Julie Lasky | Reviews

This End Up: Renzo Piano's Modern Wing

Modern Wing exterior
The Art Institute of Chicago, view of Modern Wing from Monroe Street. Photo: Charles G. Young, Interactive Design Architects

I was born in Chicago and raised up the road, but I never heard the word “fragility” associated with my hometown until Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing opened at the Art Institute last weekend. Chicago is John Belushi, Dick Butkus, bratwurst, machine politics, the John Hancock Center’s skeletal good looks and the whiplash of wind cutting through parka. Chicago gave us Obama (or likes to think it did), the very embodiment of steel and grit. Fragile? I shouldn’t think so. I guess it takes an Italian to see things differently.

Speaking to the press about the 264,000-square-foot building, which increases the museum’s hefty size by a third, Piano was referring to the lightness of modernism. After fire ravaged much of Chicago in 1871, the city was rebuilt with revolutionary steel-framed constructions supporting wide expanses of glass. These buildings were strong, supple, and clear. And their clarity wasn’t simply a matter of transparency but also of navigation and order: as Piano noted, the new urban grid aligned with true compass points (“When you look north, north is exactly what you see”); Chicago’s architecture and its occupants related straightforwardly to their sites. Strength, delicacy, lightness, rationality: Piano sought all of these attributes for his new addition and largely succeeded in imposing them.

Modern Wing interior
The Art Institute of Chicago, Griffin Court. Photo: Charles G. Young, Interactive Design Architects

Erasing mass is a strenuous business; conspicuous efforts to lighten up can be fussy and visually burdensome. With its steel mullions softening the solidity of limestone, its bladed roof supported by exposed, spidery trusswork and its thin exterior columns sharpened like pencil points, the Modern Wing suffers in a small way from a surfeit of delicacy. The compensation is an exhilaratingly light-filled interior that shifts in scale from compact to grand without feeling anywhere cramped or imposing. I visited on a typically overcast Chicago day — in May — and found spaces that paid only nodding attention to the gray sky. Yet neither were they glaring. A Jeff Wall photo that was hung on the eastern wall of the building’s main thoroughfare, the soaring Griffin Court, looked appropriately dismal (it portrayed an open, drenched flower-filled grave), whereas Cy Twombly paintings of peonies in a gallery in the building’s western pavilion exploded with hot color.

Magic Carpet
The Art Institute of Chicago, Flying Carpet above Pritzker Garden. Photo: Dave Jordano

The key to these effects, as has been widely reported, is the Flying Carpet: a floating roof assembled from 2,656 curved blades that admit northern light while blocking rays from the other, harsher exposures. (This technology was abetted by the street grid’s precise north-south and east-west axes.) Artificial light is modified moment to moment by photovoltaic sensors embedded in the inner glass layer of the building’s double-pane walls. Like Steven Holl’s masterly Nelson-Atkins museum addition in Kansas City, the Modern Wing is predicated on a belief that steady illumination is fatiguing and neutrality in any guise is death: “It was important to create a space with character,” Piano said. He compared the distribution of interior light with the way sound is dispersed from the stage of Frank Gehry’s bandshell in Millennium Park next door, via a grid of speakers suspended over the audience.

Architecture and Design Gallery
The Art Institute of Chicago, Architecture and Design Gallery. Photo: Dave Jordano

The factoid the Art Institute touts foremost, however, is that it’s now the second largest art museum in the U.S. after the Metropolitan. (Washington’s National Gallery dropped to third place.) The architecture and design department alone occupies 8,000 square feet in the Modern Wing, making it bigger than MoMA’s. And even that space can be reconfigured and expanded, said the department’s chief curator, Joseph Rosa, thanks to the flexibility Piano built into the building’s plan over 10 years of development.

True to their context, many of the objects in that gallery refer to links between historical and contemporary design, such as Robert A. M. Stern's "late entry" to the 1922 Chicago Tribune tower competition. Or they represent new ideas of materiality in traditional forms, such as Marcel Wanders’s Knotted Chair of rigid fiber. Or they kick over partitions between disciplines, such as Stefan Sagmeister and Ralph Ammer’s Being Not Truthful Always Works against Me, a digital wall projection that embeds its title aphorism into a spider’s web that distorts as the viewer draws near. Indeed Rosa, along with Zoë Ryan, the department’s design curator, is working on a 2010 exhibition exploring interdisciplinary practices in architecture and industrial design.

