During its May to November run, the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale drew 275,000 visitors from 63 countries. Then, from late February through April, the Biennale’s US Pavilion, Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos, came to Chicago, on display at the Wrightwood 659 gallery in Lincoln Park, almost exactly as it was in Venice.

Niall Atkinson, associate professor in Art History, was one of three curators of the US Pavilion, part of the team of curators, commissioners, and directors from UChicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) who designed Dimensions of Citizenship in response to the Venice Biennale’s theme of Freespace.

“The link between citizenship, space, and architecture is an increasingly urgent topic in the United States and the world,” Atkinson says. Envisioning the design of space as a set of practices constitutive of certain modes of citizenship, the US project team wanted to “set the tone to stimulate creative and expansive ideas about how citizenship could be mobilized by architectural principles predicated on the issue of scale,” working from the belief that the transformation of space for humanity necessarily involves architecture, community engagement, and imagination.

It also encompasses collaboration among urban designers, visual artists, art historians, policymakers, lawyers, and scientists.

Because of the planet’s population explosion and the number of people displaced by conflicts worldwide, “it is urgent for UChicago leaders and faculty members to think about the design of built space, the transformation of space, and the future role of people in space,” says Bill Brown, cochair of the University’s new Urban Architecture and Design Committee and the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture. Brown served as a project director for Dimensions of Citizenship, as well as on its advisory board.

Cities as different as Venice and Chicago, Atkinson says, face related challenges around abandoned buildings, public housing, and the effects of forced displacement and migration of populations—all of which are central concerns of citizenship, architecture, and borders. 

“The notion of citizenship is at the core of many important social and political issues of our time,” says provost Daniel Diermeier. “Dimensions of Citizenship explores these concepts and issues in all their complexity.”

In the exhibit, instead of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” maxim, Atkinson says, the designs embrace the concept of “more is more,” reflecting an inclusive approach to citizenship in contrast to the idea of isolationism. His cocurators—Ann Lui from SAIC and Mimi Zeiger, independent critic, educator, and writer—along with associate curator Iker Gil from SAIC, choreographed an expanding range of architectural issues and ideas.

Created by seven different architectural firms and art and design studios, the installations consist of a series of images and responsive texts to explore the changing form of citizenship and its relationship to the built environment. Divided among seven scales—citizen, civitas, region, nation, globe, network, and cosmos—the images and words show each scale’s relation to citizenship and to each other. Spatially and contextually, the exhibit moves from the body to the city to the heavens.

Each scale inhabits its own space, encompassing multimedia displays. Stone Stories, an installation at the scale of the citizen by architect Jeanne Gang, includes stones from Cobblestone Landing in Memphis, Tennessee, a landing on the Mississippi River where both cotton and enslaved people were sold—and where Studio Gang has developed a new plan for the city’s riverfront. A display for the globe, In Plain Sight, shows satellite images of Earth, dramatizing the discrepancy between concentrations of energy (identifiable by lights) and concentrations of people. It shows, for instance, the radical distinction between the return of light, in the aftermath of hurricanes, to Houston and Puerto Rico. In Venice, the exhibit as a whole was represented by a vibrant green Palladian dome, divided by the seven scales of the exhibit.

The pavilion’s classifications position citizenship as a crucial global concept, Atkinson says, reflected in the four films shown in the “Transit Screening Lounge” section of the show. As a result, “Dimensions of Citizenship embraces a wide range of artists, architects, and urban designers who are engaged and connected to how architecture both hinders and creates relationships with different types of communities.”

Redefining urban citizenship

Through urban design experiments dating back 1,000 years, Venice is a treasure trove of architectural history. Since the twentieth century, Chicago has been one of the world’s great architecture cities—which is why bringing the exhibition to Chicago was a priority, says Bill Michel, AB’92, MBA’08, associate provost and executive director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and a project director of the pavilion exhibit.

Chicago is also the home of the institutions that created Dimensions of Citizenship. “The partnership between UChicago and the School of the Art Institute combines the best in the program from both institutions,” Michel says. The US Department of State and the National Endowment for the Arts provided funding for the Venice project, and the Alphawood Foundation supported its Chicago installation.

Collaborations have extended outward, with a range of public programs with community organizations exploring citizenship and belonging. Even before the exhibit came to Chicago, members of the pavilion’s team held a public panel discussion on “Un-free Speech” at the Chicago Cultural Center, illuminating the role architecture plays in citizenship.

As another example, in November the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation and UChicago Arts sponsored a conference on “Citizenship, Migration, and Urban Space.”

The conference and other projects around Dimensions of Citizenship ask questions that resonate in both Chicago and Venice, according to Brown: How might architecture apprehend the abstraction of citizenship? How can it confront the materialization of that abstraction, past and present? How does it understand the state of being-apart, the state of being-together, within or beyond the nation-state?

“Chicago is one of the last really segregated big cities in the country,” says Atkinson, who discussed migration, public housing, and abandoned buildings with social and educational communities in Venice and Chicago. “By uniting activists and architectural advocates, architecture can be a bridge to the conversation about desegregation. The Dimensions of Citizenship exhibition brings people together locally and globally.”