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At 2015’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, local teens gained new design insight, met with working architects, and fell in love with the Chicago Cultural Center itself. And CAC was there every step of the way.

by Jen Masengarb, Director of Interpretation and Research

As early January, 2016, brought a close to the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, architectural critics—including Blair Kamin, Lynn Becker, Edward Keegan—began to sum up the broader influence of the 3-month exhibition, which drew more than 500,000 visitors. At North America’s largest international survey of contemporary architecture, installations that explored “The State of the Art of Architecture” provided a snapshot of the ways designers are wrestling with today’s most pressing global issues.

At CAC, we saw an entirely different face of the Biennial’s impact, in working directly with more than 2,000 teens and tweens. We also helped empower hundreds of local educators, who used the Biennial’s exhibits in their curriculum. Named the event’s Signature Education Partner, CAC was tasked with making the Biennial accessible to Chicago-area youth who might not otherwise be exposed to architecture and design. Perhaps more than anything else, these young people reminded us why the Biennial mattered. 

Teens became experts

CAC trained 15 local teens—recruited and paid through After School Matters—to become Biennial Ambassadors. Over 12 weekends, they engaged with Biennial visitors young and old from around the world. Their conversations prompted discussion, encouraged deeper exploration, answered queries and sparked new questions about architecture.

We were so inspired to watch the ASM teens grow in their knowledge of contemporary design issues. They also gained valuable new people skills and public speaking experience along the way. For many of these teens, the Biennial became a touchstone, helping them to see themselves as experts for the first time.

Architects helped teens understand the design process

Hundreds of local teens worked face-to-face with the designers of the Biennial’s installations. For example, two Studio Gang architects steered a group of teens and their dedicated teachers from the Al Raby School for Community and Environment through the design process.

After introducing Studio Gang’s well-regarded “Polis Station” exhibit, which proposes a role for design in the conversation about community and police relations, the architects helped the teens to reimagine the blocks around their Garfield Park school building. Many students had never before met or worked with a practicing architect.

Teens wrestled real-world neighborhood design challenges

At the Biennial, it wasn’t only international designers who grappled with issues including the environment, population density and urban livability. More than 100 Chicago teens participated in the BP Design Competition, which, in partnership with the Biennial, challenged CPS students to imagine a pocket park for a Chicago-area neighborhood. The competition enhanced students’ understanding of how design can activate a space in a way that brings people together.

Biennial Curator Sarah Herda served on the jury, alongside jurors from the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, and BP. “Their designs illustrate how invested young people are in their communities,” Herda said of the winning projects, “and how creativity and innovation can radically transform our lived experience.”

Kids saw radical, surprising design concepts

On 90-minute field trips, CAC education facilitators led hundreds of students through a wide range of projects, from the theoretical to the pragmatic. Tomas Saraceno’s spider “architects” produced audible gasps, and young visitors consistently wondered aloud about how “Rock Print” could possibly stay standing. As one teen put it after a field trip: “I used to think architecture was stale and dull…[and] only man-made. But now I think it is alive and vivid. A building is more than just metal or wood. It is a structure that carries meaning…”

The “People’s Palace” revealed

When the building we now know as the Cultural Center originally opened as the Chicago Public Library in October, 1897, some 10,000 Chicagoans toured the structure each day. They marveled at its decorative splendor and were amazed by its stained-glass domes, sweeping marble staircases, colored-glass mosaics and marble memorial rooms. It came to known informally as “The People’s Palace.”

Likewise, in 2015, young people found the building itself to be as thrilling a revelation as the Biennial installations themselves. CAC was honored to play a role in their discovery. “I used to think this building was a bank,” one student said. “Now I know that it's a building full of continuous knowledge.” We couldn’t agree more.