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Architecture Biennial Makes New History

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Chicago is a city known for its skyline and rich architecture. From the Tribune Tower to the Willis (Sears) Tower, Chicago has a notable place in architectural history. It’s also home to North America’s largest exhibition of contemporary architecture — the Architecture Biennial. The Biennial showcases the works of architects and artists worldwide.

Occurring every other year, the first Architecture Biennial in Chicago took place in 2015. Its exhibits focused on the theme “The State of the Art of Architecture,” and aimed to make the public see architecture differently.

This year’s theme is “Make New History.” Los Angeles-based Artistic Directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee selected more than 140 architects to participate in the Biennial. The architects’ displays encourage visitors to reflect on the historic and future roles of architecture, according to the Biennial website.

The center of the Biennial is at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.), but there are also lectures and events related to the Biennial throughout the city. Anchor sites featuring more projects for the Biennial include the DePaul Art Museum (935 W. Fullerton Ave.), The Hyde Park Art Center (5020 S. Cornell Ave.) and the The Beverly Arts Center (2407 W. 111th St.).

Visitors can easily spend hours exploring the collaborative exhibits at the Chicago Cultural Center. The Biennial takes advantage of the spacious galleries and occupies the first, second and fourth floors.

The displays feature a blend of 3-D renderings, sculptures, photos and videos. One exhibit, “A Love With The World” is a photo collection showing how culture shapes architecture.

Some exhibits also have interactive elements. The Horizontal City project features the work of 24 architects who took photos of interiors on rooms and created 3-D models based off them. The miniature spaces invite people to examine them up close to see the details.   

Vertical City is another exhibit with large-scale sculptures. A sign in the exhibit explains the roots of this display, the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition from 1922. At the Biennial, a fresh take on the competition is seen by the giant vertical models that reach the ceiling.

Austin Wyeth, a volunteer and tour guide  the Cultural Center. He said Vertical City is one of his favorite exhibits.

“People have either heard about it [or] had someone tell them, ‘You have to see the Vertical City,’” Wyeth said. “I think just because of the scale of it, it stands out from the rest of the Biennial.”

History is the one constant in all aspects of the exhibit, but the artists and architects examine it in different ways. The piece “Heliomorphic Chicago” creates an alternate history of Chicago’s skyline by reimagining the designs of familiar buildings. An untitled photoset views buildings as receding and transforming as time progresses. Another piece shows how traditional Chinese architecture and modern technology fuse to create stunning modern buildings.

Wyeth said the reaction from visitors has been positive, and he likes that it familiarizes people with architecture.

“I think it’s a great place to get at least an introductory knowledge of architecture,” Wyeth said. “We all live in cities [and] there’s architecture around us. I think it’s a very interesting place — especially with the theme this year — to be able to grasp an old and new sense of architecture and what that actually is.”

The Architecture Biennial is free to the public at the Chicago Cultural Center and runs until Jan. 7.  Hour-long tours of the Biennial are offered Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, visit

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