If you are in the Chicago area for the holidays, go check out the Chicago Architectural Biennial, the first of its kind for the city that loves its buildings.

Sponsored by BP, warmly promoted by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, CAB was curated by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima and offers a look at nothing less than the “state of the art of architecture” at this point in the 21st century – and it comes to an end in early January, 2016.

But don’t expect to find showy formal experiments or a definitive new architectural “ism.”

To the extent there is a unifying theme in the display of speculative projects by 120 architects and artists, selected from over 30 countries on six continents, it is a modesty of scale and “the agency of the architect.”

What this means, explains Herda, is that architects are “really carving out new ways to practice and challenging the notion that an architect is sitting at a desk waiting for the phone to ring. A lot of the projects that we show in the Biennial are self-initiated projects, by architects who are identifying something in the world and employing architecture and design to address specific issues.”

Those issues might include ergonomics — a workspace without desks and chairs by RAAAF (top image); class, race and policing — a police (“polis”) station that serves as a community center by Studio Gang; and global finance – a skyscraper reconsidered to enable less formulaic design and uses, by SOM + Camesgibson. These ideas are explored through full-scale mock-ups, more traditional models and drawings, and dance and film.

All of this has led some Biennial visitors to bemoan the lack of actual architecture and others to applaud what appears to be the heralding of a post-starchitectural era.

And it has brought in thousands of curious viewers, from inside and out of the architecture world, and from Chicago and far beyond. Herda points out that with some biennials “the opening is the big moment. We’ve experienced a constant building of interest, with on average 20,000 people a week in the main exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.”

To learn more about the thinking that went into assembling this giant panorama of architectural experimentation, DnA spoke with artistic director Sarah Herda. Read on for answers.

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