Saturday, June 6th, 2009

The Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago – Part 1: The Exterior

Creativity doesn’t need freedom, it needs rules, then you can enjoy occasionally breaking those rules. I find myself in trouble building in an open space.
– Renzo Piano

There’s an enormous among of civic pride in the city. People want to define their city as a superior place.
– John Bryan, Art Institute of Chicago Trustee and former CEO of Sara Lee

The first building was a palace; this building is not about intimidation – it’s about curiosity, it’s about pleasure, it’s about enjoyment. One-hundred -and-thirty years later, we have to express the same civic pride, but not by using the same language. The language we are using today is the language of accessibility, clarity, simplicity, openness, porosity. Dignity is achieved not by making a marble and stone palace. Dignity is achieved by actually going to the root of the city that actually invented modernity, in steel.
– Renzo Piano

This is the first of a two-part series on the new Modern Wing. This installment focuses on the wonderful exterior of the building. The second will deal with the highly problematic Nichols Bridgeway and the building’s street level engagement (click through for part 2). I may follow-up with a third segment on the interior at a future date.

The Modern Wing is a new $294 million, 264,000 square feet addition to the Art Institute of Chicago designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano. It is done in a clean, bright, modern form of glass, steel, and Indiana limestone. Here’s a view from the Nichols Bridgeway, a skybridge leading to it from the center of Millennium Park:

Not only is this simply a very beautiful building, something not to be underestimated, it is particularly successful for the way it mediates between the classical formalism of Grant Park and the main Art Institute building on Michigan Ave., and the contemporary Millennium Park.

Think for a moment of some elements of classicism: axis and symmetry, scale and proportion, restraint and good manners, beauty. All of these are brought to bear by Piano in his Modern Wing design. Some have criticized this building for not making enough of an architectural statement. But that’s exactly the point.

So much of today’s architecture is about “making a statement” without much regard for what it is we are actually saying. And it is but a short step from an “architectural statement” to an “architect’s statement”, one too often taken. Today’s “starchitecture” is as much about hiring one of about a half dozen big names to stamp their imprimatur on a city as it is about actual architecture. Their buildings too often say more about the architect in question than they do about the city where they are located. Often that’s considered a good thing by those commissioning them. We are building monuments to the self-indulgence of their architects. It is fitting that, for example, the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum is known locally simply as “the Calatrava”. As beautiful as that building may be, it is above all a Calatrava. That’s why they paid for it. That’s why it is there. Any other function is superfluous to that raison d’etre.

Worst of all is the civic mindset this has engendered. Cities seek after the “Bilbao Effect”, believing that with a handful of splashy grands projets they can turn around decline and create a dynamic, attractive city. It puts the focus on the monumental instead of the commonplace. But the mark of a great city is not in how it treats its special places, but its ordinary ones. Creating an inspiring, livable environment in the ordinary urban spaces in which people spend their days is what is really important. Cultivating the opposite focus is possibly the most pernicious effect of starchitecture.

Chicago, sadly, has not proven immune to the siren call. The Frank Gehry band shell in Millennium Park is right down the rails of the genre. It’s a lavish, gorgeous structure to be sure, but also one that suffers from its membership in the “because we can” school of architecture. And of course it goes without saying that it isn’t even very original. And again, the fact that it looks much like the Bilbao Guggenheim – and the Weisman Art Center and the Disney concert hall – isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Chicago wanted architecture straight out of the Frank Gehry extruder. This type of structure will likely be judged by the future as emblematic of the fin de siècle decadence of our age, and as much period pieces as the 1970’s era Netsch addition to the Art Institute on Columbus.

Once cities turned to classicism to anchor themselves firmly in the 2,500 year tradition of Western culture and its highest ideals. Today, cities turn to a new international style to proclaim their lack of anchor, to repudiate their past to prove their bona fides as card carrying members in a homogenized, globalized league of world cities. Fortunately, I think the wave has crested here in the wake of the finance bubble crash. True worth and identity isn’t to be found on the outside, but on the inside. We need to welcome outsiders and outside ideas to be sure. But we can’t lose our own sense of self-confidence in what we have to offer. We have to know who we are, where we’ve come from, and what we stand for.

I for one don’t want a world city of Chicago. I want a Chicago that shows the rest of the world’s cities how it’s done. A city that can be true to its roots as a provincial capital in the best sense of the word. Once the architecture of Chicago changed the face of the world. Now the architecture of the world is changing the face of Chicago. For all its prosperity and urban core boom, that’s a curious and sad reversal.

