In Chicago, even those typically immune to the charms of architecture can easily get lost in what Nelson Algren once described as a “peculiar wilderness” forged out of “steel and blood-red neon.”
As much as Chicago is famous for buildings that already exist—towering Art Deco skyscrapers, dozens of Frank Lloyd Wright homes—the city has a long history of thinking about those that should exist, beginning with Daniel Burnham’s 1909 “Plan of Chicago,” which laid out a bold, progressive vision for the city in magnificent, large-scale illustrations that you can still see in the basement of the Art Institute. That same tendency to think, if not dream, about the role that architecture can play in the life of a city is on full view in Chicago’s first architecture Biennial, supposedly the largest collection of contemporary international architecture in North America, which runs through January 3.
Pitched as an odd-year counterpart to the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Chicago event seems both more preoccupied with local issues and more socially conscious than Venice. Most of the exhibits are concentrated in the Beaux Arts rooms of the Chicago Cultural Center, an oddly lavish setting—loaded with gilt, marble, mosaic, and Tiffany glass—for so much problem-oriented architecture. There is a very timely exhibition by Jeanne Gang on improving police and community relations that imagines police stations doubling as civic centers and offering things like free Wi-Fi, mental health counseling, daycare, even basketball courts. […]