Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago has been deemed the best building in Chicago since Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill’s landmark John Hancock Center of 1970, and a surpassing achievement in its refined handling of light. Chicago-based writer Edward Lifson chatted with Piano about the new wing, the architect’s spirited collaboration with Mayor Daley, and the role of architecture in Chicago and beyond.
Edward Lifson: A critic who admires your work said that the Modern Wing can help bring us closer to a more enlightened society.
Renzo Piano: You know, this is one of those things that you think, but you never say, and you should never say. As an architect, that’s what you dream about. And so you try. Many artists dream that by making music, a novel, a great painting, a film, or by making good architecture, you dream about making better people and a better society.
How can architecture do that?
I have no idea. But let’s talk about the Modern Wing, just to be practical. Chicago is such a city of civic pride, and for me the history of the Art Institute is a history of civic pride. The neoclassic Beaux Arts building on Michigan Avenue was built in 1893. That was only about twenty years after the big fire!
So it’s less difficult to try to enlighten people, to use that word, when you are working in a community where the spirit is already there to enlighten the society by making places. With the Modern Wing, I think it was mainly about expressing accessibility, clarity, simplicity, and openness. In some way this is a typical European dream, maybe a bit also an Italian dream: the idea that the building is not standing alone, but is always talking to the street, always part of the city.
For me, accessibility is the opposite of intimidation. Intimidation is what you end up getting when you make a building of marble or stone. So if you make a “light” building, fundamentally you are expressing the desire to open to the street. Accessibility is a very close friend of tolerance. Also, the idea to put educational facilities on the ground floor lets you keep transparency at ground level, and you are putting the most beautiful and inspiring presence on the street.
Then the entrance, the “main street,” this kind of hall that goes from north to south through the entire Modern Wing and connects to the existing building, that is also a metaphor of a street. So in some way all those things talk about a vision of society that is not frightened by culture, not intimidated by culture.
Chicago is also inspiring because it is the place where modernity was invented, and the industrial production of steel buildings after the big fire, and all that. But the idea to work on the aesthetic of the industrial building, and to make it lighter, more transparent, to try to make art out of that—this idea, to advance work on the industrial, to me is like finding your country’s roots.
I keep thinking that for centuries, every time America made a building expressing dignity and strength, they used European roots. And those European roots are Beaux Arts, I mean neoclassic, neo-Roman, neo-Greek, Gothic cathedrals, or palaces or castles. But the real roots of America are fantastic! A fantastic sense of freedom comes from something that actually started in Chicago! Including the Chicago windows. I mean, when I was a young student, Chicago was probably the most inspiring city in the world for me.
What words would you use to describe the qualities of light that you were trying to achieve in the Modern Wing galleries?
I think when you make a museum for this kind of modern collection, which is sublime, what you try to do is create a place that I should define as metaphysical. Metaphysical in the real sense of the word: meta-physics, above physics. Out of physics. A museum is a place “out of physics.” Dominique de Menil, my client on the Menil, kept telling me, “A museum is a place where you have to lose your head.” It’s a kind of place where you forget where you are. You are out of time and place and space. So in some way it’s the same way a piece of art gets out of reality, and into a kind of suspended atmosphere. So “suspension” may be a good word. But “metaphysical” is also not bad.
Natural light is vibrant, it keeps changing, it’s kind of vital. Mentally speaking, you have to put the person contemplating art in a different world. That’s why I used the idea that you must “lose your head” in some way. And this is something that you can do by bringing the light in from above. This doesn’t happen if you bring the light in from the side, because light from the side doesn’t have the abstraction.
I love the idea that suddenly, when you turn around the corner, then you discover Chicago. And suddenly the contradiction becomes evident. Because you were in a different dimension and then you walk a few steps, and suddenly you are in the middle of a great city, looking north to the skyline, to the city and all that you see, or guess at, because you see it through the lace of the blinds. And this contradiction between abstraction, the metaphysical, the unreal, and discovering suddenly where you are, that’s part of the experience of the museum.
I was surprised that at the Modern Wing—in the park but above the trees and close to Lake Michigan—you get almost no views of the lake. Why did you put no windows on the east facade? I remember that at one point you thought about moving the gallery wall in on the third floor to put a passageway up there with glass through which people could look at Grant Park and Lake Michigan.
That’s something I thought about. Leaving a little space, like a winter garden, overlooking the park. I did that, for example, at the Fondation Beyeler near Basel. You get out from the museum—although you’re still in the museum—and you take a rest, and overlook the outside.
That’s something we tried to do, but in the end, you also have to pay attention to give as much space as possible to show art, so we gave up this idea. Of course, I love the water—You know where I was last Sunday? I was sailing on Lake Michigan!—so views of it were one of the first things I was thinking about. But in the end it became a bit too complicated. There is a moment when you have to decide what to do and what not to do. So, we thought that it was a bit too much.
How about the bridge? It’s not as integrated into the design as are the escalators at your Centre Pompidou in Paris, or even the Broad wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
That’s a good remark. Of course, the bridge came much later. I always wanted to put a bridge to cross Monroe Street, but it would have been, say, sixteen feet above ground, connecting Millennium Park with the second floor of the museum. We had long discussions about that, and it’s never easy, because you cross the street and then you have to come down to the ground floor.
Also, Mayor Daley was not very convinced, and I wasn’t, so we went on and on. Then John Nichols, the former chairman of the board of the Art Institute [and donor, with his wife, of some $19 million for the Modern Wing], came, and we went together to see Richard Daley. I made a sketch, saying, “Wait a second, what happens if, instead of linking the ground or second floor of the building, we link the roof of the building?”
Because, I told Daley, we have no piazza there. And as an Italian, every time I don’t find a piazza, I try to make a piazza! You need a bloody piazza—I’m not joking! Where will you go if you don’t have a piazza? So, I said, let’s put the piazza on the roof, and then I can make a bridge that will need to be very long, say 500 or 600 feet [the bridge is 620 feet], because I need to slope down with a very slow slope, so that people in wheelchairs and children can go up and down. So we connected two public spaces, the park and the little piazza on the roof.
Did you tell Mayor Daley to close Monroe Street and make Millennium Park the piazza of the Modern Wing?
How do you know that? Because I told him! Last week I was still telling Daley. But he’s also convinced that one day he must find a way to fill that portion of rail track [between the 1893 Art Institute and the Modern Wing], and this is where we can have a real piazza. I told him, “You have I don’t know how many other thousand streets in Chicago, they’re all the same, they go north, south, east, west. What happens if you stop one? It doesn’t matter!” He’s a very nice guy, I love him. He loves the city, he knows everything.
One final question: With the economic downturn, architecture is in a pause. What do you think architects can learn during this period?
Well, I don’t have any rest in my office. But after we designed the Centre Pompidou in 1977, for a while, I had little or no work. From 1977, ’78, ’79, ’80, before the Menil Collection, I had little work. It was great for me. I worked with UNESCO to do beautiful projects in Senegal and places like that. I designed a car using new technology. What you do is you take the opportunity to make, instead of ten things, one or two. And you work on the things and the ideas that you’ve been dreaming about, but never had the time to do.