At the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Artists Run Free

Faheem Majeed, a member of the art collective the Floating Museum and one of the artistic directors of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, was standing on a patch of soil on the South Side on a brisk, sunny afternoon last month. Next to him was the artist Erika Allen, a founder and the chief executive of Urban Growers Collective.

Behind them rose piles of lumber and the beginnings — the tentative outline — of a building frame for a two-story pavilion. Designed with architecture students at Columbia University, it will hold a residency for the collective, which runs programs related to urban agriculture and the arts and distributes organic produce from its eight farm sites around Chicago to local chefs and community groups.

“As you see, it’s not finished,” Majeed said of the pavilion, which the Biennial is helping fund. “But it’s not about a Biennial timeline. It’s about really leveraging the moment to actually build something that will be useful.” As a result, the site remains closed to the public until, as the Biennial website rather vaguely puts it, “later this fall.”

The Chicago Cultural Center, one of the sites of the Biennial, titled “This Is a Rehearsal.” It is intended to foster new partnerships and programs that can live on after the exhibition ends.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

The organizers of any biennial have to strike a balance between serving the expectations of visitors, participating artists and donors on the one hand and, on the other, the needs of the neighborhoods that host the installations. The latest iteration of the Chicago Architecture Biennial — the fifth since it began in 2015 — leans hard, and sometimes tumbles, in the second direction.

A central aim of this citywide Biennial, titled “This Is a Rehearsal” by Majeed and his Floating Museum co-directors Avery R. Young, Andrew Schachman and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, is to use its $2.3 million budget to develop new programs and partnerships across Chicago, or bolster existing ones, so they can live on after the exhibition ends in February.

That sensibility links it with other recent art and architecture gatherings of note, including the Venice Architecture Biennale, the St. Louis art triennial (known as Counterpublic) and Exhibit Columbus, the Indiana design festival. Each made a point this year of focusing on historical reckoning, community engagement or moving out of white-walled galleries into neighborhood spaces.

In Lesley Lokko’s curation of the recent Venice Biennale, though, there was an exquisite attention to detail to go with an inclusive, reparative definition of architectural practice. The St. Louis triennial mapped its curatorial politics effectively onto its geography, aligning its sites along the north-south spine of Jefferson Avenue to challenge established Manifest Destiny tropes of the city as little more than a gateway to the western United States.

In Chicago, the Floating Museum winds up stretching architecture’s net in so many directions that it begins to fray, or at least to appear rather thin on the ground. The show’s sites are far-flung, with the emphasis on flung.

One of the installations testing out future monuments honoring an expanding, more diverse group of Americans. It is a memorial, by the artists Samuel Levi Jones and Sam Van Aken and the architecture firm LAA Office, to the victims of a lynching in Marion, Ind.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

The title the Floating Museum has given the Biennial suggests cultural connections as wide-ranging as Nathan Fielder’s HBO series

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