Architecture Biennial draws visions of an improved city from students

(Published June 1, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

In May, the Chicago Architectural Biennial announced the winners of the BP Student Ideas Competition at a ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center. The competition challenged Chicago students to re-imagine how they might use abandoned or empty properties in their neighborhood for greater public good.

In one of his last acts as mayor, Rahm Emanuel congratulated the students for their ideas.

Emanuel kickstarted the Biennial five years ago and he said it remains one of his proudest accomplishments. He said the challenge is intended to get high school students from across the city and across backgrounds to see the city as theirs.

“My test of this city of Chicago is that if a child in Ravenswood and a child in Roseland and a child in Edgewater and a child in Rogers Park or in Wildwood, if they all can look to the city and see the image of all of ourselves in the skyline against this natural beauty which is lake Michigan and if they have the same perspective that that’s my city and that’s my home, then New York City, Boston, London, Berlin and Beijing, watch out. Chicago is coming for you,” Emanuel said. “But if a child looks at the city and thinks it’s a whole different place, even though it’s five miles away, we will never be what we can be.”

He said the Chicago Architecture Biennial is intended to inspire young people to write the next chapter of the city’s story. In total, 171 students, from 49 schools and 42 ZIP codes, reimagined vacent lots. Ideas ranged from replacing empty lots with gardens and libraries to homeless shelters and public medical facilities.  

Jessica Chaidez, a 10th grader from Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago was the first-place winner. For her entry, titled Blackwell Hospital, she design a community hospital for the Ashburn neighborhood.

As part of her entry, Chaidez argued that many in the neighborhood are unemployed and a community hospital could lower mortality rates.

“Ashburn’s mortality rates can go down by providing a hospital in the community according to the British Medical Journal,” Chaidez wrote. “The distance from a hospital plays a life or death situation. If it’s close, you will have a greater chance of surviving. Ultimately, having a hospital in your community offers great job opportunities to the people and can reduce the number of unemployed.”

Ultimately, Emanuel said all the projects gave him hope for the future of Chicago.

“This, in my view, makes sure it’s a legacy that pays dividends for our future and that’s why I am so proud of this event,” Emanuel concluded.

Chicago Architecture Biennial Executive Director Todd Palmer said the program is more important than bricks and mortar.

“What is architecture,” Palmer asked. “It’s of course buildings, but we think it’s also ideas, including landscapes, buildings and projects that work to solve homelessness. Architecture is for all of us and we can change Chicago for the better in a global context.”

The finalists’ projects are on display through August on the third floor of the Chicago Cultural Center building, 78 E. Washington St.

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