I finally visited the new Renzo Piano-designed wing of the Art Institute, and I loved it. I was surprised to have such a strong reaction, but that's part of why it felt wonderful.
The primary impression I retain is of light: filtering through glass ceilings, screens, shades and elevators, saturating the walls and floors, overlapping planes defining space with rectangles and squares (the right angles are just grand). I love that the energy of the project--or so it seems--appears to have been spent on answering the most important questions. The design of the building feels intelligent, demonstrably serving function first. Sun piercing hotly through skylights isn't right, nor are dark corners; this building seems to avoid both. It feels like it is turned inside out from a regular building. Not in a Pomp-i-doo way--it's just missing the usual pitfalls that plague exhibition spaces. I love the layers of glass and screens. In order to achieve a focused, but extremely complicated goal--gathering light, dispersing it as evenly as possible, keeping the space not too hot or cool--it husbands its resources and gets the job done, without a lot of sops to architectural ego or plumage. I don't mean that in a howardrourke-y way--more that it feels honest. The visibly complicated bits feel like they are in the right place. All that harvested north light is just delicious and it is (again) very very different from the aggressive sunlight you might get through so much glass. It is managed.
I have been trying hard to remember, but I do not think that I have been back to the Art Institute since I worked there, which means nine years. That hardly seems possible, but I think it is so. Being there again, seeing art with which I forgot I had such a strong everyday relationship, was a rather overwhelming experience, and a happy one too. Being able to visit the Von Gogh bedroom or Ando screen room or Beckmann nude when the mood struck was a great perq.