UrbanLab, A Room Enclosed by Hills and Mountains, at the Chicago Architecture Biennial Credit: Deanna Isaacs

If you’re not an architect, or some other kind of construction savant, but are planning to see the Chicago Architecture Biennial, here’s some advice: grab one of the several daily free tours. In spite of the fact that CAB now has a half-dozen satellite shows in various neighborhoods, the main exhibition, at the Cultural Center, is massive, featuring projects by more than 140 international architectural firms and artists.

It’s a lot to get your head around, and the 45-minute tour (offered at 2:30 and 5:30 PM Tuesday through Friday, 11 AM and 2:30 PM weekends) can provide a set of anchor points that make it easier to navigate the rest. If the tour times don’t work for you, there are a couple of CAB handouts on-site that’ll be of some help. One is a map that plots project locations, spread throughout the enormous venue. (The Cultural Center, two separate entities when it opened in 1897, can be confusing even when it’s not hosting a bewildering array of exhibits.) The other is a guide that’ll point you to three or four projects on each floor.

Which raises the Biennial’s main problem for nonarchitect visitors: communication. While this brief guide reads as though written for grade-school tour groups, much of the wall text throughout the exhibition (as well as the catalog text) errs at the other extreme, indulging in muddled, obfuscating jargon that’s indecipherable even to interested adults.

Unlike the first biennial, two years ago, this show, curated by the Los Angeles-based team of Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, has an official theme, “Make New History.” That’s focused it in some ways, but also has made it more inward-looking, less committed to social activism, and more prone to writing that’s sometimes technical, but more often pseudoacademic blather.

It’s not totally random, however. CAB staff consultant Garrett Karp, who was leading a tour when I dropped in last week, said the show is loosely organized from the bottom up, with mostly real, already-built projects in the main-floor galleries and successively more futuristic and speculative work on the upper levels.

That’s why a big, inscrutable black cube is the first thing you’ll encounter if you veer left after entering on the Washington Street side of the building. Created by Italian architecture firm the Empire, it’s a representation of an actual, historically important structure that was built right here: Enrico Fermi’s first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1.

Enter on the Randolph Street side of the building and you’ll be greeted by a couple of equally blunt but less somber projects: a glaring yellow postmodern reception area by Chicago architect Ania Jaworska in the lobby, and an “intervention” by Mexico City’s Frida Escobedo—a sloped floor that (according to the archi-speak) “interrogates the grid” while rendering the Randolph Square space unusable. (Karp says it’s made of movable pieces that’ll be rearranged before too long.)

If you have less than, say, five or six hours (or, better yet, several days) to take everything in, you’ll want to hustle up to the second floor, where the gorgeous old Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda houses a computer-generated and imaginatively enhanced (if sterile) model of the IIT campus and surrounding area (by IIT and SANAA), and the G.A.R. Hall hosts one of the Biennial’s major collective projects, “Horizontal City.” The latter is a group of fantastic miniature interiors, each inspired by a photograph of a real historical room.

The Chicago firm UrbanLab has contributed a project for “Horizontal City” that’s one of my favorites of the show. It’s a theory-driven play on an equally theory-driven 1970s photo collage (by Superstudio). But you can, if you choose, bypass the theory and go right to the irresistible windows it offers into a strange, vast, Lilliputian landscape of saguaro and tiny human figures on a ground of starkly illuminated grid. Thanks to some ingeniously placed mirrors, your own giant face will be part of the scene, which Karp says makes it a popular spot for selfies.

You’ll also want to make time for a second collective project, “Vertical City,” in Yates Hall on the fourth floor. Fifteen architectural firms have reinterpreted the Tribune Tower competition, inspired by both the 1922 original contest and Stanley Tigerman’s 1980 redux. Each built an approximately 16-foot model, and all of them, plus similarly tall models of two of the 1922 designs, are on display.

It’s a fascinating exercise, with an ironic edge for Chicagoans now that the Tribune is about to move from its iconic home, relinquishing the architectural symbol of its former power. But to appreciate it as something more than what looks like a forest of giant chess pieces, viewers need to understand which historic designs each model is referencing. When I was there, none of the models were labeled. Diagrams, posted at an inconvenient distance, failed to include the two historic pieces. They were as baffling as most of the wall text.

CAB says it’s on that. It’ll soon have a handout that’ll make everything clear.  v