The elevated was clacking and roaring, and a lake wind, misty and brisk, was pushing through the limestone corridors of the Loop. The sky was knotted with clouds. I’d come to the city for the opening of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, where more than a hundred architects and artists, from some thirty countries, had been invited to present work in a variety of mediums at sites around the city. It was the last afternoon of September, a day before the exhibition preview, and I was wandering through downtown on presidential streets—Washington, Madison, Monroe, Adams—and stumbling upon late-nineteenth-century gems such as the Monadnock Building, with its beefy load-bearing walls that flare outward at its base like boot-cut pant legs; and the Marquette Building, with its handsome Greek-guilloche facade and a Tiffany mosaic that’s so ornate that its visitors speak in whispers. I passed other work by the Chicago School architects, who rebuilt much of the city after the catastrophic fire of 1871 and whose names grace landmark plaques all over town: Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, William Holabird, William Le Baron Jenney, John Root, Martin Roche, Louis Sullivan.

Chicago boasts some of the best examples of early and midcentury modern buildings in the country, but one of my favorite structures in town is the Harold Washington Library, which was completed in 1991. It is a collage of references, an architectural history lesson in a single edifice. I used to show slides of this building when I was teaching undergraduates the basics of postmodernism: its rejection of centralization, its boiling down of histories to simulacra, its endless pastiche.

Many of the library’s design elements are brazen imitations of features of Chicago landmarks, which themselves sport details derived from old-world European buildings. Nothing is subtle about the library’s giant classical acroteria (roof ornaments), its Mannerist pediment, its huge gridded-glass windows that recall turn-of-the-century crystal palaces and train stations. The bulky Romanesque base—a tribute to the nineteenth-century Rookery Building a few blocks north—is trimmed with a guilloche pattern similar to the one on the Marquette, and above it is a vast brick shaft with cutout arches. The allusions look comically oversize as if to beef up these largely European motifs, as one would cars or sandwiches, for Midwestern Americans.

It seemed fitting to end my walking tour here, not long before I would visit an exhibition that would also offer a sampling of design histories, a compendium of diverse and sometimes incompatible ideas.

The biennial’s rather ambitious title was “The State of the Art of Architecture,” an homage to a conference of the same name that the architect Stanley Tigerman put on in Chicago in 1977. There are two ways to read the title: What is architecture’s state of the art? And what is the current state of this art called architecture? The event—which has the distinction of being the first architecture biennial in North America as well as the largest-ever exhibition on contemporary architecture in the United States—sets out not only to explain what practicing architects are up to these days, but also to explain the biennial itself, to show why it should exist and recur in a city where great architecture is everywhere.

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