The Magazine

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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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).