Architect Renzo Piano on the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago

June 11, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Architect Renzo Piano speaks with Jeffrey Brown about his work building the new modern wing to the Art Institute of Chicago.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is, first and foremost, an addition. The new modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago was intended to expand one of the nation’s leading museums and to provide space for its collection of modern and contemporary art.

But Italian architect Renzo Piano also conceived it as an addition in a deeper sense to a city rich in architectural condition.

RENZO PIANO, architect: You know, as an architect, I grew up with the mythology of Chicago as a city of invention. And, you know, I was a young architect, and I was traveling. And Chicago was already my mythological place. And, when I was offered this job, I didn’t think about it. I said, yes, great. I want to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Piano’s new wing is made of steel, aluminum, limestone, glass, and light itself, which he considers a kind of material.

The flying carpet

RENZO PIANO: The light coming through the roof under thisbig umbrella that we call the flying carpet, the light is sparked on thecorridor and the space. We create the magic of the space, because we are in Chicago.

We use, actually, the view that we filter of the skylight ofthe city. So, when you are up on the third floor, even on the second floor, andyou look out, you know where you are.

JEFFREY BROWN: The original Beaux-Art-style building, whichopened in 1893, is itself a historic landmark, its famous lions a longtime cityicon.

The new addition, by far the largest in the museum'shistory, was 10 years in the planning and building, at a cost of nearly $300million, almost all from private donations, civic philanthropy being anothertradition in Chicago.Most of the money was raised before the current recession began.

RENZO PIANO: You can see the two extreme opposites, thepalace that was built in 1893 that was the beginning of the Art Institute. Andthat was to express dignity, trust. It was made of stone and marble.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's very solid. And it's...

RENZO PIANO: Solid. And I don't blame anybody, but that wasthe way to express, to celebrate solidity, thrust, confidence, dignity.

Today, we have a different story to tell. I think thestory we are telling with the new addition is about accessibility, in some waysthe opposite. It's about accessibility. It's about openness. It's about abuilding that they should not be intimidating, but the opposite. It should beinviting.

Preserving tradition

JEFFREY BROWN: Initially, the plans called for a new wing onthe south side of the existing museum, but, five years ago, what was an emptyrail yard and parking lot to the north became Millennium Park.

A 24-acre oasis, it's blossomed into a major urban success,an attraction for locals and tourists of all ages that, notably, features artand architecture, including Spanish artist Jaume Plensa's fountain of faces,Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, affectionately dubbed "The Bean," and anoutdoor convert venue by architect Frank Gehry.

Renzo Piano and museum officials realize their new buildingshould be part of this grand urban space, and the new plan was expanded toinclude a direct link, a bridge that takes visitors from the park to a publicoutdoor terrace atop the museum.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, calling thenew building a temple of light, says, Piano's design successfully taps into thecity's rich heritage.

BLAIR KAMIN, The Chicago Tribune: Chicagois often called the first city of Americanarchitecture. It where's the skyscraper was invented. It's where Frank LloydWright practiced. It's where Daniel Burnham said, make no little plans, andreally reinvented American cities.

The early skyscrapers in Chicago changed construction. Instead ofhaving thick load-bearing walls of masonry, they substituted thin curtain wallsof glass that were hung on steel frames. And that allowed buildings to growtall. This building is like that, in the sense that it's very light. It's verytransparent. It's open to nature and the city around it.

The making of an architect

JEFFREY BROWN: Opening up spaces has been a trademark forRenzo Piano since he first made a name for himself in 1977 with the Pompidou Centerin Paris which,he designed with Richard Rogers. Brash and controversial at first, it quicklybecame a landmark in a city filled with them.

He's gone on to become one of this era's premier architectsof museums, with notable buildings in the U.S.,including the Menil Collection in Houston andthe Nasher SculptureCenter in Dallas. He's known for a refined style thatdoesn't fight the art inside.

RENZO PIANO: As an architect, you have to be strong enoughto make good architecture, but humble enough to understand that what you doserves something else.

If you make a concert hall, you make a space -- great spaceto play music. If you make a house, you have to build emotional protection,intimacy. If you make a museum, it's about art. It's about enjoying art.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Chicago, even as they tinker to fine thebest ways to use the natural light filtering into the galleries, the museum'scurators now have space to show new acquisitions, as well as many workspreviously in storage.

They have also taken the opportunity to reinstall the entirecollection of this great encyclopedic museum, most of which remains in theoriginal building, including its renowned impressionist paintings and Asiansculptures.

All of this comes, of course, amid an economicdownturn. The museum is raising its admission price from $12 to $18, thoughthat will now include special exhibitions, and admission will be free toschoolchildren, teachers, fire and police men and others.

Opening day

On opening day, when it was free to everyone and packed tothe gills, museum president James Cuno was ecstatic.

JAMES CUNO, president, Art Institute of Chicago: The openingof the building now, I think, makes all the difference in the world, because itshows people about -- about Chicago, that Chicago can still dreambig and deliver on those dreams.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even at a time like this?

JAMES CUNO: Even at a time like this.

You can look around, you can see the energy in the people'sfaces, the pride they have, because I think that we can still make it workaround here. Now, whether we have done the -- the sort of calculus correctly,with regard to sort of the finances and the budget, we will monitor that everyweek throughout the rest of the year.

But, just in terms of doing it right now, the pride ofopening this building now, you know, five years after the opening of Millennium Park, further reinvestments in thecenter of the city, is just what, again, drove us to do so now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among the opening day crowd was Renzo Pianohimself, greeting visitors and checking out his creation suddenly filled withpeople, including this would-be young architect.

MAN: So, this is his modern wing. And this is his modernwing.

The hope now for Piano, museum officials and the cityitself is that Chicagoans will continue to embrace this new gathering place,the latest addition to their urban skyline.