Seeking to capitalize on Millennium Park's soaring popularity, the Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday will unveil the final design for its soon-to-be-built new wing, including a superlong footbridge that would shoot like a glistening knife over the park's south end and deposit thousands of parkgoers on the building's rooftop.
The stainless steel span, still in conceptual stages but already endorsed by Mayor Richard Daley, is a dramatic new element of the $258 million expansion, which is expected to open in spring 2009 and will provide a concentrated showcase for the museum's scattered collection of modern and contemporary art.
Known as the north wing, the sparkling temple of steel, glass and limestone will be built at the southwest corner of Monroe and Columbus Drives, on a blighted, sunken site that contains the historic but vacant Goodman Theatre. It will be the Art Institute's largest structure since its familiar Beaux-Arts edifice along Michigan Avenue rose in 1893 atop rubble from the Great Chicago Fire.
"What we really have here is a new museum. It's a museum of 20th Century art. It will look like Chicago has this temple of modern art that the world didn't know we have," said John Bryan, the chairman of the museum's board and its chief fundraiser. He still needs to raise more than $100 million for the project, which was delayed by the economic downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Workers will begin erecting construction barriers on Wednesday, and the old Goodman Theatre building will be demolished in the fall, said James Cuno, the museum's president.
Museum officials view the proposed bridge, designed by the expansion's celebrated architect, Renzo Piano of Italy, as a way to lure crowds from neighboring Millennium Park, which will mark its first anniversary on July 16. According to a study done for the City of Chicago, the 24.5-acre park is expected to draw 3 million visitors this year.
"The whole impetus to break ground now and to develop this bridge was the palpable success of Millennium Park," Cuno said.
Straight as a knife when seen from above, with an estimated length of 800 to 900 feet, the gently sloping bridge is sure to invite comparisons with Millennium Park's other destination span, the snaking, 960-foot-long BP Bridge by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry. That bridge is as much a place as a passageway, inviting parkgoers to stop and take in views of the park, Lake Michigan and the skyline.
"It's like a lazy river moving around," Piano said by telephone from his office in Genoa, Italy. "In some ways, this is my response to that one."
A winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, his field's highest honor, Piano has a credit list of finished museums that includes the high-tech Pompidou Center in Paris (for which he was co-designer), the serene Menil Collection in Houston and the graceful Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. His recent success at garnering U.S. museum commissions has spawned a backlash, with critics complaining that he represents a default "safe choice" for risk-averse museum directors.
Yet his bold bridge plan is anything but timid, marking the biggest change in the Art Institute's expansion blueprint, which was first made public in the spring before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The subsequent economic downtown slowed fundraising, forcing the museum to postpone a groundbreaking originally envisioned for early 2003. In addition, the expansion's overall size has shrunk to 264,000 square feet from a planned 290,000.
Still, the north wing will increase the museum's gallery space by roughly one third--adding 65,000 square feet of display space--and the wing retains enough heft to qualify as a stand-alone museum. When completed, it will be more than 100,000 square feet larger than Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. The budget will be princely, nearly $1,000 a square foot.
And while other museums have been forced to cancel or suspend ambitious expansions--last week, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. put on hold its plans for a flashy, $110 million Gehry-designed addition--the Art Institute has cobbled together enough support from its inner circle of donors to get the privately funded north wing off the ground.
The museum has gifts and pledges of $170 million for the wing. However, it still must raise another $115 million from foundations, corporations and the public to meet its overall $285 million goal, which includes funds for an endowment and to pay for the bridge. Museum officials estimate that the span will cost either the same or less than Gehry's bridge, which cost $14.5 million. And the museum continues to troll for a lead gift of at least $50 million. Whoever gives that much gets their name on the building.
"We'll start at $50 [million]," Cuno joked. "We'll take $75 [million]."
The timing of the museum's fundraising campaign is hardly coincidental. Civic pride should be running high Tuesday night when the billionaire Pritzker family awards this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize at Millennium Park's Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion.
The ceremony and the park's approaching first anniversary will enable Bryan, the fundraising wizard behind the $475 million urban pleasure ground, to make the case that Chicagoans should open their wallets to support the city's next grand project--which happens to be right next door.
"It's the most important civic building built in Chicago in the last 100 years," said Bryan, his sales pitch already honed.
Piano's final plan, which will be introduced at a news conference at the museum Tuesday, retains key elements from 2001 as well as significant refinements.
Steel and shade
The signature design element remains the architect's "flying carpet" canopy, a sprawling sunshade that will float atop thin steel columns and overhang the building. As fleshed out by Piano, the sunshade will consist of scores of curving aluminum blades that are supposed to screen out direct sunlight and deliver softly diffused natural light to the north wing's third-floor galleries.
The sunshade and an energy-saving, double-layered glass wall facing Millennium Park should contrast sharply with the north wing's massive limestone walls, which evoke the museum's earlier buildings.
All the modern elements will fortify Piano's chief aesthetic theme--a highly transparent, "light" building that seems to defy gravity and opens to nature.
In that spirit, a light-infused, north-south "main street" will take visitors from the new building's Monroe Drive entrance to the Rice Building along Jackson Boulevard, which houses the museum's main temporary exhibition space.
To the east will be a three-story pavilion for galleries and museum education. To the west will be another three-story pavilion, its rooftop lined with a sculpture garden, winter garden and glassed-in dining facility with skyline and lake views.
The bridge leading to these attractions, which departs from Piano's earlier plan for a much shorter span, would begin deep in the park, a full city block north of Monroe.
Siphoning crowds from the nearby Cloud Gate sculpture and the Pritzker Pavilion, the narrow span would rise above what is now a fenced-in service yard for the park's Lurie Garden before crossing Monroe, more than 20 feet above the street.
Its gradual slope would permit people in wheelchairs to use it. Glass walls would emphasize the bridge's lightness and transparency, a feature not likely to be lost on lakefront advocates who want open views of Lake Michigan. The bridge's path already has been adjusted to mollify Millennium Park officials.
Millennium Park project design director Ed Uhlir said the Art Institute and Piano heeded his request to move the bridge slightly to the west so it would not disturb the western edge of the Lurie Garden.
"I support the idea for the bridge," Uhlir said.
Once people cross Monroe and reach the museum's rooftop's attractions, they could take an escalator or elevator to the north wing's first floor, where they could buy a ticket to enter the museum, head back to the park or go elsewhere.
"If there are 3 million people a year [in Millennium Park]," Cuno said, "let's say 20 percent of them cross that bridge. That's 600,000 people coming over to the Art Institute side. If half of them descend and go into the museum, that's 300,000 people."
When the north wing opens, he expects museum attendance, now about 1.3 million annually, to jump to 1.8 million or more.
Museum officials have not yet shown the bridge proposal to advocacy groups such as Friends of the Parks. In a news release issued by the museum, Daley praised the design as a "21st Century connection between the Art Institute and the city."
A spokeswoman for the city's Department of Planning and Development said the bridge will need an amendment to the planned development legislation for the expansion that the City Council approved. That would require assent from the city's Plan Commission and the council, as well as public hearings.