The Buell Center, 100 Links at Chicago Cultural Center.
Photo: Tom Harris

The 8 Best Exhibitions at the Chicago Architecture Biennale 2023

The largest presentation of contemporary architecture, art, and design in North America, with over 100 commissions and activations, is on view in the Windy City through February 11, 2024

Could Be Design, It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Toolshed). Photo: Brian Griffin

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival on American soil, the United States held the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Chicago beat out several American cities, including St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and New York. A group of architects—Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Charles B. Atwood—built grand fairgrounds featuring grand boulevards, bucolic gardens, and an expansive pool to represent the explorer’s voyage and buildings designed with a neoclassical façade. The World’s Expo was a precursor to rebuilding Chicago after the devastating 1871 fire that destroyed 17,000 structures.

Arts collective the Floating Museum, consisting of Avery R Young, Andrew Schachman, Faheem Majeed, and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, the artistic directors of the fifth edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) used that moment in the Windy City’s history as the starting point for This Is a Rehearsal, CAB 5’s theme. The project, on view throughout the Windy City, features a combination of site-specific installations and exhibitions through February 11, 2024 (be sure to check the website, because several of the exhibitions close earlier than that). The Floating Museum, consisting of Avery R Young, Andrew Schachman, Faheem Majeed, and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, were named artistic directors of the biannual exhibition, selecting participants across the disciplines of architecture, art, and design.  

Amanda Williams Redefining Redlining on Leticia Pardo's Ecotone at Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Tom Harris

The artistic directors wanted to do right by the city’s inhabitants, unlike the predominantly white male organizers of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, because the planning process “engendered a lot of critiques from people who are excluded from that process, which starts to set up a question about structural systems that are designed often by architects or city planners or policy makers, but often don’t include the people affected by urban design, architecture and policy in that planning process,” explained Schachman. “So one of the things about rehearsal is folding that feedback loop into the planning process from an architectural point of view.”

The Floating Museum called on 86 participants from 10 countries to contribute to the biannual exhibition, including A Long Walk Home, Tschabalala Self, Paa Joe, Norman Teague Design Studios, Gelitin, and more. The citywide exhibition features site-specific installations, as well as countless exhibitions across the Chicago Cultural Center, the James R. Thompson Center, The Graham Fondation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Chicago Architecture Center, and more. If you’re short on time, be sure to visit the three venues that house most of CAB 5: the Chicago Cultural Center, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies, and the James R. Thompson Center, which is slated to be demolished and purchased by Google to be its Chicago headquarters once it’s rebuilt. Galerie visited the biannual exhibition when it opened in early November, and here are our top things to see: 

A Long Walk Home, The Black Girlhood Altar at Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Tom Harris

1. The Black Girlhood Altar by A Long Walk Home

The Black Girlhood Altar pays tribute to eight Black women and girls who have been victims of violence that caused their death or disappearance: Rekia Boyd, Latasha Harlins, Ma’Hia Bryant, “Hope,” “Harmony,” Marcie Gerald, Lyniah Bell, and Brianna Taylor. “How do we rehearse, grief, remembrance, but also, with honoring childhood, you know, this is a true love letter to black women and girls,” said Scheherazade Tillet, who, along with Robert Narciso, founded A Long Walk Home. “It says, black girls are, are seen and heard. And I really want people to leave here with that vision and feeling that they see Black girls, like every one one of these people that we’re honoring.” This exhibition features work by Gordon Parks and several women and girls, including Tillet, Narciso, Jada Thompson, Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose, and Nydia Black. The exhibition is a reheasal for a yet-to-be-installed permanent monument dedicated to Boyd at Douglass Park. 

Chicago Cultural Center,  78 E. Washington St.

Barkow Leibinger, Cardboard Merzbau at Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Tom Harris

2. Cardboard Merzbau by Barkow Leibinger

In 1923 German artist Kurt Schwitters created Merzbau, a three-dimensional abstract collage resembling a grotto in an existing interior. Barkow Leibinger’s Cardboard Merzbau pays homage to Schwitters’s Merzbau as well as the Container Corporation of America’s Bauhaus collaboration in the 1940s to create Cardboard Merzbau at one of the Chicago Cultural Center’s entrances. The site-specific instillation uses cardboard tubes binded together to overtake the space, forming an Instagram-worthy environment. 

Chicago Cultural Center,  78 E. Washington St.

