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Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing Takes Flight

Architect Renzo Piano values something old, something new

Jun. 24, 2009
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Situated directly across the street from Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago's recently completed Modern Wing is as shiny and new as a freshly minted coin. Yet for all its glacial sparkle and liquid lightness, the building's most resounding quality is its firm footing in the past.

The new $294 million extension, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, adds an additional 264,000 square feet to the existing museum, including a new education facility, balcony caf, restaurant, gift shop and an alternate entrance via Monroe Street. Like the collection of modern and contemporary art housed in its 65,000 square feet of gallery space, the building proves there's no such thing as a new idea, just new ways of revisiting old problems. The ideals of light, air and openness it espouses may depart from the original building's imposing walls and maze-like galleries, but there are more similarities between the new wing and its late-Victorian Beaux Arts predecessor than first meets the eye.

Though best known for the playful extravaganza of 1977's Centre Pompidou in Paris, Piano has since expanded his lexicon to include structures with an almost classical bent, like the expansion of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland. The linear simplicity of the Modern Wing's outlines and its carefully calibrated details evokes Hellenistic architecture's mix of delicate detailing and monumental grace.

More than a simple stylistic reference, however, Piano's subtle use of a classical paradigm embodies an ideological alternative to the architectural antics of much contemporary museum design. It seeks refuge in architectural precedent, not unlike the designers of the original building, designed by Boston architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (SRC) for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

Like many fashionable East Coast architects, SRC looked to an archaeologically accurate revival of the past as an antidote to the stylistic confusion of the mid-1800s. Meanwhile, architects like William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan and the firm of Burnham and Root were championing an alternative vision based not on historicism but the technological and commercial realities of the present-one that would heal the rift between engineering and art that had developed earlier in the century. When it came to designing the World's Fair, however, the historicists won out. Rather than using the brave new world of commerce and technology as a model, the planners sought refuge in the civic grandeur of Imperial Rome. The City of Speed, as Chicago was often described, was remade as the White City, swept up in a program of civic improvement that continues to this day.

In some respects, Piano's design straddles the divergent attitudes of late-19th-century architects, looking both backward and forward. The technological innovations that began in the late-1800s and were carried to peaks of perfection during the 20th century (before becoming a caricature of their former selves in countless mall and office designs) make peace with themselves here. The Modern Wing's glass walls manage to give depth to the immaterial through the delicate layering of glass and scrim. Late Victorian architect John Root's appeal for buildings that rely on massing and proportion to "convey in some large elemental sense an idea of the great, stable and conserving forces of modern civilization" is answered in Piano's stately design.

On the other hand, the Modern Wing highlights some of the problems that originated around the late-Victorian period and continue to challenge architects today. One of these is scale. The Chicago World's Fair commanded impressive magnitude, not just in its buildings but also in the ambitions it encompassed. The Fair's co-designer Daniel Burnham famously declared, "Make no little plans… They have no magic to stir men's blood." That thirst for scale still dominates Chicago's skyline-note Trump Tower's recently installed spire. And while Piano's building appears perfectly at ease in its large frame, the experience of standing in its lofty atrium shows there's still a long way before we escape what Sullivan called "the unconscious stupor of bigness." This space highlights the prevailing misconception that largeness equals grandeur, that emptiness invites human drama.

The same may be said of how each building engages with its environs. The cascading steps leading to the original entrance become an extension of the museum onto the street, always densely populated with visitors lounging between the lions. Despite its auspicious front yard-Millennium Park-the Modern Wing remains aloof, its greatest connection to the park forged by the spectacular views it offers and the less-than-spectacular Nichols Bridgeway connecting it to the park.

The Modern Wing is the latest chapter in a program of civic development that began during the Chicago World's Fair. However, it signals important ideological shifts in city planning within the last century. While the designers of the World's Fair sought to throw a veneer of composure and conformity over the slums and skyscrapers of Chicago, today's planners are content to allow Frank Gehry's explosive Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Anish Kapoor's curvaceous Cloud Gate and Piano's stately edifice jostle against each other. It's architectural pluralism at its finest.

What's more, the conservatism of the Modern Wing takes on new meaning in light of current economic circumstances. At the time the original was built, the style of ImperialRome was considered appropriate garb for a rising world power whose self-conscious grandeur was reaching a new pitch. Although ground broke on the new extension well before the economy plummeted in late-2008, one can't help equate the classical calm of Piano's new building with a newly awakened era of caution and restraint.


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