Artist Bryony Roberts will enlist a drill team to perform at Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center.

With more than 100 projects from every inhabitable continent descending on Chicago for the city’s first architecture biennial, the work on display might seem to be grounded in a placeless globalist ether rather than the dozen represented countries. At least nine of the participating practices are located in two or more places at once, with one partner splitting time in two locations, or two partners based thousands of miles apart. Yet the assembled roster’s work remains committed to using local context to engage with issues just outside architecture’s borders: ecology, inequality, resilience, and more. This tension between the global and the local is one of the consistent themes in the run-up to the biennial.

“It exemplifies the different ways people are working, and the plurality of positions and voices,” says Sarah Herda, biennial coartistic director. “This selection of people does not represent a single ideological position, and we think that reflects what’s happening in architecture today.”

Past Venice Architecture Biennales have had a more established group of participants, but the majority of the Chicago group—with the exception of recent additions including Frank Gehry and David Adjaye—is relatively new to the international scene, still often operating at the scale of installations and pavilions.

The biennial, slated to be the largest architecture exposition in North American history, will be mainly be held in the Chicago Cultural Center, where three architecture firms (Mexico-based Tatiana Bilbao, U.S.-based MOS, Vietnam-based VTN) will build three full-scale houses. The Cultural Center will also stage a site-specific installation from New York firm SO-IL that will remake the quirky ramps that stitch the two halves of the Beaux-Arts building together, and a Chicago-centric exhibit featuring local designers’ prescriptions for the city.

Just across
 Michigan Avenue in 
Millennium Park,
 there will be kiosks 
designed by a competition winner, 
Ultramoderne from
 Rhode Island, as well
 as students rom 
Chicago’s architecture schools. The
 Graham Foundation 
(which Herda leads) will feature the abstract art and
 photography of
Chicago artist Barbara Kasten, and on the city’s South Side, artist Theaster Gates will unveil his Stony Island Arts Bank, a community art space adorned with site-specific art installations by Barcelona-based Carlos Bunga and Mexican architect Frida Escobedo.

There will also be a half-dozen performance installations throughout the city, including one by Bryony Roberts, who, being based in Los Angeles and Oslo, exemplifies the global/local dynamic of her contemporaries. Roberts’s work focuses on the intersection of art, architecture, and preservation, often engaging with local politics. “I float around, but when I land, it’s really intense,” she says of her practice. Her biennial project brings racially diverse members of the South Shore Drill Team to perform at Mies van der Rohe’s austere Federal Center in the Loop, as new “authors to remake that space. They’re people who are not normally made to feel comfortable in spaces like that, or given the agency to change the architecture.”

Chicago-based architect and artist Amanda Williams’s work deals with some of the same issues of race and inequality. Her Color(ed) Theory series of abandoned houses painted bright colors iconic to African-American South Siders (like “Harold’s Chicken Shack red”) will be on display. Though her architecture-centric work is located in the very specific cultural and geographic milieu of the South Side, she says the worldly nature of her biennial colleagues can help them dig deeper into the local conditions they choose to work in. “When you’ve been all over, then there’s an ability to have a deep reading of your own city, because you realize its currency,” she says.

With one partner in London and the other in Harare, Zimbabwe, Studio [D] Tale has a variety of local contexts to draw from. Their work offers physical and virtual ways for people to plug into informal communities and the “shadow economy” that is still mostly untouched by architects and designers, says Zimbabwe-based partner Maxwell Mutanda. “We can’t all be chasing after a few high-profile projects.”

This level of social engagement is relatively new territory for architecture biennials, though the next Venice iteration is already signaling it will focus on a socially progressive agenda next year. Roberts says that reveling in aesthetics and embracing a progressive social mandate isn’t a binary choice.

Williams hopes this level of wider engagement can attract new audiences. An African American who grew up near where her Color(ed) Theory houses stand, Williams wants to bring people to the biennial who don’t normally see their neighborhoods represented as architecture worth celebrating—for whom “architecture is downtown, but not my block,” she says. With Color(ed) Theory, among other works, it will be. “I’m excited to make that connection for someone.”