Out of towner he may be, but Renzo piano is starting to point the way forward here. First, how does he manage to square the circle and mediate between the Beaux Arts Art Institute and Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Mark V? He does it by channeling modernism through a humanizing classical lens. Here’s a closer look at the front facade:

You see here the front glass curtain wall that recalls Mies van der Rohe – but this is no Miesian monolith. You see the front facade broken up into sections and even columns in front. No, this is not a perfectly symmetrical design, but one that nevertheless feels balanced, proportioned, and ordered.

To me Mies is too perfect. Like Stanley Kubrick, he brings a certain coldness and detachment to his work. You get the impression he’s on a quest for rigorous mathematical perfection. No so Piano. While clearly this is a modernist structure, the human element is present here. It’s that human quality known as taste, one that seeks to find simple elegance and beauty in a structure.

At the risk of sounding like I’m throwing too many names around, I’m reminded of what Hayden famously told Mozart’s father, “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” I’ve long thought about that. Why bracket compositional knowledge with of all things “taste”? But more than anything, taste is probably what defined Mozart as a composer. He didn’t let his techniques run wild for the sake them. Rather, he used and restrained them in a manner in the service of greater beauty.

While I’m not calling Piano the Mozart of architects, there’s a certain similar dynamic at work here. This isn’t “less is more” and it isn’t “because my computer lets me”. Rather, it is “Only as many notes as necessary, Your Majesty.”

Moving along, the overhanging roof is similar to other Piano works, but in this case strongly recalls to me McCormick Place. Only again, a more elegant and refined one. And also while the flat roof is a modernist signature, it’s also a Beaux-Arts one.

As the grade of Monroe St. rises here east to west to pass over the railroad tracks, we see that Piano made the choice to build the base of the building at the top of the grade. He set the building back a bit off the street and created a subtle raised first floor effect again not dissimilar from a Beaux Arts building. This also helps keep a sense of the monumental for what is, after all, a major civic structure deserving of some dignity and standoffishness. But we see that this is not done to an excessive degree.

You’ll note the above photos were taken from the far side of the street. Which highlights one of the problems with the Modern Wing. It is a building best seen at some remove. It’s far less inviting when you are standing in front if it and it has major street level engagement issues. The treatment of Monroe St. generally a major opportunity lost for the city, and one I’ll cover in some depth in the next installment. In the meantime, here’s another closer up view, though still taken from an elevated, detached perspective:

Again, what an elegant, beautiful building. Architecture writers like to talk about buildings engaging in conversation. Well, if this building is in conversation with the Gehry band shell, then what it is saying is a rebuke. But not the harsh rebuke of the Hebrew prophets. Rather, it’s the more gentle reproof of the zen master in serene contemplation.

The vast majority of the exterior photos in the press show this Monroe St. facade. But that’s not the entire building. The main west facade is more or less a blank masonry wall:

As this overlooks a railroad line, that might seem acceptable. But I’ve got better plans for that rail line, so stay tuned. Also, keep in mind that this is the view from the top of the Nichols Bridgeway. So this is a wall set back off from the street and not what the building looks like seen from Monroe to the west. See below for a shot of that approach.

Here’s the building seen from the northeast corner of Monroe and Columbus.

Again, looks great. And isn’t that a gratuitously decorative projection sticking out of the side of the building? I believe it is. And thank goodness. A blank wall on this side would have been a clear no-no. But the necessities of the space probably would have made putting windows difficult. This is a nice way to solve the problem. Also, the red in the sign is wonderfully complementary to the CNA building you see peeking up over the roof. A very thoughtful detail.

You might be wondering what that arch is doing sitting there on the corner. If you look at the other side of it, you see what appears to be a salvaged piece of the old Louis Sullivan Chicago Stock Exchange building.

Driving under the new one on Congress, one can’t help but notice the huge arched windows in the portion of the building built over the street. This earns the trifecta of paying homage to Sullivan, simulating an exchange trading floor, and recalling classic Romanesque Revival train stations. (That area is actually the entrance to LaSalle St. station).

Having this highly decorated piece of traditional architecture on one side with a modern version on the other again shows the fusion – in this case literally – of old and new. It’s a nice touch. This arch appears to be the entrance to an under construction park or garden. Imagine someone walking through it from the Monroe St. side to be surprised and delighted when they turn around – maybe after several minutes already on the other side – and find what is waiting for them.

We’ll have to see what this looks like when it is done.

Here’s a direct view from the east:

This gives a very dominant appearance of a roof projecting much further off the back than the front. Personally, I don’t like it. To me it looks like the roof slid out of place. I’m not sure what’s going on in the back since the area is under construction and I could not get access to it. This picture can give you sense of it, however. It also shows the Modern Wing in context next to the utterly forgettable – meaning that we’d like to be able to forget – 70’s era annex.