3. The Photography and Collection of Patric McCoy

In the 1980s Patric McCoy rode his bike from Bronzeville to the Loop every day to commute to his job at the Environmental Protection Agency. The art collector taught himself photography by carrying his camera with him and taking portraits. “There was a whole line of public housing that you could use to be able to see all the way from 22nd Street all the way to 63rd Street, public housing 70 storey buildings, but everywhere when I went past them, they were considered dangerous. People would holler at me, ‘Take my picture.’ Through his daily commute with his camera in tow, McCoy assembled a body of work that immortalizes a time and place before AIDS and crack plagued Chicago’s Black community. The exhibition depicts and style and attitude of Chicago in the ‘80s as well as some of its buildings, like the Rialto Theatre.    

Blanc, 4445 S Martin Luther King Dr., (Until November 25)

Completed Bio-Block Spiral at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Courtesy SOM

4. Bio-Block Spiral

Did you know that manufacturing concrete is worse for the environment than flying? One report says that approximately 1,370 pounds of CO2 is produced for every metric ton of cement made. Boulder-based Prometheus materials partnered with Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to create a spiral using “Bio-Blocks,” a zero-carbon bio concrete made from algae. “What we’re doing is we are bio mimicking the natural process what nature does to create seashells and coral reefs,” said Lauren Burnett, president, ceo and cofounder of Boulder-based Prometheus materials. “We are growing algae, natural algae just like you find in the ocean or like somewhere. and then we’re stimulating it’s a bio mineralized calcium carbonate, just as just as biomineralization takes place to create those sea shells and coral reefs and except we’re doing it to create a bio concrete.” 

The Mews at 167 N Green Street in Fulton Market

Thompson Center. Photo: Cory Dewald

5. NPR’s Tiny Desk

In 2008 All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and NPR music editor Stephen Thompson left South by Southwest that year annoyed that they could barely hear the music because the crowd was so loud. Their solution: hold intimate concerts at the NPR offices and post the videos online. The first one was folk singer Laura Gibson. Boilen coined the performances Tiny Desk Concerts after his 1970s psychedelic band Tiny Desk Unit. See Boilen’s own “tiny desk” — his last day at NPR was October 2, 2023 — at the Thompson Center. 

James R. Thompson Center, 100 W Randolph St

Jean-Marie Appriou, Chris Bradley, Diane Simpson, Carol Ross Barney, Leticia Pardo, Paa Joe, Site Design Group at Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Tom Harris

6. Sidney R. Yates Gallery

Deep inside the Chicago Cultural Center is the Sidney R. Yates Gallery, where you’ll find a variety of sculptures the Floating Museum collected for CAB, like the coffin in the shape of Crown Hall they commissioned Ghanaian artist Paa Joe to create. Discover a bronze Camille Henrot sculpture of a mother holding a baby with her feet, and a pair of curvy legs in boots atop a milk crate by Tschabalala Self. There’s also work by Chris Bradley, Jean-Marie Appriou, site/site design group ltd., and Chris T Cornelius of studio indigenous.

Graham Foundation. Photo: Tom Harris

7. Mapping Memories of Resistance

Muna Dajani, Munir Fakher Eldein, and Michael Mason set out to trace the story of the Golan Heights, the area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967, and the Jawlanis, the Syrian residents of the region. Their project, Mapping Memories of Resistance, exhibits photographs and texts documenting the evolution of Golan Heights. “It’s important that we see and understand what’s happening in Gaza today as a moment in the continuum of colonialism and ethnic cleansing,” said Dajani. “The photographs you see from around the world are in many ways forms of resistance and protection.”

The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts,  4 W Burton Pl.

Norman Teague, Bronzeville. Photo: Cory Dewald

8. The Douglass Pavilion by Norman Teague, Max Davis, Mejay Gula, Tonika Johnson, Ernest Wong, and Tanner Woodford

This group paid homage to Black intellectual and abolitionalist leader Frederick Douglass and his first wife Anna Douglass by creating Douglass Pavilion by combining a series of tunnels that ask visitors to reflect on things they’ve learned and how they can facilitate change. “We wanted to build this here so that while you’re going across the green line and traveling throughout the south and west sides of Chicago, you’re able to be curious and be inspired,” said David Overbay, assistant designer to Norman Teague. “We wanted to find a way to bring wonder but also, give honor to the legacy of two people that really were responsible for just bringing literacy and intellectual autonomy to a lot of free Black people at the time and a legacy that carries on now for all of us that can stand to learn something from both of them.” The Pavilion is a 1:1 scale model of the final monument that will go up on the peninsula in the Douglass Park lagoon. 


Cover: The Buell Center, 100 Links at Chicago Cultural Center.
Photo: Tom Harris


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