Essay: About The Available City

The 2021 Chicago Architectural Biennial titled The Available City presents the city as a site for a new urban design proposal and global dialogue. The Available City focuses on the potential for creating collective space in Chicago’s ten thousand-plus city-owned vacant lots, which are concentrated in eighteen underserved South and West neighborhoods that are home to primarily Black and Brown communities. The Available City's collaborative and improvisational approach to creating a new urban landscape is community first rather than system first, as it works from a small scale to a large scale and over time to provide diverse forms and activities to foster collective spaces that are transformative for the residents and communities of each neighborhood. It’s an urban design approach that is informed by Black culture, especially as it relates to improvisation.

The Available City poses four key provocations: Our Missions Are Urbanisms; Futures We Could Have Today; Something Patterned, Wild, and Free; and A Power That’s Stronger than Itself, which inform the Biennial gallery exhibitions and essays. The texts and works on exhibit reflect on critical issues and questions that are not exclusive to Chicago: Who participates in the design of the city? How can changed points of view and changed policies offer new possibilities? Who are the improvisational organizers of the city? How can small elements have an exponential impact in the aggregate?

In addition to the essays and exhibitions, the Biennial manifests this urban design approach by creating collective spaces in neighborhoods that we can experience and respond to and by providing ways in which other ideas for collective spaces can be developed over time. By design, the development of ideas to make city-owned lots into collective spaces engages organizations and residents in those neighborhoods, in addition to architects and designers. The Available City foregrounds how under-resourced communities have ideas for their neighborhoods that can contribute to the larger character and design of the city.

As considered in The Available City, collective spaces are publicly accessible spaces that possess forms and activities varied enough to generate and accommodate a diversity of interests and needs in a neighborhood or community. Collective spaces implemented by community organizations can address art and culture, technology, transportation and infrastructure, education and youth development, health and wellness, green and open space, sports and recreation, workplace development, economic development, and capacity building. Additionally, public safety is addressed indirectly through the livability that collective spaces in a neighborhood can provide.

The primary focus of the Biennial is on community-partner sites for collective spaces. Site-specific structures were developed through a collaborative design process between architects, artists, and community organizations to realize new possibilities today. Some of the projects are temporary, while others are permanent. Many of these projects will evolve through events hosted by the Biennial on highlight weekends and activities initiated by residents week by week.

The fact that this urban design proposal impacts multiple neighborhoods; engages a large number of residents, alongside a large number of designers, to think about collective spaces; and evinces how those spaces can amass into a larger landscape makes it an appropriate focus for the Biennial. In turn, the Biennial’s global platform enables the participation of designers from around the world and community-site partners in five neighborhoods (North Lawndale, Englewood, Woodlawn, Bronzeville, and Pilsen), where vacant lots are prevalent, along with a site in South Loop. This scale of engagement aligns with the urban design proposal’s scope.

This edition of the Biennial highlights the value of architecture and the roles and impacts designers can have in working with neighborhoods and communities to introduce spaces that can be transformative—addressing interests, needs, and expectations in surprising ways. Through its unique connection to urban design, the Biennial thus becomes engaged in the making of the city—and is itself changed. In exploring The Available City, the 2021 Biennial opens up questions of what could and should be the relationship of biennials to urban design and the city.

Our Missions Are Urbanisms recognizes that each community organization has a mission and distinct points of view and advocacy that are the basis for its work with individuals and groups within a neighborhood. Those same goals and principles can guide the forms and activities of a collective space, contributing to the organization’s work and offering resources for other neighborhood residents, too.

The organizations provide the long-term management of the collective spaces, and they have the potential for changing forms and activities that comprise the space over time and in relation to their goals. As mission-oriented resources, collective spaces can become more formalized or give way to other uses, given development, lack of use, or other considerations. Thus, they can contribute to the way a neighborhood develops over time. In this way, an organization’s mission is urbanism. It suggests both processes and forms of urban development, as well as characteristic ways of living within them. Within The Available City, this understanding is the basis for working with community organizations in each neighborhood to identify a wide variety of unique collective spaces.

