Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago a “Temple of Light”

Amidst the most dire financial crisis in a generation, Chicago has created a magnificent rejoinder to all the bad news.  The Russian writer Dostoevsky once said that “Beauty will save the world.”  Seeing Renzo Piano’s new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago makes you believe that it just might.  First of all, how did they do it?  A $300 million capital project when cities and states are tottering on the edge of bankruptcy?  The answer is that the project is the denouement of a $385 million fundraising campaign — $300 million for the new building and $85 million for the endowment.  All of it came from private patrons in Chicago, some of whom contributed multi-million-dollar sums — a sign of the enormous wealth generated in our city over the last business cycle.  Fortunately, the capital campaign was completed before the downturn in the economy, but the larger museum’s budget will rise from $77 million to $97 million.  This comes at a time when the Art Institute’s endowment has lost a quarter of its value since mid-2008 when it was $641 million, though the museum has been raising an average of around $60 million a year for the expansion.  Meanwhile, in March, the Art Institute issued two series of bonds totaling $140 million to finance construction and other costs while waiting for pledges to come in.

So how good is the building?  For one, it increases the gallery’s space by 35 percent to one million square feet, making the Art Institute the second largest art museum in the U.S. after the Metropolitan Museum in New York (he said proudly as a Chicagoan).  But the really singular thing about the new Modern Wing and what puts it, in my mind, beyond the Met, is that it is a masterpiece of design and urban planning.  Joining Beaux Art with Prairie, the new building has been described as a temple of light.  The key word is temple with all its suggestion of serenity and grace.  Piano (he of the New York Times building and the Whitney Museum) has created a white steel, aluminum and Indiana limestone jewel box topped with a gorgeous flat roof (his flying carpet) and overhanging eaves (in Prairie fashion) which carefully refract light into the galleries below.

The interior is a marvel of the earthbound — wood floors and red wood paneling — and the airborne — vellum ceiling panels and a floating glass staircase that looks back and ahead at the architectural aspirations of our city.  Piano is effusive in his fidelity to transparency and translucence in his work: “architecture must fly: it is made of emotions, tensions, transparency, “and it is not enough for the light to be perfect, you also need calm, serenity, and even a voluptuous quality linked to contemplation of works of art.”

Then there’s the way the building is situated, offering us the best views yet of the sumptuous Millennium Park gardens and the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion.  The genius of the building is that it makes the city part of its permanent collection, continually juxtaposing its pop art and abstract expressionist canvases against the northeast views of Lake Michigan and the gilded Loop skyline.  The connection is fully realized at the end when the path snakes onto the stunning Nichols Bridgeway, a sloping, 620-foot-long pedestrian walkway that buoys you from the Modern Wing straight into Millennium Park. Lit like the drawbridge to a spaceship, the walkway gives the impression of floating through treetops and buildings.  An unforgettable way to close.  The new Modern Wing of the Art Institute is everything civic architecture should be — inspiring, provoking and, ultimately, a bellwether of better things ahead.