Modern Wing Windiness

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Over 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.

Harrumph.

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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