Chicago Architecture Biennial Preview: Questioning Real Estate Values

In dramatically reconsidering what property ownership looks like, two nonprofits seek to empower neighbors and residents to claim city spaces for themselves.
chicago architecture biennial 2019 land values

Construction work on Sweet Water Foundation’s prototypical RND House, a version of which has been erected within the halls of the Chicago Cultural Center. Courtesy Sweet Water Foundation

In the run-up to the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019, which opens on 19 September, Metropolis presents a series of previews of the themes running through the event. For exhibitors at this year’s biennial, the “art” of building is hardly innocent. From resource management to property relations, these works reveal a more complex reality.


When urbanists and architects preach “the right to the city,” they mean urban spaces open to enjoyment and use by all. But framed within a market context, in which urban development is pegged to capital expansion, this “right” appears reserved only for those who can buy, and trade in, real estate. At the Chicago Architecture Biennial, two groups—Sweet Water Foundation and FICA (Community Rental Real Estate Fund)—are presenting an expanded definition of ownership, one that sees ordinary people at the center of development.

Since 2009, Sweet Water Foundation has transformed a previously abandoned parcel of land on Chicago’s South Side into a site for regenerative neighborhood development (RND), a process by which communities acquire agency in their own transformation. Within four contiguous blocks, Sweet Water cultivates food-producing gardens, handbuilds arts spaces, and rehabilitates foreclosed houses so they can serve as education spaces.

“What we started off with was a series of empty spaces,” says urban planner Emmanuel Pratt, who cofounded and directs the foundation. “Traditionally somebody would look at an empty space and say, ‘What’s the land value?’ You’d develop a house on the site and sell it. We asked, ‘Why not take these empty spaces [and] reach out to folks directly in the neighborhood?’ Just like how fruits and vegetables have seeds for their own regeneration, that’s fundamentally the principle.”

Sweet Water is exploring housing development through its RND House, a worker’s cottage–style home—front porch included—designed as an alternative to traditional development practices, which the foundation believes can lead to displacement and gentrification. The group constructs an RND House prototype within the Chicago Cultural Center, where it doubles as a gallery. With various materials on display, the installation helps visitors “understand the structure, understand our site, and create a dialogue back to the Washington Park and Englewood neighborhoods,” says Pratt.

While Sweet Water taps into a local network of volunteers to reactivate vacant lots, FICA, a São Paulo–based nonprofit, wields market mechanisms against themselves. The collaborative group—its members range from architects and artists to sociologists and lawyers—raises money via crowdfunding to purchase apartments that it renovates and rents at 50 percent of market rates.

That combats what FICA director Renato Cymbalista describes as “perverse and predatory” rental and ownership markets. “In Brazil and in Latin America in general, a large part of the property market is informal, with specific ways for buying, selling, and building,” he says. Formal markets, like those in the U.S., are concentrated (1 percent of landowners own 45 percent of properties); informal markets, while vibrant, are difficult to regulate, resulting in exorbitant leases and precarious tenancy.

At the biennial, FICA installs a scale model of its first renovated apartment in São Paulo, complete with graphics, videos, and a book about affordability, economic mobility, and the importance of safeguarding properties. The nonprofit is also organizing a debate about landlords, who, it can be definitively said, exert their right to the city more than anyone else.

You may also enjoy “From Housing to Activism, the Next Chicago Architecture Biennial Will Bring Global Issues to Chicago.”

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Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture