Cityscape: Merchandising Modern Art | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cityscape: Merchandising Modern Art 

The new building design declares the MCA's embrace of mainstream values--flag, MOMA-hood, and apple pie.

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Talk, talk, talk: Berlin architect Josef Paul Kleihues, whose design for the new Museum of Contemporary Art was unveiled March 19, describes his building as a "dialogue between transparency and containment."

MCA flacks see the new building as "a clear opportunity to make a much larger contribution to the international dialogue about contemporary art."

The MCA committee that selected Kleihues praises "buildings which establish an eloquent dialogue with their surroundings."

Allen Turner, chairman of the MCA board of directors, says he looks forward to "the challenge of creating a meaningful dialogue about contemporary culture in the next century."

Which statements may be translated respectively as follows: (1) the building has windows and walls; (2) this should make them shut up about Al Capone; (3) we can't afford to piss off Burt Natarus; and (4) we need to draw 350,000 people a year even if we have to put up a painting of Richie Daley in diapers to do it.

The process of building a new home for Chicago's other art museum will give the rest of us a chance to engage in a dialogue too, about the exigencies of the museum biz in the 1990s. What kind of architecture is the best setting for art? Who is this guy Kleihues and why was he chosen to build the new museum? How will the building fit into the city? And perhaps most interesting, what does the building say about the place of art in a consumerist culture, and about the place of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago?

Chicago has built some fine new museum spaces in recent years. The Art Institute's galleries of European art reopened in 1987 after a much-praised restoration by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Then there's the Daniel and Ada Rice Building by Thomas Beeby, which forms the new south wing of the Art Institute. In other words the city's flagship museum has set a high standard, and Chicagoans from Lake Shore Drive to Clark Street have been eager to see if the new MCA would meet it.

Kleihues is known as a museum architect. And the site is choice: a block east of Michigan Avenue in Streeterville, where the decrepit Illinois National Guard Armory now stands: bounded by Chicago Avenue and Pearson, by Seneca Park and the old Pumping Station on the west, and on the east by Lake Shore Park.

The Kleihues scheme calls for a combined museum and sculpture garden, each occupying half the site. The building is essentially a box roughly 72 feet high and nearly 200 feet on a side. At the rear (or east end) of the building will stand a one-level parking garage, and on top of that, 16 feet above the street, will be installed the sculpture garden, measuring 198 by 198 feet. The east end of the building will house a cafe and a "special events space" that overlook the new garden, the existing city park, and Lake Michigan.

The building's insistent rectangularity is relieved on its main or west facade (facing toward Michigan Avenue), which will be pushed back to create matched towers flanking a monumental stairway, some 80 feet wide, rising in two stages to a height of 16 feet. Those steps will carry visitors to a 56-foot-tall glassed wall that shelters main-floor and upper-story lobbies overlooking Seneca Park and, beyond it, Michigan Avenue at the Water Tower. (Two additional entrances will be sliced from the corners of this facade at street level.)

Whatever drama the building offers will be in its views, not in its shapes. No other downtown building site has an unobstructed view connecting a major thoroughfare with the lake: the public spaces within the new MCA will provide a platform from which visitors will be able to see the Water Tower to the west and the lake to the east via an open space piercing the building horizontally from front to back. This opening will be intersected by a vertical shaft--an atrium--connecting the galleries and lobbies.

The ground floor will include an auditorium and classrooms, gift shops, and so on. Floors two and three are reserved mainly for galleries. The museum's permanent collection will be displayed on the third floor, whose more than 23,000 square feet will be lighted by barrel-vaulted skylights. The floor below--two temporary exhibit spaces totaling 16,000 square feet--will feature not only movable walls but ceilings that can be adjusted from 16 to 22 feet in height.

All the elements--the towers, galleries, skylights, entrances--are symmetrically disposed. Everywhere there is order, balance, proportion, discipline. As a box to put art in, it will be a vast improvement over MCA's present facility, providing nearly four times as much floor space and lots of off-street parking for visitors. It will be flexible, secure, intelligent, and 100 percent accessible under the latest federal handicapped regulations--a building manager's dream.

