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The Chicago Architecture Biennial brought dozens of stunning installations to the Chicago Cultural Center. From work by architects, designers and artists worldwide, we’ve chosen six CAF favorites.

by Jen Masengarb, Director of Interpretation and Research

As North America’s largest international exhibition of contemporary architecture, the Chicago Architecture Biennial was a snapshot of the ways in which architects, artists, designers, planners, activists and policy makers from around the world are tackling major global issues such as urban growth, environmental change and inequality. Its installations asked visitors to consider questions such as: How are architects and designers solving these difficult problems in new ways? What is the impact of architecture on our lives and in our cities today?

An incredibly wide range of projects was on display, ranging from the theoretical to the pragmatic. Curator Sarah Herda described the Biennial as a “...site of experimentation. Not a place to look at pictures of buildings, but to figure out the future of making buildings.”

1. “The End of Sitting – Cut Out”

RAAAF (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
First Floor, Bookshop off Randolph Street entrance

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo by Tom Harris, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

We spend a lot of our time each day sitting—at a job, at school, on the train, in the car, on the couch. But clearly, too much sitting just isn’t good for us. While we do need some type of furniture to rest upon, the Amsterdam architecture firm RAAAF questions whether we should continue using traditional desks and chairs in the future. For the office of 2025, they designed radical new objects to stand on, lean on, hang from and lay down on—all while providing places where we can gather, talk, read and work. One of several interactive exhibits at the Biennial, “The End of Sitting–Cut Out” encouraged exploration.

2. “Polis Station”

Studio Gang (Chicago)
First Floor, Main stairwell off Randolph Street entrance

Polis Station, Photo by Andrew Santos

Photo by Andrew Santos

In 2015, President Obama created a task force on 21st-century policing, to evaluate how the police work with communities and to propose new ways of working together. But the extensive report didn’t consider the physical buildings used for policing. Might design help in building trust? With “Polis Station” (the ancient Greek word “polis” means “an ideal city-state”), the architects at Studio Gang traced the architectural history of police stations over the centuries—a surprising look into the past, which has implications for the future. The second half of their installation proposed a new model. It prompted us to consider how a radically different type of police station—one which distributes various functions throughout the community—could encourage more positive interactions among neighborhood residents and the police.

3. Spider Webs

Tomás Saraceno (Berlin, Germany)
First Floor, off the East Hallway

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo by Tom Harris, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

This stunning and ethereal installation was the creation of Argentinian-born artist Tomás Saraceno—with help from some very active spider “architects.” We’ve all encountered spider webs at home or in the woods and marveled at their strength and design. Saraceno took his inspiration from architecture, space exploration, science fiction and geometry. In a darkened space, dotted with glowing sculptures, he placed spiders (now gone) inside clear, sealed cubes, where they spun their silvery webs. While his spiders spun, Saraceno rotated each cube, changing gravity, altering the spiders’ work and turning each web into a unique, floating galaxy and a structural wonder. Saraceno’s webbed cubes prompt us to question what might be learned from the spiders’ construction and they explore an unusual collaboration between humans and nature. 

4. “Rock Print”

Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich + Self-Assembly Lab, MIT (Zurich, Switzerland and Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Second Floor, southeast gallery

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo by Steve Hall, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

Traditionally, new buildings have been built by humans, using natural resources as materials (stone or wood); or using materials produced at the construction site (concrete); or materials created in a factory (steel, glass or insulation). Researchers from Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich + Self-Assembly Lab at MIT proposed a radically different method of construction and new types of materials: Their “Rock Print” structure was built with help from a 3D-printing robot using rocks and a single string—without any adhesive or mortar. Even after seeing the video that documents its construction, visitors stood and wondered how their 12-foot structure could possibly stay standing.

5. Sustainable Housing

Tatiana Bilbao S.C. (Mexico City, Mexico)
Fourth Floor, north gallery

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo by Steve Hall, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

The Constitution of Mexico states that every family has the right to enjoy “decent housing.” But for Mexico, like many countries around the world, that right doesn’t always translate into a reality. The nation’s population of 120 million people is growing fast, requiring some 9 million more homes. Architect Tatiana Bilbao has designed an $8,000 prototype to help solve this problem. Her pitched-roof house, which can be adapted to varying cultures and terrains, uses local, sustainable materials like concrete blocks and recycled wooden pallets. Additional modules can be added, to accommodate a family’s growth or a small business. This simple-yet-thoughtful building was one of three full-scale houses at the Biennial. 

6. “Architecture Is Everywhere”

Sou Fujimoto Architects (Tokyo, Japan)
Fourth Floor, north gallery

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

© Chicago Architecture Biennial, Photo by Tom Harris, courtesy of Hedrich Blessing

One of the most delightful, playful and thoughtful installations at the Biennial, “Architecture Is Everywhere” captured the imaginations of visitors young and old. Sou Fujimoto's work asked us to consider if we might discover architecture in the objects we encounter on a daily basis—a loofa sponge, a stack of staples, a pack of Post-It® notes, a bundle of twine, a pile of potato chips. For him, architecture is first found, then made. And more importantly, Fujimoto juxtaposed carefully arranged everyday objects with tiny human figures. It was a subtle reminder that there are people behind the objects that become architecture. And while it may seem serendipitous, the exhibit challenged us to consider new inspirations for the forms and spaces of the built environment.