By Philip Berger
The design of cultural institutions—long a sort of Holy Grail for architects due to the prestige and attention, if not necessarily great remuneration, they bring—also have the power to make enormous additions to the cultural landscape, and often to the skylines and streetscapes of the extremely visible locations they grace. The best of them are multi-dimensional contributions to the world of art and ideas—both as improvements to the institutions themselves and as enrichments of the built environment. Not surprisingly, then, this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial is infused with participants with pedigrees as arts-edifice designers, starting at the very top with the artistic directors themselves.
John Ronan understands the implications of cultural design better than many others. When he got the commission for a poetry center, there wasn’t much precedent in the building typology. But he knew the headquarters for the Poetry Foundation would have to reflect poetry itself: “We wanted it to be like a poem that unfolds, line by line,” he says. “It shouldn’t give itself away all at once. You read the first line of a poem and it intrigues you and you want to read more. Architecture should be like that—seducing you, drawing you in slowly.”
Similarly, he says the choice of materials for the building was deliberate in how it reflected poetry’s mechanics. “We knew they shouldn’t be precious,” he says, “but made special by the way they’re treated—like the way poets use words—how they’re selected and arranged in ways that transform them from ordinary to thoughtful.”
As a whole, the building is an excellent example of an arts institution that dignifies the streetscape as much as it enhances the cultural environment. Embraced by the public for its serene, imposing presence on Superior Street and for the way it slowly reveals itself to the visitor, it’s also raised the general profile of poetry as an art form. Ronan thinks its success is in large part because of the client. “They gave me time to design it. They understood this wasn’t an all-out sprint. They’re artists themselves—and know that you don’t order a poem to be ready by 10am tomorrow.”
Unlike poetry centers, museums have lots of examples for their designers to use as reference. Still, there’s no rigid archetype. When Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art announced plans to remodel the building it’s occupied on Seneca Place since 1996, some observers probably expected it to award the commission to one of the big-name museum architects who have come to dominate the field, like Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron or Diller Scofidio + Renfro, or to some exciting local talent. Instead, the institution chose several designers to collaborate on different elements of the project—none big names, and all based elsewhere but Chicago.
As it approaches its fiftieth anniversary, it’s impossible to overlook the MCA’s contribution to the contemporary art world—not just locally but internationally—introducing the city to everything from emerging talent to contemporary masters in an enormous range of media. But when the museum announced its remodeling plan, many wondered why.
Perhaps by design, the museum hasn’t released much in the way of official materials or statements which reveal a lot about the project except for the creative teams involved. The museum intriguingly invited painter Chris Ofili to design the restaurant that visitors will enter from a new entrance along Pearson Street; the Mexico City-based art/design collaborative Pedro y Juana—perhaps on the basis of their kicky main-floor installation at Chicago Cultural Center in the 2015 Biennial—for “the Commons,” in the space that used to be the cafe; and to reconfigure the theater lobby and upstairs gallery spaces, the Los Angeles architecture firm Johnston Marklee, who also happen to be the artistic directors of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
An essay by the MCA’s director Madeleine Grynsztejn explains much of the thinking behind the project, which she stresses is not an expansion. “This is a major redesign that converts 12,000 square feet of public space in the building and re-uses it to fuel the vital connection between artists and our audience in a new way that is free and accessible, within the existing footprint of the museum,” she writes.
At MCA, she writes, the redesign’s architectural program comprises the “convergence of the public spaces with the galleries to create…two important new public offerings: a destination restaurant on the ground floor that connects to a new engagement space on the second floor that literally puts learning and engagement at the physical center of the museum.”
She describes that second-floor space—“the Commons”—as “a spontaneous, responsive space in constant motion, a place where people can plug-in—and talk, listen, debate, disagree, and learn from one another with contemporary artists as their catalysts.”
She goes on to explain the redesign’s motivation. “The pendulum has swung from the museum as passive temple to the museum as active space —from a treasure box to a tool box, if you will. Today’s audiences are no longer looking for a cold ‘white cube’ museum experience. Instead, they crave warmer, shared experiences.”
Central to creating that experience is acknowledgment of the necessity of “third places”—gathering places other than home or work—to civic life. Third places, she argues, are “anchors of communities as place[s] where people gather, observe, interact, and have agency in their own learning and enjoyment,” which are “critical for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement. Why,” she asks, “shouldn’t it be a museum? Particularly since our bottom line is a meaningful, social benefit.”
“More than ever,” she writes, “people are hungry for civic dialogue and connection, and this is where we feel the MCA can play a breakthrough role. We are being proactive in our work and anticipating what society needs from museums right now: a collective space for the restoration of social bonds and shared community. We can be that special space—a key, inclusive site where people are welcome to gather and experience art and public matters from multiple perspectives. The third space IS the museum.”
The principals at Johnston Marklee have so much on their platter—in addition to the final stretch of the MCA job and creative directorship of the CAB, they have a thriving design practice with other jobs that need attention. So they, too, were unavailable for real-time interviews, but responded to written questions with insights into the MCA project and also about the allure and rewards of designing cultural institutions like art museums.
“Museums today are the new living rooms of the city,” they write. “Museums are not like temples anymore; people don’t simply go to a museum to worship art. More and more visitors choose to go to the museum to be part of collective social experiences. People are searching for new perspectives on their world through interacting and engaging with others through art.”
