This year's Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) is more about politics than practice—which is, in itself, refreshing. Still, some of the standout projects were those that gave the visitors something like built work. Here are five favorites:

Fundo Imobiliário Comunitário para Aluguel (FICA)'s “What Does an Ethical Landlord Look Like?” at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial/Tom Harris, 2019 Fundo Imobiliário Comunitário para Aluguel (FICA)'s “What Does an Ethical Landlord Look Like?” at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

FICA—Fundo Imobiliário Comunitário para Aluguel, “What Does an Ethical Landlord Look Like?”
A Brazilian collective of architects, activists, and researchers, FICA goes well beyond writing and thinking about urban problems—it actively tries to solve them, specifically by purchasing São Paolo apartments off the open market and preserving them as low-rent units in perpetuity. For the Biennial, they erected a kind of bare-bones replica of the only such conversion they’ve completed so far, with a full-size floor plan bound by wall text and graphics explaining the housing crisis in their hometown and the history of their own response. Simple and colorful, the installation was stirring example of architecture in action.


Sweet Water Foundations "Re-Rooting + Redux," with DAAR's "Refuge Heritage" in the foreground at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial/Kendall McCaugherty, 2019 Sweet Water Foundations "Re-Rooting + Redux," with DAAR's "Refuge Heritage" in the foreground at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Sweet Water Foundation, “Re-Rooting + Redux”
Under the leadership of architect Emmanuel Pratt—who was just named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow—the Sweet Water Foundation is a novel combination multidisciplinary practice and land trust dedicated to what it terms “regenerative neighborhood development.” This philosophy of urban intervention looks to strengthen underserved communities without gentrifying them or displacing their inhabitants. “Re-Rooting + Redux” is a demonstration structure at the Chicago Cultural Center that is similar to a real one that the group has erected at its Perry Street Commons site on Chicago’s South Side. Functionally flexible, the simple barnlike frame can be adapted to all the assorted agricultural and educational activities in Sweet Water's program, while its form is an intentional echo of the old balloon frames that were the common housing type in African American towns and neighborhoods a century and more ago.


"The Gun Violence Memorial Project," MASS Design Group, Hank Willis Thomas
Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, / Kendall McCaugherty, 2019 "The Gun Violence Memorial Project," MASS Design Group, Hank Willis Thomas

MASS Design Group, “Gun Violence Memorial Project”
Simply stated, appropriately sober, yet remarkably warm and approachable, the installation from Boston- and Kigali, Rwanda–based MASS Design Group is more than a proposal: It is a real-life monument that can be transported anywhere and set down in scarcely a few hours. At present it comprises four house-like forms set in a pinwheel formation, creating a simple equilateral cross between them. The entirely transparent façade of each individual structure is divided into cells, into which visitors can look both from the outside and the bare interiors. Inside the cells are small artifacts—a photo, a stuffed animal, a shoe—each belonging to the victim of a deadly shooting and donated by their families. As the donations grow, and as the death count continues to rise, the existing four houses are expected to fill up and to eventually be joined—tragic though it is to imagine—by more structures.


Alejandra Celedón, Nicolás Stutzin, and Javier Correa's “The Plot: Miracle and Mirage” at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial/Kendall McCaugherty, 2019 Alejandra Celedón, Nicolás Stutzin, and Javier Correa's “The Plot: Miracle and Mirage” at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Alejandra Celedón, Nicolás Stutzin, Javier Correa, “The Plot: Miracle and Mirage”
The so-called “Chicago Boys” were a group of U.S.-trained libertarian economists who rose to prominence in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and '80s. In this CAB installation, Chilean architects Alejandra Celedón and Nicolás Stutzin and audiovisual director and producer Javier Correa constructed an eerily shifting virtual cityscape—a shimmering bird's-eye view inside a light box—that alternates between the city in which the famed free-marketeers were educated, Chicago, and the city where their policies found their most radical expression, their home country’s capital of Santiago. What emerges is less a direct or obvious parallel to the way economic forces have shaped both places, but rather a vague and creeping sense of conspiracy of powerful forces working their way through quiet neighborhoods.


Jorge González, “Other Forms of We”
Through woodworking and weaving, Jorge González captures the beauty and simplicity of folk techniques passed down for generations in Puerto Rico. What makes the installation even more effective is where it’s located: On the top floor of Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum—the famed settlement and mecca for social reform—the piece creates a subdued domestic environment that evokes the building’s past as a place of communal refuge, reminding visitors that the aim of social reform is the creation of a more beautiful and more livable world.