Chicago Architecture Biennial will be a chance to show the world our city’s better side

The state is providing a $500,000 financial boost, and the event this fall couldn’t come at a better time to showcase our city’s world-class architecture and design — not just our problems with crime and violence.

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The temporary exhibition, Chicago Horizon Kiosk, Ultramoderne, was built on the lakefront for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

The temporary exhibition, Chicago Horizon Kiosk, Ultramoderne, was built on the lakefront for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Chicago Architecture Biennial/Tom Harris

The Chicago Architecture Biennial began in 2015, in no small part as a means for the city to remind the world how much this metropolis is shaped by good design — and how urban design in other cities across the globe is shaped by what happens here.

“Architecture defines a city,” then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in announcing the event designed to draw visitors from across the planet. “And no city has been defined by its architecture, or has influenced global architectural design like Chicago.”

The free four-month event draws 500,000 visitors. The city has hosted architecture biennials in 2017, 2019 and 2021. And it returns later this year, boosted with a $500,000 infusion from the state last week.

And it couldn’t come at a better time, particularly now as spots like Millennium Park, downtown and many of the city’s otherwise fine neighborhood places and spaces are becoming as well-known for crime and violence as they are for their architecture and design.



Attracting the world’s attention

The Chicago Architecture Biennial was created in response to the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan, which called for an event that could attract the world’s attention to the city’s culture and heritage.

“We are proud that the state, by making this grant, has acknowledged CAB’s efforts to meet this goal,” CAB Chairman Jack Guthman said last week when the award was announced.

Called “This is a Rehearsal,” this year’s biennial is designed to explore how cities are in transformation — don’t we know it — and how environmental, political and economic issues can move across borders.

The biennial will be held at the Chicago Cultural Center, from Sept. 21 to Jan. 2, 2024 with events happening at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Puerto Rican Arts and Culture Center and the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.

Events also will be hosted in South Chicago, Bronzeville, Englewood, Lincoln Park and Edgewater, wisely continuing a biennial tradition of making it a citywide architectural fest.

A different way to see Chicago

Mayor Lori Lightfoot supported the biennial, although perhaps not as enthusiastically as her predecessor, Emanuel, whose administration brought the event to fruition.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, on the other hand, should be a full-throated supporter of the venture — and any other that plays up the city’s strengths and seeks to bring people out into the neighborhoods.

For instance, the Chicago Architecture Center’s successful Open House Chicago draws about 100,000 people to architectural attractions across the city each October. So the demand is there.

And it wouldn’t hurt if the biennial grew in size and scope at some point. The Venice Biennale — which inspired Chicago’s — is a true world event that draws 800,000 paying visitors.

Finding a way to scale up to that level, though, might take the business community being as loud a voice in support of the biennial as they were under Emanuel.

But Emanuel had the juice and the leadership skills to help bring corporations to the table — an act of mayoral leadership that Johnson must master as well.

Until then, it’s good to have the event return in September.

The new mayor and his administration will have a lot on their plate in terms of working with city and neighborhood leaders to fix Chicago’s problems.

It’s hard work that’s part of the cost of winning the Big Chair on the fifth floor of City Hall.

But along the way, Johnson and his team have to trumpet Chicago’s strengths — and architecture is certainly one of them.

Not just for the sake of tourism and boosterism, but for the sake of Chicagoans ourselves.

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