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10 Things We Loved at the Chicago Architecture Biennial's Cultural Center Show

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At the kickoff press conference for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, co-director Sarah Herda said the organizers didn't pick a single theme, they instead asked participating architects, artists and designers to bring their own themes to Chicago. Mission accomplished: housed within the city's grand Cultural Center, the Biennial's main exhibition certainly suggests eclecticism to the extreme, offering an intriguing and wildly varied snapshot of urban planning, sustainability, design and dialogues about the built environment. The greater message of such a varied set of displays will take time to formulate, but after a few days spent exploring the displays, here are some of our initial favorites (don't forget: there are also numerous offsite exhibitions and events to explore).

Best Excuse to Find the Projector in Grandma's Garage: Environmental Communications
In a Biennial that covers speculative ideas and the current state of architecture, this charming exhibit put together by Mark Wasiuta, Marcos Sanchez, Adam Bandler + GSAPP Exhibitions was both a welcome media time capsule—the bulk of the exhibit comes from photo slides, Polaroid pictures and self-published 'zines—and a colorful snapshot from a different era of architectural optimism. The LA-based avant-garde architecture collective Environmental Communications believed they could reshape architecture by controlling the slide libraries at universities, and created printed media and a fantastic visual archive of '70s Southern California in pursuit of their goal. This retrospective of their work showcases an engaging blend of the underground press, '60s idealism and McLuhan-like fantasies of visual media domination. The only thing missing for fans of historical photos and DIY media is a loupe to get a closer look at all those slides.

Best Reason Bjarke Ingels Needs Another Kickstarter: Bjarke Ingels Exhibit
A current architect-of-the-moment, Bjarke Ingels and his firm, BIG, find themselves in what must be professional heaven (and potentially project management hell). They're attached to so many high-profile projects across the globe, it's hard to keep count. Which makes it slightly disappointing that the Ingels contribution to the Cultural Center show is an early prototype of the steam ring generator he crowdfunded for a Danish power plant. That's it, not a video explaining the project, renderings, or (if only) a working steam ring generator.

Best Reason to Visit the Third Floor: The Cultural Center's Tiffany Dome
The exhibition guides given out at the entrance have maps that omit the Cultural Center's third floor, a sensible move since that level doesn't have any displays. But there's a reason to make a crucial detour; the Cultural Center's magnificent Tiffany Dome. Built in 1897, the 1,000-square-foot dome, which consists of 30,000 pieces, of glass, was recently restored and shined to its original splendor. Those facts, while interesting, pale in comparison to the photo you'll inevitably take standing underneath the structure. It's a perfect example of why the ornate building provides an interesting background to the Biennial; while most gallery spaces today are white and devoid of character, the Cultural Center is no such wallflower.

New Ways to See Chicago: Iwan Baan's Anonymous Histories and Amanda Williams' Color(ed) Theory Series
Two different photographers have created a pair of personal responses to Chicago's built environment that suggest, more than anything else, that a show with dozens of photo essays wouldn't do the city justice. Baan, a jet-setting architectural photographer known for shooting projects from some of the world's most well-known designers, created a deliberately low-key look at the city's beauty, from a glance at the iconic Calder statue in the city's Federal Plaza from inside the nearby post office to street scenes including a concrete factory on Chicago Avenue. Architect and hometown artist Amanda Williams trains her lens on abandoned houses on the city's south and west sides that she has painted with colors derived from the environment (one paint color was christened Flamin' Red Hots, after the type of Cheetos). The bold structures stand out and create a different dialogue about the meaning of colors and the concept of "zero-value" landscape.

Best Example of an Architect Doing Their Homework: Studio Gang's Polis Timeline
Jeanne Gang's studio displayed a self-initiated research project re-imagining the design of urban police stations (which she spoke about with Curbed). But the plan only takes up half of the display, which wraps around two sides of a staircase on the building's ground floor. The other side is a lengthy, detailed and fascinating history of policing and police station design. It's worth seeing in person, because it's unlikely you'll be able to read all the text without seeing it blown up to poster size.

The Exhibit That Will Be Instagrammed to Death: Sou Fujimoto's Architecture is Everywhere
It should have been obvious during an earlier interview with Sou. His playful display juxtaposes common objects such as matchboxes and potato chips with tiny human models from architecture displays, asking where inspiration comes from. But by maintaining the right tone of investigation beneath its playful facade, the exhibition also answers the question, "what part of the exhibition will be showing up in your social feeds the most?" Prepare to see plenty of tiny architecture people.

Best Dystopian View of the Open-Plan Office: The End Of Sitting - Cut Out by RAAAF [Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances]
Like any cultural space, the home of the Biennial offers numerous area to sit, rest and potentially bump into somebody. All three actions would be much more difficult to achieve on this angular crystal of furniture set up within the Cultural Center bookstore, meant to remedy the health issues that come with prolonged sitting but instead offering a particularly aggressive place to "rest."

Best Place for a Young Wes Anderson to Hide: Onishimaki + Hyakudayuki's Children's Town
Numerous built projects cut an impressive profile, including the Vo Trong Nghia S-House Prototype, a model for sustainable construction in Vietnam. These twee huts on the fourth floor gallery balanced aesthetic appeal and a serious mission; built in the aftermath of the 2013 Japanese tsunami, they served as temporary housing for children.

Best Downsizing Plan for McMansions: OtherOthers's Offset House
Turns out, America isn't the only place with a glut of over-sized suburban homes. Australians actually have the largest average home size in the world, which may explain why it took an Australian practice, otherothers, to create such an elegant solution to extraneous space. By building a covered courtyard within the frame of the home, the house-within-a-house concept downsizes in an intelligent way, reducing costs while adding new types of outdoor space.

· The Curbed Guide to the Chicago Architecture Biennial [Curbed]
· 18 Hotels to Stay at During the Chicago Architecture Biennial [Curbed Chicago]
· 26 Iconic Downtown Buildings That Every Chicagoan Must Know [Curbed]