Of course the main attraction at the Art Institute of Chicago would be the world-class collection of art, but this major Chicago museum is also an interesting place to enjoy architecture as well. In addition to the buildings that comprise it, they also display collections of architectural relics from Chicago buildings.
Primarily two contrasting buildings - old and new - comprise the Art Institute of Chicago. The historic building, in the classical style and faced with limestone, is what you see from Michigan Avenue, with its iconic lions of course. The museum was built for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, for which architect Daniel Burnham proposed this neo-classical style. It seems like a no-brainer that museums have columns, pediments, and ancient-style reliefs, but it was a distinct stylistic choice by Burnham. It was looking to the Beaux Arts style of architecture, named after the Parisian school, and the art world in the late 1800s had all eyes upon France.
The shape of the building is quite unique, and confusing from inside. Is there anywhere else in the world that an art museum bridges over train tracks? As a child and teen wandering the Art Institute, I never understood how the train tracks rumbled below the peace of a gallery in the Art Institute. When you cross over the bridge that spans the train tracks, you eventually will end up in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, designed by Italian "starchitect" Renzo Piano.
Opened in 2010, the modern wing shows off Renzo Piano's love of light, with a sunshade canopy that adjusts according to the natural light outside. Its minimalist structure of glass and white steel, mixed with the limestone that references the historic building, try not to distract from the color-saturated experience of art.
From the grand staircase in the historic part of the Art Institute, you can climb up one level of the grand staircase to the collection of architectural artifacts. This exhibit shows off the best of lost Chicago buildings, from railing designs and swirling organic Louis Sullivan designs of elevator cages to molded concrete ornamentation from Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Other architecture exhibits may be found in the Modern Wing, where they usually incorporate media beyond photography and blue prints. It can be fun to see the imaginative plans, models and materials that architects devise when allowed to run wild with their imagination, with no budgetary limits or restrictions by patrons.
Another historic architectural relic often goes unnoticed because of its unusual location on the first floor of the museum - the Chicago Stock Exchange Room. Though incredibly beautiful and made with expensive materials, the Louis Sullivan-designed Stock Exchange of 1893 was demolished in 1972. It had long been archaic with all the changes in communications technologies and the overall growth of the exchange. The Art Institute took the details from the inside and placed them in a room with the same dimensions, giving us the special opportunity to enter into the ghost of a building long past.
The Tadao Lando gallery is a special treat in the Art Institute. Known by many Art Institute staff as the "make-out room," this dimly lit gallery of simple Japanese pottery feels like a secret hiding place. Because it has glass doors and it's so dimly lit, people often miss it because they may just think it's off-limits. To find the gallery, from the main lobby of the Art Institute, enter and pass the grand staircase, go through the doors and immediately go right. Good luck - and bring a friend! Enjoy exploring architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago.