While touring 15 Chicago Architecture Biennial installations across Chicago’s South and West sides—neighborhoods that for decades have been neglected and actively disinvested—I remembered the artist Glen Ligon’s 2009 ArtForum review of Prospect.1 New Orleans, the inaugural biennial of contemporary art set amidst the tragedy left by Hurricane Katrina. Ligon meditated on the messy nature of art biennials held in the wreckage of disasters. “To be truthful, I’m a hater,” he wrote. “Before I arrived in New Orleans I thought it needed a biennial like it needed a hole in the head or a stab in the neck.” But, he continues, “Prospect.1 offers an opportunity to ask many hard questions about what a biennial can and cannot do—and it makes us ask the same of art.”
To be truthful, I, too, am a hater. As Ligon goes on to describe, when biennials are placed in the context of disasters, these artistic interventions have the tendency to become “facile notions of site-specificity.” Similarly, my immediate reaction upon hearing about CAB’s decision to address vacant land in communities that have been redlined, overlooked for private and public dollars, and categorized as blighted, then razed, and now await speculation by negligent investors was that the neighborhoods themselves would play backdrop to architectural and artistic “research.” Yet what I found was something different: a dissolution of the biennial itself as an engine of tourism or research scholarship. Instead it has become an instigator of questions surrounding who has access to vacant land and, by extension, the practices and procedures necessary to transform that land into community-serving assets.
From the earliest peeks into the 2021 CAB last year, the exhibition-as-tourism driver—which Ligon dubbed “spectacle as spending”—smelled different. Artistic director David Brown devised this year’s theme, The Available City, to address the ever-present issue of vacant, city-owned lots in Chicago’s Black and Brown neighborhoods. Instead of holding the primary exhibition in the city’s downtown Cultural Center, as in the past, he paired architects with community organizations embedded in the neighborhoods and opted for sites such as Englewood on the South Side or North Lawndale on the West. Many of these organizations are operating in and addressing the effects of governmental and private sector disinvestment, such as violence, lack of mental health care, and inequitable food access. Working with architects to create installations and interventions in city-owned vacant lots would be an opportunity to create new civic spaces to meet the needs of local residents and to rethink how vacant land, made “available” by disinvestment (redlined, devalued, blighted, razed), can be become productive spaces for communing and meeting critical needs.
One standout project is the Living Room in North Lawndale, which comes from the partnership of architecture firm The Bittertang Farm with the Community Christian Alternative Academy. The Living Room enlivens a school community garden (once an empty lot) by creating an outdoor classroom and gathering spot. Bittertang duo Antonio Torres and Michael Loverich, who have ties to Chicago, New York, and Michoacán, Mexico, arranged large, smooth stones for seating and resting, chainsaw-carved wood totems, and globular forms of woven willows into a circle. The project goal was to create a permaculture space that would, over time, host creatures and plant life within the garden and help teach students about healthy eating and wellness. This intimate space feels like an oasis, enclosed from the incessant construction on Pulaski Avenue, where traffic only pauses to turn into the car wash across the street.
In the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago’s South-ish Side, Studio Ossidiana, led by Rotterdam, The Netherlands–based Alessandra Covini and Venice, Italy–based Giovanni Bellotti, paired with volunteers from El Paseo Community Garden and NeighborSpace to create The Garden Table, a series of raised concrete tables that double as play structures, game boards, and a food grill. Kids can climb through cutouts in the cube-shaped tables while parents play backgammon or solitaire on the engrained tabletops. Once a brownfield site owned by the rail company, the garden was converted in 2009 and now hosts raised beds, a dog run, and a plethora of programming. One tidbit from the volunteer leading the press tour: In addition to generating a series of beautiful and useful objects, the project serves as a cap on the last contaminated portion of the garden. With its gravel cover and large concrete boxes, the land is now sealed from the contaminants that still linger after generations of vehicular and railroad use.
