Renzo Piano gets all Midwestern, at the Art Institute of Chicago

Coming soon to Hello Beautiful! – a sneak preview, with images, of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. (It’s due to open May 16, 2009.)

For now, here’s an image of the east facade, as seen from Grant Park.

For a while during construction, this facade- which faces Grant Park and Lake Michigan to the east- was just stone, and rather blank. I thought it a shame. Why deprive visitors to the Art Institute, of what would be great views, surely from the upper floors?

If we’re going to build such a tall building in the park, we at least should give ourselves some new vistas in return.

I was relieved when they mounted this glassed-in modernist ornament.

But I couldn’t quite figure out why I liked it as much as I did. Yes, it’s a nicely designed and crafted piece of ornament, which in modernist tradition will be functional. It is less solid than the wall, thus it brings out the essence of the stone. It even offers transparency; which we always find interesting. It creates desire, a good thing for an art museum. It also creates a satisfying, three part facade. The parts are nicely proportioned to each other and to the whole, and we “hear” a nice rhythm, of solid / void / solid. This is far more musical than a plain stone facade would have been.

But it has more power over me than those reasons would cause, and I was trying to figure out what it is. So I walked around this facade, looking at it from all angles, until I saw

the great relic. The arch from Louis Sullivan’s demolished Stock Exchange.

Yes, that’s it. The way Renzo Piano placed this form-follows-function ornament on the facade, and the way it contrasts to his minimalist stonework, reminds me of Louis Sullivan’s Midwestern “Jewel Box” banks. Such as this one in Grinnell, Iowa.

Merchants National Bank, 1914

Go to the Art Institute and see if you feel it. Renzo Piano channeling Louis Sullivan.

(Much more on Piano’s Art Institute wing soon.) .

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