Chicago Architecture Biennial secures the city’s place as a mecca for building buffs

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Chicago Architecture Biennial secures the city's place as a mecca for building buffs
© Iwan Baan
Chicago Architecture Biennial secures the city's place as a mecca for building buffs
© Iwan Baan

With the police stations of tomorrow and $9,000 extendable homes, Chicago’s first Biennial is a diverse pick’n’mix of architecture today. But why won’t it engage with the city in a more meaningful way?

Birthplace of the elevator, cradle of the skyscraper and home to more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings than you could ever want to visit, Chicago has long been America’s mecca for architecture nerds. The city’s architecture foundation offers no less than 85 tours for visitors to marvel at the heroic skyline of neo-gothic buttresses and gilded art deco spires from the comfort of boats, buses, bikes and trains. The rich history of groundbreaking buildings remains the chief reason why the city lures over 50m tourists every year.

But that’s not enough for the city’s energetic mayor, Obama’s former chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel. He wants 55m by 2020. This week, he opened the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial as a step on the way, a $6.5m privately funded extravaganza (primarily sponsored by BP) aimed at ensuring the city “will continue to be seen worldwide as an epicentre of modern architecture”. It’s a no-brainer, he says; the question is why the city wasn’t doing this before.

Chicago has a fine history of thinking big. “Make no little plans,” said Daniel Burnham, the architect who developed the comprehensive urban plan for Chicago in the 1900s: “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” It is clearly a motto the Biennial’s curators have held dear. []

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