We have grown accustomed to locating museum architecture along a spectrum. At one end are buildings that are sculpture in their own right; at the other, boxes that decline to compete with their contents. The Modern Wing edges toward the latter pole. “I’m a builder by training,” Piano said. “I like the idea of making good, solid safe shelters for human beings.” He wasn’t being entirely disingenuous. Laciness aside, the Modern Wing is a good, solid safe shelter for art and our enjoyment of it.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture

Comments [10]

I get what you mean about the usual "heaviness" associated with Chicago (where I live), but you make the good point though the building feels somewhat fragile, it's built that way for utility.

Even when Chicago takes a stab at elegance (not to say its brand of heaviness isn't extremely elegant in its own right) it's justified at heart by that work ethic that's so intrinsic to the city's character. It's not attractive to be attractive... it's attractive because it gets the job done.

I'm squealing with delight! Can't wait for my next visit there to check it out in person. Piano really channeled Chicago in his architecture. I think JT's comment above hits it right on the head. It's utilitarian, but beautiful in its own right.

Griffin Court, seeing it without all the people that were there on the weekend,I now understand what a great job was achieved in transforming the underbelly of columbus drive into the light. Upped the ante one more level.

The musical tones of chicago come through in piano and guitar on the building and the bridge. The food court comes central which brings the taste to the medley.

Chicago has another architectural wonder and the midwest lives up to its name as the big city accompanied by surrounding towns that dot the radar screen with blips of their names on polar mappings. Smaller versions reverberate in the woodland and prairie landscape when you drive across the great flyover land.

It is a great building. I am going for the second time this week today.
John Steinkamp

This building is certainly getting a lot of coverage... and rightfully so. It's nicely constructed.
Dan the Music Master

I was born in the city and left the suburbs when i was eight. I had a brief suspension of the more rural life for my senior year of high school and freshmen year at junior college. In those two years i even toyed with the dream of the school at the art institute. Throughout life I've been living in and out of the city/ suburban/rural scheme and just became a mixed-up-mouse leaning toward the country variety. Upon coming back to the city two and one half months ago for a visit while another transition took place in my unstable life, i've been reacquainted with the art institute's setting in grant park.

Last fall i did my dream vacation to Istanbul where i noted that the central happening part of most older cities with the inflow and mixture of guests usually centers around a cathedral, mosque or temple. It's true in Köln, West Berlin, where i've lived. In Chicago it's different. The art institute, the bean, millenium park is where IT'S AT. It's a meeting point with art at the center of the reflection. Along the steps of the art institute between those two lions, and now the prairie grass Lurie Gardens right in front of the new modern wing, whichever way you attempt an interpretation Chicago had the fear or guts to keep church out of the discussion. That's not to say you can't find religion anywhere in the makings of humans displayed in the art museums spaces. No matter what the belief, non belief, or doubt, there is a tribute to a man or woman who honored the thought of anyone of those three things within those walls.

Grant Park then creates the sea of green before the aqua floor of the lake ( I call it the ocean because i'm really an indianian and driving up to the lake on that side, my goodness, it is the ocean). This presence offers a quieter space to what was there longer than those big shoulders and scrapers cutting through the sky or any design created by man.

I don't like to admit it but the country mouse got a small inkling of taste for the big city flavor. that''s not a bad thing, is it?

I remember my first visit to Chicago.
My twin brother's first job out of Syracuse University School of Architecture was in Chicago - working for a firm at the top of the Sears Tower......he was making money and I was still a starving artist living in the Village in NY. He took pity on me and sent me airline tickets and he showed me every building in Chicago.....and I fell in love with the city.
I can't wait to visit to see this wonderful addition....in the spring or fall....!!!!

lee moody

This site is crazy :)

This building reminds me of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art designed by Erick van Egeraat Associated Architects.
Alan Formby-Jackson

Just astonishingly pleasing to the eye... I now have a reason to visit Chicago.

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