The Boundaries Issue

Artistic Director Yesomi Umolu Mixes Architecture and Activism for the third Chicago Architecture Biennial

This year's biennial expands its scope to engage every fiber of the urban fabric. Yesomi Umolu shares her enveloping perspective along with five must-see exhibitors.

Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic director Yesomi Umolu at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Chicago is one of those rare American cities with a populace well-versed in architecture. Really: Ask any resident to identify a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Mies van der Rohe or a Louis Sullivan, and they’ll point to a square in the skyline or a neighborhood to the south or west. So it makes sense that during his tenure, Mayor Rahm Emanuel determined to nurture an architectural biennial and plant it in his own hyper-planned backyard. It is no surprise that in just a few short years it has grown to become the largest of its kind in North America.

The debut of the Chicago Architectural Biennial in 2015 focused on the possibilities and challenges that visionary global architects imagine and face, today and in the future. The second edition, in 2017, investigated Chicago’s architectural history and how the past has been both referenced and transformed by contemporary practitioners. Locals and the thousands of guests who have descended upon the Second City from mid-September through early January consider the event an essential, if still nascent, meeting point for people from around the world to explore new ideas centered on the built world and its environs.

This year will be different. For its third iteration, the board tapped Yesomi Umolu, the director-curator of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, as its artistic director. And she is dramatically broadening the definition of “architecture.”

A trained architect-turned-curator who has won numerous awards and coveted positions, including the 2016 Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts’ Curatorial Fellowship, the Nigerian native considers the field’s obvious disciplines such as design, landscape architecture, and engineering, while also incorporating the myriad unexpected actors who together allow placemaking to happen. For this year’s theme, “…and other such stories,” Umolu welcomes into the fold public policy makers, social activists, real estate developers, artists, and researchers, among others, to allow for a comprehensive look at “the ways the built space reflects and impacts our understanding of the common, the collective, and the constitutional,” she says in the biennial’s opening salvo.

Umolu’s tactic is refreshing, relevant, and nearly limitless in its inclusivity. “When I was coming up through the architectural field, I was seeing people who were equally as excited about doing a pavilion as they were about a publication or a conversation. All of that is intrinsically part of what an architect’s work is,” says Umolu from her office on Chicago’s South Side. To bring together all the decision makers who ultimately define and shape cities, Umolu and her team selected partners who are, according to her, “making space and place.” Through research, investment in pre-existing or prospective projects, and collaborations with diverse groups from Sao Paulo, Vancouver, Johannesburg, and other international hubs, Umolu is hoping this year’s program can make an impact long after the scale models and stages come down mid-winter. “We are trying to open up the field and say that architects can intervene beyond the built world,” Umolu insists. “It’s a different approach to a traditional biennial. We are probing the underlying questions that are urgent to the urban experience and exploring how practitioners in the field are dealing with these issues right now.”

Employing an approach that filters social, political, and ecological processes through the prism of built environments, the curator has selected 80-plus collectives and firms to show their works in 40 locations across the city. Each are pushing architects and their peers to create projects that adhere to the third biennial’s four focuses: “No Land Beyond,” which explores how sovereignty informs the definition of land as property; “Appearances and Erasures,” which reflects on public sites that help us remember or forget the past and present; “Rights and Reclamations,” a consideration of spaces as places of civic engagement; and “Common Ground,” a catchall for the diverse participants in the creation of quote-unquote architecture. Taken together, and presenting it all in this sprawling midwestern metropolis, these four topics will arouse visitors’ emotions, and hopefully encourage them to take action. “Like any city, there is always space for critical interpretation of urban conditions,” Umolu says. “But what makes Chicago unique—maybe as a result of the city’s urban plan—is that it is trying to address its problems through policies and urban development and also through cultural engagement. In order to be generative in its thinking, the biennial has to reach beyond its own boundaries, using this import and export of ideas that has always been a part of the city’s history.”

Umolu sees this consideration of posterity as part of the architect’s mandate. “We were interested in using the biennial as a platform that would be a resource that would support projects that have impact beyond sept-jan in Chicago. Also it’s about having this legacy, or hoping there would be a legacy,” she says. “We are trying to open up the field and say that architects can intervene in the world beyond the built world.”