The only thing about the building that might distinguish it from an Oak Brook insurance-company headquarters is the material in which it's to be clad. The 16-foot-high base will be covered in yellow Indiana limestone of the sort used in the nearby Water Tower and Pumping Station. Kleihues chose this stone partly for its historical associations and partly because he finds the texture and color appealing. The rest of the building will be clad in large panels of cast aluminum, which is more variable in hue and rougher in texture than the more familiar polished aluminum.

No other building in Chicago combines these materials, so it's hard to say whether a cast-aluminum box is an improvement over a glass box. On the surface cast aluminum seems an adroit choice. Applied to a larger or more aggressive structure it would seem brutal, but on this one it should be just ugly enough to certify that the building is contemporary but not ugly enough to alarm the neighbors.

Will it work as a place to put art? In general the relationship between artists and architects has been touchy since art began to be put in buildings instead of on them. That relationship is especially vexing in the case of museums that show new art. Exhibits of 19th-century art are easy: simply imitate the salons in which the art was intended to be hung. Contemporary art--some of which cannot be hung at all, and some of which depends on its context for meaning--is tougher.

Artist Donald Judd, speaking at a 1989 workshop held by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation in California, insisted that a museum should serve art the way a train station serves trains. At the same workshop architect Peter Eisenman argued that if the definition of a good museum is neutral space, then a good museum cannot also be a good building, since a good building will not be neutral--indeed will compete with, subvert, even destroy the art that appears in it.

Artists who, like Judd, believe that for the art to shine the architecture should be self-effacing will probably like the new MCA building. Kleihues--himself a noted collector of modern art--has said that it is important "not to create any kind of environment in that space of the museum where art is displayed." The flexibility of the temporary exhibition spaces precludes personality, but nevertheless Kleihues sought to make them "not neutral," because that "makes for a boring room." It's a fine line to tread--sufficiently interesting to prepare the visitor for the experience of the art but not so interesting as to detract from it. We can't tell from the preliminary drawings how the new galleries will feel, but they seem likely if anything to flatter the art.

Kleihues also insists that the MCA's sculpture garden be designed to have a shape and sense of its own, because "a neutral garden does not allow for any dialogue" with the sculpture sitting in it. Plans for the garden are too vague to indicate what kind of space it will be; until we learn more we can amuse ourselves by imagining the conversations we might overhear there.

Sculpture to shrub: "I've seen better pruning jobs on NEA grantees."

Shrub to sculpture: "Your mother was an Imagist!"

Way fun.

A committee of 11 museum officials and architecture experts culled from a list of 209 firms a final list of 6: 2 were Japanese, 2 were American (from New York and California), and 2 were European. One of those was Kleihues.

Certain local guardians of Chicago's architectural reputation took issue with either the MCA's selection process or its result. Inland Architect editor Richard Solomon complained that the finalists' geographic origins figured as prominently on the museum's agenda as their design skills--an effort, he said, to "position the MCA . . . within the international architectural community." This priority, Solomon argued, led the committee to discriminate against Chicago firms. (Solomon's suggestion that Chicago institutions have a patriotic duty to hire Chicago architects was generally dismissed; as noted author Robert C. Twombly said in a letter, "What silliness!") Stanley Tigerman, one of the Chicago architects who did not make the MCA's final list, sniped in Inland Architect at the unnamed "less-than-cutting-edge European architect" chosen for the project.

But the risk in using cutting-edge architects is that people can get hurt. More than a couple of museums built in the last decade in the United States and Europe by excitingly dangerous architects have turned out to be striking buildings and lousy places to display art--or in some cases even to store it.

The choice of Kleihues did come as something of a surprise, since he was not among the more celebrated of the finalists. His work is firmly within a mainly European style that historian Charles Jencks has called postmodern classical. (Kleihues calls himself a poetic Rationalist--aren't we all?) His buildings feature contextual elements with modernist quotes, patient detailing, juxtaposition of luxurious and industrial materials, and symmetry of form.

But perhaps more pertinent to his being selected was the fact that Kleihues had praised the pragmatism of the Chicago School. Poetry can redeem the merely pragmatic, of course--Kleihues dismisses what he calls "naive belief in function" as a basis for design. But pragmatism doesn't need to be dull--it can itself reach the level of poetry. Most of the world's buildings that work also manage in some way to be beautiful.

Common mistakes made by museum boards are trusting architects foolishly, giving them no program for the design of a new building, or fearing them and allowing them to ignore the program they were given. The MCA made no such mistakes. The board presented Kleihues with what MCA director Kevin Consey called a "steak-thick" program. That the MCA insisted on a straight commission for its building rather than a design competition or "design-build" arrangement confirms that they wanted maximum control over the design.

