In her role as exhibitions curator at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Yesomi Umolu works within an enclosed 2,500-square-foot space. But as artistic director of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, which begins September of 2019, Umolu’s gallery is all over the city.

“Chicago has made immense contributions to the field of architecture,” says Umolu, who joined the Logan Center in 2015 and also is a lecturer in the Division of the Humanities. She cites Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “That history is rich, and it’s deep, and it makes sense that Chicago is a place where we could have a big, significant showcase of contemporary architecture and spatial practices.”

This year, Umolu served as an adviser for the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the original biennial cultural organization that has inspired similar events in more than 200 cities since its inception in 1895. A public-private initiative launched in 2015, the Chicago Architecture Biennial features a series of exhibitions, installations, performances, educational programs, and selected architectural sites across the city.

Planning for 2019 was in its early stages this summer. Umolu was focused on assembling a curatorial team of leaders working throughout the field of architecture, from practitioners driving the latest building innovations to experts in public engagement and large-scale exhibitions.

Umolu hopes that the Chicago biennial “will be reflective of a broad range of considerations and bring perspectives from different contexts.” That diversity of perspective is a big reason why she’s excited about this super-sized challenge.

Like their cities’ physical landscapes, no architecture biennial is the same. Umolu says construction priorities vary widely due to differences in factors such as geography, urban layout, and economic development goals. “There are different architectural histories, vernaculars, and urgencies dependent on the specificities of place.”

Umolu, who specializes in global contemporary art and spatial practices, notes that architecture touches on far-reaching questions about economic and social development, equality and representation, and other aspects of the human experience.

“Architecture is the building block of civic society,” Umolu says. From studio apartments to culs-de-sac to government buildings, human structures reflect and shape the way we live, behave, and interact—requiring expansive thinking on the part of those designing our built environment.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial itself must also serve a range of needs and audiences. Umolu hopes to inspire visitors from “first-time architectural aficionados” of all ages to professional architects who view the event as a benchmark for the field.

The biennial model offers an opportunity for scholars and practitioners alike to free themselves from tactical and logistical constraints, Umolu says. “It continues to be a platform for new ideas and new thinking that may not be possible within the framework of everyday practice of architecture or even within academia.”

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