Chicago Biennial Creates Architectural Oases on Vacant Lots

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Robison Wells
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The fourth Chicago Architect Biennial wants to connect contractors and architects to turn Chicago's run-down vacant lots into an "architectural oases." Plans include vegetable gardens, community pottery centers, and outdoor art exhibitions. Planners will use vacant land with high crime potential for all projects.

The project theme, "The Available City," refers to the more than 10,000 vacant lots in Chicago's south and west sides.

"The city-owned vacant lots are about 13,000, and if you assume a standard lot, that's about the size of the downtown area," said David Brown, the Biennial's artistic director. "That's really something that can have a tremendous impact on the residents and the community organizations, but also on the city."

Architectural Biennials usually renovate indoor spaces. But this year, due to Covid 19, they have engaged in more outdoor projects targeted at underserved communities. As a result, this year 15 vacant lots have been radically transformed.

James Martin, an architect from Dublin who came to Chicago to work on the pottery center, Soil Lab, which includes an on-site kiln, wants this project to carry forward. "Our hope is that it's never complete, and it's always a thing of constant evolution."

Other transformed lots include North Lawndale's PermaPark Garden. The facility serves a nearby charter school and El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen, including a massive "Garden Table" where event planners can host outdoor feasts, serving food grown on the spot.

"It's so different than everything else; it almost feels like an oasis," said Keyante Aytch, a South Side native who is helping build a plaza with a large canopy pavilion. "When you kind of step on here, it's, 'Whoa.' You're kind of not where you think you might be."

"The Available City" has attracted architects from 18 countries and nearly $2 million in funding for its 15 sites.

Anton Seals, director of Grow Greater Englewood, commented on the future of the project. "I think Chicago has the opportunity to support those kinds of visionaries and get out of the way and allow for the failures and mistakes to add up into something really interesting."

Chicago Biennial plans to bring new beauty and function to vacant Chicago land. Residents anticipate great things from the international designers and builders attracted to the project.

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