At the beginning of September, I visited the thirty-fifth São Paulo Art Biennial during its opening days. It is a vast, extraordinary exhibition featuring the work of 121 artists spread out over 30,000 square meters in the colossal Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, a dedicated space co-designed by legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer.
On one of my three visits, I walked through with Beto Shwafaty, a Brazilian artist who writes for NewcityBrazil. Beto questioned the continuing value of the Biennial. He said that it was founded in 1951 with the purpose of situating Brazil on the international art map.
Seventy-two-years later, that mission was accomplished, he said, but the Biennial now soaks up so many resources that the rest of the art culture is dramatically underfunded.
I was reminded of that conversation when I read Alison Cuddy’s profile in this issue of the curators of the fifth Chicago Architecture Biennial, Floating Museum, in which Andrew Schachman said, “It might be controversial for someone curating a Biennial to have doubts about a Biennial.”
Though the sentiment is the same, these two biennials, which happen to overlap this fall, are in very different places. The Biennial in São Paulo dominates the cultural conversation in Brazil—everyone, it seems, visits and talks about it—and it has a large, year-round presence with 160 staff members, a powerful board of who’s-who, and a position in the cultural landscape of Brazil that seems unlikely to change.
Chicago’s Biennial is still young, and while it enjoys important levels of support, it has a long way to go before it is an institution. And Chicago’s mission is the opposite, in some ways, of what Brazil’s was back in 1951. The world recognizes the vitality of Chicago architecture; we are central to the global conversation. But here at home, we undervalue it. Public discourse in the newspapers and other major media is minimal, and the fight to preserve architecture—a process intrinsic to valuing it—seems neverending.
Near the end of my visit to Brazil, curator Marc Pottier gave me a tour of the art collection of the Rosewood Hotel. It’s a stunning restoration of a building that was once a maternity hospital into what is billed as the most luxurious hotel in South America. It’s a part of what was once a ten-building hospital complex, which will be transformed into “Cidade Matarazzo” by French businessman Alexandre Allard, who is bringing the likes of designer Philippe Starck and architect Jean Nouvel to Brazil to take part in restoring a once-derelict property, one that the city of São Paulo refused to allow to be demolished.
As I marveled at the project, I could not help but be reminded of another once-historic hospital campus here in Chicago, which even featured buildings designed by Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius. We won’t have our own Cidade Matarazzo, alas, as the city of Chicago acquired and demolished the Michael Reese complex a decade ago for specious reasons.
We need our Biennial now more than ever. If nothing else, we need it to help our politicians and business leaders find the vision that their predecessors displayed, which propelled Chicago to architectural greatness.
Look for Newcity’s October 2023 print edition at over 300 Chicago-area locations this week or subscribe to the print edition at Newcityshop.com.
IN THIS ISSUE
Not Afraid to Be Disliked
A conversation with Rachel Shteir about her new biography of Betty Friedan
Still Crazy After All These Years
The Veeck family is a saga of triumph, tragedy and fun. Always fun.
Rehearsal Time: Chicago Architecture Biennial 2023
Hallucination About the World: How Floating Museum curates an architectural biennial
Dry Run: Why Feda Wardak is building a waterless water tower in Englewood
The Grand Dame Returns: Joe Mansueto puts on the Ritz with the Belden-Stratford
Space for Storytelling: A proposal for an unrealized film set
The Embodied Politic: Solange, RoboCop and the city hall ideal
Concrete Faith: How the creation of the Bahá’í House of Worship changed the course of architecture
A new comic by Anya Davidson
A new poem by Reginald Gibbons
And so much more…