The challenge for architect Renzo Piano was to create a structure to showcase one of the world's great collections to best advantage. For me, the magic of the Art Institute of Chicago's new Modern Wing is not on the exterior. The outside (photographed from the pedestrian bridge that links it with Millennium Park) is just another big glass and steel box. The magic is on the inside.
The light inside is extraordinary, and the screens over the large glass windows reveal the Chicago skyline like a shimmering mirage. Throughout the Modern Wing, the light is fantastic. Third floor galleries as well as the main lobby atrium are flooded with natural light from the glass roof covered with diffusers and screens to soften even the harshest light.
It's a stunning setting for the art. The archtecture doesn't overwhelm the art, but at the same time, it holds its own. For example, René Magritte's 1938 painting, "Time Transfixed," looks particularly surreal in front of the Chicago skyline shimmering outside like a dream.
Nicolai Ouroussof wrote about the quality of the light in the NYT.
But it is the light that most people will notice. Mr. Piano has been slowly refining his lighting systems since the mid-1980s, when he completed his design for the Menil Collection building in Houston. Over the years these efforts have taken on a quasi-religious aura, with curators and museum directors analyzing the light in his galleries like priests dissecting holy texts.Some things never change: The Art Institute's Michigan Avenue entrance is still flanked by two bronze lions. Unlike the New York Public Library, whose magnificent guardian lions were nicknamed Patience and Fortitude by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Chicago's lions are nameless. Instead, they are designated by the poses created by sculptor Edward Kerneys in 1893: The north lion is "on the prowl." This, the south lion, "stands in an attitude of defiance."
At the Art Institute Mr. Piano has stripped the system down to its essence. The glass roof of the top-floor galleries is supported on delicate steel trusses. Rows of white blades rest on top of the trusses to filter out strong southern light; thin fabric panels soften the view from below.
The idea is to make you aware of the shifts in daylight — over the course of a visit, from one season to another — without distracting you from the artwork, and the effect is magical. On a clear afternoon you can catch faint glimpses through the structural frame of clouds drifting by overhead. But most of the time the art takes center stage, everything else fading quietly into the background.
Click on individual photos to enlarge in Flickr, where you'll also find an expanded photo set.