5 Big Ideas From The Chicago Architecture Biennial

How design could heal the fractured relationship between people and police and other key takeaways from the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

It’s safe to say that architecture and Chicago’s history are inextricably linked. The city was the stomping grounds of Bauhaus great Mies van der Rohe. Frank Lloyd Wright had his home and studio in Oak Park. Louis Sullivan built some of the world’s first skyscrapers there. Postmodern pioneer Stanley Tigerman and contemporary impresario Jeanne Gang are based in the city. And for the next three months, Chicago is host to the first architecture biennial in North America.


Essentially a three-month-long exhibition and roster of public lectures and events, the Chicago Architecture Biennial brings together the work of over 100 leading designers, architects, and artists in a survey of what’s happening in the field. Installations grapple with technology, housing, and sustainability and question the role of design in shaping the world. Five of the biggest ideas presented at the Biennial are below.

Studio-Gang_Polis-Station_Tom-Harris-c-Hedrich Blessing_1Hedrich Blessing

Design Could Heal The Fractured Relationship Between People And Police
Jeanne Gang has made headlines for her innovative projects including razor-edged skyscrapers and restorative landscapes. For the Chicago Biennial, her firm, Studio Gang, tackled one of the most pressing issues in the city: crime.

The impetus came about when Gang was working on a design for a Brooklyn fire house.


“We started to realize that the firemen have a strong sense of community with each other and with the community around them,” Gang says. “Fire house doors are often open and people can come in and talk to them. I thought, what is the architecture of the police station around the country like? Right around that time, the President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing report came out, which has recommendations grouped into six pillars. I was just curious, could any of this be spatialized?”

Gang took the six pillars—building trust and legitimacy, technology and social media, training and education, policy and oversight, community policing and crime reduction, officer wellness and safety—and applied them to architecture. She traced the history of police station typology over time and saw that over time the design became further and further removed from its surroundings, eventually becoming the unwelcoming fortresses we see today. Her idea hinges on using design to encourage more positive interactions with police starting with ways to embed departments into their communities.

“The two prongs are ‘police station becomes community center’ and police officers are ‘atomized’ and become part of the community,” she says. Her conceptual proposal includes things like having computers with public Internet access in the stations; constructing shared athletic facilities; building police housing in neighborhoods where there’s an abundance of vacant properties; planting community gardens. Gang points out that some current policy might not make some of these proposals feasible. For example, in New York City officers cannot live in the precincts they patrol. Moreover, there was no client; the firm could let its ideas run wild. However, much of this is actionable. One of the suggestions, turning parking lots into basketball courts, was actually built at a Lawndale police station and was met with excitement when it opened this weekend. That said, Gang views the Polis Station as a more potent conversation starter than a blueprint.


“We need something,” she says. “The violence in the neighborhoods is really intense and the conflicts between the police and community are more visible. This is a great time to try and take on this issue from multiple vantage points…Developing relationships and building trust—that’s where architecture can have a strong impact.”

Studio Gang – Polis Station – 10th District Axon without textStudio Gang

Architecture In the 21st Century Is Open Source, Not About A Single Visionary
“The role of architect needs to shift to be more of a facilitator, a curator of ideas, a synthesizer,” Jeff Risom, managing director at Gehl Architects‘ New York office, says. Risom, who spoke on a panel called International Perspectives on Chicago and the Future of Urban Change, argues that the era of the “Master Builder” is over.

“We’ve entrusted architects and lawyers to make cities and we know that it’s much more complex that that,” he says. “What we really love about cities is public life—the vibe, the energy—and that’s about social science, urban economics, ecology, and so many other things. Architects and lawyers aren’t experts in that. Other disciplines should have a say.”


He advocates more public participation and transparency throughout the design and planning process.