They explain their work on the project. “The framework of the building is quite restrictive, and we were certain the best way to enhance the public experience was to try to expand the possible journeys through the museum, as the current public circulation is limited to one corner of the building. By introducing a new stair in the northeast corner of the ground floor, we connected the new public street, theater lobby and restaurant directly to the museum floor and the new commons space. Like an acupuncturist, we identified a point of maximum congestion in the museum—a dead end—and with the new stair opened up nearly 8,000 square feet of continuous public space that is accessible even when the galleries are closed. Another important benefit was we now have a flood of natural light from the east illuminating the lower level. This stair was hotly debated but I think everyone is pleased with the outcome.”
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, by contrast, the intent of its design program was immediately apparent: to offer more—and more diverse—kinds of audience offerings while capitalizing on a unique real estate opportunity: Navy Pier’s decision to discontinue programming at the directly adjacent, tented outdoor Skyline Stage.
CST calls its expansion The Yard—named after the portion of the original Globe Theatre where the groundlings would stand to watch performances. “The Skyline Stage was an underused part of the Pier in recent years,” says CST executive director Criss Henderson. “What could we do to reimagine the tent and the space beneath it?” This solution, he says, “is an artistic platform that lets us be super-responsive to artists and excite audiences.” It also greatly enhances the ways the company can use the space.
Henderson says that The Yard has been in the development stages for at least a decade, as the theater explored expansion opportunities, both on and away from the Pier, to accommodate its programming, which had long ago diversified well beyond its core offerings of works by the Bard. But it wasn’t until 2013, when he was with the principals of charcoalblue, a UK-based theater and acoustics consultancy, who convinced CST to stop thinking in terms of large-scale fixed venues and look instead at European theater companies who were investigating more flexible, cost-conscious ways to expand.
The team from charcoalblue devised a solution that called for a structure adjacent to the existing theater containing modular towers with multiple levels of seating that could be arranged to create dozens of possible stage/audience configurations, with anywhere from 150 to 850 seats (CST’s main stage seats 500.)
The new space was able to incorporate the existing “backstage” elements of Skyline Stage as well as its distinctive, tented roof: the modular elements charcoalblue conceived are all contained within a concrete envelope, designed—along with the passageway connecting it to the main building—by the Chicago firm Smith + Gill. Gordon Gill explains that each one of the moving towers has its own lighting, HVAC and audio elements, which in turn needed junctions with the overall structure. “Threading it all together made it into a very surgical project,” says Gill, who analogizes the process to creating a series of docking stations.
Smith + Gill’s portfolio has consisted largely of super-tall towers, and more lately its exposition pavilions for the Astana 2017 Expo and Dubai 2020. (It’s well worth waiting in line during Open House Chicago, when you can visit the firm’s offices, just to see the model room of the firm’s truly futuristic looking projects.)
Despite this impressive body of super-high-profile work, in meeting with Gordon Gill about a month before The Yard’s opening, his palpable excitement reflects how a reasonably small project like this is in many ways more meaningful—in part because he says it helps him connect his own creative energies with his client’s, a sentiment shared with most designers I talked to for this story.
Because most of the Yard itself is concealed behind a concrete shell, the real face of the addition is the multilevel connector between the new stage and the original building. The curving, electrochromic glass facade allows for endless variations in tint and tone, which fulfills multiple functions. Electrochromic glass is increasingly prized for its energy efficiency but, as Gill points out, its tint flexibility allows it to function like a scrim. During the day, although opaque and reflective on the exterior, users inside see the Navy Pier promenade and the harbor beyond; at night, the tinting is removed, the interior is illuminated and it’s the passersby on the Pier who watch the parade inside. “A curtain,” he offers. “it’s the perfect metaphor,” he offers, “for a theater.”
Given these examples, it’s probably not too surprising that many of the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s contributors have arts-related projects to their credit. The Brooklyn-based SO-IL’s Shrem Museum at UC Davis looks wildly innovative in its renderings, but it’s more likely the firm’s subversive sensibilities that won it a place in this year’s expo.
SO-IL made a splashy debut in the 2015 Biennial with its interventions in the late-twentieth-century circulation space on the west side of the Chicago Cultural Center; its contribution this year might lead us to expand, if not redefine, our notion of what “architecture” is. SO-IL, along with artist Ana Prvački, has designed a series of “Enclosures”—wearable suits of air-filtration fabrics stretched on exoskeletal armatures—that musicians will wear during performances September 14-16 at the Garfield Park Conservatory. According to the artists’ statement, “The public is invited to meditate upon the complex notions suggested by the collaboration, such as the relationship between purity and pollution, and the distinctions between self, objects and nature.”
One of the most eagerly anticipated projects at the 2017 Biennial is the Late Entries to the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. Among the sixteen architects from around the world invited to contribute is Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, whose fascinating Culiacán Botanic Garden design also makes us rethink spaces that display art and how people use them. Bilbao has worked on the project for more than ten years, creating both conventional buildings and discrete outdoor rooms for specific large-scale works of art from an impressive array of artists: among them James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Graham, Richard Long, Gabriel Orozco and Teresa Margolles. She wrote that key to making the botanic garden an art center was “breaking the white box. By adding art in such a spontaneous way, with no restrictions, to an open space, it begins to interact with the public on its own.”
In a sense, that’s the mission of both cultural institutions in general and the Biennial itself specifically. As CAB executive director Todd Palmer points out, the theme of the 2017 iteration is to “Make New History.” He offers it as “a public venue to talk about architecture in a speculative manner—without pressure—and without waiting for a contentious moment when all we can do is bring our assumptions, and prejudices to the table.” At the Biennial, he suggests, “we can have conversations about tastes and values and make them have meaning, have fun with them—and create a more informed public.”
In other words, the third place is the Biennial.