Beyond architecturally mediating between classical and contemporary, the Modern Wing also helps reinforce the formalistic layout of Grant Park and put Millennium Park in context with it. I don’t know the whole history of this building, but it would be interesting to know to what extent its presence was anticipated during the park’s design. It appears to me that the park was laid out on the assumption a major building would be on that spot. Indeed, it’s almost as if all road’s lead to the Modern Wing. It acts as the perfect pivot between the two sides of Monroe St.

Piano does two very great things in my view. The first is that he makes sure that the Modern Wing engages properly with the viewer from almost any spot in Millennium Park. The series of pictures below will make this very clear. The other is that he introduced a very strong sense of axis in his Modern Wing that links through to the park. The quote above shows that Piano likes to work in a constrained environment. But this park setting is actually rather unconstrained as these things go. What appears to have happened is that he not only took the constraints of the site as they were, but also created artificial constraints for himself to live with, such as respecting the axial layout of Grant Park. He uses this constraint to good effect.

Here is the Modern Wing seen from the front of the lawn in the Pritzker Pavillion.

The Modern Wing isn’t centered on this axis, but is grid aligned, and also with the tower behind it which is at Roosevelt Rd. This trellis, by the way, is my absolute favorite part of Millennium Park.

The interior of the building features a main north-south corridor-atrium. The ceiling lights recall the trellis and also create another powerful, reinforcing axis for the building.

If you stand directly outside the revolving doors this leads to and look north, this is the view you’ll see:

This isn’t really lined up with a park axis, but since you can’t see anything, it doesn’t matter. The edge of the parking garage entrance and our good friend 2 Pru reassure us anyway, the building edge aligned similarly to the one to the south.

And here are some views of the Modern Wing from different vantage points. I’ll let these mostly pass without comment, except to say that they are certainly well considered.

From the foot of the Nichols Bridgeway:

From the central corridor of Lurie Garden:

From the east corridor of Lurie Garden:

Looking east down Monroe St.:

Peeking through the trees from Crown Fountain. There will certainly be more of a view of the building in the winter time.

From the BP Bridge over the center of Columbus Drive.:

On the whole, this is a wonderful building at a “macro” level. The “micro” level street engagement has problems, as I’ll document in the next installment. I really admire the restraint, taste, and inclusion of classical elements into the Modern Wing. Unfortunately, I don’t think this building points the way to the type of modern day Chicago architecture I would like to see. In a sense, it is actually too graceful. Grace is a feminine quality, one at odds with the rough and tumble commercial-industrial center and hustler’s city that is Chicago. Big Shoulders it is not. But that’s ok in the park. The Beaux Arts City Beautiful legacy of Burnham was in a sense always a bit of lipstick on a pig, a bit of aspirational slather and pretense for a city that was always too busy making money to care about much else. It works perfectly here, but this isn’t the main context of the city.

I may come back and write more on the interior later after I’ve had a view more visits and the opportunity to study it further. I only saw it during the member preview, and, like most Art Institute events, it was a mixture of spectacular art with uncomfortably large crowds. But I can make a few comments now based on my experience.

One the things that technology has really allowed us to do in the modern area is to have much more glass and transparency in settings like libraries and museums where they were once off limits or of much more limited use. Piano takes full advantage of this to have both allow indirect light in through the roof, and to have windows out into the city in parts of the building. What’s more, at night this works the other way and the building lights up nicely like a lantern for the city.

As for the skylights, I couldn’t see what the big deal was, frankly. And as for the windows, there were floor to ceiling shades in place that made it impossible to see anything. What’s the point of these windows if you can’t look out of them? Supposedly the shades can open at times, but if they aren’t open most of the time, this will be a big disappointment. It is maddening to only get to see glimpses of the city through gaps at the edges of the shades.

The third floor has the modern art everyone will want to see. The second floor is home to most contemporary art. Unlike an old school museum, there is basically only one serpentine path through the galleries, so your flow through the building is fairly controlled. You don’t have to worry about missing anything, but also there is much less sense of chance and discovery. Your journey is in a sense programmed.

Also, only 60,000 square feet of space is devoted to galleries. That’s a shockingly small percentage of the building. The rest of it is made up of classrooms, public spaces, of course multiple shops and restaurants (of course), and who knows what else. In an era where sustainability is paramount, does it really make sense to have such inefficient use of space? It’s a question to ponder.

I can say this, the art is spectacular. The Art Institute has a very impressive collection of modern art. Regardless of what one thinks of the building, that art is what really justifies a trip to check out this new wing.

