Chicago's newest architectural jewel: Japan's Tadao Ando turns an old Lincoln Park apartment building into a dazzling ...
Blair KaminContact ReporterChicago Tribune
When Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando was in Chicago on Oct. 10, he took out a blue marker and made sketches of his buildings on the walls of a new exhibition gallery, right next to luminous, black-and-white photos of the structures..
As dazzling as the signed drawings are, they create a conundrum for the galleryâs managers: What to do with them when the show of which they are a part is dismantled?
âCarve out the drywall,â Lisa Cavanaugh, director of the gallery, Wrightwood 659, told me during a tour. âItâs not enough for us to take pictures of it.â
If youâre unfamiliar with Ando, hereâs a short course: He had a brief stint as a boxer before he began his self-education in architecture. Heâs been called the King of Concrete for his silky-smooth, hugely expensive concrete walls. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the fieldâs highest honor, in 1995. He famously named his dog âCorbusierâ after a great 20th-century modernist architect. His minimalist buildings improbably mix spatial drama and profound calm.
And now, his quietly brilliant repurposing of a four-story, 1929-30 structure in the Lincoln Park area, which has turned the former apartment building into exhibition space, is open to the public. The building, at 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., is hosting its first exhibition â" an illuminating show, âTadao Ando and Le Corbusier: Masters of Architecture,â through Dec. 15.
After that, expect saws to be cutting through the aforementioned drywall.
The projectâs cost is not being disclosed, but it gives every sign of being the kind of spare-no-expense undertaking that make the rich different from you and I. The client is Fred Eychaner, the Chicago communications mogul whose reclusive nature has found perfect expression in Andoâs inward-turning buildings.
Not coincidentally, Wrightwood 659 stands next to 665 W. Wrightwood Ave., an unrelentingly private, Ando house for Eychaner that was completed in 1998. Andoâs first American building, it followed an A ndo gallery for Japanese screens at the Art Institute of Chicago that opened in 1992 and became a favored site for meditation after the convulsions of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Amid todayâs polarizing political noise, Wrightwood 659 offers a comparable oasis.
The building greets the visitor with a refurbished facade adorned with arches, festoons and other Beaux-Arts details. But the decorous facade turns out to be a mask. Like a ship in a bottle, the project inserts a new steel and concrete frame inside the brick walls; the frame braces the old walls and turns the original four floors into three. A concrete slab that floats above the original roof shelters a new fourth floor and hints at the buildingâs new identity.
As we learn from the exhibitionâs lucid wall text, Le Corbusier, a Swiss-born French architect who lived from 1887 to 1965, revolted against tradition-inspired Beaux-Arts design, which he deemed elitist and out of touch with modern times and technology. Ando, now 77, fell under Corbusierâs spell even though he never met the master.
He made pilgrimages to Corbusierâs powerfully sculptural, rough-concrete buildings , the most famous of which may be the Roman Catholic chapel in Ronchamp, France. As the chapelâs magically lit, cavelike interior reveals, Corbusier sought to create âineffable space,â which transcended the utilitarian role of function to induce powerful emotions.
Ando gives us that kind of space in Wrightwood 659âs lobby, an unexpected, four-story burst of space thatâs energized by the rhythmic treads and risers of an exposed concrete stair that corkscrews upward. Common brick recycled from the original buildingâs corridor lines the walls, its mottled texture in counterpoint with finely honed stairs. The space is so good that it compels you to set aside the contradiction of a self-professed anti-elitist architect laboring once more in the service of a wealthy man.
Upstairs are clean-lined, contemplative galleries â"âwhite boxes with a twist,â you might call them â" filled with a trove of material about Corbusier and Ando.
The second floor, which includes drawings, photographs and models on loan from the Paris-based Corbusier Foundation and the Art Institute, effectively illustrates Le Corbusierâs formative role in 20th-century architecture. He moved from a 1920s Purist period, whose revolutionary struc tures sported stiltlike columns, ribbon windows and free-flowing interiors, to signature sculptural projects that garnered the nonpejorative name of Brutalism. (It derived not from âbrutal,â as is commonly thought, but from the French beton brut, which means âraw concreteâ.)
Comments from Ando, interspersed in the wall text, demonstrate the masterâs influence. Corbusierâs Villa Savoye, a Purist villa on the outskirts of Paris, âtouched my heart,â Ando writes, because it âfreed the sense of the volume from the shackles of the masonry walls.â Even his blue-marker sketches owe something to Corbusier. The exhibition shows us vivid, colorful sketches the French master made during his lectures. In his own way, Ando has followed suit.
The third and fourth floors, devoted solely to Ando, offer show-stopping material, like a large-scale, theatrically lit model of the architectâs buildings on the hilly Japanese island of Naoshima, and subtle spatial drama. A model of his renowned Church of the Light near Osaka, Japan, a long concrete structure whose end wall is pierced by voids in the shape of a Christian cross, is effectively displayed on a mezzanine beneath a skylight. It reveals the churchâs geometric complexity and its quality of procession, the gradual unfolding of space as a person moves through a building.
Models and drawings of Andoâs major American museums â" the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Clark Art institute in Williamstown, Mass. â" fill the fourth floor. They demonstrate how Ando enlivens his buildings with natural light, water and nature. The pavilions of the Fort Worth museum, supported by Y-shaped columns that have been likened to treetops, appear to float on a pond around the building, evoking floating Japanese lanterns.
A final flourish comes when the visitor exits the softly lit galleries and enters the bright space of a glassy b ut sensitively recessed one-story addition, topped by the previously cited concrete slab. It rewards the visitorâs upward journey with views of the downtown skyline, the dome of the nearby St. Clement Roman Catholic Church and a peek down at the neighboring Ando house.
Many people deserve credit for this new cultural jewel, which had only one problem during my visit: The heating and ventilating system wasnât perfectly tuned, so a sweater was a must.
The Chicago office of Thorton Tomasetti handled the complex structural engineering. The Chicago office of Gensler and Vinci Hamp Architects of Chicago also contributed. Washington University architecture professor Eric Mumford curated the showâs Corbusier section; architectural historian Dan Whittaker, who co-founded Wrightwood 659 with Eychaner, curated the Ando section.
Students from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the School of the Art institute of Chicago made the models of Andoâs American museums.
When I interviewed Ando a dozen years ago during a previous visit to Chicago, he spoke disparagingly of the visually hyperactive, computer-enabled designs that were then in fashion. His prescient view was that these ever-more-outrageous forms would be of little lasting value. His new Chicago endeavor shows the wisdom of his approach â" and how he drew inspiration from Corbusier while ultimatel y forging his own path.
Wrightwood 659 is open Wednesdays through Saturdays. Admission is limited and by online reservation only. Walk-ups will not be admitted. Free tickets will be released on a weekly basis during each exhibition. Visitors may also purchase $20 tickets in advance to attend at a future date and time of their choosing. Go to www.wrightwood659.org for times and details.
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.