Posted earlier to Out and About, the Time Out Chicago blog.
The Art Institute broke ground this morning on the Nichols Bridgeway, which will connect Millennium Park to the museum’s new Modern Wing. Both are scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2009, and if you’ve been paying close attention to the Art Institute’s updated-every-15 minutes webcam, you already know that construction is well underway. A ceremony before the groundbreaking featured comments from Mayor Daley, Art Institute president James Cuno, Art Institute chairman of the board Thomas Pritzker, Millennium Park chariman John Bryan, John Nichols, whom the bridgeway is named after and who gave a major donation towards it, and, last but not least, the Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed both structures.
The Modern Wing, on Monroe Street just south of Columbus Avenue, will increase the museum’s square footage by almost a third to 1,000,000. The 264,000 square-foot space will include the museum’s educational spaces, along with galleries for contemporary art, modern art (yes, there’s a difference; no, this is not the space to explain it), photography and architecture. There will also be a restaurant on the third and highest floor, and that’s also the floor where the bridgeway will touch down.
Starting a couple hundred feet inside Millennium Park, the 620-foot pedestrian bridge will rise at a five-percent grade over Monroe before connecting to the museum. It’s composed of structural steel, which will be painted white, a stainless steel mesh and aluminum planking. The planking will have an anti-slip coating on it. "This is way beyond a physical addition," said Pritzker, going on to talk up the the ease with which park-goers will be able to get to the museum. (Is it that hard to walk up Michigan Avenue? Never you mind.) "The bridge expresses a desire to reach out to all of Millennium Park," said Pritzker.
Mayor Daley stressed that point, too, saying that "Chicago’s goal is to make decisions to improve the lives of everyone." He leaned in a couple inches into the microphone so that "of everyone" echoed around the tent a couple extra seconds. (Still a tad touchy about that Chicago Children’s Museum debate, Mr. Mayor?) He thanked Chicago’s business community, along with "Renzio Piano."
Walking around the new Modern Wing—decked out in an official Art Institute of Chicago hardhat, of course—it’s hard not to be impressed with the new space. The first floor is dedicated entirely to education, and school buses will now be able to drop the kids off in back and let them enter on Monroe, instead of going through a difficult-to-access back door. The entrance to the museum is set back from the doors opening onto Monroe, so a portion of the museum can be accessed for free. That includes a museum store, classrooms, and the restaurant.
Up on the wing’s third floor, Piano has outfitted the building with floor-to-ceiling windows in the sculpture gallery. Those windows look out onto Millennium Park, and offer up a view that will surely be available on thousands of postcards. There will be shades on the windows to keep the brightness to a reasonable level, and help keep visitors’ attention on the artwork.
That view will also be seen when walking from the museum, down the bridge and into the park. Piano’s thin bridge is the exact opposite of Frank Gehry’s BP Bridge, which snakes over Columbus Drive. Piano’s is closer to a knife, or, as he calls it, a "razor."
"We joke with other, he and I," Piano told me before the tour started. "He is lazy, and likes to take his time going over his bridge, and I just want to get there," he said. In truth, though, Piano uncovers an important split in their aesthetics: A bridge is supposed to convey people somewhere efficiently, so why bother with gratuitous twists that engage the eye but hinder the structure’s purpose? The famous example of this side of Piano’s technique is Paris’s Centre Pompidou, where Piano put the building’s pipes and ventilation system on the outside, for all to see.
"I really do love bridges," Piano said at the ceremony. "They do a good job. They connect the banks of a river, they connect the different parts of a city. They are the exact opposite of walls." He said the Nichols Bridgeway will extend 30 feet above Monroe, and, when walking or driving north, will frame the view of Lake Michigan between the horizon and the bridge. Art starts when you place a frame around an image, and Piano seems to have found ways to frame some of the best features of Chicago.
Martinu Complete Violin Music. Bohuslav Matousek, Regis Pasquier, Jennifer Koh, violin; Janne Thomsen, flute; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Christopher Hogwood, conductor (Hyperion)
Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin Vivaldi: Double Concertos (harmonia mundi)
Simon Keenlyside Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor (Sony)
Jonathan Biss Beethoven Piano Sonatas, including "Pathetique" (EMI)
Sarah Chang Vivaldi: The Four Seasons. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (EMI)