Review Roundup of the Modern Wing

Temple of Light (Blair Kamin @ Chicago Tribune)
Renzo Piano Embraces Chicago (Nicolai Ouroussof @ New York Times)
A Grand and Intimate Modern Art Trove (Roberta Smith @ New York Times)
Is Chicago’s Art Institute Showing Signs of ‘Star-chitecture’? (Morgan Falconer @ The Times of London)
Hitting the Right Notes (David D’Arcy @ The National – United Arab Emirates)
A Modern Wing Takes Flight (Lee Rosenbaum @ The Wall Street Journal)
Piano’s Flying Carpet Lands at Chicago Art Institute (James S. Russell @ Bloomberg)
Interview with Renzo Piano (Edward Lifson @ The Architect’s Newspaper)
Edward Lifson blog archive on the Modern Wing (lots of great writing and photos)
Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute (Mary Louise Schumacher @ Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
Renzo Piano Adds Onto Art Institute of Chicago (Kenneth Baker @ San Francisco Chronicle)
Art Institute’s Massive Expansion Opens (The Art Newspaper)
Art Institute Expands, with Elegance (Time)

There are also a lot of thoughtful reader comments over at Blair Kamin’s blog.

Part Two of this Review: The Nichols Bridgeway, or Re-Imagining Monroe St.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Chicago

10 Responses to “The Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago – Part 1: The Exterior”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I dont think there was much anticipation of a monumental building at the site of the Modern Wing. The old Goodman Theatre is what sat on the site before (which was also a beautiful building and its loss is very sad IMO, but thats another story for another time). The Field Museum had originally been tossed around as the centerpiece building for GP at the time of the Burnham Plan, but it eventually got pushed to its current location.

    Also, if you havent read up on the history of the Louis Sullivan Stock Exchange building, I definitely encourage you to do so. Although, its ultimately a very depressing tale. The small bright spot is the arch as you pointed out, was saved, as was the actual trading floor, which was dismantled and rebuilt inside the AIC. Well worth a visit, and its surprising how many people dont even know its there.

  2. clairehelene7 says:

    Yes, I second looking into the history of Sullivan's Stock Exchange, and into Richard Nickel. I think you'll enjoy his photography – it's a very sad story.

    I agreed with so much that you have to say here, I don't really have a place to start. I look forward to visiting the Modern Wing, as well as Piano's Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

    Great post.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    So much architecture, so little time. You could devote a life to just studying it. I was aware of the Goodman, and Burnham's Plans for the park that ran into "forever free and clear".

    Thanks for the comments.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Very nice review. A

    After seeing your photos, Chicago's architectural references seem unmistakable–Frank Lloyd Wright (flying carpet roof) meets Mies (elegantly proportioned base).

    And there, to the side, is Louis Sullivan, a godfather of sorts to each.

  5. BenjaminL says:

    "Unlike an old school museum, there is basically only one serpentine path through the galleries, so your flow through the building is fairly controlled. You don't have to worry about missing anything, but also there is much less sense of chance and discovery. Your journey is in a sense programmed."

    Like an IKEA!

    But seriously – it's interesting that when they were planning Yoshio Taniguchi's renovation and extension to MoMA in New York, they made a point of moving away from the programmed single route (which they'd had for decades), in favor of a kind of grid through which one might take multiple paths.

  6. Pulp says:

    Clearly, you know way more about architecture than I do. But to me, this looks exceedingly cold, bland and utilitarian! I just don't get it. Maybe I'm too much of a romantic, but it's always the old stuff that makes me swoon.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    How accessible is the Modern Wing? I'm asking because when I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I had to walk from the middle of a parking lot through a back entrance complex that reminded me of a labyrinthine temple complex.

  8. the urban politician says:

    ^ Alon, considering that they spent millions on a pedestrian bridge to get people from Millennium Park to the Modern Wing, I'd consider it pretty accessible

  9. Anonymous says:

    All in all a nice building. The dominant element of this building is a sunshade, not a roof, though. Its design is driven by the path the sun takes across the Chicago sky. That's why it sticks so far out from the building on the east, to protect against the morning sun.

  10. ardecila says:

    The little parking garage entrance on the south side of Monroe Street was designed by Piano several years in advance of the Modern Wing. It uses the same vocabulary of limestone and thin, tall glass panels. This demonstrates that, yes, Millennium Park and the Modern Wing were designed to be complementary.

    My favorite part of MP, the Lurie Garden, deliberately sets up sight lines that frame the Modern Wing. I don't believe Kathryn Gustafson (Lurie's designer) knew what Piano's design would look like, but she decided to defer to it anyway, through her garden's design.

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