The Art Institute of Chicago has recently opened the new Modern Art wing designed by Renzo Piano. Piano’s Design Workshop is probably the most consistently innovative and interesting big-name international architecture office out there. Every building they execute is marked by an acute attention to detail and they all seem to serve their clients rather than the architect’s ego.
So, on a recent visit, I found myself really appreciating the building, but not loving it. As mentioned, it is beautifully and simply put together – the spaces flow nicely, the materials are clearly and cleanly brought together. Maybe most importantly, and in light of Denver’s Art Museum, it is clear that the building is there to serve the art that it displays, not the reverse.
However, in its simplicity and lightness, it lacks the robust material quality that I think distinguishes the best of Chicago architecture. For while the Chicago skyscrapers and the Chicago window of the early twentieth century championed a kind of structural determinism and rationality, it exerted this as the primary formal expression. The Modern wing more like a series of screens, horizontal and vertical, that wrap the building. So, while this is a great response to the program of the building, to the housing and display of art, it does not have to be the primary driver of the building.
This is a photo of the Gage Building, near the museum on Michigan Avenue, designed by Louis Sullivan. You can feel the frame and weight of this building, the decorative medallions seeming to hold up the middle piers. This is what I think of when I think of Chicago architecture – taut buildings that are both light and heavy, rational and expressive.
Piano’s addition is a very good building, a great addition to the museum and the city. But it speaks more to an international, place-less design than one rooted in a city of a great architectural tradition.