Project Row Houses (PRH), which was started in 1993 by Rick Lowe, demonstrates this potential in addressing multiple needs of the residents of Houston’s Third Ward. Starting with transforming twenty-two row houses into the site for art installations by local and international artists, an afterschool arts program, and residences for single mothers, it has continued to grow in property and programs. PRH’s flexibility seems to stem from the conception of all of its efforts as components of an art project—enacting if not inspired by John Biggers’ series of shotgun house paintings made during the eighties that foreground the value of row houses to Third Ward residents across generations.

Futures We Could Have Today underscores the transformative power of new perspectives, actions, and approaches to reconfigure the status-quo in order to introduce new futures. The Biennial supports community visions that transform vacant land into collective spaces and spark the collective imagination to create new possibilities for the future within places that previously had few.

This approach fosters broad recognition of the vacant city-owned lots as one interconnected landscape rather than isolated parcels. The Available City speaks dually to the land within the city that is available—the vacant lots—and to the city that we might have when we transform that land into a new landscape.

In reflections on her work, author Toni Morrison has said: “I know I can’t change the future, but I can change the past. The past is more infinite than the future.” With data rather than chronological time as her measure, Morrison asserts that each step back into the past offers another world. Thus, a change in past circumstances, the data of that moment, might be the basis for an alternate world.

Morrison’s fiction offers a reconciliation with past trauma to readers in the present. Sun Ra’s lived experience, as a being from Saturn, his musings, and his music worked that way, too, inherently offering a future that was not distant but rather present in the world today. The Available City explores the impact of actions in the present, such as introducing a new understanding of existing data that increases opportunities that were previously unforeseen, on creating different futures and outcomes than we anticipated.

The opportunities of the South and West Sides were once abundant. The ten thousand lots are not only visual reminders of that loss but also a detriment that negatively impacts the buildings that surround them. However, when considered as a set, the vacant lots can offer transformative opportunities for the residents of the eighteen most-impacted community areas. Such a change in circumstance not only brings new vitality to those areas but also fosters greater cultural capital within the communities and residents in those neighborhoods—enabling the consideration and pursuit of different possibilities for the future. Each changed thought in the present has the potential to lead to another change in the future.

Something Patterned, Wild, and Free encapsulates a work that is simultaneously improvisational, structured, and diverse in range and scope. It is the concluding phrase of a short prose reflection by poet Robert Hayden on his ambitions for his future poetry. Along with a desire to continue exploring Black history and folklore to affirm “[Black] struggle as part of the long human struggle toward freedom,” he longed to experiment with form and technique to arrive at something distinctly his own. While frequently considered as separate goals, they could be one—experimentation with poetic form and technique as a part of the exploration and affirmation of Black history and struggle.

Beyond poetry, Something Patterned, Wild, and Free describes the impulse within jazz to improvise upon a song structure and within writing to use open and free improvisation to produce work that has formal coherence yet embraces expansive interpretations. It also characterizes the visual sensibility at play in the polyrhythmic colors and patterns of Gee’s Bend quilts.

It is emblematic of The Available City’s urban design structure, too. The structure provides a direction for all of the city-owned vacant lots. But it does not offer specific guidelines regarding form, where to start, or a rate of creating spaces. Collectively, the Biennial contributions manifest some of the highly varied qualities and characteristics that a landscape of collective spaces designed in response to local interests, desires, and needs in each neighborhood can have. The experiences offered by each of the Biennial sites across five neighborhoods are generative. Reflection about their similarities and differences prompt residents, organizations, and Biennial visitors to consider a diversity of collective spaces across all of Chicago’s city-owned vacant lots.

A Power That's Stronger Than Itself alludes to the impact of small things operating individually and in the aggregate. It’s derived from an early slogan of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), "Power Stronger Than Itself." The organization started on the South Side of Chicago, in 1965, with the ambition to work collectively in order to pool resources toward a common cause. The idea can be seen both in their efforts to support one another in a collapsing market for jazz music and in relation to their extended open improvisations, begun in the Experimental Band in the early sixties, in which all musicians nurtured their individual voices while contributing to a large collective improvisation.

In The Available City, A Power Stronger That's Than Itself describes the potential exponential impact of the interspersed project sites as a landscape. In their shared commonality of intention yet distinct individuality, each collective space, in concert with the others, amplifies the power of the whole. Within each neighborhood, the variety of spaces can contribute to the distinctiveness of each neighborhood. In turn, the diversity of collective spaces across ten thousand lots creates a new and distinct urban landscape around the city.

Essay by David Brown