You entered through a pair of standard issue glass doors, and found yourself face-to-face with a forest-like grid of 16 free-standing foot-square dark columns, in four rows, stopping short of the high ceiling. Beyond them, the art is displayed behind a L-shaped wraparound of continuous glass that begins flush with the floor and stops about halfway up the wall. Two spare, backless benches, also designed by Ando, are in the back corner of the room.
The visible focus of the room was the space for the art, the only strong light source in the room. The forest of columns stood in near darkness; the gallery itself had the feel of golden hour just before evening.
That was wonderful in itself, but what was most remarkable was the silence.
The room was not soundproof - you could hear louder noises from outside, but just barely. It was if you were hearing them from beneath the ocean.
Most often, there was silence. A silence that you didn't experience as a negative, the mere absence of a sound. It was a presence, palpable, as if all the aural crud that fills each second of our every waking hour - televisions, iPods, cell phones, Muzak, traffic, sirens, the hum of appliances, mindless chatter - had been gently washed away to reveal a mysterious, embracing essence, waiting for us patiently at the lowest threshold of our hearing.
Now it's gone.
The Art Institute has just opened a major revamp of its Japanese Art Galleries in the museum's Roger L. and Pamela Weston Wing, designed by wHY Architecture and Planning, whose Kulapat Yantrasast is an Ando protege. He created light-filled galleries that added 55% more space. And he removed the doors to the Ando Gallery. "Moving was designed to be free flowing, giving the visitor views of several rooms at once while also providing carefully placed focal points."
free-flowing = homogenization
The architecture of the Ando Gallery remains unchanged, the experience of the space has been eviscerated. With the acoustical seal broken, sound - and light - "flow". They seep in as an alien presence, invading the room, making it a sideshow extension of the generic, bright-white galleries outside. The columns seem more widely spaced, the dimensions of the seating area appear to have expanded. The sensual, almost sacred sense of intimacy has vanished.
Keep the pathways clear, unambiguous. Keep the bodies moving.
The Ando Gallery remains a visually striking work of art. How strange, though, that the caretakers of one the world's great cultural storehouses seem able to work only on the level of the visual; that they should be - or choose to be - deaf and unfeeling to the centrality of our other senses in experiencing spatial art to its deepest, most profound level.