Kleihues does not lack the architect's essential vanity, to be sure. He once asserted during an interview with the museum staff that, in effect, a good building is one that realizes the character of the architect. However, his vanity is expressed through a modesty that is assertive, even arrogant. In a 1989 interview Kleihues opposed his style to what he called "an alienated ecstasy of work that is exhausted in a "rage of originality"' (the phrase is Nietzsche's). He confessed he did not understand why so many architects saw museum projects as an opportunity for the unlimited exercise of ingenuity. "I know the ecstasy of creativity quite well," Kleihues said, "but I also know its dangers."

MCA director Consey praises the "formal geometric rigor" of Kleihues's design. The MCA building is essentially an accumulation of cubes roughly 26 to 28 feet on a side, tidily stacked atop the limestone base. Explains Kleihues: "As an ordering principle the grid touches upon such complex issues as the Greek culture of number and scale; geometry as the possible catalyst in the relationship between reason and history; modular order as the emblematic category of reason and its prerequisite for freedom."

Trying to impress the client, right? I mean, the significance of a system of cubes that are 28 feet on a side is that it enables one to compose a building of cubes that are 28 feet on a side, right? In fact Kleihues is a man of integrity who means every word he says, but his buildings speak more clearly than his words about his architectural ethic.

I had the sense that the press were a little disappointed they weren't shown a more eccentric structure. Think of the fun had the MCA dared to plop another Centre Pompidou into Streeterville. If the aim of the modernist is to "express" the building's structure, the Centre Pompidou (a Paris museum that opened in 1977) screamed it by turning the building inside out. Artists denounced the Centre Pompidou as the architects' failed attempt to create a work of art rather than architecture, but it's proved popular with the public, even if some of them go there only to ride the escalators to the roof for the views. (Kleihues was unlucky in that the ideal new Museum of Contemporary Art has already been built, in the form of Chicago's Centre Thompson, the Helmut Jahn-designed State of Illinois Center.)

After all, the MCA's stated aim is not just to house art but to help create it. More than once the museum has shown that it is not averse to its building becoming part of the art: in 1969, when Christo wrapped it, and in 1978 when Gordon Matta-Clark sawed through the walls and floors of the annex gallery on Ontario as part of an "exstallation" (the work was preliminary to a planned remodeling).

Ah, but at 25 the museum is a little old for such pranks. And a case can be made against a museum designed to be a work of art itself. Art Institute director James Wood once expressed his preference for a building that "is there for you to use, rather than for you to try to climb your way through." Of course the savvy museum director does not want visitors to feel as if they're about to apply for a bank loan as they approach his building, but neither does he wish them to feel they're going to embark on a carnival ride--if only because that would violate the mood of what Hugh Kenner once derided as museums' "didactic strenuousness."

The new building should have little trouble attracting crowds. The west-facing entrance steps in particular are a great feature: they'll provide the vantage point for viewing what urbanologist William H. Whyte called "the theatre of the street." Preliminary sketches suggest that the stairs will have a fairly gentle rise (two feet of advance for every one foot of rise) and that each step will be between six and seven inches high--within the "good steps" specifications identified by Whyte and others from their studies of such models as the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact it's a shame that such a set of steps doesn't sit directly on Michigan Avenue. Tribune critic Blair Kamin predicts that the steps will "beckon harried pedestrians to stop [and] sit"--but that would require them to walk nearly 700 feet out of their way. Of course the up side of the steps not being right on Michigan Avenue is that they won't be right on Michigan Avenue--sojourners will be spared the vehicular fumes that give this elegant boulevard the ineffable essence of Mannheim Road.

Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, and great urban steps attract not just sitters but food vendors, street performers, and the occasional protester. The present plans call for the steps to descend to an ordinary city sidewalk, though there has been talk about the city closing off the street that separates the west facade from Seneca Park and turning it into a granite-paved plaza.

Because a lively street seems to be the last thing the new museum's neighbors want. The surrounding urban canyon consists of such condo high rises as Water Tower Place, a posh hotel, and the Northwestern University hospitals. In 1975 performance artist Chris Burden lay under a sheet of glass for 45 hours at MCA's Ontario Street building; the only thing that will be under glass at the new site is the pheasant at the Ritz-Carlton next door.

