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    Piano in Chicago


    The new wing houses the museum's collections of modern art, contemporary art, photography, and architecture and design. The first floor is the building's most public, with the new entry and Griffin Court, as well as a garden, visitor center, education center, gift shop, and several galleries for special exhibits, film, new media, and photography. The first floor's public nature works well with the Modern Wing's connections to the surrounding city — the most celebrated being its relationship to Millennium Park to the north.

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    Museum in Context

    The connection to the park is easily the smartest planning move in the entire project, which Piano has worked on since 1999. That connection came late in the development of the Modern Wing's design, as the park was just taking shape.

    The addition creates a welcome southern edge for the park, with the busy thoroughfare of Monroe Street separating them. To connect park and building, Piano designed the heroically scaled 620-foot- (189-meter-) long Nichols Bridgeway, which vaults over Monroe from near the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park to deliver visitors to a 3,400-square-foot (320-square-meter) public terrace on the third floor of the Modern Wing, near the museum's new restaurants.

    The bridge has the same lightness as the building, with a textured metal walking surface that gleams at night, thanks to lighting running along the edges of the walkway. The theme of speed and buoyancy is reinforced in the rounded shape of the bridge, which looks a bit like a racing scull.

    Piano makes visual connections to the city as well. As one moves through the galleries on all three floors of the new wing, the city is always a presence. There are sweeping views of the Chicago skyline in the distance and Millennium Park in the foreground, which one views though gauzy scrims over the north-facing windows.

    Manipulating Light

    Piano's design captures and manipulates natural light in masterful ways. Most dramatic is the third floor, whose roof is covered with skylights. A distinctive metal roof canopy hovers over the elegant three-story treasure chest.

    This is a hallmark of Piano's architecture: he often creates an envelope around which he wraps a device for modulating the environment. For example, at the New York Times Building, Piano encased a glass tower in a sheath of vertical struts, which supported a filigree of horizontal ribs that work as solar shades.

    Above the Modern Wing's jewel-box pavilion, the architect has placed an array of delicately curved aluminum louvers on an armature of white-finished metal, providing shade for the building's top story. This device, which Piano refers to as a "flying carpet," modulates the natural light, making it even and ethereal. The architect likens the function of the canopy, which he calls a "soft machine," to trees that provide shade naturally through their leafy canopies.

    The view of the canopy while standing next to the building and looking straight up is exhilarating, and the floating roof adds to the building's civic scale.

    Modern Influences

    There is no doubt that Piano was influenced by the physicality of this "city of the big shoulders," as the poet Carl Sandburg described Chicago. The Modern Wing rises from the city's great plain, firmly rooted to the earth as if it were the site of some Midwestern Acropolis: solid, lasting, immovable. The architect's choice of Indiana limestone, which matches the Art Institute's 1893 building, is faithful to the city's great cultural monuments and institutions.

    Obvious, too, is that Piano has mined Chicago's rich history of detail-obsessed architects, whose tradition of exacting design stretches back for more than a century. Mies van der Rohe's attention to the finer points of curtain-wall design can be seen in the Modern Wing's finely crafted details, but the building's overall form seems to channel the work of another modernist.

    Piano's use of a broad roof canopy supported on slender columns, under which stands an elegant container of smooth planes, owes a debt to Edward Durell Stone. Stone created his modern pavilion buildings, for which he is most remembered, in the 1950s and '60s. Compare the exterior of Stone's U.S. Embassy in New Delhi (1958) or the Davenport Public Library (1964) to Piano's Modern Wing, and the formal connections are readily apparent. (Perhaps not incidentally, the Modern Wing faces Stone's Amoco Building of 1972 right across Millennium Park.)

    Touches of Green

    The canopy's elaborate shading is part of the design's green strategy, which is intended to earn this building a LEED Silver rating. Although the Art Institute's decision to make its new addition green is admirable (the Institute also participates in Chicago's "Green Museum" initiative), a Silver rating is a fairly low bar for a project of this stature.

    The highlights of the Modern Wing's sustainability package include an automated, photo-cell-activated dimming system for electric lighting. Thus, as daylight increases or decreases, electric lights are automatically adjusted. The double-layered glass curtain wall on the north facade provides additional insulation. Construction waste was recycled, and the landscaping reduces the amount of exterior impervious surfaces, improving onsite stormwater management. The architects estimate that the new addition will be twice as energy efficient as the existing building.

    In a Chicago that takes its architecture seriously, Piano has created a beautiful new structure, worthy of the city's considerable architectural pedigree.   >>>

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, the chair of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.   More by Michael J. Crosbie



    ArchWeek Image

    A large light-diffusing canopy floats above and projects horizontally beyond the Modern Wing's main pavilion.
    Photo: Peter Patau Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Griffin Court, a long, skylit entry atrium, forms the joint between the two wings of the new building.
    Photo: Charles G. Young, Interactive Design Eight Architects (IDEA)/ Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Window shades in the Modern Wing reduce direct sunlight entering gallery spaces while permitting views of the cityscape outside.
    Photo: Peter Patau Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Ground-floor plan drawing of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
    Image: Renzo Piano Building Workshop Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    North elevation drawing of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
    Image: Renzo Piano Building Workshop Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A translucent glazed ceiling and light-filtering roof canopy combine to provide even, diffuse light to upper-floor gallery spaces.
    Photo: Dave Jordano/ Courtesy AIC Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Modern Wing's regular structural grid extends one bay beyond the building's double-glazed northern facade to support the roof's shading structure.
    Photo: Charles G. Young, IDEA/ Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Closely spaced curving louvers in the roof canopy act to both block direct sunlight and apply diffuse light indirectly to the pavilion below.
    Photo: Steve Silverman Extra Large Image


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