Chicago Cultural Center, Washington Street entrance Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Chicago’s bid for a spot on the global biennial circuit is getting its rollout this weekend.  

The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial—”the largest international survey of contemporary architecture in North America”—opens to the public Saturday for a three-month run.

The Chicago Cultural Center is the major venue for the event, which features the work of more than 100 architects from 30 countries. Admission to the Cultural Center and to most of the Biennial programs is free.

The Beaux-Arts building’s been entirely taken over by the show, the first event ever to occupy all of its exhibit space. Many of the architects were there for a preview Thursday, manning their stations and eager to talk about their works. The vibe was hip and socially conscious; energy was high. The Biennial, which examines “the state of the art of architecture” (a title that pays homage to a historic Chicago conference organized by Stanley Tigerman 38 years ago), seeks to identify the driving forces behind architects and their work today.

At a preview press conference, coartistic directors Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima explained that they didn’t impose a theme on the event. “We asked architects to tell us what is important,” Herda said, but some themes did emerge—among them, the need to take action in the world, the idea that no project is too small to matter, and the concept of “home.” The exhibits at the Cultural Center include four compact but full-size houses.

Biennial Foundation chairman Louis Susman said the event will be “paid for by private funds,” and John Minge, president of major sponsor BP America, said BP got involved because Mayor Rahm Emanuel “can be pretty persuasive.”

The Biennial’s been a priority for Emanuel, who said he was “six-foot-two and 250 pounds” when he started working on it.  

So what’ll you see? If you enter from Randolph Street, the first thing that’ll hit you is the sweet smell of fresh-cut wood, wafting up from stacked logs that function as benches in the outer lobby (an exhibit by Berlin-based Kere Architecture, titled “Place for Gathering”). Just ahead, the inner lobby’s been busily reimagined by the Mexico City team of Pedro&Juana. With an overhead web of rope and spherical lanterns and patterned cutouts lining the marble walls, it looks like it’s dressed for a party.

Pedro&Juana’s lobby redoCredit: Deanna Isaacs

On the whole exhibits are less high-tech than you might expect (and that’s not a bad thing). There are models, of course, along with drawings, photos, slides, videos, actual structures, and a slew of wall text. They include the practical and the imaginative—real-world projects and some that are aspirational. Among the latter (in a group of 18 curated by Iker Gill under the title “Bold: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago”), there’s the model for Port Urbanism’s “The Big Shift,” which imagines moving 1.5 miles of Lake Shore Drive, surrounding Grant Park with development, and creating 225 acres of “new lakefront real estate.”

Port Urbanism’s “The Big Shift”Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Jeanne Gang was on hand to talk about “Polis Station,” Studio Gang’s interesting alcove mural on the history of policing and their plan to turn police stations into community-friendly hubs.  

Jeanne Gang talks about Studio Gang’s “Polis Station”Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Atelier Bow-Wow put ramps, stairs, and a ladder in the Cultural Center’s inaccessible courtyard, and its fellow Tokyo-based firm Onishimake + Hyakudayuki set up a “Children’s Town” in the stately Grand Army of the Republic Hall. Madrid’s Selgascano + Helloeverything’s luminous prefab frames the view of it; the Michigan Avenue windows in the background are sporting historic window dressings by Norman Kelley (aka Thomas Kelley and Carrie Norman).

Onishimake + Hyakudayuki’s “Children’s Town,” framed by Selgascano + Helloeverything’s “Casa A.” In the background: Norman Kelly’s “Chicago: How do you see?”Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Also on the second floor, a styrofoam model for the four-part “House of One,” a Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religious center that Kuehn Malvezzi + Armin Linke + Marco Lulić are hoping to build in Berlin. (No, that tall central module is not a snowman.)

Kuehn Malvezzi + Armin Linke + Marco Lulic’s “House of One”Credit: Deanna Isaacs

And here’s my favorite: If you pull a single thread, “Rock Print,” a towering structure of packed little “stones” and string will come down. Until then—amazingly—it’s locked into place without any kind of adhesive. Matthias Kohler, of Zurich-based Gramazio Kohler Research, says that this project, a collaboration with MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab that included 3-D printing and robotic assembly, holds promise for new methods of construction.

Gramazio Kohler Research + ETH Zurich + MIT Self-Assembly Lab’s “Rock Print”Credit: Deanna Isaacs

There’s a full schedule of events (performances, tours, and more) this weekend and throughout the next three months at the Cultural Center, across the street at 72 E. Randolph, and at other venues, including Theaster Gates’s new Stony Island Arts Bank, the Water Tower Gallery, and the Graham Foundation, which partnered with the city to present the Biennial. Check it out here.