A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

An Architectural Moment


by Bridget Esangga

Chicago will host the first Chicago Architecture Biennial next year, from October 1, 2015 through January 3, 2016—underscoring the city’s reputation as a leader in innovation and the birthplace of modern architecture.

The event will be the largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America; coupled with the arrival of SAIC’s incoming director of the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects (AIADO), Jonathan Solomon, it creates an opportunity for SAIC alumni, faculty, and students to engage in a global dialogue about the built environment and its role in people’s lives.

“I think it’s a very exciting moment for the city of Chicago in terms of architecture and design—a moment in which a small but agile and dynamic program could do really exciting and meaningful things,” says Solomon, who officially joined the School on August 1.

Chicago currently finds itself at the avant-garde of architectural design, theory, and practice in no small part due to its long history of leading architectural movements and experimenting with new technologies—making it a natural fit for hosting an architectural biennial. In the past, Chicago’s visionary architects have used new technologies to change the way buildings are designed. Architects such as Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham defined the first Chicago School of architecture in the 1890s, using steel frame construction to build the first skyscrapers, while figures such as Mies Van Der Rohe and the engineer Fazlur Kahn defined the second Chicago School in the 1940s with glass curtain walls and framed tube structures. 

But unlike those movements, architectural and design thinking in Chicago today is “intertwined with the culture of our streets, and how we imagine using our city,” Solomon says.

This kind of thinking is at the core of SAIC’s curriculum. Douglas Pancoast, associate professor of AIADO and director of SAIC’s Earl and Brenda Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration, is currently working with an SAIC master of architecture (MArch) student and other SAIC faculty on a project to mount camera-less sensors on city light posts that will collect data on humidity, temperature, carbon monoxide, light, sound, and motion, and feed it to a publicly accessible database. Anyone will be able to look at the data, analyze it, and build applications around it.

Solomon adds Chicago’s bike sharing and public transit contactless fare cards as other examples of the type of projects that might not ordinarily be associated with architects or designers, but highlight the type of visionary thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration the field requires today. 

Solomon’s own background has prepared him well for his return to Chicago (where he grew up) and his new role at SAIC. He earned his MArch from Princeton, worked for architects in New York City, and taught in the United States for several years before spending six years at the University of Hong Kong, where he headed the Department of Architecture. There, he co-authored a book called Cities Without Ground, which maps Hong Kong’s three-dimensional urban complexity. 

Throughout his career, Solomon has been committed to collaboration with different groups of people, and notes that SAIC’s interdisciplinary curriculum and collaboration among disciplines is a strength in contemporary design education. Solomon advocates broadening the profession of architecture and says SAIC is an extraordinary place to make the case for that. 

“We are literally across the street—in some cases, just a few stories below—the largest corporate offices in the United States, not just the city,” he says. “These are offices that hire our students. They know our work. They’re offices whose ear this program will have. If we can demonstrate the value of what we bring, I think they’ll listen.” 

The Biennial is a chance for Chicago to plug itself into the global conversation on the future of architecture. Solomon will be helping co-Artistic Directors Sarah Herda, Director of the Graham Foundation, and Joseph Grima—an architect, writer, and curator—plan related events and involve SAIC students and faculty in the conversation.

“As we design the cities of tomorrow, new platforms of research and reflection are needed, and Chicago’s history is a reminder that we shouldn’t forget to be visionary,” says Grima.