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In the shadow of Gehry

The Art Institute’s new modern wing builds on the success of Millennium Park

by Caroline Keem

I adore the shiny, contemporary elegance of Millennium Park, but lately, being a lover of history and a person who likes to take things apart to see how they are made, I’m more attracted to watching the urban evolution on the corner of Monroe Street and Columbus Drive. Within three years this mammoth hole in the ground will be the home of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new Modern Wing, intended to house the museum’s Departments of Photography, Modern and Contemporary Art, as well as Architecture and Design.

In addition to exponentially increasing the display possibilities of an encyclopedic collection of modern and contemporary architecture and design, the new wing also aims to make a statement by its architectural presence.

It seems at first that the Art Institute is a bit jealous of the success of its new neighbor and hopes to feed off Frank Gehry’s millennial luster by building its own shiny new thing. I attended the January 26th lecture, “A New Vision for Architecture and Design,” featuring AIC President and Eloise W. Martin Director James Cuno, and John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture Design Joe Rosa, who intended to address questions of what this new wing will mean for the museum’s layout and collection. More importantly, the lecturers aimed to open a continuing discussion on how the new wing will impact what Chicago and the Art Institute represent to the ever-merging fields of architecture and design. Will this new plan harmonize with the city’s reputation as the birthplace of modern architecture, and galvanize its status as a font of progressive design?

Standing on the Monroe Street Bridge, I watch work progress on clearing a foundation hole for construction. The tiny model that Cuno and Rosa presented assumes life-like proportions in my mind. I imagine the skyline-view restaurant and the steel “flying carpet” roof bringing shafts of light into glassed-in galleries. I imagine the 600-foot “blade” bridge of extruded aluminum rods extending over the street and into the heart of Millennium Park. I chuckle to think that this is an architectural translation of Adam reaching out to touch the hand of God as seen in the Sistine Chapel.

But today, it is history that screams up from the site itself. Rather than a modern vision, the city’s record of repeated river diverting and land filling confronts me. In the center of the dig site lays a particularly wet area surrounded by bright red fencing. When I look downward at the soil, I see that it is a gumbo of dirt with bits of brick and stone. Monroe Street lies where the mouth of the Chicago River once fed into Lake Michigan before being diverted in the mid-1800s. So I’m not surprised that the ground has soupy patches. This area is also entirely landfill. Debris from the Great Fire of 1871 was simply carried east of Michigan Avenue to push out the shoreline and create the fabulous front lawn we now enjoy as Grant Park. The bits of masonry and brick I see could well be vestiges of a Chicago that burned to the ground over 130 years ago.

Beneath our dream of becoming a modern Mecca for architecture lies a bedrock of historic ailments. City plans for Chicago’s growth management dating back to the 19th century showcase a constant struggle of how to build a major hub of commerce and transportation on ground that was originally swampland. Today, downtown streets are paved in concrete, graded, and equipped with drains allowing surface water to flow into the city’s sewage system. The city spreads out in a premeditated grid that presupposes the location and dimensions of many buildings. The layout represents not only a particular concept of optimal space usage and means for citizens to interface with the offerings of the environment, but also the attempt of a governing body to organize, tax and sanitize life for modern Chicagoans.

If I were to walk along the Monroe Street of 150 years ago, a different reality would greet my nostrils. The street level was 12 feet lower and consisted of dirt with wooden planks. The lack of citywide sewage or sanitation systems allowed rainwater to seep directly into the soil, carrying animal excrement and garbage from the street straight into wells dug on each property lot. The city struggled with sanitary conditions that prevented citizens from getting clean water and which gave rise to regular outbreaks of cholera.

The best planning and design of 1856 or 2006 can only present solutions as far as the group consciousness of that time permits. Chicago’s urban ailments of the 19th century, such as disease and poor sanitation, arose from a desire to expand quickly to become the Midwest hub of a growing nation. While admittedly unpleasant, these conditions were acceptable enough for the population of Chicago to proliferate during this era.

Architecture tends to be a conservative statement of any era’s spatial and social attitudes. All architecture and design must take root in the popular mindset before it can be deemed a success. Beautiful new concepts are often judged as too radical to be constructed. In architecture, any step from the norm must pass through much distrust before it is accepted. History lauds inventors and risk-takers, but their contemporaries are seldom so kind.

Facing north on Monroe Street, I see the fluid arcs of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion. Many, but not all Chicagoans are quite sure they like this super-sized drawing in metal that exploits our lakefront. I’ve heard visitors ask, “Why couldn’t they just make it ‘regular shaped?’” or, “Why couldn’t they just build a straight bridge?” Others are energized by the possibility of the new building ideas the pavilion represents: “Can you imagine if everything looked like that?” I see art leading the way toward an understanding of designing and interfacing with space which the common mindset will follow.

There is no denying the success of Millennium Park, with its smart spatial design and use of public art. Gehry’s fluid lines and folds of steel gracefully contrast the hard geometry of Michigan Avenue. The migration of architectural trends is the most fixed means of mapping the evolving consciousness of a city. History shows that evolution does not proceed gradually, but lurches forward when conditions ripen. Both Cuno and Rosa drove home to their architecturally-focused audience that Millennium Park has mediated a subtle shift in public opinion about ways of treating public space, a shift that may well have seeded a quantum leap for the next wave of design thinking in Chicago. This is the leap that the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute aims to take.

The Modern Wing will share the same emergent ailments of new urban design as Millennium Park. In this post-9/11, world that means security. This suggests that our lovely new addition will possess the same list of regulations as its popular neighbor: no dogs, no skating, no ball tossing or frisbee throwing, no riding of bikes, etc.

I also felt a gaping hole in all of the exuberance over Chicago architecture, and the anticipated 7000 square feet of exhibition space that Architecture and Design will inhabit within the Modern Wing.

Environmental and social sustainability, the lack of lower-income housing, and the preservation of community integrity are painful points that urban centers unavoidably face in the 21st century. Like it or not, these concerns will land squarely in the lap of architects, planners and designers. With a daring design by Pritzker Prize-winner Renzo Piano, as well as its architecture and design collection, the Modern Wing aims to interpret Chicago’s history in these fields and raise a discussion of the city’s continuing impact on progressive design thinking. Time will tell if the Modern Wing’s exhibition schedule will be just as audacious as this creative solution with regards to the concerns of our shifting urban landscape.

MARCH 2006