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The old Anthony Overton Elementary School, in the Bronzeville neighbourhood on the city's south side. The former educational institution, built in 1963, is now on the American National Register of Historic Places.Cory Dewald/Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial

I’d come to Chicago to go to school. Specifically the old Anthony Overton Elementary School, in the Bronzeville neighbourhood on the city’s South Side. The former educational institution, built in 1963 as an optimistic modern building, is now on the American National Register of Historic Places. It carried lessons about the city, and about architecture, that were tough and fascinating.

The 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial had brought me here to explore its halls of blue and yellow brick. Exhibitions by Chicago artists spoke to the roots of this historic African-American neighbourhood – photos depicted former students and their families – and to the history of this public place, which was shuttered in 2013.

“When I heard about the school closing, I thought it was an important time to talk about social infrastructure,” says Paola Aguirre of the local design firm Borderless Studio. “This is a place where the community came together, and it has a lot to say about social justice in the city.”

The 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial brought Alex Bozikovic to explore the school's halls of blue and yellow brick.Cory Dewald/Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial

Her company curated a series of exhibitions in the building as part of the Biennial – an event as sprawling and fascinating as the city itself. This year’s edition of the event, titled “ … and other such stories,” brings together architects and theorists from around the world for an exchange of ideas. The Overton school is one of several off-site shows that can take you away from the shiny skyscrapers of the Loop, for a different view on the city.

The Biennial’s centre is an exhibition at the downtown Chicago Cultural Center. This magnificent 1890s pile, a former public library, is home to a set of exhibitions on how architecture shapes society, and vice versa.

Architecture exhibitions can be variable; this one tends to the cerebral and the radical. Canadian Adrian Blackwell’s contribution, Anarchitectural Library (against the neo-liberal erasure of Chicago’s common spaces), is a case in point. Physically, it is a roomful of bookcases, curved benches and tables in white-painted steel and cheerful pastel hues. Its content is a set of texts by local activists, academics and organizers that speak to the loss of the city’s public goods, such as social housing and the closing of schools such as Overton.

Canadian Adrian Blackwell’s contribution, Anarchitectural Library, is a roomful of bookcases, curved benches and tables in white-painted steel and cheerful pastel hues.Tom Harris/Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial

On a similar theme, Do Ho Suh’s photographs and video installation explore Robin Hood Gardens, the utopian social-housing project in London whose destruction evokes the widespread loss of social housing in the United States, including in Chicago. As his camera pans smoothly down the complex’s corridors, the homely goods of its inhabitants contrast with the grand, utopian gestures of the architecture.

There is a bittersweet beauty here, and an acknowledgment that it’s not just poetry that shapes cities. Maria Gaspar’s Unblinking Eyes makes the point concrete: The work is a room-sized photo mural depicting an outer wall of the Cook County Jail. That complex on the city’s West Side is a huge presence in the lives of Chicagoans, and this, too, is architecture – just not the kind that you’ll visit with a tour guide.

Seeing all this added a layer to my experience when I got to the Loop for a more typical view of the city and a visit to the Chicago Architecture Center. This 20,000-square-foot facility, which opened last year in a Mies van der Rohe building, is the ideal starting point for a tour of Chicago’s famous downtown. It provides a detailed, engaging presentation of how the city’s physical form has evolved, and where its people have lived and worked.

The architectural history is clearly communicated – you will learn about the two-flats where many locals live, and about the aesthetic and technical innovations that Chicago is renowned for, from Adler and Sullivan’s early skyscrapers to the supertalls of today by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill.

You won’t learn much about the social tumult that defined the 20th century here. In a 10-minute video, the mass displacement of African-American communities for highway- and university-construction projects gets dealt with in one sentence.

But after I’d seen much of the Biennial, it was easy to make those links on my own when I stepped onto one of the Chicago Architecture Center’s famous boat tours for a cruise down the river. From here, it all looked very handsome: the Gothic fantasy of the 1925 Tribune Tower; the fanciful concrete corncobs of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City and River City; and the tall, dark severity of Mies’s former IBM Building. And the Riverwalk, the five kilometres of public passageways that line the Chicago River, was sprinkled with locals, their heads lifted in the sunshine.

One of the last points on our boat tour was a new hotel, designed by Smith and Gill, that’s surely one of the best recent buildings in Chicago. Its owner’s name hung from its shimmering façade in man-sized letters: TRUMP. A final reminder, not that I needed one, that architecture, power and money have always gone together, and that the beauty of the city is never simple.

The writer was a guest of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. The organization did not review or approve the article before publication.

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