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Chicago Architecture Biennial helps create ‘oases’ on vacant lots on South, West sides

Teams of architects from all over the world have worked with neighborhood residents to transform vacant lots into thriving community spaces.

Keyante Aytch, 24, who works with Grow Greater Englewood on building the Englewood Village Plaza, said he enjoys harvesting vegetables from the community garden. He plans on taking home eggplants from the garden to fry them. Aytch is a South Side native.
Keyante Aytch, 24, is working with Grow Greater Englewood on building Englewood Village Plaza, one of the Biennial’s 15 projects across Chicago. The site was previously a vacant lot.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

A vegetable garden in Englewood. A North Lawndale community pottery center, built by hand from bricks of soil. A colorful outdoor exhibition space in the heart of Woodlawn.

This year, all across Chicago, small architectural oases have popped up in perhaps the most unexpected of places: vacant city-owned lots.

The theme of the fourth installment of the Chicago Architecture Biennial is “The Available City,” and the event is reimagining 10,000-plus vacant lots on the South and West sides as community spaces.

“The city-owned vacant lots are about 13,000, and if you assume a standard lot, that’s about the size of the downtown area,” said David Brown, the Biennial’s artistic director. “That’s really something that can have a very large impact on the residents and the community organizations, but also on the city.”

The Biennial usually is held in the Loop at the Chicago Cultural Center. But with the pandemic still limiting indoor activities, it had to be restructured, Brown said.

Instead, it focused on outdoor spaces in underserved communities, where many vacant lots are located.

The results can be seen in 15 projects scattered around the city. Each site is designed by international architects and local organizers, who team up to transform those desolate lots. This year, in a first for the Biennial, whatever is built on each site is intended to be permanent.

“The Living Room” at the PermaPark Garden in North Lawndale will serve as an outdoor classroom for CCA Academy, a nearby charter school.
“The Living Room” at the PermaPark Garden in North Lawndale will serve as an outdoor classroom for CCA Academy, a nearby charter school.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

Not all Biennial spaces have been finished — but that’s the point, Brown said. His hope is that the sites will always be evolving.

At Soil Lab in North Lawndale, residents are still putting the final touches on what will become a community pottery and artists’ space. The lab includes an on-site kiln.

“Our hope is that it’s never complete, and it’s always a thing of constant evolution,” said James Martin, an architect from Dublin who came to Chicago to work on Soil Lab.

James Martin, a lead architect for Soil Lab, said he hopes the Soil Lab is always evolving as residents expand their interests and skills. He taught residents how to use an architectural technique called “rammed earth.”
James Martin, a lead architect for Soil Lab, said he hopes that project will continue to evolve as residents expand their interests and skills.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

Other vacant lots transformed as part of the Biennial include North Lawndale’s PermaPark Garden, which has wood carvings and an outdoor space for CCA Academy, a nearby charter school; and El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen, which features “The Garden Table,” a curvy table and play area designed by Dutch and Italian architects. Both sites are complete.

And in Englewood, Tokyo-based architects Atelier Bow-Wow are working with locals to construct Englewood Village Plaza, which will include a long table, a gathering deck and canopy. A few feet away, residents can harvest local vegetables from a garden designed by Grow Greater Englewood.

“It’s so different than everything else, it almost feels like an oasis,” said Keyante Aytch, a South Side native who is helping build the plaza. “When you kind of step on here it’s, ‘Whoa.’ You’re kind of not where you think you might be.”

Designed by Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, the table and plaza will serve as a community meeting space for Englewood residents. Englewood Village Plaza also hosts a garden.
Designed by Tokyo architecture team “Atelier Bow-Wow,” the table and plaza will serve as a community meeting space for Englewood residents.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

The plaza’s table and garden are complete. Anton Seals, director of Grow Greater Englewood, hopes the deck will be built in the spring.

“It’s coming along. It’s been a long journey, and it’s just getting started,” Seals said.

Though Seals said he’s pleased with the progress on the site, he’s looking beyond this project. He wants the site to become he gateway to a two-mile nature trail he hopes to build, one that could be an important step to “turning the tide of Englewood without displacing the residents,” he said.

“I’ll feel that full satisfaction when it’s all done,” Seals said. “When the plaza area is completed and the outdoor grill and stone oven is built and we’ve gotten resources to start building the nature trail. All those things would be like, ‘Oh, now I feel that feeling of completion.’ I don’t quite feel that yet.”

While “The Available City” inspired a network of architects from over 18 countries, and attracted over $1.8 million in funding, Seals said he still grapples with the meaning of this year’s Biennial theme.

“I struggle with that because ‘Available to whom?’ is the big question,” he said. “Especially in a highly segregated city that we live in, what does it mean to be available given that the city and vacancy is not available to the average citizen in a real easy way.”

Keyante Aytch works with Grow Greater Englewood, an organization hoping to use the village plaza as an entry point to a two mile nature trail. He said his favorite part about the project was getting to bring home vegetables to eat.
Keyante Aytch works with Grow Greater Englewood, an organization hoping to use the village plaza as an entry point to a two mile nature trail.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

Seals hopes the Biennial’s partnership with Grow Greater Englewood and other community organizations have pushed the famed architecture series to think about spaces from a more community-driven perspective.

“I think Chicago has the opportunity to support those kind of visionaries and get out of the way and allow for the failures and mistakes to add up into something that’s really interesting.”