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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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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.