that it is a city with deep ties to indigenous histories.
WW: From the list of contributors, it seems there are more visual artists presenting this year. Was that a goal of yours, to include a wider range of contributors?
YU: From the start, we knew that the sorts of questions that we wanted to ask as a curatorial team would need to be answered by a multitude of voices, and that there would be diversity not just in age, gender, and geography, but also in types of practices. We have found that there are many contemporary artists who are responding to architecture and the built world both directly and indirectly in ways that call into question existing political, economic, and social structures, and it is very important to us that their work be shown alongside that of architects and activists.
One example of this important work is Maria Gaspar, who has spent the last seven years working in and around the Cook County Jail. This is the largest single-site jail in the United States, and an ever-present building in Chicago. Maria engages with inmates and community of the surrounding neighborhood to create artworks that investigate what she calls the “politics of location.”
WW: Who might we be surprised to see participating in the 2019 biennial?
YU: One unexpected contributor is the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department‑—the only government entity participating in the biennial. Since 2016, the Detroit PDD has done incredible work toward sustainable development and preservation within the unique urban context of Detroit. The PDD engages directly with citizens of the city to develop progressive strategies that seek to rebuild the post-industrial landscape without negative impacts for current residents.
WW: How will the biennial interact with the city of Chicago in new ways for this edition?
YU: One of the most exciting satellite locations is the Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville, a decommissioned school that was closed as part of a controversial wave of public school closures in Chicago. Borderless Studio, a design and workshop practice led by Chicago-based architect Paola Aguirre, will use the site to explore new ways to inclusively repurpose civic spaces. The Overton site is particularly exciting for the ways it will foster collaboration between contributors. In addition to the work of Borderless Studio, the space will be activated throughout the run of the biennial by other contributors from around the world.