the piano addition to art institute of chicago

the art institute of chicago opened a $300 million, 264,000 square foot addition designed by renzo piano in may of 2009.   i’m a big fan of piano’s museums — menil collection (1987), cy twombly gallery (1995), beyeler foundation musuem (1997), nasher sculpture (2003), morgan library (2006) and  california academy of sciences (2008) — but unfortunately, haven’t had the opportunity to visit chicago since this venue opened.

i tend to agree with nicolai ournouss’ assertion  in the new york times on may 13, 2009 that “The serenity of his best buildings can almost make you believe that we live in a civilized world.”

louis was in chicago last month and these are his impressions and photos:

the piano building workshop projects i have visited (and revisited) shimmer and float — creating spaces of  refinement and modesty that american architects have yet to achieve.

the re-model of the california academy of sciences in san francisco surrounds an existing structure.  the morgan library and museum addition fills the void between two historic buildings.   in both cases, the barrier between inside and out is barely perceptible.  the dialogue between existing and new is rich and nuanced.

the addition to the art institute of chicago is less successful.

the site —  behind the original beaux arts building, across the street from millennium park and above commuter railroad tracks —  like those of other piano projects, requires a building to fit within a complex urban fabric.   the details of the building are refined and attenuated.   the columns are tall and slender.  and in the entry court and third floor galleries, the daylight is exquisite.

the problem is that the modern wing is three stories tall, so it’s only the third floor galleries that benefit from piano’s legendary ‘flying carpet’ light-modulating roof.   on that floor, filtered daylight, artificial light, white walls and wood flooring work together to create a subtle, dynamic and rich environment for art.

BUT, in the first and second floor galleries, despite windows flanking the main galleries,  a large floor plate and the need for  walls to hang art on prevents daylight from penetrating the center of the space.  daylight-balanced artificial lighting is ineffectively used as supplement.  the walls are painted the same white as the ceilings and in the absence of overhead daylight, blur and become monochromatic.  it’s like looking at art in a dense mist — everything is utterly flat and lifeless.   in other words, in two-thirds of the  gallery spaces in the art institute’s $300,000,000 building, the artwork looks horrible.

unfortunately, this is not one of piano’s best buildings.