Lighting history

By GREG COOK  |  February 3, 2010

The upstairs will hold offices, conservation labs, a new 2000-square-foot special-exhibition gallery (three times the size of the current space in the palazzo), and a 296-seat concert hall (about the same number of seats as the Tapestry Room, where concerts are now held). The concert hall eschews the usual shoebox design for a vertical orientation, with the performers at center and the crowd watching from four sides and down from three levels of balconies. (It seems to be Piano's favorite part of the project. "I wanted to be a musician myself, but I wasn't good enough. So I decided to be an architect.") Geothermal wells will heat and cool both new and old buildings; it's predicted they'll reduce energy use by 28 percent from a standard facility's.

The move of the shop and the café from an easily overlooked back corner in the palazzo to prominent sites in the addition seems a bow to the need to make money in a way that the wealthy Gardner didn't have to consider. "Hopefully there will be more revenue from the shop," says Hawley, "although our financial model in this is not an expansion of activity — it's an unloading of the building. We're not expecting to drive our visitorship way up. There's a heavy amount of endowment we have to raise for this project because it will cost us more to run this building, and we'd like to do a little more programming." So far, more than $100 million has been raised toward a project goal of $180 million, which includes $40 million for the endowment.

Much will depend on the contrast between Gardner's unadorned brick exterior — which barely whispers about the ravishing surprises inside — and Piano's sleek, airy, transparent creation. "The reason the building is set back 50 feet from the original building," Hawley notes, "is to create that distance, because we didn't want to back it right up and confuse the two. I think that the juxtaposition of old and new is actually very energizing." The museum's leaders have chosen a design that does not mimic Gardner's antique style, or sit quietly behind it. They decided, as Hawley says, "It should be a work of art in its time, because that's who we are, and this is our time, and it deserves no less."

One of the problems of architecture criticism today is that much of it is leveled before the buildings are in use. So in December, I visited the 260,000-square-foot expansion Piano designed for the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened in May. The modern wing's vertical lines, glass, and flat roof suggest a mix of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Bauhaus-transplanted-to-Chicago style with Frank Lloyd Wright blown up to gigantic proportions. The galleries are comfortable, open, sunny, airy — Piano's signature. But the dominant feature of the building is a vast atrium that's almost completely empty of art and feels like a bloated vacant convention hall. The main galleries are hidden on the second and third floors. Most visitors reach them via stairs to mezzanines that overlook the atrium hall, and that create bottlenecks where they meet the second floor.

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