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Difficult Navigation: Analysis of Modern Wing’s Layout

From “Best of Chicago Art Magazine”, Dec. 2009

Feature by Susheela Bhat
Illustration by Melissa Wright

Sweeping in with the fresh spring air, the Art Institute of Chicago’s new building, The Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano, opened to the public earlier this year. With its two-story Griffin Court flanked by two three-story pavilions, the Modern Wing is breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and absolutely bewildering to navigate.

“Maybe they intended it, but there is no flow between the old building and the new building,” said David Jameson, owner of the ArchiTech Gallery, 730 N. Franklin St. “It’s kind of a maze getting around the Modern Wing.”

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Whether you walk in from the main building, or from the Modern Wing’s Millennium Park entrance, you are first greeted by Griffin Court, a brightly lit, long white corridor with high ceilings and light wood floors. At first glance the cathedral ceilings, enormous hall and brightness inspire the same reverent feeling you get when you walk into a church. You get over that fairly quickly though, as you wonder where to go.

At first glance

Folded discreetly into the sides of Griffin Court are a few gallery spaces on the first floor. If you are careful not to blink, you can even find the bathroom tucked away modestly next to the Museum-side entrance (1), in a somewhat dark, red narrow hallway. That rabbit-hole, incidentally, does not lead to Wonderland, but the new Alsdorf Galleries in the old building (2).

According to Chai Lee, spokesman for AIC, Piano (the architect) believes in a clear division between public spaces and art spaces, which is why Griffin Court lacks any kind of artwork, and the galleries are filed away on the sides of the court.

Artistic vision aside, the real fun begins when you get to the second and third floors.

If you have depth-perception problems, you might want to avoid the stairs(3); the steps have almost no contrast and they are quite shallow. There is an elevator (4) nearby, though. Once you get to the second floor, there are galleries and a coffee shop. If you wanted to go to the old building from the second floor you would need to go through the coffee shop, through an exhibit, and down another rabbit hole of a hallway(5) before emerging into the old building. (No, unfortunately, still not Wonderland.)

But let’s say you wanted to fully explore the Modern Wing, and after looking around the coffee shop on the second floor, you decided to try the new Renzo Piano Restaurant on the third floor instead. You won’t be able to get to it from the second floor galleries; or the third floor galleries either; the only way to get to the third floor restaurant is to go back down to the first floor(6).

“It’s very convoluted to have to go down to go up…you have to go down to the first floor to get to the third floor [on the other side], and getting to the second floor [of the Modern Wing] from the old building by going through a coffee shop is confusing,” said Jameson.

Part of the problem is the size of AIC. “You couldn’t see the entire museum in one day, unless you had roller skates,” said Stanley Wood, a volunteer at AIC. To help guide the visitors, there are paper(7) and interactive touch-screen maps(8) available, signs on the walls (that blend nicely into the walls) and volunteers like Stanley Wood (they are easier to spot).

Neverending stairs

Along with the size of the museum, Wood, who has volunteered with AIC for seven years, says the Modern Wing is just plain confusing, and the maps do not always help, because they are complex. While AIC encourages its volunteers to be proactive about approaching visitors, they tend to stay on the first floor; chances are you will not find one of their helpful faces when you are trying to get to the third floor restaurant from the third floor gallery.

“I don’t believe these are insurmountable or unfixable problems,” said David Jameson, “Building a structure like this is not just artistically motivated, it’s also political. Given all of the agendas they had to achieve I think they did the best they could.”

That’s fine, but when you need to find a bathroom, hopefully you’re not in the Modern Wing.