Here, Yesomi Umolu calls out five exhibitors, all showing in the Loop’s Cultural Center during the 2019 Chicago Architectural Biennial—September 19 through January 5, 2020—who are generating some of this year’s most ambitious works tackling the present-day conundrums facing cities worldwide. Architecture as social activism? This curator thinks so.

1. Wolff Architects
Cape Town, South Africa

Wolff Architects is a design studio based in Cape Town, South Africa, focusing on social inequities, land sovereignty, and the resulting erasure of indigenous landscapes and histories. The firm will present an installation honoring the legacy of South Africa-born, mixed-race author, agriculturist, and architect Bessie Head by recreating the Maun, Botswana, reading garden and library she built and occupied while in self-exile during apartheid. “There has been different land distribution when it comes to indigenous versus newcomer populations, and Wolff Architects works in this arena where land ownership is and continues to be contested,” Umolu says. Videos and live talks will dive into how even one person can use his or her own agency to make space and place on land that is contested. “Bessie designed and built her own house and garden in exile in Botswana. It was a form of reclaiming space for herself, since she had been denied that right in South Africa,” Umolu says.

2. Forensic Architecture & Invisible Institute
London and Chicago

The UK-based forensic agency Forensic Architecture and the Chicago-based investigative journalism platform, the Invisible Institute, have been match-made by Umolu to investigate the 2018 shooting of Harith Augustus by Chicago police. The data-visualization project, which will premiere at the CAB, uses forensic techniques and on-the-ground reporting to contest the official narrative of Augustus’ death “by reconstructing the event across six distinct time scales—from milliseconds to years—each of which exposes a different dimension of police violence,” says Umolu. This counter-visualization of the killing of Harith Augustus, she says, “raises incisive questions about policing and race in Chicago and the United States at large.” Moderators will prompt the audience to discuss the role of police violence in shaping a city and how data collection can shed light “on spatial injustices and their impact on our everyday lives.”

3. ConstructLab
Berlin, Germany

ConstructLab executes projects all over the European Union in which a community comes together to develop spaces based on its own needs. For the biennial specifically, ConstructLab is creating a public agora on the first floor of the Cultural Center to provide a setting for conversations, public performances, and a series of site-specific programs. In each of the projects that they do—“Parasite” in Berlin, a public space for cultural practitioners to create and display their own sculptures; “The Longest Bench of Brussels,” where ten benches were designed in one afternoon and built in one week by neighborhood locals—ConstructLab works with everyday citizens and professionals in an exchange of expertise. “They are all about the process of making, and how you translate ideas into form,” explains Umolu.

Mumbai, India

CAMP is a collective of artists, filmmakers, software programmers, architects, activists, archivists, and researchers who study public housing in Mumbai, India’s most populous city. For their biennial installation, the collective will present an animated lecture-performance funded by the CAB that charts the history of temporary forms of habitation across the last century in Mumbai. “The work narrates the social, cultural, and political history of the ‘housing question’ in Mumbai through a new kind of annotated film that links to online archival sources,” Umolu explains. Covering court-mandated housing solutions, a 1950s “poor man’s colony,” and, of course, Indian slums, CAMP’s biennial work aims to interpret history in order to imagine what is possible and equitable for the future of public housing. A three-part interactive web-based film related to the lectures will be released during the course of the CAB, and will live online in perpetuity.

5. MASS Design Group
Boston; Poughkeepsie, NY; Kigali, Rwanda

MASS Design is a not-for-profit whose mission-driven projects include everything from Alabama’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which traces the horrors of lynching, to a sculpture with the artist Hank Willis Thomas honoring Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr, in Boston, to a hospital in war-torn Rwanda. The group has been working with advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Control on a prototype memorial to gun violence, and the biennial is giving it a space to showcase what such a monument could look like. Through various workshops, MASS will ask the public to share their stories, artifacts, and memories, then place the physical objects at the Chicago Cultural Center in glass houses meant to represent the unfathomable numbers of gun-related deaths that occur over a single month in the United States. It’s a topical project for the city Umolu calls home. “One of the ways we understand urban spaces in America is through gun violence,” Umolu says. “We want to talk about it in a way that is responsible and collectively finds solutions.”

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