The use of CAB as a remediator to address critical land issues like contamination was a constant in other projects. For Englewood Commons, Tokyo-based Atelier Bow-Wow partnered with Grow Greater Englewood, which works with residents of Chicago’s South Side to develop sustainable food practices, to create a large outdoor dining space where local gardeners can serve food and host events. Though the built object itself is small—a stout but elegant wood canopy that would cover the seating area below—the surrounding land area is massive. Getting onto the site requires an 18-inch step up onto the layer of mulch that the group was required to add prior to building their installation, which includes a stone gabion “sandbox” to keep the mulch in place. The city’s Right of Entry procedure requires the 18-inch cap to ensure the ground underneath remains undisturbed.
Covering one let alone multiple vacant lots with 18 inches of mulch is expensive and labor-intensive. However, it is a prerequisite to accessing and using these lots, particularly in areas of contamination. If the CAB is pouring its efforts and dollars into projects that are not only building but remediating the community, I have to ask: Who is responsible for this critical infrastructure? Why—when vacant land is often cited as contributing to increased crime rates, drug use, and violence—is a nonprofit cultural organization taking this work on itself?
The 2021 iteration of CAB uses the word “available,” but considering the work to make this land touchable, visitable, and usable, the reality of such “availability” is questionable. One Chicago-based collective, In Care of Black Women, led by curator and community leader Andrea Yarbrough, resigned from their biennial participation after running into a problem related to remediation. After partnering with Cape Town, South Africa– and Basel, Switzerland–based Matri-Arch(itecture) to build a space for sitting, reading, and skateboarding near a former Chicago Transit Authority El station, they wrote in an open letter:
“We learned that there are no clear processes and procedures to access city-owned vacant lots. An AIS Right of Entry could be granted with a letter of support from the alderperson, but if secured, the City of Chicago would require the grassy area be covered with a protective barrier and 18 inches of wood chips, so as not to ‘disturb the soil’. The protective barrier was immediately interpreted as a financial and time challenge, prompting our site adjustment. Our designs were then reconfigured to use only the pavement area for the installations. We would eventually learn that the pavement area was partially owned by the city and a “community development” organization.”
Though Matri-Arch(itecture) did complete an installation at 63rd and Woodlawn called Reflecting Our (Global) South Side, consisting of engraved, circular sit-able objects that honor the connections within the African diaspora, the ICOBW letter raises an important question about the availability of vacant land. What makes projects by the Bittertang Farm and Studio Ossidiana so compelling is that they built upon programs and infrastructure already in existence—the land had already been prepared and made available to those community groups. Meanwhile, ICOBW and other groups starting literally from the ground up were saddled with the additional responsibility of mending past damage and managing ongoing neglect.
Further, each CAB installation faces an uncertain future. Though the biennial is hosting programs virtually and on-site through its closing at the end of 2021, many of the installations will likely be dismantled thereafter. Right of Access does not grant permanence. The community organizations will be required to act as stewards of their sites if they wish to keep the installations intact and alive. Because the projects by Bittertang Farm and Studio Ossidiana occupied land that was already available for their use and sanctioned by the City of Chicago, they have built-in longevity—the biennial is only one stop in their important work. Will the other sites be returned to their former vacant state?
This edition of CAB didn’t make me less of a hater, but it did help me direct my hatred in another direction. Land that is “available” is not available to the people who live around it—to those whose financial livelihoods have been impeded by racism and racist real estate practices; to those whose “worth” was diminished by the same forces that made that land available to begin with. In dissolving its standing as a conventional biennial, backing away from the spectacle-as-spending model, the CAB has created a platform to ask, “Why is it so damn hard to get anything good done in this city?”
While the biennial projects demonstrate acts of resilience and ingenuity in design, collaboration, and community organizing, they also put on display the menagerie of bureaucratic bullshit imposed by the city, and the administrative and financial hoops through which these organizations must jump in order to make “available” spaces into community assets again.
Intentionally or not, the vision set forth in The Available City assumes deep responsibilities to these communities and the city as a whole. The responsibility of the biennial isn’t to “fix” the city, but rather to make explicit the failures in the city’s past and current procedures, and to open the door for repair and remediation—or for subversion. As one artist reportedly said to Ligon as the latter traveled through New Orleans, “There was a time for storytelling—for ‘Where were you when the water came?’—but now it’s time for folks to leave checks.”
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects. This story has been updated since first publication to include a site map of the biennial.