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Photos: Inside The Chicago Architecture Biennial Opening Weekend

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 6, 2015 6:10PM

Chicago planner Daniel Burnham once advocated for making big plans, and that’s exactly what the organizers of the Chicago Architecture Biennial have done. North America’s largest architecture exhibition celebrated its opening last weekend, welcoming visitors from around the world. Running through Jan. 3, the biennial features over 100 artists and architects at multiple across the city as well as 200 free collateral events in and around Chicago.

We dove into the biennial last weekend with a performance by the South Shore Drill Team at Federal Plaza. The performance, “We Know How to Order” reinterpreted the architectural grid and federal space through the team’s exhilarating take on drill routines. The plaza, which would have ordinarily been deserted after work on Friday, was invigorated by the skill, energy, and whooshing flags of the South Side youth.

“The South Shore Drill Team is a positive environment,” said one performer. “Our message to you today is that we can do something about our future.” In an exhibition offering many abstract demonstrations of design, the at-risk students’ performance was a tangible display of art’s positive effects.

On Saturday, we boarded the biennial’s first bus bound for Racine, WI. Free transportation and tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson headquarters and family home are available every Saturday and Sunday throughout the biennial. We recommend registering in advance for this day trip that combines an iconic American brand with an iconic American architect.

Our tour began at the SC Johnson Administration Building. Opened in 1939, it’s the only commercial building designed by Wright that’s still in use. The building’s shapely dendriform “lilly pad” columns, miles of Pyrex glass tubing, and stately birdcage elevators illustrate its status as one of the top 25 buildings of the 20th century.

Visitors then climbed the 153 foot tall SC Johnson Research Tower. Historic artifacts on display told the story of iconic brands like Pledge, Glade, and Raid invented by scientists in the tower. Only 13 feet in diameter at its base, the building is one of the tallest structures ever built on a cantilever.

Upon the tower’s opening in 1950, then-company President H.F. Johnson Jr. remarked, “Can we say that our departure from the conventional was justified?...We don’t build for today, but for tomorrow.”

After admiring the glass clad Forteleza Hall, designed by Norman Foster, we headed for nearby Wingspread. The Johnson family home was also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1939. The light-flooded, cypress wood interior is anchored by a towering brick fireplace complete with a rooftop lookout tower. The home was named for its four wings which embrace the prairie. According to Wright, Wingspread is “the last of the prairie homes.”

On Sunday, we attended Chicago architect John Ronan’s lecture at the Cultural Center “Transcending Pragmatism: Searching for a New Chicago.” Ronan posited that all cities have a defining character and Chicago’s is hardcore pragmatism. He demonstrated that Chicago’s most well-known buildings serve ordinary functions (the Willis Tower’s office building or the Metropolitan Correctional Center) as opposed to the renowned monument and museum designs in other cities. He argued that the most successful designs have grasped this pragmatism and transcended it in a poetic way and discussed how he strives for the same in his own buildings.

“Chicago is a great place to an architect because of the history,” said Ronan. “Also there is still open space here and you can really make a difference.”

We rounded out the weekend by wandering the labyrinth of Chicago Architecture Biennial displays throughout the Cultural Center. Maybe it was the effects of a weekend on our feet, but we were drawn to common area installations that called for visitor engagement and repose. John Ronan Architects created an outdoor “Leaf Lounge,” Mexico City’s Pedro & Juana transformed the Cultural Center lounge into a dynamic “push and pull” of design, and RAAAF reimagined furniture as a sculptural cut out landscape to combat sitting.

We got lost in the '70s California underground press through the slide archive of the Environmental Communication collective. Among the most compelling exhibits was Studio Gang’s “Polis Station,” offering detailed research on the history of police station design and proposing police station architecture that promotes positive relationships between the police and the community.

We recommend popping into the Chicago Cultural Center, the hive of biennial activities, and allowing yourself to be inspired and perplexed by the works on display. You’re sure to find something of interest on the events calendar, which explores architecture through performance, film, dance, and art in addition to lectures and tours. Navigating such a dizzying amount of culture may be intimidating, but the only wrong way to approach this access to free programming would be to miss it.