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Virago in Chicago: Frank Gehry-Renzo Piano Smackdown CORRECTED

As I recounted in my recent Wall Street Journal article, the construction of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new Modern Wing was impelled by Millennium Park, the wildly successful art-filled public space situated directly across Monroe Street. That busy thoroughfare also has a second name (for a celebrated Chicago artist), on the particular block were the museum is located:

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The spirit and visual impact of the Art Institute’s Renzo Piano-designed elite cultural retreat and the the park’s populist public space are as different as the architecture of Piano and Frank Gehry, whose curvy band shell of seemingly windswept ribbons of steel is the dominant feature of this Windy City tourist magnet:

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When it comes to eye-popping appeal, Gehry’s music venue wins by a knockout over Piano’s sedate art showcase:

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Renzo’s clean lines have one clear advantage, though: They lend themselves to replication by young visitors in the new wing’s expansive Education Center:

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Here’s one of this classroom’s creations:

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The north-facing windows in Piano’s galleries frame alluring views of Gehry’s band shell:

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That boxy little structure you see above in the foreground, almost at curbside, is one of Piano’s four modest contributions to Millennium Park—the Exelon Pavilions. [CORRECTION: As the description that I linked to indicates, Piano was architect for only TWO of the four pavilions—the parking garage entrances at the south end of the park.] The one closest to the museum [which IS by Piano] is an entrance to an underground parking garage:

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Gehry gets the better of the battle-of-the-bridges, with a wood-floored, silvery-walled, winding, wavy pathway that spans a highway between the east side of his band shell and a trail towards Lake Michigan.

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Here’s a view of some of its twists and turns:

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And here’s how you feel while traversing it:

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Piano’s tube-like bridge, with aluminum floors and ivory painted steel walls, efficiently ascends in a straight line over the park from the west side of Gehry’s band shell, depositing pedestrians 620 feet south, on the third floor of the Modern Wing.

Here it is, seen from underneath at the point where it crosses Monroe Street:

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Originally, the museum had asked for a much shorter bridge, merely to provide safe passage for pedestrians arriving from Millennium Park. Piano persuaded the museum to build a bridge that reached deep into the park to the Gehry band shell. But many (if not most) pedestrians will want to cross the street at the curb. A traffic light there is greatly desired by the museum (and very urgently needed).

Here’s a view of museumgoers traversing Piano’s bridge (on the left):

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The floor of Gehry’s bridge is constructed of foot-friendly wood planks…

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Piano’s floor is hard metal, with a disconcerting waviness over its surface:

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As you approach the museum, Piano’s bridge has a pronounced bounce. This oscillation caused Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic, consternation, as well as traumatic flashbacks to the more pronounced swaying of Norman Foster‘s Millennium Bridge over the Thames to Tate Modern in London, which had to be remedied before the public was allowed back on.

As it happened, I encountered Piano himself, just as I stepped off the bridge at the museum’s third-floor sculpture garden. So I queried him about the bounce. He assured me that he was aware of it and that it was not a problem.

We can only hope.

an ArtsJournal blog