A few years ago, when the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown converted the Santa Fe Depot’s old baggage-claim area, it did what museums all over the country have been doing in recent years, from remote, high-desert Marfa, Texas, to malingering old New England mill towns: it created hangar-sized space for new, gargantuan art. To this chilly exhibition venue (now called the Jacobs Building), the Contemporary fastened a trim extension (the Copley Building) to house an auditorium and offices. The Jacobs’ accommodations complement its pre-established, more compact sister building across the street at 1001 Kettner. The Red Line Trolley that ropes around both facilities creates a kind of circuitry and gives them a tenuous coherence. But then, MCASD’s mother-ship displays its wares far off in La Jolla.
When the Museum of Photographic Arts expanded in the late 1990s — it moved to Balboa Park in 1983, after being a consortium of photographers and supporters that organized ad hoc exhibitions around town — it remained discreetly tucked inside the Casa de Balboa. Too discreetly, maybe: the quality of its exhibitions should be vacuuming up park visitors, but the recessive site doesn’t help. It certainly has a lot to offer. While you pony up the entrance fee you’re already facing compelling imagery on the atrium wall, undistracted by the museum store off to one side. (MoPA was brave to gently shove aside the museum-as-tchotchke-boutique concept.) The exhibition galleries are sized and partitioned to let curators install tightly argumentative exhibitions, each discrete area a half-opened surprise gift. And yet MoPA doesn’t feel like a major venue because it isn’t freestanding.
Balboa Park comes closer than most places to being an available, centralized culture-cluster folded into mixed-use recreational space. For better or worse, though, its grandiose architectural homogeneity, the zoo, and the stadium-ish Aerospace Museum all create a vaguely theme-park ambience. On my trips from San Francisco to San Diego to cover the art beat, I’ve sometimes wondered how the city might design and situate a complex — this is zany fantasy, I know, but bear with me — that constellated its art facilities in one location (where else but harborside?) and streamed them into a mixed-use recreational space that made no concessions to theme park-ness. Recent visits to Chicago make me think that a working model for such a massive public project, anywhere really, would be the Millennium Park/Art Institute combo in the Loop. I’ve lived in Chicago and go often enough to have watched this visually harmonic entity take shape. First came Millennium Park, which opened in 2004. One block north, the Art Institute recently opened its new American Wing. The Park faces Michigan Avenue and hums with activity day and night. You’d never know it used to be a dreary mess of commuter rail lines, parking lots, and the dodgy, druggy waste of Grant Park. When Chicago reclaimed what many call the city’s “front yard,” it was really refashioning its identity. If you plan a (post-winter) visit, it’s the best place to start.
Millennium Park’s salient forms announce its ambitions. The Music Pavilion’s band shell, designed by Frank Gehry, wings out cowls of brushed stainless steel that look like sails catching the lakefront’s unforgiving wind. Trellised bars leap from these billowing sheets and crisscross an oval fixed-seating area and lawn that can accommodate 11,000 listeners. Programming covers everything from Bach to funk to gamelan and jazz, so crowds come from all corners of Chicago’s boisterous social mix. (And a dense mix it is: the city’s 60618 zip code contains the most ethnically and racially diverse population in America.) The Music Pavilion spreads out behind a colossal stainless-steel sculpture, a pinched, pumped-up ellipsoid that the artist, Anish Kapoor, titled Cloud Gate but which elbows-on-the-bar Chicagoans immediately dubbed “the Bean.” The curved surface of this trendy but classy bit of postmodernism reflects, as in a convex mirror, several blocks of Michigan Avenue’s classic lineup of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture lidded by the big prairie sky. Come late fall, an ice-skating rink throws off a fluorescent radiance, and it’s a primal pleasure to watch young people do what they’ve always done at skating rinks: glide (or chop and stagger) hand in hand. When the weather warms and the rink closes, kids stomp around a wading pool (sufficient to splash in but impossible to drown in) bookended by Jaume Plensa’s fanciful humane answer to the Bean’s austerity: two 50-foot-high slabs of glass blocks behind which LED screens project changing photographs of faces of 1000 Chicago citizens. Every few minutes, a face’s pursed lips jet water onto the heads of delirious kids.
I visited just a few months ago, again amazed that a city could get a public space so right and curious to see how the Art Institute’s Modern Wing was integrated (or not) into Millennium Park’s finely braided design and rhythms. Its architect, Renzo Piano — you can sample his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Broad Pavilion — wanted the building to stream out of Chicago’s extraordinary architectural past and its topography. After the Great Fire of 1871, much of the town was rebuilt with innovative steel-framed structures supporting wide expanses of glass. We think of Chicago as muscular and beefy, but it’s also a city of supple lightness. It has a topographical order that pleases both eye and spirit. Piano reminds us that the city’s layout matches true compass points: “When you look north, north is exactly what you see.” True enough. When I eyeball the grand north-south axis of Michigan Avenue, whether streetwise or on the Bean, I feel somehow balanced and reassured by the orientation. Piano’s idiom is composed mostly of very narrow columns with glass draperies. His squared-off, ascetic structure sets itself apart from Gehry’s and Kapoor’s plumped forms, but he integrated his design with theirs via a “flying carpet,” a floating truss-supported roof (assembled from 2656 curved blades) that peels up above the double curtain of glass that faces the park, as if prized up by the wind. Inside, the north-facing galleries, with their broad theatrical views of Millennium Park, create some strange effects. In one room, for instance, Giacometti’s spindly figures look bounded by infinite space, but that made it even harder for me to forget that Giacometti’s studio, where these things were made, was about as large as the Modern Wing’s men’s room and that Giacometti’s own rest room was an outdoor Turkish toilet. But that’s just me.