Chicago Structure Biennial 2021: the must-sees

What is there to see at the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2021?

Wondering what to see at the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2021? We met up with artistic director David Brown at the end of the month before the opening and got a sneak peek at the show

With personal events slowly returning in some parts of the world (they’re already causing a stir with Milan Design Week and Open House London), the Chicago architectural scene is preparing for its own celebration. For the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2021, the fourth edition of the festival, the artistic director David Brown digs deeply into a rich pool of contributors and topics and creates a multi-layered, varied and exciting city-wide show that addresses critical ideas such as urban and social sustainability, Vacancy, diversity and community. First-hand installation experience and a meaningful discourse are the focus of the iteration of this biennial.

With his program, Brown is expanding the subject of The Available City, his contribution to the first Biennale in 2015, in which vacant lots served as his muse for developing an “experiment in new possibilities for exploring and activating space”. In keeping with this theme (and to accommodate the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic), the Biennale is set outside the traditional headquarters of the cultural center in the Loop and has placed the vast majority of entries in the city’s neighborhoods, particularly the South – and west side, with their wealth of vacant lots.

Installation by soil laboratory. Image: Eibhlín Ní Chathasaigh, James Albert Martin, Maria Bruun and Anne Dorthe Vester

We met to learn more about the highlights of this edition, and while Brown emphasized that the Biennale is a dynamic work in progress, Brown mentions Living Room and Under the Grid, pieces that deal with topics such as urban farming and neighborhood get-togethers deal as some of its must-sees – bearing in mind, of course, that visitors should try to visit all of the sites whenever possible. RAISIN, Invest South / West and Epic Academy are also keen to browse through the festival’s advance information to find out about outstanding designs and concepts that talk about ideas of home ownership, performance and justice as well as art.

Here is our pick of some of the finest installations to see during the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2021.

living room

This is a collaboration between Chicago architecture firm The Bittertang Farm and the CCA Academy, a private, non-denominational high school in Chicago’s North Lawndale community. Living Room invites you to examine urban agriculture and farming in the PermaPark Garden, with a focus on health and wellness.

Under the grille

This project is a 15-block stretch under the Pink Line ‘L’-train developed by Open Architecture Chicago and Freedom House and consists of two main elements: Block Party and Cover the Grid. The former is a collaboration between Miami-based Studio Barnes, Shawhin Roudbari (Colorado), MAS Context (Chicago) and the Westside Association for Community Action (WACA). It celebrates the rich history of block parties on the West and South Side of Chicago. Block Party creates a space for community programming and gatherings anchored by a structure designed to mimic inflatable bouncy castles that are block party staples.

Cover the Grid consists of architectural-scale urban paintings by GPS-controlled robots that transform empty territory into landscapes for citizens’ meetings and invite people to engage with unexpected bourgeois space.


Organized by guest curator Asha Iman Veal with curatorial assistants Shannon Lin and Esraa Yousef, this play explores themes from Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun from 1959 – including first-time home ownership, gender dynamics within color communities, and generational dreams. With works of art by more than 30 Chicago and international artists, RAISIN offers local and global perspectives on “home”.

INVEST South / West

These site-specific programs are led by artists-in-residence in four communities (Auburn Gresham, Austin, Englewood, and New City / Back of the Yards) and supported by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for Justice and Access to the Arts. Participating artists are (for each of the above mentioned communities) Dorian Sylvain, Antonia Ruppert, Eric Hotchkiss and Fernando Ramirez and Project Onward.

Epic Academy

This outdoor pavilion was built from sustainably sourced wood and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in collaboration with Tsz Yan Ng and Wes McGee at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning as a classroom and event and performance space using robotic manufacturing techniques.

The Open Workshop does not hold the center. Image: Courtesy of The Open Workshop

As exciting and important as these topics may be and as dynamic as the voices of their creators may be, they are just a foretaste of what the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2021 has to offer the breadth and breadth of Chicago, making the whole city one big architecture party – one that tackles serious problems in a hopefully accessible, fun, and experiential way. Around 30 participants from all over the world promise a varied and up-to-date show that follows the main theme and spreads across the entire city.

“The Available City’s suggestion is that all of the city’s vacant land could actually be community-run common spaces,” says Brown. “Why this is important is that these lots are mostly in neighborhoods with inadequate resources. This type of collective space is driven by thinking about the interests of organizations or residents in the neighborhood and how those ideas might manifest themselves to create spaces or be expressed through spaces. ‘ §

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