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The Chicago Architecture Biennial Offers Thrilling, Eclectic and Quirky Overview

While discussing her firm's conceptual design for a revamped, community friendly police station, on display now at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, architect Jeanne Gang spoke about the power of designers to enact change and make a difference. Her firm built on that idea with an in-depth look at both the history of police station design and a correspondingly focused solution. It was one of the stronger exhibits at the architecture celebration that just opened last weekend and runs through January 3. It was also one of the most grounded submissions, and not just because of its weighty subject; in a hall with many speculative projects, it stood out.

Architecture can be many things to many people, and nowhere was this more apparent than the first annual Chicago Architecture Biennial. A sprawling collection of ideas and exhibits, the event, in its attempt to foster dialogue, attained the diversity, volume and focus of an engaging party, as opposed to the sober, heady salon that often results from standard architecture discourse. The curatorial statement from co-directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima made it clear this was the aim; this gathering was a "round table" ready to discuss every thing architects can reshape, create, build and solve. The main exhibition within the city's Cultural Center, a gem of public architecture nicknamed "The People's Palace," felt not only democratic, but like a curatorial grab bag, offering an overwhelming sense of juxtaposition and numerous tangents. After all, this was a show that utilized potato chips (Sou Fujimoto), tennis balls (Architecture De Vylder Vinck Taillieu) and spider webs (Tomas Saraceno) to spark thoughts about structure and inspiration.

The organizer's inability to cut off the debate, and stop expanding the circle of topics, could be frustrating, but it was also perhaps the Biennial's strong suit. The diversity in both the participants (a worldwide roster that eschewed the standard bold-faced names) and projects was admirable. The Cultural Center plays host to four small model homes addressing issue of affordability, a room devoted to dozens of speculative ideas for Chicago, and even a steam ring generator devised, in part, by architectural man-of-the-moment Bjarke Ingels (who, frankly, could have added a little more to the display than what could easily have been mistaken as a rusted-out water heater).

It was truly a glorious, messy collection of ideas rooted in current challenges of urbanism and sustainability, addressing more street-level issues than grand building projects. And while there were moments that came off as theoretical misfires (a robot that "built" structures out of stone and string appeared to be a machine for generating modern art, not modern homes), plenty of other participants offered insightful reflection about the current aims and achievements in architecture. A short video documentary about the Bosco Verticale, an apartment complex in Milan built with an extensive urban garden, offered views of gardeners scaling a high-rise in what looked liked climbing gear. It offered perspective without getting tied up in theory.

Nothing amplified the intended dialogue more than the Biennial's setting. While many exhibition spaces attempt to be little more than a blank canvas, the assertive Cultural Center, boasting rich ornamentation and detailing including a massive glass dome, had plenty to say. While serving as a showcase for the world, it reminded visitors of Chicago's rich place in architecture history without battering them over the head with skyscraper lore, and provided one of many moment of conversation between the event and the city. Photographer Iwan Baan's photo essays about the city spoke to both the power of the famous skyline and the street-level energy of Chicago. Off-site events connected to the Biennial, from Luftwerk's glorious light installations at the Garfield Park Conservatory, an under-appreciated early 20th century gem, to Theaster Gates's reimagined Stony Island Arts Bank, a vision of redefining urban space, offered more contextual and powerful displays of what architecture is capable of, both in service of aesthetics and community building. Swapping some of the conceptual pieces with more of these types of on-the-ground displays would have dramatically strengthened the exhibition.

For its first time out, the Biennial seems to have established a personality and philosophy for itself, a more open-minded, and on-the-ground view of architecture worth propagating. While this more adventurous take may have seemed looser and less focused, the high points suggest it's definitely a conversation worth continuing.

· 10 Things We Loved at the Chicago Architecture Biennial's Cultural Center Show
· The Curbed Guide to the Chicago Architecture Biennial [Curbed]
· 26 Iconic Downtown Buildings That Every Chicagoan Must Know [Curbed]
· How Jeanne Gang's Firm Designed a Better Police Station [Curbed]