Find new ways of living at Chicago's first ever architecture biennial

Story highlights

  • The Chicago Architecture Biennial has just opened in the Windy City
  • 120 architectural firms have been challenged to tackle architecture's most urgent questions
  • Their work will highlight how architecture can advance new ways of living

Chicago (CNN)The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial opened in the Windy City this weekend, claiming the distinction of the largest exhibition of contemporary architecture in North America.120 participating architectural firms from more than 30 countries will present 93 exhibits until 3 January, aiming to show how architecture can "radically transform our lived experience."

A parade of architectural models, it is not. "We really went out into the world to ask architects, artists, and designers to tell us what was important, to tell us what was the most pressing and urgent in architecture," said curator Sarah Herda who -- with Milan-based curator Joseph Grima -- co-artistic-directed the show.
"Rock Print" -- a collaboration between MIT's Self-Assembly Lab and Zurich-based architect Gramazio Kohler.
What these young architectural firms came up with were audacious proposals for pressing social issues that look beyond the basics of building construction: sustainability, technology, economic inequality, police brutality, and more, presented as multimedia projects that strive to attain the biennial's goal of appealing to the broader public outside of a profession sometimes viewed as elitist.
The resulting projects run a wide gamut.
"Rock Print," a collaborative project between MIT's Self-Assembly Lab and Zurich-based architect Gramazio Kohler, probes new building techniques by presenting a robot-built structure consisting solely of pebbles held together by thread. A graphic design by Chicago's Studio Gang presents research findings on correlations between spatial design and police brutality; and Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao built an entire single-family home from plywood and wooden palettes to demonstrate the potential for more affordable housing.
The "End of Sitting" by RAAAF
Rebellion against the oppression of traditional office design even comes into play with Amsterdam-based firm RAAAF's "End of Sitting." The room-sized installation replaces the typical layout of desks and chairs with a continuous expanse of angled surfaces and crevices that employees can lean or lie on with their laptops, sometimes in very awkward positions.
Tatiana Bilbao's single family home
"We wanted to see what the working environment of 2015 or 2025 would look like without conventional limits," explained the design team's Arna Mackic. "In a chair, you're in the same position all day, which is a problem, but this, you have to explore and test it out. It provides stimulation, and a reason to move around."
Taking place in a capital of great American architecture, the biennial made a point to activate some of the architectural gems for which the city is known. The bulk of the exhibits inhabit the downtown Chicago Cultural Center, an 1897 Landmark Beaux-Arts building opulently lined with marble, brass, and tiled mosaics, capped with a soaring stained-glass dome.
Nearby, Los Angeles-based architect Bryony Roberts illuminated Federal Plaza, a public square adjacent to three buildings designed by the great Mies van der Rohe, with a commissioned 10-minute performance by the South Side Drill Team, a troupe of uncannily talented local 8- to 16-year-olds equipped with flags and batons.
Inside the Chicago Cultural Center, where majority of the exhibits are currently being showcased
Ten miles to the south of downtown's glossy skyscrapers, the biennial's largest event, both in size and immediate impact, takes place in a lesser-known building: the Stony Island Arts Bank, a once-opulent 1923 neoclassical structure on Chicago's neglected and predominantly black South Side, that for decades was left crumbling and derelict.
The Stony Island Arts Bank, which has been rennovated by Chicago-based artist, Theaster Gates.
The Chicago-born artist Theaster Gates, whose practice focuses on the politics of racial inequality, acquired the building in 2012 for $1, and this weekend unveiled the product of a diligent renovation process carried out by his non-profit Rebuild Foundation: a free to the public, 17,000-square-foot arts center complete with floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, the late Frankie Knuckles' vinyl collection, and faint traces of its former architectural glory.
"I'm not trained as an architect, but I think about buildings a lot," Gates said during Thursday's press conference. "Architecture becomes a much more complex envelope, an envelope that can carry both the high and the low, the international and the very local, the rich and the poor. It's only when those things start to conflate in really beautiful ways that I think we can have a redeemed, redemptive architecture."
The Chicago Architecture Biennial also put together a Lakefront Kiosk competition, which invited architects to design a kiosk along the shore. Ultramoderne Architects were announced as the winners.
Back in the downtown area on Friday, the biennial unveiled a simple wooden structure along the banks of the Lake Michigan waterfront: Rhode Island-based architects Ultramoderne's "Chicago Horizon," which, like Gates' bank project, provides public space for people to gather. Its life beyond the last day of the exhibition is emblematic of the biennial's goals to leave a lasting public impact, according to biennial artistic co-director Joseph Grima.
"An event like this can build over time and leave a concrete legacy for the city," Grima said. "The exhibition, three months from now, will be gone. But hopefully it will leave behind ideas, inspirations, connections, ongoing conversations, and more importantly, something tangible for the city, a sign that architecture can actually change things."