What Is the Payback?

New architecture and design biennials are proliferating at a rapid pace throughout the world. They seem to be fulfilling needs that are driven by the role of global tourism in urban economies and by a desire among educators, professionals, and general audiences for more inclusive and public discussions about the built environment. The most successful biennials are the ones that connect people who have innovative ideas with those who have the resources to implement them.

I write as an architectural educator and historian (and occasional critic) who trained in Venice (where the world's first architectural biennial was officially launched in 1980 under the directorship of Italian architect and historian Paolo Portoghesi) and moved to Chicago shortly before the city launched itself into the biennial circuit with its inaugural edition in 2015–16. Thus, I am no stranger to the power of biennials to stimulate, exhaust, and occasionally frustrate body and mind with installations and catalogues that promise diligent visitors illumination concerning the complexities of contemporary architecture and urban culture.

In recent years biennials have done what a handful of architecture centers in North America (Canadian Centre for Architecture) and Europe (Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Netherlands Architecture Institute) started decades earlier by catering to ordinary citizens in addition to educators, professionals, and students. Like diviners who find water where none appears on the surface, the best curators identify and train our focus on important issues that we have been too distracted to notice or have lacked the knowledge and critical distance to understand without guidance.

In Chicago, with its remarkable history of groundbreaking architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning, civic and cultural leaders made the wise and strategic decision to embark on an initiative aimed at highlighting the role that design might play in solving great challenges of equity and environmental sustainability in the twenty-first century. The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, titled The State of the Art of Architecture, was curated by Sarah Herda (director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, headquartered in Chicago) and Joseph Grima (currently the creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands). The second biennial, held in 2017–18 and titled Make New History, was codirected by a duo of practicing architects and educators, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the Los Angeles–based firm Johnston Marklee. A few days after the closing of the second biennial, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel's press office proudly announced that “more than 550,000 residents and visitors from the U.S. and around the world took part.” The press release went on to report that “the Biennial's core sites—the Chicago Cultural Center and the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower—received 290,834 visitors throughout the exhibition, an 8% increase over 2015.”1 In contrast to the Venice Biennale's hefty ticket prices, admission to the Chicago Biennial is free, and the high attendance numbers—which include both local and international guests—might be understood in part as a result of this civic largesse.

As the appetite for attendance grows, how might we determine whether the Chicago Biennial is establishing a reputation in addition to attracting high numbers of visitors? Is it too early to tell? We might ask if the iterations of the biennial presented thus far have singly or cumulatively had any tangible impact on the city and the people who make decisions about the quality of the built environment. In other words, have the biennial's artistic directors (this title speaks volumes about the ambitions of the curators in shaping content and aesthetics) helped to educate future clients so that they might invest more heavily in the quality of the built environment rather than surrender to developer-driven profiteering at every turn? Can the biennial provide continuing education credits by encouraging architectural firms of every size in Chicago to raise the bar of their output? Or has the existence of yet another biennial contributed to curator inflation, in which members of the architectural academy leverage the professional curatorial circuit to establish creative practices that avoid the challenges (and real-life compromises) associated with real projects and clients? In a form of postoccupancy review of the two previous biennials, one might ask: How did ideas that circulated and were discussed actually find their way into real-life problems that need to be solved in Chicago, the Americas, or around the globe? Might curators serve society more effectively by directing the creative resources of participants toward a competition of ideas aimed at addressing specific problems in urgent need of attention in the city in which the biennials are held? Should the numerous financial contributors footing the bill demand more in payback than simply marketing opportunities and tourism dollars? Or is it altogether too narrow-minded and mercenary to expect something in return beyond a handful of memories for visitors, many of whom, presumably, visit the biennial only briefly?

This brings us to another set of questions concerning accessibility and focus. How accessible should biennials be in terms of curatorial statements and the explanatory language that appears on the gallery walls? In my experience, neither of the two Chicago Biennials so far were particularly generous with explanations for the layperson, and that is problematic, since the spirit behind the civic, corporate, and foundation sponsorship is clearly one that seeks to involve and educate a broad audience.

Should biennials be largely site specific or siteless? Can curators be both cosmopolitan and deeply committed to a specific place? The 2015–16 biennial curated by Herda and Grima was full of opportunities for new forms of architectural alchemy as site-specific installations interacted with the host city and the visitors. For example, there was the wonderful surprise of seeing Thomas Kelly and Carrie Norman's Chicago: How Do You See? installed within the sixty-five windows of the Chicago Cultural Center facing Michigan Avenue. A lakefront kiosk competition saw the realization of a minimalist pavilion—Chicago Horizon—designed by the firm Ultramoderne (Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest, and Brett Schneider) and made with a cross-laminated timber product (carbon-negative engineered). During Herda and Grima's biennial the three Chicago-based schools of architecture—Illinois Institute of Technology, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago—all engaged with local sites to create memorable additions to the cityscape. The 2017–18 biennial, curated by artistic directors Johnston and Lee, examined “the interplay of design and the broadening access to, as well as recall of, historical source material.”2 Again, architecture schools participated, but their contributions remained mainly within the confines of the Chicago Cultural Center. IIT's College of Architecture/Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize worked with SANAA to envision an unconventional plan of the campus and the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, replete with “enchanted mountains”; the large-scale model was sited under the monumental stained glass Tiffany dome of the Chicago Cultural Center (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Installation view of IIT College of Architecture + SANAA's Lake 33rd, Bronzeville, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2017–18 (photo by Sasha Zanko; model by Zixin Li, Peter Rigali, Yunji Chung, Clayton Knapp, Mario Serrano).

Figure 1

Installation view of IIT College of Architecture + SANAA's Lake 33rd, Bronzeville, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2017–18 (photo by Sasha Zanko; model by Zixin Li, Peter Rigali, Yunji Chung, Clayton Knapp, Mario Serrano).

With the 2017–18 biennial concluded, it is unclear how the provocative ideas of public space it contained might be realized in Chicago or anywhere else for that matter. As part of the complementary programming disseminated throughout the city, the Chicago Architecture Foundation commissioned educators Martin Felsen (IIT) and Sarah Dunn (UIC), principals of the Chicago firm UrbanLab, to curate the exhibition 50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards. At the opening of this show in the atrium of the Santa Fe Building on Michigan Avenue, I encountered architect Dirk Lohan, who had contributed a scheme for the transformation of the Adler & Sullivan–designed Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, which had been severely damaged by a fire a decade earlier. Serendipity would have it that Lohan's scheme would eventually be noticed by a group of individuals who are planning a new National Museum of Gospel Music. That opportunities facilitated by the second biennial may lead to the realization of this important cultural institution for Chicago's South Side seems significant.

As interest in the Chicago Architecture Biennial gains momentum and we prepare for the third iteration opening in September 2019, with Chicago-based curator Yesomi Umolu as artistic director and Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares as cocurators, we are reminded that perhaps the answers that emerge from biennials are less important than the questions the exhibitions generate. Might these questions alone be enough payback, or should we demand more?


“The 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial Attracts over 550,000 Visitors and Announces the Dates of the 2019 Edition,” Office of the Mayor, City of Chicago, press release, 10 Jan. 2018, https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/mayor/Press%20Room/Press%20Releases/2018/January/011018_ChicagoBiennialVisitors.pdf (accessed 30 Oct. 2018).
“Statement,” Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2017, http://chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org/statement (accessed 31 Oct. 2018).