Last updated: 07:00 PM ET, Tue November 17 2015

How to Take in Chicago’s Architectural Biennial

Features & Advice | Charu Suri | November 17, 2015

How to Take in Chicago’s Architectural Biennial

PHOTO: Chicago Cultural Center's dome. (photo courtesy of the City of Chicago)

I’ve often wondered how Windy City citizens reacted at the moment Chicago unveiled the world’s first skyscraper.

The Home Insurance Building, a lanky, unprecedented ten-story structure (that was the world’s tallest from 1884 to 1889), changed the face of architecture far beyond the city. Like a glittering metal phoenix rising from the ashes, it set off a domino effect and ushered in a chain of new tall structures (including the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower) and brought with it an architectural movement and school.

Its fireproof steel frame was a practical and emotional response to the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed much of the wooden city in 1871. After this moment, every engineer wanted to build up, to look skyward. The moon was not enough.

It is therefore not surprising that an Architectural Biennial recently debuted in the Chicago, a city that is known for its remarkable buildings. The Biennial started on October 3 and will run until January 3, 2016, bringing together more than 100 global participants, including architects, designers and firms. The home base of the celebration will be the Chicago Cultural Center.  

But why did it take Chicago so long to have a celebration of architecture? And why now, at the tail end of 2015?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a key figure in the event’s genesis. After his reelection in April, he commissioned city cultural leaders to develop a plan for enhancing and expanding Chicago's cultural offerings. Hosting an international gathering around architecture and design was one of the plan's top recommendations.

From a tourism perspective, it is still too early to see what impact the biennial will have on hotel occupancy, but the opening weekend drew 31,000 visitors.

There are several world-class exhibits to see in the Windy City during these design-centric months that will give both professionals and amateurs valuable perspective.

For instance, I had never heard of an “Afropolitan” style, but “The Architecture of David Adjaye OBE” gives you a dose of the future. Adjaye, a Tanzanian-born British architect, is the son of Ghanian parents. His remarkable vision of wide-open spaces that are both nomad- and location-inspired is distinctly influenced by journeys to Egypt and Lebanon. His portfolio is vast. In Oslo he designed the Nobel Peace Centre in the shell of a disused railway station, completed in 2005. In Rwanda, he is currently designing a hospital.

Since no man is an island, and certainly no building is designed just for sheer aesthetic value, the works of Ania Jaworksa tell the story of architecture's relationship with society through monochromatic black sculptures and drawings.

PHOTO: Ania Jaworska's "Monument for Them." (photo by Zachary Ostrowski) 

Johnston Marklee’s Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a special installation in anticipation of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s newly designed restaurant.

For those who love creativity and metamorphosis, a good exhibit is the design installation by Brazilian artist Alexandre de Cunha, known for his creative use of repurposed objects. His work is on display in the museum's plaza and initially exhibited as part of the MCA's summer plaza project series.

Chicago is one of the cities in the country fortunate enough to have a lovely lakefront area, and in the spirit of healthy competition, BP has sponsored a “Lakefront Kiosk” to enhance the city’s treasured area. It ushered in a flood of entries from around the world, and the winning kiosk will be displayed throughout the event (one temporarily resides at Millennium Park).

Of course, Art Institute and Rookery aside, there are so many hotels that will give architecture buffs a way to get their design fix.

PHOTO: The Langham, Chicago. (photo via Facebook)

Some places to call your temporary home include The Langham (designed by German-American architect Mies van der Rohe), The Radisson Blu Aqua, whose wave-like facade was designed by female architect Jeanne Gang, and the Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown, once the Chicago Motor Club building, a skyscraper done in Art Deco style.

Even Ferris Bueller would approve. 

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