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Additional Splendor

A 'Modern Wing' for the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jul 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 40 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Chicago

No group of humans has ever been more enamored of architecture than the good citizens of Chicago. To a degree almost unimaginable in Los Angeles or New York, the inhabitants of the Windy City breathe and dream of buildings. And the consequence of their commitment is evident all around them: They have demanded and received first-rate architectural monuments.

For a visitor from New York, like me, nothing is more striking about this city than the almost total absence of throwaway buildings, buildings erected with the vapid tastelessness that so often scars my native Manhattan. Where I come from, developers can get away with such mediocre products because they perceive (quite correctly) that the locals are every bit as indifferent to design as they are.

In Chicago, by contrast, architecture is part of the culture. With rare exceptions, each building, certainly in the center of town, is studied and treasured, and the man in the street can probably point you to the nearest masterpiece by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Louis Sullivan. The hotel where I stayed on a recent visit, the Burnham--formerly the Reliance Building, one of the world's earliest skyscrapers--was named for Daniel Burnham, the founder of the architectural firm that built it. Its restaurant, the Atwood Café, was named for the man who actually designed it, and a local publisher has brought out an entire book about it.

It is hard to imagine another city whose hotels and restaurants are named for prominent architects. But as of a few weeks ago, Chicago has at least two such eateries. The second just opened in the newly unveiled Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Its name, Terzo Piano, is a play on that of Renzo Piano, the man who designed both the restaurant and the dazzlingly white crystal palace that contains it.

The recent opening of the wing was a civic event whose weeklong fanfare recalled the sort of exuberance that the excitable Athenians surely felt at the completion of the Pheidian Parthenon. And it was no accident that the museum's new addition opened in the year 2009. Though that milestone may not seem especially resonant to most of us, it is rich in consequence for Chicagoans: Through posters and street exhibitions, no local has been allowed to forget that this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the plan for greater Chicago that was assembled by, once again, Daniel Burnham and that was brought to its highest perfection in the so-called Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Avenue.

It is in that spirit that the new wing of the Art Institute increases the size of its galleries by 64,000 square feet, thus elevating it to the status of the second largest art museum in the country, after the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As a testament to how modern and especially contemporary art has muscled its way into the center of American cultural life, the new wing, which occupies the northeast quadrant of the museum's grounds, is devoted entirely to the art of the past century.

The museum's stellar collection of Impressionists remains where it has always been, in the sturdily neoclassical structure along South Michigan Avenue to the west, built in 1893. In austere white chambers, well-lit and accented with pale woods, the new wing takes up the tale with Picasso and Matisse, and it never looks back: An inaugural exhibition is devoted to recent works by Cy Twombly. Sometimes, as in an entire gallery devoted to a dreary installation by Robert Gober, you sense that the galleries surpass in beauty and consequence the art they contain.

For the time being, surely, the building itself is the star of the show. As you approach it from Millennium Park to the north, its volumetric mass looks comparable and complementary to that of the neoclassical older wing. In fact, it is only about half the size. As in New York's Morgan Library and in the New York Times Building, two recent projects by Piano, there is an abundance of right angles. Aside from the drama of sheer presence, the one trace of flair that the architect has permitted himself is the futuristic (and not strictly necessary) Nichols Bridgeway, whose bone-white hull overshoots the Millennium Park, traverses East Monroe Street, and comes to rest near the restaurant that bears the architect's name.

Beyond that, there is nothing even remotely revolutionary about the new building, as there was in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a project that Piano--an architect best known for his museums--completed with Sir Richard Rogers back in 1977. At the time of its completion, the Centre Pompidou was the most controversial building in the world. Without being quite postmodern (that movement was, for all practical purposes, still a few years off), the Centre Pompidou represented a brash, assertive intrusion upon the Beaux-Arts fabric of the Parisian cityscape, a storming of the gates of Modern Architecture. A museum devoted to modern and contemporary art, the Centre Pompidou looked, felt, and to some degree was made out of plastic, with garish accents in blue, yellow, and red that called to mind the goofy allure of Lego bricks.

But the machine aesthetic that was found at the Centre Pompidou, and whose last unwelcome traces can still be seen in Piano's Menil Collection in Houston (1987), has now all but disappeared from his work. And while Piano can occasionally admit bold curves into his buildings, as he did most memorably at the NEMO science museum in Amsterdam (1997)--a swirling, cylindrical green mass--for the most part he now seems to have discovered the joys of fastidious right angles, without a single curve in sight.

It is clear that, 30 years after the Centre Pompidou, Renzo Piano is a very different architect, and a far better one. Though that earlier project was flimsily built and still managed to look stolid and clumsy, the new wing at the Art Institute achieves a wraithlike delicacy that is rich in the aesthetics of engineering and as close to pure formalism as anything being built today. The one surviving trace of subversion is the way in which the modern wing fronts and fully embraces the exposed train tracks that run between it and the main Beaux Arts building.

To the extent that Piano's latest project refers to anything beyond geometry itself, the spun-sugar filigree of its brise-soleil, those stratified lines that lie over its expansive glass curtainwall, puts the visitor in mind of English Perpendicular architecture of the 14th century. (A similarly Gothic association, by the way, is suggested even more forcefully in his New York Times Building at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue in New York.)

This Modern Wing is one of Piano's boldest assertions of volume over surface detail. From the outside, it reads as a massive, four-square box that contains space. The lid on the box is a massive brise soleil that, for some reason, Piano is pleased to call "the magic carpet." Inside, this sense of volume is borne out in the towering and majestic central nave that runs along the building's north/south axis.

Over and above such stylistic considerations, the world, like Piano himself, has grown up in the 30 or more years since the completion of the Centre Pompidou. A certain scrappy incommodity, a subordination of comfort and utility to polemical effect, was commonplace and tolerable in decades past, but would no longer be acceptable today--at least not in a first-rate institution like the Art Institute of Chicago. No matter what their stated political orientation, no matter what proletarian touches they claim to employ, the newest art museums in America are intended to look expensive.

The new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago is, in many respects, striking; but it is not especially "interesting," at least not in the manner of recent architects like Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. It is elegant and well-behaved: It does not tilt or list or challenge those who enter it. And rather than deconstructing before our eyes, like the works of Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind, it looks as though it has every intention of staying put for a century or so.

James Gardner, the former architecture critic for the New York Sun, recently translated the Christiad of Marco Girolamo Vida (Harvard).