This is a neighborhood that likes things quiet, thank you, and thus seems an unpromising site for a temple to the provocative. Streeterville's tone is maintained in no small part by the vigilance of Alderman Burt Natarus. In his zeal to serve, Natarus has become the dreaded foe of newsstand owners and street musicians--indeed of anyone trying to make a living in his ward who's noisier and less comely than a potted geranium. (When the MCA gave Natarus a special private preview of their proposed new building, a week before the press saw it, they did not do so because they wanted his opinion on how much the design departs from the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s.) So we are likely to see nothing like the antic street-fair atmosphere that prevails in front of the Centre Pompidou, for example, and not just because Streeterville is not zoned for mimes.

The word used by MCA board chairman Allen Turner to describe the building's hoped-for relation to the neighborhood is "sympathetic." But "circumspect" might say it better. By opening only toward the avenue and the lake, the new building politely offers its quiet side to the neighbors. (This is social and political rather than architectural contextualism.) The MCA has taken pains to point out that the building will be a less intrusive presence than the armory that stands there now.

But the building's impact will vary according to the vantage point from which it's seen. The tourist will encounter the building from street level on its western side, for example, but many of its neighbors will look at it from above. People who pay a mill for a condo don't want a view of air-conditioner compressors. So Kleihues was instructed to treat the roof as a fifth facade. This extraordinary courtesy to the neighbors required him to conceal cooling towers and other mechanical bric-a-brac inside the building, so that the roof would form an uncluttered plane interrupted only by the sculptural forms of the skylights.

Dog walkers and newspaper buyers and Lake Shore Park users who see the building from the sidewalks on its north, south, and east sides are no more likely to be impressed by it than was the architecture critic who complained about the similarly undifferentiated street walls Kleihues specified for an early-history museum in Frankfurt. The plainness of the MCA building's blank stone facades may be exaggerated in model form, of course; the walls will be set back a few feet from the sidewalks and there are plans to adorn them with vines.

Still, some residents complained after the unveiling that the design failed to meet the terms established by the state when it agreed to lease the armory site to the MCA. Among other things, the MCA promised (at the insistence of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents) that the new structure would not occupy more than approximately half the site, so as not to cheat the neighborhood of air and light. But a parking garage, even one with a garden on top, is still a structure, as a former SOAR president and condo-association director reportedly explained in a letter to Governor Edgar.

MCA officials insist that the sculpture garden must be isolated from the mean streets of Streeterville for security reasons; in addition, lowering the garden to street level would require putting the off-street parking somewhere else, at painfully great expense. Besides, they point out, the overall building bulk at the site will actually be reduced by the new complex, since the armory now looms 20 feet higher above the sidewalk on the eastern half of the lot than the MCA's proposed garage will.

Alderman Natarus told the Tribune that the dispute "has to be worked out somehow"--meaning the residents are gonna lose this one.

If the Art Institute was originally a place where the few could go to see a Rembrandt, today it's a place where the many can go to see what a Rembrandt is. The MCA performs a similar function, the difference being that much of its new audience will not have heard of contemporary art's Rembrandts; so the new building lavishly provides for classrooms, lecture halls, and libraries.

A bigger building will require a bigger staff (half again as large as the present staff); a facility that makes expanded programs possible also makes them necessary. Paying for them means moving a lot of people through the turnstiles; in its opening year MCA attendance is projected at 500,000. Eventually it's expected to settle down to a steady annual rate of 350,000--still two and a half times the present attendance of 140,000 or so.

Chicago's latest flowering of culture will be watered by the floods of tourists that course up and down Michigan Avenue. MCA's front door will stand a block away from the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city: a survey in the summer of 1989 tallied up more than 31,000 people passing by Michigan and Chicago over a ten-hour period, and Saturday traffic was somewhat higher.

To entice those people into the building will require that the MCA be more diverting to passersby than the stores that beckon up and down Michigan Avenue. This the new building will be admirably equipped to do, resembling as it does the better class of retail store. (Of the three Chicago buildings Kleihues praised in an interview for their "thoroughly pragmatic components of ordered building," two were department stores.) Although the new museum will sit a block off the avenue, the board and its architect have made sure that the building won't be overlooked. The 80-by-56-foot glass wall on the west facade will be lit at night, acting as a beacon to travelers on Michigan Avenue. The museum will be spared the expense of a neon sign. Even better, passersby on Michigan Avenue will be able to see the "building's spaces animated by visitors and museum activities." If that marketing device sounds familiar, it's because you saw it the last time you walked past a Crate & Barrel.

