Learn about the past, present and future of architecture at this sprawling celebration that cements Chicago’s stature as a powerhouse of glass and steel. 

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, Louis Sullivan and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—among America’s first starchitects—each left his mark on Chicago, undergirding the city’s claim as the birthplace of modern architecture. From Wright’s horizontal Prairie houses in suburban Oak Park to van der Rohe’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers in the Loop, the city, essentially a blank canvas after the Great Fire of 1871, remains a living museum of 20th-century building styles.

So it’s certainly fitting, if not overdue, that Chicago just inaugurated its own architecture biennial, the first such event in North America and a complement to long-established biennials in Venice, São Paulo and Shenzhen/Hong Kong. Through Jan. 3, the biennial is exploring the work of architects from more than 30 countries on six continents through exhibitions, tours, talks, workshops, performances and film. “For over 100 years, Chicago has been a site of experimentation, a laboratory of new ideas of city-making that have influenced the world,” said Sarah Herda, director of the city’s Graham Foundation, which offers architecture-related grants to promote innovation and is a co-presenter, with the city, of the biennial.

The three-month event’s core exhibition, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” spreads across seven sites, including the Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop, the Graham Foundation’s own 1901 Prairie-influenced Madlener House in the upscale Gold Coast neighborhood, and Millennium Park, site of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion and Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (aka “the Bean”).

Ms. Herda, the biennial’s co-curator said that she hopes visitors take away “an expanded idea of what architects do,” and that the event helps “to bridge the divide…between the people who are really driving the field and the public that is ultimately making decisions about the way our environments are designed.” A full calendar can be found at chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org. Here are a few highlights:

The State of the Art of Architecture

At the Beaux-Arts-style Chicago Cultural Center, the lead venue, visitors can walk through full-scale models of affordable housing designed by the Mexican architectural firm Tatiana Bilbao S.C. and Vietnam’s Vo Trong Nghia Architects and see a full-scale “Corridor House,” a 500-square-foot critique of space-wasting McMansions by New York’s MOS Architects. “The idea,” Ms. Herda said, “is that everyone deserves good design.” The show also investigates new building materials and methods, including an installation of rocks and thread constructed by a robot.

Lakefront Kiosk

On Museum Campus along Lake Michigan, the winner of the Lakefront Kiosk Competition—“Chicago Horizon” by Providence, R.I. firm Ultramoderne—is a starkly simple, Modernist, wood-roofed pavilion featuring chain-link fencing and a new material called cross-laminated timber. After the biennial, it will be used for vending, viewing and shelter.

Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye

The Art Institute of Chicago, one of more than 100 biennial partners, is mounting an exhibition spotlighting the Tanzanian-born, London-based architect David Adjaye. The show includes Mr. Adjaye’s sketches, his photographs of African urban architecture and scale models of his domestic projects and public buildings. Among Mr. Adjaye’s U.S. commissions are Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2007), Harlem’s Sugar Hill housing development (2014) and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open next year on Washington’s National Mall.

Wright Now @SC Johnson

You can catch a shuttle from the Chicago Cultural Center for a free daylong guided tour of the SC Johnson corporate headquarters in Racine, Wis., about two hours away. On Thursdays and Fridays, the tour features the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Administration Building (1939) and Research Tower (1950), as well as Fortaleza Hall (2010), designed by Foster + Partners. On Saturdays and Sundays, the tour also includes Wingspread (1939), former company president H.F. Johnson Jr.’s home and the last and largest of Wright’s Prairie houses. Reservations are free but required; scjohnson.com/en/company/visiting/CAB_tours.aspx

Stony Island Arts Bank

One of the core exhibition’s seven venues, the Stony Island Arts Bank is most notable as a reconstruction of a crumbling 1923 Greek Revival bank on Chicago’s South Side by artist Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. For the biennial, it displays a site-specific cardboard labyrinth installation, “Under the Skin,” by the Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga, as well as a courtyard designed by Mexico City’s Frida Escobedo who is known for her adaptable structures.

Late Night at the Biennial

On two upcoming Friday nights, the Chicago Cultural Center galleries will stay open until 9 p.m. to host special events and workshops. On Dec. 4, “Designed to Eat” pairs chefs with architects to design dishes based on themes such as togetherness and nostalgia. Attendees will get to sample the results. On Dec. 11, in a workshop titled “That Belongs in a Museum,” architects talk about objects that inspired them. Also on that date, Liam Young, founder of an “urban futures” think tank, presents his ideas. Reservations are free but required.

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