Tim Brown Architecture

Renzo Piano in Chicago

Added on by Timothy Brown.

First visit today to see Renzo Piano's Art Institute addition from the inside. First impression was light, then space. For those of us here in Chicago I think it's hard to see the project yet outside the context of the immediate past. The entry point into the new wing is in what was one of the Art Institute's most unlovely corners. It has been even more depressing in the interval without the Chagall windows. But now one looks north into the spacious atrium filled with natural light and the effect is very nearly breathtaking. (The upper level entry is off the odd balcony fronting O'Keefe's cloudscape and does not work so well.) So the spaciousness and flood of natural light is a real departure from the other parts of the building.

What strikes me, while my impressions are still fresh, is the measured and relatively modest character of the addition. The Art Institute is a messy complex and Piano has not made sense of it, nor given it an identity strong enough displace the Michigan Avenue entrance. That would probably be an exercise in futility. But he holds the NE corner and cements the eastward relationship to the park. The connection to the north is fine especially in framing Gehry's project, but the key adjacency is to the east. That works very well.

I see the addition as fitting into the tradition of seriously competent buildings in Chicago. The AI publicity mill's hype and high expectations clearly surpassed what is actually a very modest building. The care taken in developing the building's systems counts for a lot. My sense is that Piano has delivered a building we can appreciate and one that isn't less for being something less than stellar. And as I get more and more bored with the slew of buildings straining for an iconic presence, deep competence is ever more engaging. Slide show here.