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Chicago Shining

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-Chief

Model shots of Piano’s $278 million addition to the Chicago Art Institute (top and above.)

Mimes from Redmoon Theater perform during the festivities at the museum’s groundbreaking.

Renzo Piano discusses his new designs.
All photography © Robert Ivy.

The lakefront glistened and gleamed. Volleyball games studded the beaches. Michigan Avenue swelled with turistas-whole families packing in to buy, buy, buy, or simply stroll the clean streets. Rollerbladers whisked by tottering oldsters, as Chicago took in the air, the week they gave out the Pritzker in the award's own hometown.

The city manages a sort of cohesive positivism-a distinctly American characteristic-unthinkable in New York. That optimistic willingness found expression in the past two days, orchestrated to show the architectural capital city off to advantage. It all began with a literal bang.

That sound came from a cannonade of confetti, announcing the groundbreaking for the long-anticipated addition to the Chicago Art Institute. The iconic Beaux Arts treasury of pointillism, which cloisters around greening courtyards, had commissioned Renzo Piano to design significant new component in its northeast quadrant, a $278 million light-filled structure surmounted by a light-as-a-feather brise-soleil the architect likens to a "flying carpet."

With two-thirds of the funds committed, the board signaled that it was time to raise the curtain. It should prove to be a great place to view art, while downstairs, out of sight, subterranean storage will protect the valuables. A knife-like bridge, added to the plan, will connect the museum with Millenium Park across the street, offering a chaste counterpoint to the Frank Gehry bridge already in place.

The city launched the addition with fanfare, including a medley of lyrical African songs by the locally famed Chicago Children's Choir, by a troupe of mimes from Redmoon Theater, who paraded, banners aloft, and by Daniel Burnham himself, recreated by an actor, who read from his works. The Mayor spoke; museum board chairman John Bryan spoke; Director John Cuno spoke; the city glistened and gleamed. We repaired upstairs to view Piano's beautiful drawings and models in an exhibition entitled, "Zero Gravity."

Following lunch, the Institute sponsored a lively symposium in the Harris Theater, in which Charlie Rose tried to get Piano, Frank Gehry, and Ada Louise Huxtable to take the bait. They refused, but provided their own show on their own terms. Huxtable, always intellectually stimulating and true to her thoughts, kept the conversation on track. Gehry got the biggest laugh. His story in a nutshell follows, fairly accurately:

When speaking in Rome, he was confronted by a young man who chastised him for his lack of contextual sensitivity in Bilbao. Gehry politely asked if he had been to Bilbao? "No," he replied. "…then Shut Up!" You can catch the full interchange on a forthcoming Charlie Rose show.

As evening settled in, guests poured into the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the centerpiece of Chicago's phenomenally successful Millennium Park. Daylight, shifting toward yellow, painted the tops of Chicago's Michigan Avenue palisade of tall buildings, each distinct, each a story and a personality in its own right. Tuxedo-clad invitees mixed with the public in the amphitheater for the presentation ceremony, an unusually appropriate move by the Prize, given the civic location of the ceremony.

Tom Pritzker personalized the award, anchoring this prestigious international encomium firmly within his family's commitment to architecture, much as his family has maintained a stewardship of resources for Chicago through gifts like the pavilion. Lord Palumbo, the new jury chair, spoke eloquently and without note one, and Thom Mayne, the man of the hour, spoke passionately about his own beliefs on the profession all had gathered to acknowledge. He was visibly moved by the proceedings, this self-styled "young" architect of 61 years.

Tout Chicago, including social, commercial, political, and architectural types turned out for the dinner that followed-a teeming star-fest held on the tented terrace above the Pritzker Pavilion. Appropriately lubricated, the Miyake and Armani-clad glitterati sauntered home into the blue evening, while Chicago, and architecture, rang up one shining day.