State of the Cultural City: Chicago Architecture Biennial and Museum Week 2015

Fall in Chicago brings the wild Midwestern change of seasons, complete with violent, riled lake, and high winds, and days that veer impulsively from warm to chill, leaden skies to cloudless ones. The dark comes earlier and the sun seems almost to shine fiercer for its curtailed hours. The changing of the season always brings a resurgence in the arts world, from new seasons at Lyric, the Chicago SymphonyChicago Opera Theater, Hubbard Street, and the Joffrey (as well as Chicago’s theater scene, of which someday I hope to more fully partake) to new exhibits at Chicago’s museums–the Smart, for example, has recently re-opened following a summer of installations.

This fall is bringing some extra excitement–not just that of a nail-biting contract negotiation at the CSO (now resolved, as I found out from Chicago Business Journal and my mother learned from her friends on the barg team), nor of the final day coming down the pike for the Field Museum’s Vikings exhibition, but an architecture biennial, and the first (one hopes) annual Chicago Museum Week, coming up this first week of October. In other words–there’s going to be more than ever to do in Chicago this fall!

and then we built it up way better than the first time. After the great Chicago fire of 1871, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2015

Chicago has always been a great architecture city,1 or, at any rate, the “Second City,” built after we burned the first one down (oops), has left its mark on cities across the world. It makes sense, then, that we’d host what is essentially a world’s expo of contemporary architecture. The Chicago Architecture Biennial, beginning on October 3 and running until January 2016, will offer a smorgasboard of programs related to contemporary architecture, from affiliated exhibitions to talks, pavilions, and more. If you like architecture–at all, in any shape–it isn’t to be missed.

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The Chicago Cultural Center, one of whose Tiffany mosaics is shown here and of which I have previously written, will host many Biennial-related events in the coming months.

The Biennial is, not surprisingly, attracting quite a bit of press: we are, after all, the Second City, which burned itself down and rose again, better than before, contributing to the world fireproofing and Chicago School and the rise of modern civic and commercial architecture, and most of us are pretty aware of it. We have torn down far too much of our patrimony, and yet we have also preserved much of it (we seem to have a thing for Meis van der Rohe, and we’re letting Pilgrim Baptist sit, a husk of a historic building). Naturally, when we do something architecture-related, we write about it–a lot. Ranging from the Trib’s Blair Kamin to Crain’s Chicago Business, everyone is discussing the Biennial. (Crain’s, understandably, hopes that we can do our architectural legacy justice through this Biennial. Naturally, I hope that we can both do it justice–and build upon it. We’re still an exciting architectural city.) Blair Kamin (still my favorite architecture critic) has written numerous articles on the Biennial, both offering his take and providing curated lists of big events and architects,2 among others.

Burnham and Bennett’s Plan for Chicago, including Northerly Island (sans Meigs Field). 1909. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Architecture Biennial comes at what is already an exciting time for Chicago architecture. The future Obama Presidential Library will come, as it were, home to the South Side; a selection process for architects is already underway (and has pulled in bids from lot of architects, as well as good commentary from Kamin). The former Meigs Field is once again Northerly Island, which is incredibly exciting on both an architecture/landscape architecture and an environmental level: we’ve got beautifully designed open space once more, and Chicago’s rather vibrant community of wild beasts, ranging from birds to intrepid urban coyotes,3 get another space to live. The ever exciting (and innovative) Studio Gang, headed up by Jeanne Gang, has buildings going up throughout the city, including City Hyde Park, beautiful even in its unfinished state.4 (Every time I drive by I take another few pictures of its emerging balconies–I think it would be a pretty amazing place to live, myself, though most likely I’d never be able to afford it.) For those interested, Gang has written about social connectivity, architecture, and high-rises–a fascinating topic on its own merit, and even more so for those of us from cities, and those of us who work with communities. Theaster Gates is reviving the beautiful and long-abandoned Stony Island Bank, now the Stony Island Arts Banks–I nearly cried when I realized that it really was being restored, and would not be torn down. Oh, and we’re going to get the Lucas museum. Eventually. 😛 (The redesign5 has recently been unveiled–not quite as overwhelming as it was last time, at any rate. But you can rest assured that we Chicagoans will critique it, whatever it turns out to be–and however much we end up loving it. We ❤ our architecture.)

