Chicago Cultural Center
Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2019 Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Architecture Biennial, where artistic director Yesomi Umolu and curators Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares present the work of more than 80 contributors under the theme "…and other such stories," opens Sept. 19 and runs through Jan. 5, 2020. Here are five takeaways from this year's exhibition.

Less is more.
No single gallery, even the largest in the building, displays more than four individual projects. Previous iterations crammed dozens of entries into the same spaces, which lent the air of a high school science fair to the proceedings. Corridors are now clear of exhibits and allow space to breathe a bit and clear the mind between galleries. Fewer exhibits lends greater clarity to the overall exhibition, and invites more lingering over the still copious amounts of material. This is the work of curators who aren’t afraid of empty space—and that makes what is presented more powerful.

"The Gun Violence Memorial Project," MASS Design Group, Hank Willis Thomas
Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, / Kendall McCaugherty, 2019 "The Gun Violence Memorial Project," MASS Design Group, Hank Willis Thomas

The Biennial’s home—the Chicago Cultural Center— finally shines (and a specific installation reveals new layers of meaning).
Randolph Square was gussied up as a public meeting space in previous incarnations. This time, it contains MASS Design Group and artist Hank Willis Thomas's four transparent aediculae that house the "The Gun Violence Memorial Project," a sober repository of the personal effects of Americans who have been senselessly killed. Previously celebratory, Randolph Square’s classical framework has become more of a mausoleum.

Further reinterpretations of the building’s 1893 architecture are presented throughout by the Settler Colonial City Project and American Indian Center in "Decolonizing the Chicago Cultural Center." These interpretations are mounted on ethereal glass panels (designed by local practice Future Firm) that explore topics including the building’s displacement of native populations and the employment of exploited labor in its construction. The genius of the glass panels is that it allows the Cultural Center’s magnificent walls and ornaments to be clearly seen through the panel that describes the hidden problems with its cultural production.

It’s spatially nuanced, yet few of the spaces are extraordinarily memorable.
And that’s OK. Previous biennials tried to wow visitors through a few over-the-top memorable moves. This one is more like strolling through a good city, where there are a lot of different sights to see and ideas to ponder, and not as much of the bling that encrusts so many contemporary efforts to create urbanity. The fourth-floor Sydney Yates Gallery, the largest space in the building, is dominated by Territorial Agency’s "Museum of Oil—The American Rooms." Satellite and aerial photography displayed on ominously tilting walls create occupiable (and openly inaccessible) spaces within the classical confines of the immense room. The space thoughtfully depicts the enormity of the problems displayed and induces appropriate uneasiness in the viewer.

"Museum of Oil—American Rooms," by Territorial Agency
Edward Keegan "Museum of Oil—American Rooms," by Territorial Agency

There’s reason to get out into Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.
This isn’t new, as each edition has featured sites throughout the city. This year’s “big” ones are less numerous, but each offer tangible links to Chicago’s history along with site-specific installations. The Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville was designed by Perkins and Will in 1963 and closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013. It now presents a series of interventions, developed on-site with community workshops coordinated by Borderless Studio, and implemented by Herkes İçin Mimarlık (Architecture For All), studioBASAR, and Zorka Wollny. Additional anchor sites worth seeing are at the National Public Housing Museum in Little Italy and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But where does this leave architecture?
There’s so much emphasis on research, critique, and process that you can’t find much that could pass for architecture. Putting the endeavor into the hands of professional curators rather than architectural practitioners has led to a more cogent narrative, but good architecture has always required the synthesis of many forces—including the social, political, economic, and technical components of culture. This biennial spends so much time on the social, political, and economic that there’s seemingly little room or concern for the production of buildings. While we need to query these processes and amend them to create a more just and equitable built environment, good intentions and copious research are not enough for architecture. Making things—with firmness, commodity, and delight—should still be the end goal of architecture and architects. But that’s apparently a topic for another biennial.