Piano's Modern Wing gives Chicago a Roman Square, a Parisian Park

    Of all the wonderful spaces in the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, one of the most special is a surprise - because it hasn't been talked about much.

    Click a photo to enlarge it.


    Maybe it's under appreciated because Chicago has not been sunny of late. But when it is, pack up your thoughts, give yourself time to unwind and go to


    The Margot and Thomas Pritzker Garden.


    It's just off of the main "street" arcade, called the Griffin Court, just behind the new galleries, between the new building and the old Columbus Drive entrance.

    To stand in this square is to be transported to Italy. The scale is Roman. The serene balance is classical. The quality of the materials, like everywhere in the Modern Wing, is first rate.


    You stand among ordered columns, giving a classical feel; but they're so thin, metal and white, it's modern.


    Only modern technology allows a column so sleek.

    This garden, or square, is square is new world and old world, classical and modern, humanist and grand, at once.

    And the lucky Museum Education center looks out on it.


    Great to see the museum making such a distinctive commitment to educating the next generation.

    The landscaping, which will grow and improve, is by Kathryn Gustafson, who co-authored the Lurie Garden just to the north in Millennium Park. Gustafson lives much of the time in Paris, and does it show.


    These simple metal chairs,


    dragged in the dirt, are so like the sights you see in the Tuileries Gardens.

    Chairs in the Tuileries, Paris

    Chicago's are a modern lime-green.

    Piano's space is protective and bordered. Within it you have the freedom to sit where you like and the chairs then mark where people just before you wanted to be.

    The Pritzker Garden is an outdoors space that feels good because it's semi-indoors - protected by the open roof.


    This aspect recall Frank Gehry's trellis across the street in Millennium Park. You sit under that and you feel protected. Gehry's trellis, like Piano's canopy, contains the space. You are listening to music outdoors but you almost feel that you're also indoors. In Piano's galleries you know you're indoors but as they're filled with natural light you almost feel you're outdoors.

    If there is a criticism of the Pritzker Garden to be made it's what happens at the east end.


    Not much. This modulated space just kind of leaks out into Grant Park. You see cars parked between the two. Chicago needs to remove the parking spaces that affect this view, and perhaps alter the landscape that you see from here in Grant Park to respond to this. A semi-circle of trees would do. So would a tapering east-west allee. It'd be nice if you could open it up all the way to the lake.

    The other hindrance to bliss is the noise from the street that gets into an otherwise peaceful place. Don't believe anyone who tells you, "two rows of trees will block much of the noise." They won't. How about a low stone wall at the end of the garden, about as high as the metal fence is now? You'd still see the treetops over it, and the space would flow out. I'd put a fountain in the wall, water tumbling over the stone. Done right, that could drown out some traffic noise; and remind you that to the east is Lake Michigan. The Modern Wing as a whole does not acknowledge the lake enough.

    I've left one of the richest pieces of this garden for last. The wall sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly.


    "White Curve" has a deep lacquer so at certain times and angles it reflects the trees and sky. Lacquered like a Japanese vase, it reflects and draws in your vision at the same time. The piece honors James Wood, the Art Institute’s director from 1980 to 2004, and who began the project of the Modern Wing. Wood - who is a friend of Ellsworth Kelly - told me that a lesser artist would have opted for green or some other color but once you see it you realize that it had to be white. I think he's right.

    The fan shape also recalls Asia and helps you realize the Asian influence in this garden and in the Modern Wing as a whole. Asian influence is found in nearly all good modern architecture. Feel it in the still, quiet here.

    And you recall that the Art Institute has a superb Asian collection.

    Then you realize this garden responds to the great European art in the collection, such as this Matisse who can now soak up the sun in the new galleries under "Renzo's roof."


    As you can now soak up the sun outdoors in the Pritzker Garden.


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    More Hello Beautiful! on the Modern Wing here. (scroll)

    Read my review of the Modern Wing and my interview with Renzo Piano in the The Architect's Newspaper .
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