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Renzo Piano's model for the Art Institute of Chicago's new wing, showing its limestone wall, glass curtain and "flying carpet" roof

A model presenting the view looking south through the central concourse of the Art Institute of Chicago's new north wing

A model presenting an aerial view of the east pavilion, central concourse and west pavilion of the Art Institute of Chicago's new north wing

A collage site plan of the campus of the Art Institute of Chicago, including the proposed new north wing and the "Zero Gravity" bridge to Millennium Park to the north

North elevation of Renzo Piano's new north wing for the Art Institute of Chicago

Renzo Piano shows a model of his "flying carpet" roof, to be built for the Art Institute of Chicago's north wing

View of the Giacometti gallery at Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

"Lamella" model for Renzo Piano's "flying carpet" roof

The installation of a prototype of Renzo Piano's "flying carpet" roof

Chicago Wingding
by Victor M. Cassidy

The Art Institute of Chicago's new wing will be "the most significant new civic building constructed in downtown Chicago since our original Michigan Avenue building opened in 1893," said James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Cuno spoke these exuberant words at the wing's groundbreaking ceremony on May 31, 2005. At the climax of this event, the assembled dignitaries, including the mayor of Chicago and his wife, pulled a rope that fired masses of confetti into the air from two cardboard cannons.

According to Cuno, the new wing will increase exhibition space in the Art Institute by one third and will become "a museum of modern and contemporary art within an encyclopedic art museum." Construction of the $258 million, 264,000-square-foot expansion began June 1 and is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2009.

Trustee board chair John H. Bryan says that the Art Institute has raised $170 million of the total $285 million campaign goal in gifts and pledges. This is more money than the Art Institute has raised in its past three Capital Campaigns. Naming rights on the new wing go to anyone who gives $25 million.

Three Attached Spaces
The new wing is located in the northeast quadrant of the Art Institute's site, replacing an abandoned theater. Vertically organized, the building is divided into three attached spaces -- a three-story east pavilion, a double-height court and a three-story west pavilion. The east pavilion provides 65,000 square feet of exhibition galleries for modern and contemporary art plus space for photography, film, video and architecture. A 20,000-square-foot education area on the pavilion's first floor doubles the museum's education space and dramatically simplifies access for groups.

The court serves as a north-south pedestrian corridor through the entire museum, connecting the entrance of the new wing on the north to the temporary exhibition galleries (Rice Building) at the southern end. The west pavilion houses galleries, visitor services, a boardroom, a sculpture terrace, a winter garden and a restaurant. Externally the wing is to be clad in Indiana limestone with a glass double curtain wall.

"Little Italian Town"
The Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Paris is responsible for the new wing's design. Piano is well on his way to becoming the architect of choice for museum projects. His credits include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1978), the Menil Collection in Houston (1987), the Beyeler Foundation Museum outside Basel (1997) and the Nasher Sculpture Garden in Dallas (2003); he's also overseeing the expansions of two New York arts institutions, the Morgan Library and the Whitney Museum.

Piano is "especially sensitive to the showing and seeing of art," said Cuno. He brings natural light into art museums to invigorate the viewing experience without damaging the art.

Piano charmed everyone at the groundbreaking ceremony with his gracious humor and supple imagination. Several years ago, when he first visited the Art Institute, Piano examined the 900-foot-square site and saw it as "a little Italian town with a river in the middle." There is no river next to Lake Michigan, but the railroad tracks that run north and south separating the Art Institute into two structures act like a river, Piano explained.

Discovering that it was "easy to get lost" in the Art Institute, Piano decided that the complex was "a bit of a mess" and started to puzzle out how the new wing could "create some order" there. In the conceptual design phase, he "moved the wing around, tried to put it everywhere," and decided that it belonged on the northeast corner.

Chicago's Millennium Park was under construction then and Piano thought that his building should "start a dialogue" with Frank Gehry's extravagant aluminum bandshell. He designed a nine-foot-wide floating "Zero Gravity" bridge that would extend 900 feet from Millennium Park over a busy street to end on the outdoor sculpture terrace of the new wing. Cuno, who sees this "gossamer light" bridge as a way to bring masses of first-time visitors to the Art Institute, has enthusiastically embraced Piano's idea. He needs money for it -- and is doubtless willing to sell naming rights.

The most intriguing design feature of the new museum is Piano's 216-square-foot "flying carpet" roof structure, which is essentially a light baffle held up on slender steel columns above the skylights of the east pavilion and extending beyond the building perimeter. Rows of curved aluminum blades capture and filter natural light such that it enters the galleries to provide a constantly changing viewing experience. Oriented north to south along Lake Michigan, the "flying carpet" is designed to get a north light. This arrangement makes the building very energy-efficient, he says.

Piano has designed the new wing to separate its "profane" and "sacred" spaces, so that visitors enter a bustling "profane" lobby where they buy a ticket, check their coat and get directions. As they go deeper and deeper into the museum, they experience the art in tranquil "sacred" spaces.

Disquieting Questions
When the new wing opens in 2009, the Art Institute of Chicago will devote one-fourth of its exhibition space to art since 1900 and three-fourths to world art from the previous 3,000 years. This radical change in priorities does not respond to any known public demand. Chicago already has a Museum of Contemporary Art, several smaller contemporary art spaces and about 50 serious art galleries.

Cuno says that the new wing will provide modern and contemporary art in the context of an encyclopedic art museum -- and that this will be a superior experience, justifying the new wing. He adds that the Art Institute of Chicago has an outstanding modern and contemporary collection. Many works may come out of storage when the new wing is up -- and the collection will surely have grown by then.

Cy Twombly was recently an honored guest at the Art Institute. Ellsworth Kelly attended the groundbreaking ceremony, as did Dorothy Lichtenstein, widow of Roy Lichtenstein. We imagine that Cuno is courting these people for donations and wish him luck. He probably has others on his list.

When the new wing goes up, every department at the Art Institute will have more space. Cuno has promised that the museum will become a very different place, with previously little-known materials becoming available for viewing. He said, for example, that most of the museum's architecture holdings are now stored off-site and therefore are difficult to exhibit in the current facility. When space becomes available, he wants to retrieve those materials and create a new center for architecture. We pray that he forces open the vaults of the department of prints and drawings and shares its great collections with the public.

The Art Institute of Chicago has made no small plans. We wish it success. Still, serious questions about the priorities and future course of this art museum remain unanswered.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.