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5 Questions for David Brown, the new Artistic Director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

To mark the opening Chicago’s most anticipated architecture event, GRAY talks with its organizer about what to expect this year, and why involving individual neighborhoods is vital.

By Rachel Gallaher

An overhead view of a map of Chicago painted in a parking lot. Green trees outline the space.

A 2017 project by Borderless Studio, which will participate in this year's Chicago Architecture Biennial. Chicago Extra-Large is a map installation located in the parking lot of former public school in the Southside of Chicago.

Sept. 17–Dec. 18 | Chicago

Opening this Friday, the fourth edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, this year titled The Available City, will present transformative possibilities for vacant urban spaces that are created with and for area residents.

Embracing a collaborative, community-led design approach, and headed up by artistic director, designer, and educator David Brown, the multi-month event will use talks, buildouts, exhibitions, and events to confront, and create a dialogue around, the often-opaque process of city design and development, and propose alternative, more inclusive design processes. Biennial programming will take place across digital platforms and throughout Chicago neighborhoods with happenings and installations that activate community gardens, decommissioned schools, and storefronts, in addition to vacant lots. Participating design studios include Borderless Studio, Norman Teague Design Studios, architect Negin Moayer of BNMO Design, and Open Architecture Chicago.

Brown, an educator based at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is known for his work looking at non-hierarchical, flexible, and variable approaches to urban design, and has written many essays on the topic, as well as the book Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). In anticipation of the opening of the CAB, GRAY spoke with Brown about what to expect from this year’s program, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the approach, and why the reexamination of the way we approach the design of our cities is so important.

David Brown, artistic director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, sits on a lot in a garden. Brown wears a black jacket and gray jeans.

David Brown, artistic director of the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photographed by Nathan Keay.

What can attendees expect from this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial?

The year’s edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial is an inversion from prior editions in that the portion of the Biennial that is on view at the Cultural Center, or indoors at all, versus what is out in the city is basically flipped. There is an increased focus on constructing actual spaces in neighborhoods, developed by contributors to the Biennial working in collaboration with community organizations. It’s this coupling of design thinking with community-driven ideas for spaces from local residents that forms the core of this year’s edition and involves the Biennial more directly in the making of the city.

In the past two years between events the way we use and interact with space (and each other in space) has changed dramatically. Did this have any kind of impact on the biennial either in logistical matters or thematically?

Yes—the realities of the pandemic and the protests for racial equity and justice over the past two years had a major impact on the shape of the Biennial.

Those events have increased the relevance of my ongoing work over the past decade on The Available City. However, I think [the Biennial’s] addressing of issues of public space and equity are richer and more nuanced than a theme that might have occurred as a direct response to the past two years. It’s a direction that can be sustained as well.

Logistically, there have been pluses and minuses. No one anticipated the rising costs of materials or how busy contractors would be this summer. And unfortunately, most of the international participants are unable to travel to the US. On the plus side, the comfort everyone developed with meeting through online conferencing has meant that I could have community organizations and residents in ongoing conversations with designers around the world in a way that I would not have been able to do previously.

architectural building design with carbon-fiber structure by Atelier Bow-Wow. BMW Guggenheim Lab, Chicago Architecture Biennial

The BMW Guggenheim Lab, the first building to have a carbon-fiber structure, was designed by Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow. The studio will participate in this year's Chicago Architecture Biennial.

In what ways are you seeing this year’s theme being embraced by participants and in what ways do you hope that it extends beyond the festival and into the fabric of the design community and city beyond that?

As a practice for me, The Available City is about the relationships with community organizations, working with them to identify an idea about a space, and engaging them with a design partner who can [execute] that idea in a way that exceeds the organization’s expectations and provides insight that can be transformative. All the contributors have embraced the idea that the work is a collaboration with the community partners. Similarly, for the exhibition components there has been a lot of interest in communicating the work to the neighborhoods that have large numbers of vacant lots.

For the most part, the residents of those neighborhoods are new participants in the Biennial, and a new Biennial audience. As much as the neighborhood highlight weekends spotlight the work in neighborhoods, we must make sure neighborhood residents go to the exhibitions and other sites, too.

Can you speak to the importance of reexamining the way cities are built and the systems through which they are built? What do you see as the most important consideration for moving forward in a new community-centered direction?

At its core, The Available City—the possibility of the city-owned land as a diverse community-driven landscape of collective spaces—is about fostering relationships that enable small community actions to build collectively in time into a larger city scape and scale. That’s a different kind of system, a reciprocal one in which the city invests in communities and communities in the city by contributing to its construction.

The city-owned land offers one opportunity for such a system. Perhaps this edition of the Biennial spurs thinking about other situations that can provide similar opportunities. I’m interested in whether there are other ways of thinking about the city-owned vacant land or other situations in cities that can have similar impact to what I propose through The Available City as an improvisational urban design.

architectural rendering of an auto body shop

An entry to the CAB's Spring Student Ideas Competition from a team at Morton West High School. The project reimagines and revives a vacant lot located in the North Lawndale neighborhood into a trade school that will provide people with a chance to acquire higher education and seek better jobs.

The Biennial works with a lot of well-established designers and architects, but are you seeing young people and students getting involved as well? What is your hope for the next generation of designers and architects?

I’ve looked to involve a few young practices among the well-established contributors, and I’ve been impressed by the way some of them have looked to share the opportunity and involve others. I’ve also involved UIC students through courses last spring and this fall as well as workshops in the past.

I think the most significant group of youth who have participated are within some of the neighborhoods. There are a good number of youths in different neighborhoods involved in components of some of the site-specific projects. I think their involvement is vital, especially in the exchanges and interactions they have with the contributors. Who knows where those experiences—talking and working with designers about possibilities for their neighborhoods—might lead them? I don’t know if they will become architects or designers, but I think they are gaining valuable experience that can inform whatever they pursue in the future. I do hope some youth who participate develop interest in being the next generation of architects and designers, but I also think being part of the conversations and exchanges can be of lasting value to youth no matter what study they choose to pursue.


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