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The Modern Wing

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The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, designed by Renzo Piano, will open on Saturday, which happens to be exactly one half year after our visit to the Art Institute that I wrote abouthere. Now I can’t wait to go back. We should have that opportunity next November, when I’ll have business in Chicago again.

Nicolai Ouroussof has a review of the wing in the NYT and there’s also an accompanying slide show that includes the photo above. In my post last November, I mentioned the footbridge that connects the wing to Millennium Park across Monroe Street. It shows up well in the photo. But go to the slide show to see all the photos.

I’ll close with one passage from Ouroussof’s review.

Mr. Piano also seems to have created the right amount of intimacy between art and viewer, without completely shutting out the world. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the park and courtyard from some galleries. The windows are covered with white screens, lending the views a soft, ghostlike quality. This effect is reinforced by the layering of glass, which shuts out street noise and gives the sight of people walking below a particularly eerie, cinematic quality.

But it is the light that most people will notice. Mr. Piano has been slowly refining his lighting systems since the mid-1980s, when he completed his design for the Menil Collection building in Houston. Over the years these efforts have taken on a quasi-religious aura, with curators and museum directors analyzing the light in his galleries like priests dissecting holy texts.

At the Art Institute Mr. Piano has stripped the system down to its essence. The glass roof of the top-floor galleries is supported on delicate steel trusses. Rows of white blades rest on top of the trusses to filter out strong southern light; thin fabric panels soften the view from below.

The idea is to make you aware of the shifts in daylight — over the course of a visit, from one season to another — without distracting you from the artwork, and the effect is magical. On a clear afternoon you can catch faint glimpses through the structural frame of clouds drifting by overhead. But most of the time the art takes center stage, everything else fading quietly into the background.

It is this obsessive refinement that raises Mr. Piano’s best architecture to the level of art. In an age with few idealists, he exudes a touching faith in the value of slow, incremental progress. He has never fully abandoned the belief that machines can elevate as well as destroy.

The beauty of his designs stems from his stubborn insistence that the placement of a column or a window, when done with enough patience and care, brings us a step closer to a more enlightened society.

Categories: Architecture
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