News Column

Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin column

June 23, 2014

By Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune

June 24--Aiming to boost tourism and elevate its status as a design center, Chicago next year will mount a global exhibition of cutting-edge architecture that will strive to duplicate the cachet and commercial success of a cultural spectacle in Venice, Italy.

The upstart exhibition, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to announce Tuesday, will be called the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a nod to the prestigious Venice Biennale, which just opened its 14th international architecture exhibition.

Chicago is billing its biennial as North America's biggest survey of international contemporary architecture, but the event faces a crowded field.

Besides Venice, whose architecture biennial began in 1980, scores of cities -- from Sao Paulo to Istanbul to Denver -- hold biennial exhibitions of art, design and architecture. Chicago will compete with them for exhibits, attention and tourists' dollars.

The first biennial, which has secured a $2.5 million lead grant from British oil and gas giant BP, is planned for Oct. 1, 2015, through Jan. 3, 2016. If all goes well, it would be put on every two years.

The event will "play to the city's strength," Emanuel told the Tribune in a phone interview. "Obviously there's an economic benefit in tourism and travel. Chicago will continue to be seen worldwide as an epicenter of modern architecture. ... The real question is: Why wasn't Chicago doing this before?"

The city's biennial will showcase scale models, digital renderings, photographs and more unconventional displays centered at the Chicago Cultural Center, the grand, Beaux Arts edifice across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park.

Even with Chicago's treasure-trove of buildings by architects ranging from Louis Sullivan to the latest stars, John Ronan and Jeanne Gang, outsiders split on the prospects for Chicago's biennial.

Biennials "are proliferating, but Chicago has a trump card in that architecture is the great calling card for Chicago," said Robert Ivy, chief executive officer of the American Institute of Architects, or AIA, a professional association based in Washington.

A more cautious note was struck by Martin C. Pedersen, executive editor of New York-based Metropolis, an architecture and design magazine.

"Just by being in Chicago alone, even with its amazing cultural heritage around architecture, that in and of itself won't make it an absolutely must-go," he said of the planned biennial. "There has to be a real commitment over not just one year, but over three or four years."

"You're not going to snap your fingers in this crowded cultural marketplace and have it be an immediate success," Pedersen said.

The formal announcement of the biennial, which Emanuel plans to make beneath the translucent Tiffany dome of the Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall, is timed to coincide with the onset of the AIA's national convention at McCormick Place, where the mayor is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech Thursday.

The biennial plans are Emanuel's latest attempt to use culture to build tourism in Chicago, a priority reflected in initiatives ranging from the effort to land the museum of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas to the Great Chicago Fire Festival, set to be staged by the Redmoon Theater on the Chicago River this fall.

City officials were cautious in offering a target attendance figure for the biennial, saying only that they hope to match or exceed the 200,000 to 300,000 visitors the Cultural Center gets during a typical three-month period. The officials view the biennial as a "point of entry" that will introduce outsiders to the city's acclaimed lineup of restaurants and museums.

"One of the goals is to firmly cement Chicago's identity as a cultural destination," said Michelle Boone, commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the agency working on the biennial. "We have all this here. We think it's time that the rest of the world knew it too."

Emanuel personally solicited the lead, $2.5 million donation for the biennial from BP, which has offices in downtown Chicago and a research and development complex in Naperville. City officials, who said they have other pledges, acknowledged that at least another $1.5 million still must be raised from private benefactors.

With Chicago holding its architecture biennial in odd-numbered years and Venice taking the even years, organizers envision that globe-trotting architecture buffs will shuttle between the two cities to sample the field's latest forms, technologies and ideas.

The event will be "the Davos of architecture," said the co-artistic director of the Chicago biennial, Sarah Herda, referring to the Swiss municipality that hosts global political and business leaders at its World Economic Forum. Herda directs the Chicago-based Graham Foundation, a grant-making architecture organization that will partner with the city to present the biennial.

Joining Herda as co-artistic director will be Joseph Grima, an architect and writer who co-curated the Istanbul design biennial in 2012.

They'll confer with an international advisory committee, which includes such boldface design names as Gang, Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman and Peter Palumbo, who chairs the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize sponsored by Chicago's billionaire Pritzker family.

More than 178,000 people attended the 2012 version of the Venice architectural biennial, according to news reports.

Unlike the Venice event, which has a two-day ticket price of 30 euros (nearly $41), there will be no admission charge for the Chicago biennial, officials said. The target audience will be architects, students, tourists and cultural connoisseurs.

In another shift from Venice, the Chicago event won't have national pavilions that offer a showcase for designers from various countries participating in the event. However, biennial-related displays could be placed in Millennium Park and elsewhere around the city.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation, which runs a popular architectural boat tour on the Chicago River, will help plan the event, whose theme is still to be announced.

Barring schedule changes, the first part of the biennial would coincide with the foundation's annual Open House Chicago program. This year it will be held Oct. 18-19 and will offer interior tours of about 150 buildings in Chicago.

Plans for the biennial, which have been in the works since 2012, led city officials to a discovery: Chicago'sWorld's Columbian Exposition of 1893, a dazzling temporary city of classically styled buildings that showcased such inventions as the Ferris wheel, led to the first Venice art biennial in 1895.

"We learned that the Venice Biennale was inspired by the World's Columbian Exposition," said Boone. "The mayor of Venice came to Chicago, saw (the exposition), and said, 'Italy is too consumed with its past. We must be about the future.'"

Venice's architecture exhibition typically is held every two years. However, that schedule has not been strictly followed, with occasional disruptions accounting for the total of 14 exhibitions in 34 years.

This year's Venice architecture biennial, directed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is titled "Fundamentals" and forgoes the event's typical focus on recent work by architectural stars. Instead it examines how basic aspects of contemporary construction, like dropped ceilings stuffed with air-conditioning ducts and other equipment, constrain creativity.

"The ceiling used to be decorative, a symbolic plane, a place invested with intense iconography," Koolhaas told the website of the British newspaper The Guardian. "Now, it has become an entire factory of equipment that enables us to exist. ... It is a domain over which architects have lost all control, a zone surrendered to other professions."

The Chicago biennial's timing could scare off potential visitors because its later half could coincide with the onset of Chicago's brutal winter. But Boone said the city's summer calendar was already jammed with festivals and other events, whereas in the fall, "this would really be a crown jewel event."

bkamin@tribune.com

Twitter @BlairKamin

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