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Modern Wing Windiness

Mike Doyle

Since 2005 scribe of the local blog, Chicago Carless. I invite you to visit.

nicholsbridgewayOver the Memorial Day break, I scoured the Chicagosphere for evidence that a balanced opinion of the the Art Institute of Chicago's newly opened Modern Wing might exist somewhere on a website written in a ZIP Code beginning with 606. Fat chance. Given the vociferous praise currently being heaped on starchitect Renzo Piano's new museum wing and connecting Nichols Bridgeway to Millennium Park, you'd think local bloggers were on James Cuno's payroll.

Our fair town's favorite architecture critic, the Chicago Tribune's own Blair Kamin, has up to now soft-balled the new building on his Skyline blog, calling it a "temple of light" in a May 1st feature story whose sole but apt criticism was the "lifeless" nature of the interior Griffin Court. Since then, Skyline coverage has mostly been confined to praise by others, opening-day photos, and stats and descriptions.


I looked in vain for deeper observations from Chicago's other architecture vultures. Last week, Huffington Post Chicago art advocate Paul Klein discussed his initial visit to the Modern Wing in terms as glowing as Kamin's ("The building is beautiful, the space dramatic and the installation sensitive and informative...")

More surprisingly, the Windy City's best armchair architecture blogger, Lynn Becker, has so far kept his opinion about Piano's new structures silent, instead posting opening-day updates and links to coverage by others on his usually incisive blog, ArchitectureChicago PLUS.

I hoped for better from Sun-Times art critic Hedy Weiss, who interviewed Piano in a substantial feature on May 10th. Hopes dashed--though sizable, the coverage lacked any critical insight whatsoever, reading instead like an Art Institute infomercial and concluding with society-page inanity ("Meanwhile, the big, looming question: Will President Obama and the first lady attend the gala Modern Wing opening? After all, the Art Institute was the site of their first date.")

Indeed, there is another major "Chicago architecture blog" out there. And if it weren't written by "Anonymous Editor," you might read about it here. As a rule, I won't waste your time telling you about bloggers who can't be bothered to tell you who they are.

That said, can I really be the only Chicago blogger who's passed through the Modern Wing (several times) in the past week and pondered over:

  • the lack of an interior "wow" factor [Ed. note: obviously, as noted above, besides Kamin];

  • notably narrow stairways and upper-level walkways;

  • gravel footprints inside tracked from the gravel-covered patio outside;

  • a middle-of-nowhere street entrance sorely needing a pedestrian cross-walk (given the number of museum-bound jaywalkers now hustling across busy Monroe Street) [Ed. note: Happily, Kamin did call this out in mid-May];

  • the bait-and-switch nature of a bridgeway that deposits you on a roof from which you're forced to take two long escalators back down to ground level to actually enter the museum;

  • the lack of an escalator to get back up to the bridgeway; or

  • woefully insufficient interior wayfinding signage?

At least I know I'm not the only Chicagoan thinking about such things--commenters on Kamin's blog picked up on all of these design stumbles. And Kamin, himself, has noted other critics who've highlighted these flaws the lack of an overall "wow" factor, too (including Bloomberg's James Russell, and the Times of London's Morgan Falconer.)

Hey, Blair, Lynn, Paul, Hedy, Chicago's heard enough about why we're supposed to love the Modern Wing. Piano's gone home; the coast is clear. It's time to share your critical opinions of the place, in detail, now that it's actually open and in crowded, daily use. What works? What doesn't? What could have been done better? How could things be improved now?

And what's up with those jarring, random, intrusive bag checks on the bridgeway, anyway?

There's a big, looming question for you...


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Cheryl said:


I hate that [Ed. Note: language, people, language] bridge. They could have put in a crosswalk and some stop signs for a lot less money.

Mike Doyle said:


Hey, Cheryl (my old CHICAGO CARLESS pal)! I love the view from the bridge, itself. The money spent building it doesn't bother me since so much of the total bill for the Modern Wing came from private sources. But the lack of a crosswalk is definitely a missed opportunity/pedestrian fatality (I predict a parent pushing a stroller) waiting to happen.

Cheryl said:


Sorry about the language earlier. Anyway, my beef with the bridge is it *moves.* As a very small child I was traumatized by a rope bridge, and I still can't stand for whatever I'm trying to walk on *moving.* I have no idea what the view looks like--I was concentrating on not having a panic attack before I got into the building and could sit down someplace.

Kathryn said:

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I agree 100% about the crosswalk. I totally ran across the street with the kids and hoped for the best.

As for getting deposited on the 3rd floor, well, if you go from top to bottom, you go in chronological order for the art, which is a good way to go.

Nice post!


Mike Doyle said:


That's a good point--though you still have to go downstairs on the elevators from the bridgeway to get to the museum entrance and then head back up to the third floor via narrowish hanging stairways or an elevator.

I'm with Kamin, they need to get rid of the sense of boring incompleteness that pervades Griffin Court, the interior alley that serves as the Modern Wing's crossroads (where all those stairs and elevators deposit you). To me, it feels like being inside the lobby of the DeYoung in San Francisco...only without the "wow" factor.

gordon said:

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Hi, Mike. Last week I decided to take full advantage of their Free Admission for the Grand Opening, so I went four times. On each occasion I walked up the new bridge. And yes, while as a whole I like very much the new wing, it is far from a perfect creation. On two of the four occasions, the escalator from the top (third floor) had broken down, which left only the extremeley slow elevator to get an uncomfortably large gathering congregation of people out of the rather smalling third floor area. Who made the decision that regular old fashioned stairs would not be needed? I would say that is a rather serious design flaw, coupled with the one you mention -- that the only place the crowds can go once they arrive at the top of the bridge is to the restaurant -- which, on the most crowded day, had already been fully booked. You cannot walk through to access the rest of the Art Institute. This was a true surprise, as I had figured the reason the restaurant was closed off from the rest of the complex was because the restaurant would be open during longer evening and weekend hours when the Art Institute was closed. However, when my companion and I asked to make reservations for Sunday evening, we were informed we would need to be there by 2:00 p.m. as they needed to conform to the Art Institute's hours.

PS. BTW an extremely belated "welcome back" to Chicago to you. Gordon

Mike Doyle said:


Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Gordon. I'm amazed they didn't simply allow people to walk down the escalators. That whole upper entrance area is a major design flaw in terms of distributing the flow of visitors, they really should have seen it coming.

Thanks also for your welcome. Actually, since I first arrived in Chicago at the crack of 2003, I haven't lived anywhere else. Don't plan to, either ;-)

Mike Doyle said:


No problem, CP. The bouncing surprised me, too. It was pretty bad over opening weekend--if you stood above the middle of Monroe, you felt like you were on a ship bobbing in the water. I'm sure it's safe, but I wonder whether they expected the bridgeway's displacement to feel as apparent as it does.

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