Museum Week

But the Architecture Biennial is far from the only massive cultural exhibition in town: this upcoming week, from October 1 through October 7, Chicago’s museums will put on the first Museum Week Chicago, offering everything from discounted admission (take advantage of it!) to even more exhibits. It looks to me to be an amazing opportunity–well-known giants including the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd, the Adler, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Hyde Park’s Museum of Science and Industry, and the Lincoln Park Zoo will team up with lesser-known Chicago gems including the DuSable (I’ve mentioned it a few times), the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, and the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society), also in Lincoln Park.

The depth and breadth of Museum Week’s offerings, all tied up in twelve museums, is hard to overemphasize. They range from science museums (and a zoo) to spaces of art, culture, and history, and they tell the story of a city and the folks who live there. Did you know, for instance, that Chicago’s Puerto Rican community stretches back to the mid-20th century, if not earlier? For that matter, while you’re in Humboldt Park to see the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, drop by Paseo Boricua, traditionally the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. It’s very much a part of the city worth knowing better.

I have written a few times about the DuSable Museum of African-American History, homage both to Jean-Baptise DuSable and to Chicago’s historic African-American population. Naturally, I think you should take advantage of Museum Week to see what should really not be a lesser-known museum. And, of course, if you’re prepared for some walking, you could make a day of it, visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oriental Institute, the Smart Museum, and the DuSable…all in once day! (You might have some museum-induced form of shellshock afterwards, but you would have seen a lot of super cool stuff!)

The National Museum of Mexican Art also showcases an old, vibrant, and evolving Chicago community. Mexicans began coming to Chicago in numbers in the 1920s, though, as this article notes, immigration ramped up somewhat in the 1960s. I’m ashamed to say I have not gone often to the National Museum of Mexican Art–but the times I have gone are unforgettable. The museum, while small, is, in a word, amazing. It’s bright and colorful and stuffed with information, usually in both English and Spanish. You’re covered whether you are an English or a Spanish speaker, which is, I think, as it should be. And did I mention that it’s really cool? They even do awesome exhibits on Día de los Muertos, which, of course, I love. This year, they’ll be hosting a celebration of Día de los Muertos in the city of Chicago–although it comes well after Museum Week, it’ll be worth a return trip, for sure.

A very, very pretty train at the Chicago History Museum. South Side Elevated Railroad car 1, built 1892. On display at the Chicago History Museum. Image by Wikipedian JeremyA and housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The Chicago History Museum (which I visited often, way back when it was the Chicago Historical Society) is a great space. It has some random Historic Chicago streets, all dolled up to look like the days of gas lights, and some trains to get into, and a rotating cast of exhibitions, and it really does tell Chicago’s story, from its beginnings to the present. (Its archives are also worth a look, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) Interested in railroads?  Disability rights? Vivian Maier? Civil rights? Objects and their histories? Boy, has the Chicago History Museum got stuff for you. And, like every other cultural institution participating in Museum Week, it’s in a nice location.

There is so much going on in Chicago–and elsewhere–right now, but if you are bound for the city, Museum Week and the Chicago Architecture Biennial are more than worth seeing. Use the opportunity to go somewhere new, or somewhere old and well-loved; learn a little more about the state of contemporary architecture, or see a few more museums. There’s so much worth seeing, out there, and Museum Week and the Architecture Biennial will pull things together (and in some ways make them more accessible), at least for a little.


1 This is probably pulled almost verbatim from my architecture history classes with Tim Wittman at SAIC, although I’d have to comb through notes to be sure.
2 Whether due to communication issues or other problems, the floating stage/music boat Point-Counterpoint II has not yet been given permission to dock and perform. Regardless of one’s fondness for brass, it seems like it has a place in an architecture Expo. Kamin goes into greater depth in his article, available here.
3 Apparently city coyotes, like city folks, get around a lot–more, in fact, than their suburban counterparts! And they even look both ways before crossing the road, as DNAInfo tells us in this article. If you’ve a yen for more urban coyote research (and who doesn’t?), there is actually an Urban Coyote Research institute out there. Have a ball!
4 I would only point out that I do not recall the strip mall was actually underused; I have no doubt that by the time Studio Gang was brought in, however, it most likely wasn’t used at all. And I think that the building will be a tremendous addition, architecturally and aesthetically, to Hyde Park.
5 I am actually strongly in favor of the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago; I am in favor of just about anything that will increase tourism, and bring people and money to the city. I am not in favor of a gigantic thing sitting on the lakefront, and I am concerned about traffic–surely, though, we can figure out ways to lessen the impact of a couple million more cars in an already congested place. More public transit, anyone?

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