If you visited the Chicago Architecture Biennial when its program first kicked off on September 21, you might have felt like the first guest to arrive at a dinner party, the host still buzzing around the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on their dishes. Throughout October, more than 100 activations were unveiled (at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Graham Foundation, the James R. Thompson Center, and other sites throughout the city), culminating with the official grand opening on November 1. This peek behind the curtain is atypical of exhibitions, especially those of this scale — but it was precisely the point. CAB 5, this year’s iteration of the city-wide event curated by local art collective Floating Museum, explores the theme This is a Rehearsal. In other words, it’s all a work in progress.

“Our collective has a deep interest in the complex apparatus of a biennial,” said Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, an artist and co-director of Floating Museum. “We approached it with a fair amount of skepticism.” With this in mind, the collective eschewed the idea of a biennial as a finite moment in time, instead seeking to create opportunities to extend the projects’ life long after the event closes. In fostering multi-disciplinary connections within the city, playing matchmaker between artists, designers and local community and cultural organizations, their hope is that CAB 5 will be a test bed for the city to commission longer-term projects. It all ties into Floating Museum’s assertion that the “city is the site,” ensuring that the biennial is as much about — and for — the city of Chicago itself as it is about the work presented.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

On display at the Chicago Cultural Center, The Gray Veil, designed by WOJR, offers an intimate rehearsal space behind a layered mesh curtain. PHOTO: Tom Harris

While the theme of rehearsal calls to mind the theatrics of putting on a show, for Floating Museum, it represents broader philosophical questions about the biennial format — who is it for, and what is its purpose? “Rather than declare one particular aim, rehearsal is an open-ended framework that is intentionally designed to allow for uncertainty, progress, failure and redemption,” they explain in their curatorial statement. In this way, the process becomes part of the projects themselves.

It’s an unusual take on a biennial, which often presents a much more polished appearance. But these global exhibitions, and the projects within them, don’t exist in a vacuum — they are in constant dialogue with each other and their cultural contexts. The biennial format, and its content, has come under fire in recent years. This year’s Venice Biennale, for instance, was slammed for its lack of capital-A architecture, while past editions have themselves been self-critical of the sheer waste they produce. The members of Floating Museum expressed other concerns: that these events often become more of a tourist draw than an opportunity to engage with the local public, and that this engagement is limited to the fixed time period in which the biennial runs. These are the very issues they seek to address with CAB 5.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

The Gray Veil features a square layer subtly circumscribed into its circular layout. PHOTO: Tom Harris

Some of the installations embrace the theme of rehearsal quite literally. Case in point: The Gray Veil, designed by WOJR, offers an inward-facing place for visitors and performers to rehearse, enclosed by a layered mesh curtain that evokes the magic of watching from the stage wings. Located in the Chicago Cultural Center, the intimate space will host a curated program, including the Red Clay Dance Company, but will also be available by reservation for those who want to use it. “The sound that’s captured here will also echo when no one is here, so some of the residual components of rehearsal will be in the space,” says Hulsebos-Spofford.

Throughout the Chicago Cultural Center, the theme is also reflected in the overall exhibition design by Leticia Pardo, who harnessed scaffolding, and SITE Design, who utilized stark white foam platforms used in land forming, to signify the idea of work in progress. Both elements also invoke Floating Museum’s skepticism about the waste inherent in biennials (Pardo utilized rented scaffolding, while SITE will repurpose the foam in the construction of a landscape in the city when the biennial closes).

