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Chicago Architecture Biennial Executive Explains His Passion For the Craft

Andrea Mills | September 27, 2019 | Lifestyle


As executive director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Todd Palmer invites the world’s best talent here to address global challenges through design. His mission is to put that thinking into action.

“I’ve always been interested in the why of buildings, not just the how,” says Todd Palmer, a museum curator and master of architecture who is currently the executive director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. His role is to build partnerships while weaving a common thread through the myriad exhibitions, films, shows and events that make up the biennial, which launched in mid-September and continues into the new year.

Titled “...and other such stories,” the 2019 edition’s goal “is to bring to light the stories that we might not think of as driving architecture,” Palmer says—such as Chicago’s impact on civil rights through Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chicago Freedom Movement of the 1960s, which inspired the Fair Housing Act. “There isn’t a city in the world that isn’t talking about gaps in equality or how to build more sustainably. How a biennial can present holistic, small-scale ways of dealing with these challenges is really appealing.”

The Chicago Cultural Center, home base for the biennial, will host presentations such as a custom pavilion displaying Emmanuel Pratt’s work with the Sweet Water Foundation, which transforms abandoned lots in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. There are also off-site events and exhibits, including Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao’s collab with the Graham Foundation and the Art Institute, focused on innovation in affordable housing (she was one of the most talked-about contributors to the first two biennials).

The three-month biennial is important, of course, but to Palmer, the real work is in the off years—educational initiatives, design challenges, public tours and films are just some of the ways he drives the discussion forward. “We don’t really need to grow bigger,” he says, referring to the more than 100 partner organizations involved. “I’m interested in how to be more impactful and make the city more accommodating to cross-cultural exchanges.”

Photography by: Kevin Penczak