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First look: Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019 lineup

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Theaster Gates, MASS Design Group, and dozens more join event focused on social justice, collective memory, and civic purpose.

Iwan Baan

This morning, organizers of Chicago’s third Architecture Biennial announced many of the architects, designers, and urbanists participating in the forthcoming citywide cultural event, introducing a preliminary lineup underscoring the event’s focus on rethinking relationships with public space and civic responsibility.

The 2019 edition offers reflections, research, and new ideas about aspects of social justice, land use, collective memory, and civic purpose. Artistic director Yesomi Umolu and co-curators Sepaka Angiama and Paulo Tavares, recently announced the theme, “...and such other stories,” a concept that side-stepping the standard skyscrapers-and-broad-shoulders narrative of Chicago to dig into how the city reflects global issues of property, the environment, public participation, and memorializing.

The 51 contributors announced by the curatorial team today span 19 countries and a range of disciplines including contemporary art, architecture, and spatial studies.

Highlights include:

Chicago artist Theaster Gates

Roughly half of the participants will create new works, in conversation with the curatorial team.

“We are especially proud to commission a series of new projects that address some of the most pressing issues of our time while advancing new forms of thinking and practice across the field of architecture and beyond,” said Umolu in a statement.

Other additions to the Biennial’s 2019 lineup include CAMP (Mumbai, India), Center for Spatial Research (New York), Tanya Lukin Linklater and Tiffany Shaw-Collinge (Ontario, Canada and Alberta, Canada), Wendelien van Oldenborgh (Rotterdam, Netherlands), Territorial Agency (London, UK), Carolina Caycedo (Los Angeles), Joar Nango (Sápmi, Norway), Adrian Blackwell (Toronto, Canada), ConstructLab (Berlin, Germany) Keleketla! Library (Johannesburg, South Africa), DAA (Beit Sahour, Palestine), FICA–Fundo Imobiliário Comunitário para Aluguel (São Paulo, Brazil), Maria Gaspar (Chicago), Ola Hassanain (Khartoum, Sudan), and RMA Architects (Mumbai, India and Boston)

The selection of Gates, celebrated for his art-focused urbanism and community building, as well as progressive architects from across the globe, underscore one of the event’s central aims: highlighting different aspects of Chicago’s urban history, while creating a dialogue between the city and other urban centers, most notably Sao Paulo, Brazil, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Vancouver, Canada.

Between issues of class and spatial segregation, as well as land speculation, it made sense to examine how design in other international cities could speak to issues faced by Chicago, Angiama told Curbed.

“The realities of spatial injustice in Chicago co-exist alongside the city’s history as an epicenter of progressive social movements that have often leveraged architecture and public space as sites for social action and advocacy,” according to the curatorial statement. “Chicago is thus an ideal site for investigation of the ways the built space reflects and impacts our understanding of the common, the collective, and the constitutional.”

“I’m really here to talk about our process and research, which very much began in Chicago,” added Angiama during the kickoff press conference. “And not just as a backdrop, but to dig deep and look at the archeology and the present. We had so many questions and we wanted to connect those to other geographies. Looking at the vacant lots, I’ll always be reminded that Yesomi said, ‘Those lots are not vacant, they’re full of memory and those memories are contested.’ We spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to bring all of people’s memories into a public sphere.”

The principals of MASS Design Group

The curatorial team wants to highlight approaches to affordable and equitable housing, the stories of indigenous and displaced peoples, as well as the relationship between memorials and social histories. Part of the process involved a long research phase, when the curatorial team also established partnerships with designers and architects in Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, and Vancouver.

“Through these engagements, we have drawn out a myriad of stories about how lived experiences across global communities, cities, territories, and ecologies resonate with architectural and space-making practices,” Umolu said in a statement.

The third Biennial’s creative leadership brings diverse perspectives to the roles of artistic director and co-curator: Umolu serves as Director and Curator, Logan Center for Exhibitions at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago; Angiama, a curator based in Europe, focuses on collaborations with artists, activists, and designers; and Tavares, an architect and academic, teaches at the University of Brasilia.

The goal is to present architecture as something active in our lives, says Angiama, and not a backdrop.

Billed as North America’s largest gathering focused on architecture, urbanism, and design, this year’s Biennial opens on September 19, based inside the city’s downtown Cultural Center but featuring citywide satellite venues and programming. The 2015 and 2017 Biennial’s brought more than 500,000 visitors to exhibition sites across the city.