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

In the Cultural Center’s Yates Gallery, Chris Cornelius presents ukwé·tase, his interpretation of a physical land acknowledgement. PHOTO: Tom Harris

Other initiatives captured the idea of rehearsal by way of prototyping, embracing the opportunity to refine planned projects or early concepts. Chris Cornelius of studio:indigenous, for instance, designed his take on a physical land acknowledgement. Entitled ukwé·tase, which means stranger or newcomer in the Oneida language, the piece is both a house and an installation, clad in Indigenous regalia and deer hide. Inside plays a video of the New Mexico sky, referencing Cornelius’ current home in Albuquerque. “I wanted to acknowledge the fact that if I do a land acknowledgement as an indigenous person in indigenous land, I’m a stranger there too. Being Oneida from Wisconsin, I’m a stranger in this land as well,” he says. “I’m also trying to tap into indigenous knowledge systems in my work. I often think about architecture as animals. I think about how what I’m putting into the world as a designer can be a good relative to our nonhuman relatives.”

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

The angular installation by Chris Cornelius is designed to evoke the feeling of a house. PHOTO: Tom Harris

At a time when the land acknowledgement has become a one-and-done performance, with an often apologetic tone, Cornelius’ rendition instead feels celebratory. It’s everything a land acknowledgement should be: steeped in history and tradition and building an ongoing relationship with the place it inhabits.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

In the Cultural Center’s fourth-floor Exhibit Hall, Anupama Kundoo is building a prototype for low-cost sustainable housing. PHOTO: Tom Harris

Elsewhere in the Cultural Center, Berlin-based architect Anupama Kundoo has developed a solution for low-cost housing in collaboration with ceramist Ray Meeker. Kundoo replicates Meeker’s method, which fires mud structures in situ to create strong and water-resistant dwellings, with un-fired brick and in the form of an inverted catenary dome. While labour-intensive, the technique requires few purchased materials, meaning each home is a sustainable solution that also represents a local economic investment. Kundoo and her team leverage recycled urban waste, such as bicycle wheels and bottles for formwork and structural units respectively, to supplement the brick structures. If the project looks unfinished, that’s because it is: The installation will be constructed with local bricks throughout the biennial.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

Tetisi = Listen by Norman Teague is a 1:1 scale model of a pavilion to be built in Chicago’s Douglass Park. PHOTO: Cory Dewald

In Englewood, a burgeoning community in the South Side of Chicago, Norman Teague, a local collective of artists designers and community activists, is rehearsing a project of its own. Tetisi = Listen, which started at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, is a 1:1 full-scale prototype of a pavilion built to honour abolitionists Anna and Frederick Douglass, who helped bring literacy and intellectual autonomy to Black people. The pavilion consists of four tunnels, which each embody a different theme or motif, around a central dome. The outside of each tunnel is an interactive chalkboard wall that invites the community to respond to prompts, and the interiors are covered in informative graphics by the Chicago Design Museum.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

The pavilion includes informative — and colourful — graphics by the Chicago Design Museum. PHOTO: Cory Dewald

While this edition is made of wood, it will later be built in copper in Chicago’s Douglass Park, where it will develop an evolving patina. “The intention is for it to stand forever, to look like it’s something that is old, that is neoclassical, that has a formal language that typically isn’t associated with Black people,” explains Daniel Overbey, an assistant designer at Norman Teague.

“In our artistic practices, Norman nor I really lean in on the idea of monuments having to be figurative,” says Dorian Sylvain, the artist commissioned to design a mural inside the structure. “Almost immediately, Norman came up with this concept of the dome. He was thinking of it almost like an umbrella — a protective structure that brings people together.”

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

Urban Growers Collective, a Black and woman-led non-profit, boasts 8 sites across Chicago, including a 14-acre farm in Clara Schafer Park (shown). PHOTO: Cory Dewald

This ethos of bringing people together is one that runs throughout the biennial, and nowhere is it more apparent than at Urban Growers Collective [UGC], helmed by social change artist Erika Allen. The Black and women-led non-profit farm, which has eight locations throughout the city, is working to address structural racism by building a more just and equitable local food system. In the process, it has engaged in soil remediation and composting to reinvigorate formerly industrial Chicago sites.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

Carmani Edwards (right) at the South Chicago location of Urban Growers Collective. PHOTO: Cory Dewald

The organization is currently working with David Benjamin of The Living and GSAPP Footprint Project to create an outdoor art studio and culinary space, which will host workshops, performances, and eventually, an artist’s residency funded by a grant from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Its design and program were both envisioned with help from UGC’s staff who are deeply rooted in the local community. Community-based workshops around the building’s materials will begin in the spring.

