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The Chicago Architecture Biennial runs from September 16, 2017 to January 7, 2018. The free event is hosted by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events at the historic Chicago Cultural Center.

Here is a quick look at what makes the Chicago Architecture Biennial significant.

what is the chicago architecture biennial?

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is the largest architecture and design exhibition in North America. It’s a city-wide platform that resembles a “World’s Fair” of contemporary architecture. It unveils avant-garde ideas, materials, technologies and practices and serves as a forum for architects to make connections, collaborate with others and engage the public in issues and concerns in the field. The Biennial also recognizes outstanding work in the industry.

In many ways, the Biennial also functions as a large snapshot of a moment in time; a collection of ideas about the issues architects are confronting today. Biennial organizers say the event invites the public to “engage with and think about architecture in new and unexpected ways, and to take part in a global discussion on the future of the field.”

year two

This year’s Biennial theme is Make New History. Artistic Directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee—partners in the LA-based firm of Johnston Marklee and designers for the new MCA addition—have also identified four sub-themes of these installations: civic history, building history, image history and material history.

Architects have always considered history and learned from earlier ideas and people. But the past now informs the present in new ways. Rather than being viewed as a collection of ideas or images to be reused, the past is constantly informing and influencing architects new work today. Architects invited to participate in this year’s Biennial are interested in ideas that follow several histories and timelines. They are also thinking more about a wide variety of styles, time periods and generations.

Even though we have easy access to lots of historical information, architects and designers approach the past in a variety of ways. In some cases they borrow and resample images as inspiration. In other cases, they might use original materials, but put them together with surprising results. Finally, a project’s location is often an inspiration for designers who use the site’s heritage to inform design choices.

“Biennale” or “Biennial”?

“Biennale” is the Italian word for “biennial”—meaning “occurring every two years.” But beyond the translation, it has come to mean so much more. It is most commonly used within the art world to describe an international festival of large-scale contemporary exhibitions.

The first Biennale was held in Venice in 1895. It began as a showcase of art movements that were developing in different regions of the world. It was a place to connect with artists from other countries and to exchange knowledge, ideas and expertise within the art community. In the 1930s, the Venice Biennale expanded to include music, film and theater. In 1980, the first Venice Architecture Biennale took place and completely transformed the concept of the Biennale. Held now in even years, Venice remains the largest, though there are more than 150 biennales worldwide.

Why makes the Chicago architecture biennial unique?

Unlike Venice, where each country names their own curatorial team and selects architects to participate, the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s artistic directors invited 140 designers from more than 20 countries.

Worldwide, it is also rare for other international biennials to place such an emphasis on engaging the local community with architecture. Chicago is unique in its outreach to students, which is an integral part of the mission. CAC was once again named the Biennial's Signature Education Partner and in 2017 will introduce 15,000 youth and teachers to the Biennial. CAC is providing field trips, family festival days, teacher trainings, teen ambassadors, teen workshops, teacher and student resources for self-guided field trips, and the public self-guide brochure.

The 2017 Chicago Biennial also partnered with six local museums and institutions to establish community anchor sites and expand the impact and presence of the Biennial in Chicago neighborhoods. The Beverly Arts Center, the DePaul Art Museum, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Hyde Park Art Center, the National Museum of Mexican Art and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture are hosting programs and exhibitions around the topic of Make New History.

Additional exhibitions produced in parallel with the Biennial can be found throughout the city. CAC's exhibition, Between States—50 Designers Transform Chicago's Neighborhoods, is one example. It demonstrates the Biennial's "Make New History" theme with 50 community-based design solutions that transform underappreciated and underperforming spaces in Chicago into rejuvenated civic anchors.