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Chicago has a long, productive tradition of envisioning its future through architectural exhibitions. CAF’s “50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards”—part of its 50th anniversary celebration—looks to extend that tradition into the city’s third century.

by Reed Kroloff, Senior Advisor for Programs and Industry Collaboration

From the Burnham Plan of 1909 and the 1922 Tribune Tower Competition, to the 1987 Harold Washington Library Competition and the creation of Millennium Park in the 1990s, architectural and urban speculation about the city has been a staple of public discussion and debate, probably more so than in any other major American city. Many of the ideas generated in those conversations not only gave form to the Chicago we know today, but helped shape the character of buildings and cities across the country as well.

To Each Ward Its Own

Where earlier proposals were often grand, encompassing visions of the city as a whole, delivered—and often depicted—from on high, “50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards” adopts a more democratic approach, one based on the city’s basic geopolitical organizing unit: the ward.

“Understanding the challenges facing Chicago and many large urban centers today―economic development, quality housing and affordability, aging infrastructure and the delivery of city services―we saw the curation of a broad-ranging exhibition of ideas as a great way to generate discussion.”

—Lynn Osmond, President and CEO of Chicago Architecture Foundation

Arguments can be—and have been—made about the size, shape and composition of the city’s wards, but no matter how they’re determined, each ward will always have a distinct character, based on factors such as demographics, geography, industry, education and culture. The exhibition looks at the city as an expression of the opportunities and challenges facing the citizens in each of the 50 wards.

“Our goal is to inventory a new breed of architectural and infrastructural interventions that will foster social, creative and entrepreneurial interactions among Chicagoans.”

—Martin Felsen, exhibition curator and co-founder of UrbanLab

As such, and in keeping with all things political, this exhibition’s proposals have a distinctly local character. This is purposeful. Working with the exhibition’s curators, each of the represented architects and designers chose the ward for their project. Some live or have their offices there. Others have worked in the ward before. Still others chose their ward because of their passion about some particular feature, problem or opportunity there.

“We are excited to expand on our work with the Greater Englewood CDC through this exhibition,” said Monica Chadha, founder of Civic Projects with Carlo Parente. Their proposal, called FRAME | WORK, will actually debut in late summer 2016 in Chicago’s 16th Ward. “Our first deployment will be an outdoor internet café, but FRAME | WORK has been developed to work as a flexible structure at several scales. Above all, the idea is to fill vacant lots and buildings to facilitate long-term economic growth and vitality.”

A Fabric of Ideas

All of the architects and designers practice in Chicago. They represent a range of ages and experience levels, though the sampling certainly tilts toward younger, or emerging practices—the people who likely will work to shape the city over the next 30 to 40 years.

There are 50 wards in Chicago and 50 projects in this exhibition, arranged into four themed groupings: Activate, Reclaim, Gather and Dwell. Individually, each of these proposals is smaller than Burnham’s vision: an innovative playground, a seasonal outdoor theater or a streetscaping improvement is not a 26-mile plan for the waterfront. They’re not supposed to be. But taken together, they do weave a fabric of ideas that could bind the city into an even more intelligently planned whole.