In a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, there’s a painting from 1913 by the German Expressionist Franz Marc called The Bewitched Mill. A waterfall spills down the center of the canvas between a scene of machines and houses on one side and trees and animals on the other. It’s a fantasy of magical reconciliation between the natural and man-made worlds always a nice trick if you can do it.
Somebody who can do it and then some is Renzo Piano, the Italian architect whose refined new addition to the Art Institute opened over the weekend to large crowds and a big outdoor party. The $294 million Modern Wing, built to house the Institute’s great collection of 20th and 21st century work, is a complicated exercise in reconciliation. A resolutely modern building, it not only manages to gently introduce itself into the greenery of Chicago’s Millennium Park but also draws in three tricky neighbors the original Art Institute, the active commuter railway lines that run between them, and the city of Chicago, where around any corner there’s another architectural masterpiece asking just what you’re doing here. To which Piano’s building has an easy answer: “Making myself at home.”
Piano is exaggerating only a bit when he says that “Chicago invented modern architecture, invented modernity after the fire.” The Great Fire of 1871 wiped away large stretches of the city and opened them for rebirth in a modern industrial and high-rise idiom. There was nothing particularly modern about the original Art Institute, a Beaux Arts culture palace from 1893. But it symbolized the determination of the city’s élite to rebuild Chicago as a cultural force to be reckoned with. Over the years it was expanded frequently. Now the 264,000-sq.-ft. addition of the Modern Wing, which was proposed by the Institute’s former director James Wood and seen to completion by his successor James Cuno, makes the Art Institute the second largest American museum, after the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Over the past decade or so, Piano has become one of the most sought-after architects in the U.S., especially for museum commissions. In Houston, Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco and Fort Worth, Texas, museum trustees have gone to Piano for buildings that are serene, lucid and elegantly detailed. His designs may not push the envelope, but they seal it with a kiss. His best buildings have a delicacy inseparable from their tensile power. As Piano likes to say, “Beauty is not romantic. Beauty is very strong.” Put in those terms, it would be fair to say that the Modern Wing is one of his strongest American projects ever, his best since the superb little Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.
Like a lot of architects, Piano grimaces when people ask him about his style. “I hate the idea,” he says. “It’s a dangerous thing, a rubber stamp you put on the world.” What he believes in, he says, “is the value of transparency and light. This is not a style. This is just an attitude.”
So Piano’s buildings are filled with light a delicate issue for museums, which have to protect paintings from direct sun but crave the atmosphere that only natural daylight can provide. In the mid-1980s he developed an ingenious louvered roof to filter powdery sunlight into the Menil Collection in Houston. Ever since, every museum that’s hired him has been looking for its own version of the Piano roof.