The third iteration of the Chicago Architecture Biennial opened last week.
Modeled after a better-known exhibition in Venice, the biennial claims to be the largest exhibition of contemporary architecture in the United States. It runs through January, which is perfect timing since Chicago is truly magical come Thanksgiving and Christmas.
However, the biennial with exhibits and programming at more than 50 venues across the city, including the landmark late 19th century Chicago Cultural Center with its stunning Tiffany stained-glass dome, is as much an ideas festival as an architectural showcase. Expect a lot of gentry liberal virtue signaling, which is too bad given its raison d’etre is all things architecture. As tiring as the endless wokeness gets, it does makes you think about issues that might otherwise go undiscussed.
Regardless, Chicago is an architectural enthusiast’s dream destination with countless examples from the late 19th century, when the city rebuilt itself after the Great Fire of 1871, to the present-day. This includes works attributed to or influenced by Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
First-time visitors to the Windy City should orientate themselves with a river cruise-slash-tour.
The 90-minute tour, led by a volunteer guide from the Chicago Architecture Foundation, is by far the best way to see the splendid cityscape.
Speaking of the biennial’s inspiration in Venice, the perspective you get from the Chicago River is also very reminiscent of exploring the former Venetian city-state by gondola. Just be sure to book ahead of time as same-day availability is never a sure thing, especially weekends.
Everyone will have their favorites, but notable edifices include the Jewelers’ Building, Tribune Tower and Carbide & Carbon Building. Then there is the Willis Tower, better known as the former Sears Tower. The world’s tallest building from 1974 until 1998 has sweeping views from the aptly named Skydeck, located some 1,353 feet above ground on the 103rd floor.
Beyond the architecture you will also notice the impressive transformation of former industrial spaces. Not only have old warehouses and manufacturing plants been adapted to new use, but the quays along the river have been reinvented into urban walkways with spaces for public art and other gatherings.
If you go
With two major airports, frequent passenger train service and a location that is easily drivable, Chicago is one of the easiest cities to visit.
I stayed at the Ambassador Hotel, a boutique hotel in the Gold Coast. The neighborhood with its old brownstones is near the famed shopping of the Magnificent Mile. Even downtown was within walking distance, though getting around by Uber was easy and cheap. For dinner, try Trattoria No. 10, a high-end Italian eatery with good service and an extensive wine list.
Be sure to also visit two of Chicago’s most overlooked museums: The Pritzker Military Museum & Library, which has a special exhibit on D-Day, and the Richard H. Driehaus Museum with its impressive collection of Tiffany stained-glass.