Piano in Chicago
by Michael J. Crosbie
Renzo Piano is known for his finely tuned designs, especially for a refined talent in dovetailing elegant new architecture with an existing context, playing on contextual strengths without duplicating the neighbors.
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He has achieved this feat once again at the Art Institute of Chicago, where a light-studded new museum wing by Piano opened in May 2009. The Art Institute's new addition is laudable in its intelligent siting, sensitive scale, urban presence, and manipulation of light.
One of the country's most august institutions, the Art Institute occupies an 1893 Beaux Arts building on Michigan Avenue just south of Chicago's new landmark Millennium Park. The Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Interactive Design, increases the size of the Art Institute by almost a third. At a bit over a million square feet (93,000 square meters), the Art Institute is now the second largest museum in the United States, after New York City's Metropolitan.
The 264,000-square-foot (24,500-square-meter) addition is organized as a three-story boxlike container in the northeast corner of the site, accessed by a generous entry, just west of the box, into Griffin Court and a slender bar of spaces farther west. The court serves as a light-filled "living room" of sorts — a grand public space that says that you have arrived, and leads you deeper into the Art Institute's existing fabric, including the original 1893 building and later additions. The Art Institute wanted a second entry worthy of its formal, lion-bedecked facade on Michigan Avenue, and Piano has provided one — less stuffy, but every bit as serious.
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