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Exploring Chicago's New Style

A view from the Art Institute of 
Chicago’s new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano, overlooking Millennium 
Park and the Frank Gehry amphitheater.

Photo: Jonny Valiant

Hyde Park itself is a leafy neighborhood roughly 20 minutes south of the city center by bus and is the political base for a small-time community organizer who appeared seemingly out of nowhere to jolt American history. I had asked to be shown the Obama residence and there it was, a modest brick structure, conspicuously less opulent than many around it, including the fortified compound inhabited by Louis Farrakhan. From the curb I could make out the Obama roofline, a porch, and the president’s basketball backboard. Of greater interest, perhaps, is the house’s location across from the historic Kam synagogue and some modest garden apartments, and about equal distance from the brain trust of the University of Chicago and the South Side projects that for decades served as reminders of the sharply demarcated separation between Chicago white and black.

We took in Italian Fiesta Pizzeria, the Obamas’ favorite take-out joint, and also the president’s barber shop (where his chair has now been cordoned off as a kind of shrine). Then I bid Jacobson what would turn out to be a temporary farewell. I had a date to preview the Renzo Piano addition to the Art Institute, a wing that would open in a week to a chorus of critical raves.

Even without the critics’ endorsement, it seemed immediately clear that the building marks a new phase in the history of the city, a departure from the weighty forms it is known for in favor of something serenely and confidently civilized. The new wing adds 264,000 square feet and gives breathing room to existing collections—of Impressionist paintings to rival those of any museum outside the Louvre; of architecture, in a department with 170,000 individual objects; of contemporary art—so fine they struck me as inadequately renowned.

It is not just that the Art Institute addition is transparent and airy, that it solves a challenging architectural program with grace. It is not even that it incorporates an element of whimsy in the form of a bridge vaulting the rail-bed tracks on which the 130-year-old museum stands, and connecting it to Millennium Park. This structure acts as a threshold from an older era to a new one. Like Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate—the convex sculpture created by Anish Kapoor over what, until five years ago, had been a derelict train yard—it reflects a city in the process of being reinvented.

Instead of mirroring its own status back to a nascent class of white industrial barons, as the Classical brick and granite behemoths along Michigan Avenue did, the Piano building invites the general population to feel included in the cultural composition. Where the monuments of Chicago’s past can sometimes be burdened with arriviste anxieties, it has the brio to be light.

This occurred to me as I was racing from the museum to meet a boat tour of the city’s architectural marvels. An outing of that kind might ordinarily follow voluntary root canal on a must-do list, yet every visitor to Chicago should immediately take this ride, which compresses so much American architectural and social history into two hours that it is like taking a cruise through a highly informative Wikipedia entry.

“Look, look at that beautiful Art Deco façade,” the tour guide said as we passed the former Chicago Main Post Office. His spiel sounded oddly familiar, and so I moved nearer to the bow from my seat at the stern for a closer look. Sure enough, the guy behind the tinted Prada glasses was Marshall Jacobson, my Chicago Zelig.

“You have to love a city that can come up with a building like that,” he remarked into the mike clipped to his nylon windbreaker. And he was right. You do.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

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