Galleries may retail art, but museums retail Art. Art critic Robert Hughes (perhaps the only contributor to Time magazine who can honestly be called a distinguished writer) once noted that newness has come to be promoted in the art world as a value in itself. In the United States, Hughes writes, "avant-gardism embrace[s] a . . . businesslike model of novelty and diversity, the fast obsolescence of products." By certifying art as important a museum also dooms it as passe; and thus is the appetite for newness--and "the conquest of new markets"--kept alive.

The problem is that selling art as an experience to a mass public is not the same as making it accessible. Certainly tourists will flock to the new museum, but in the same spirit that draws them, fascinated, to the headhunter displays at the Field Museum. Its very cultural incomprehensibility makes it awfully entertaining but not engaging at deeper levels.

One way contemporary art reaches the yokels is by shocking them--that may be the only way of communicating with an audience whose cultural frame of reference stretches from Channel 2 to Channel 66. Of course some people go to a museum expecting to be shocked--indeed, go in order to be shocked--while others are still shocked to be shocked. But shock is always rhetoric of a very low order, unfortunately, and explains the air of adolescent rant that pervades contemporary art.

The interesting question is whether, in selling contemporary art, the new MCA can avoid selling out. For decades the avant-garde has nurtured the idea of the artist as subversive--at least subversive of artistic complacency and fuddy-duddyism. Contemporary art museums tried to abet that image, or at least offered a stage for the playing of the role. When the Museum of Contemporary Art was founded, it was dedicated to the presentation of what it called "the most provocative" of the new art movements.

What's happening in Chicago happened much earlier in New York. In the 1930s informed elites with money founded the Museum of Modern Art to showcase the kind of radical new work that had begun appearing at the start of the century. By the time the MCA was founded, in 1967, modern art had become the mainstream, and Chicago art patrons seeking some domain outside the Art Institute's influence looked to the then-contemporary scene.

But in 1992 contemporary art is itself nearly half a century old. Virtually everything that's being done today, up to and including performance art and electronic art, is at least 20 years old. Art strikes new attitudes, but it makes its points in the same old ways. Stephen Luecking, a sculptor who teaches at DePaul University, offers an example: Dada was followed by pop art, which was a sort of neo-Dada. Today we're getting neo-pop, which could be called neo-neo-Dada. The first defined the style, the second interpreted it. The third exhausts it. Twenty-five years after the MCA opened, contemporary art has lost much of its alienating quality, and the MCA is regarded as merely a hip Art Institute.

The fact is, the local museum scene has gotten a bit confused. The Art Institute is reaching forward in time, opening 20th-century galleries and announcing the donations of important collections of Dadaist and surrealistic art. Renoir has been joined in the poster catalog by Rothko, and one of the Art Institute's recent blockbuster shows was an Andy Warhol retrospective. Meanwhile the MCA is looking backward: its current show is a retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg's work from the early 1950s.

But in any era the best new art has been set against the values that Michigan Avenue represents, and that are embodied in the new building. These days the notion of the subversive artist rather flatters artist and institution alike. (The fact that the MCA's honorary fund-raising committee chairs are Richie and Maggie Daley is subversive only of its reputation.) Though Kevin Consey has said that the Art Institute will remain a history book while the MCA will be the Chicago art world's daily newspaper, once it opens it's more likely to play Bloomie's to the Art Institute's Marshall Field's. The risk is that the only dialogue the new MCA will stimulate between contemporary culture and contemporary art will be contained in the question "How much?"

The new building design declares MCA's embrace of mainstream values--MOMA-hood, the flag, and apple pie. As one local artist put it, "Now it's a museum museum." Chicago needs a MOMA, and the MCA will be a good one. The problem is that Chicago also needs an MMCA--a Museum of More Contemporary Art, supported by this generation's social outcasts eager to have their cultural say and operating out of a factory on the west side, a place where artists, curators, and patrons could genuinely engage in chairman Turner's "meaningful dialogue about contemporary culture" every time they set foot outside the building.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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