“If architects can observe and translate and put some of that culture and life of a place in a physical form, that’s still great,” Risom says. “But they have to be good at facilitating conversations, shortening the gap between cities and decision makers, providing platforms, creating equitable environments, or asking technical questions about big investments like infrastructure. To be clear, it’s not about getting rid of architects and designers and replacing them with citizens—it’s an add. It’s a more reasonable distribution of responsibility. To solve this incredibly complex issue of life in the city, it’s not just about beauty or functionality—it’s about how we live. Designers have a role, but not the only role and the master vision.”

UrbanLab_FilterIsland_Render_NoFloodUrban Lab

Large-Scale Infrastructure Should Multitask
Local firm UrbanLab has a project called “Filter Island” in the exhibition Alternative Scenarios for Chicago. Principals Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen directed their attention the the city’s waterfront and took a page from planner Daniel Burnham’s book and thought about a bold, large-scale project to combat water pollution and provide more public space in one fell swoop.


“Monofunction was how infrastructure was dealt with in the 20th century,” Dunn says. “We as architects and designers are interested in leveraging one move to create other things. We’re really interested in using infrastructure to provide new cultural space for the city. You could clean the water in underground tanks with lots of industrial processes, but if you’re going to spend $1 billion, why not produce a cultural landscape? If water is the new oil—and Chicago has a lot of it—then we should be thinking more smartly about the resources we have in terms of social amenity and commerce.”

Andres_Jaque_Architects-SUPERPOWERS_OF_TEN_Andres_Jaque_Office_for_Political_InnovationAndres Jaque

Architecture Isn’t Confined To Buildings
Co-artistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima didn’t invite the Biennial’s participants to riff on a specific theme, but recurring issues and concerns organically emerged in the work. “One of the most prevalent was the agency of the architect,” Herda says. “Architects around the world are carving out new ways to practice and new ways to make architecture matter in the world. They’re not waiting for a brief; they’re taking on the possibilities and opportunities that they see around them. We really see the exhibition as a site of experimentation. It’s not a place to look at pictures of buildings; it’s a place to figure out the future of buildings.”

For example, Andres Jacque and his firm, the Office of Political Innovation, revisited Charles and Ray Eames’s classic film the Powers of Ten in a performance piece called the Superpowers of Ten. The play discussed pressing social issues through an environmental lens, everything from food production to space debris.


Adaptation Is Essential For Buildings
The Harvard GSD’s Adaptive Architecture and Smart Materials Conference explored the relationship between science and construction. For example, how can innovation yield more sustainable cities? Making buildings more responsive to their surroundings is one avenue and smart glass might be a vehicle.

“Buildings at a certain scale want to be made out of glass, but we feel environmentally irresponsible making them,” says Eric Höweler, principal of the Boston firm Höweler + Yoon and a Harvard professor. While glass has long been a favorite building material for modern architects, it’s pretty bad from an energy standpoint as the material transfers heat. (In the summer, it takes a lot of energy to cool and in the winter, a lot of energy to cool.) A couple years ago, Merck hired Höweler + Yoon to research the potential applications on glass embedded with liquid crystals. At the Biennial, Merck revealed designs for a forthcoming innovation center in Germany that uses new materials—like smart glass—to help curtail energy use.

“It’s really interesting to think about a microscopic thing that could impact the architectural scale of a city,” Höweler says. “If you add a level of control to glass, you take something mysterious and unstable and you’re able to regulate it. This addresses trends of the ability of buildings to smarter and thinking about building maintenance control systems as not being not separate [from the structure]. Building technology shouldn’t just be for technicians, it should be for designers.”


For Jeanne Gang, who also presented at the conference, adaptability makes sense from the standpoint of keeping up with the most efficient technology. “In the beginning of my practice, I was trying to put technology into the surfaces of my buildings,” she says. “But as I saw how fast tech was changing, I thought certain types of technology should be plug-and-play. If they’re adaptable you can upgrade.”

The Chicago Architecture Biennial runs until January 6, 2015. Visit for programming details.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.