The $80,000 project, which draws on Benjamin’s work in nature-based fabrication, particularly using mycelium, is 50 per cent funded by CAB, with the remainder raised by Tito’s (the Vodka brand, which has also sent employee volunteers to help with farm work and the UGC’s herbalism program).

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

Tunnel farming allows Urban Growers Collective to produce crops all year round. PHOTO: Cory Dewald

For now, the initiative exists as a series of sketches and diagrams, with the beginnings of its frame just now taking shape on site. But for Faheem Majeed, co-director of Floating Museum, what is perhaps most rewarding are the connections fostered because of the biennial. “One of the benefits of the biennial is the opportunity to put people in space together, to think about possibilities. It’s nice to be able to use it to plant seeds for other things to happen,” he says. Allen has already been in talks with the Thompson Center, a CAB venue, to explore the idea of collecting waste from their food courts to use in their anaerobic digester, which captures methane from food waste. UGC then sells it on the trading market and uses the profits to grow more food, feeding into a circular economy.

This cross-pollination of ideas was precisely Floating Museum’s goal — not just to attract a global audience but to facilitate programs for those who are already living and working in these spaces. “I am a jazz musician outside of my work here at the farm. A lot of my own rehearsals incorporate improvisation. For us, rehearsal is not just repetitive, it’s generative,” says Carmani Edwards, who works at UGC. “We’re not just reiterating established concepts, we’re trying to breathe new life into them and if need be, create totally new concepts to best serve the people who are in this space.”

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

A series of carved wood stumps by Stoss Landscape Urbanism create an informal seating area outside the Thompson Center. PHOTO: Cory Dewald

At its outset, This is a Rehearsal might feel like somewhat of a cop-out. In some ways, the experience felt reminiscent of a midterm review — a design school staple. How does one begin to unpack and critique a project that is unapologetically unfinished? Yet, as Floating Museum notes, the idea of a rehearsal closely mirrors how cities operate. “This is a Rehearsal invites audiences to consider cities as a continuous process rather than an enduring object,” they say. Indeed, projects are never truly finished, even when the hoarding comes down and they open their doors. They are open to debate, they are constantly evolving (not always for the better), and perhaps they will be used in ways that the architect never intended.

There is perhaps no better example than the Thompson Center, originally designed by Helmut Jahn as a radically transparent government building. It was purchased by Google in 2019 and is slated for a major renovation — and partial demolition. To say the least, the redevelopment has been contentious. While many were grateful for the significant investment in preserving this architectural icon, which was once slated for total demolition, the plans have sparked controversy both for the preliminary renderings, which saw the iconic red and blue atrium pared back with a sterile palette, and concerns about the fate of the building’s public spaces.

Biennial Under Construction: CAB 5 Embraces an Ethos of Experimentation

For CAB 5, the Thompson Center’s iconic red and blue atrium was filled with installations, including hanging jute canvases by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama. PHOTO: Cory Dewald

For the biennial, it was outfitted with a series of installations (including a recreation of NPR’s Tiny Desk set and a Sprint store takeover by the Storefront for Art and Architecture), that, although strong individually didn’t seem to speak to each other or to the space they inhabit. This disconnect is somewhat of an inevitability with a theme so open-ended — and one that embraces rather than shies away from imperfection. But according to Floating Museum, the feedback loop is an important part of the process: “The point of rehearsal is never about perfection. It’s about giving yourself a chance to correct your mistakes, not to get stuck in failure but to move through it.” While the prospect of the biennial as a space for critical reflection is admirable, the real world doesn’t often provide an opportunity for a do-over. The question remains: When do our mistakes become irreparable? And how do we stop them before it’s too late?

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