Sunday, October 03, 2010

What Happens When You Don't Listen: Art Institute opens up Ando Gallery, lets out the magic

Japanese architect Tadao Ando had never done a museum space, when in 1988 he was enlisted by Art Institute President James Wood to create a gallery for the museum's collection of Japanese screens.  The space Ando created has often been written of as the best room in the museum.

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.


Anonymous said...

that room...with the doors....was a magical place to view japanese art. i remember the focus the whole experience demanded when you were sealed in the room with those beautiful objects. that so many people didnt get the room...didnt respect the silence...was no reason to dumb down the experience. it was in the top ten chicago places i took friends from out of town because the room and its contents were so special. im so disapointed that they did that...what a loss.

Anonymous said...

is there a petition I can sign. I have 2 hiding spaces in this city, one is St. Peter's in the loop, the other was the Ando Gallery. This is heartbreaking

Anonymous said...

Since you didn't mention it, you must have been there during the quiet time. I had to listen to museum guards' radios blaring. In fact, more and more that's all one hears in the museum.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely a very unnerving development. Such a shame...apparently the decision was made without respect or sensitivity to Ando's context and the complete experience it provided.... A pity...

Anonymous said...

Nooooooooooo!!!! Say it aint so. It was always the last stop in the museum, a great place to reflect on everything you saw before returning to the outside world. What a shame. As a previous post states "no reason to dumb down the experience". Way to go A.I.!

Loop hiding place...St. Peter's... I've never walked in...I'll have to check it out.

Anonymous said...

I also miss the very special Joseph Cornell gallery by Kruek and Olsen that the Art Institute destroyed. A pattern here?

Has the trend for homogeneous, flowing space gone too far? I mean the Piano galleries are nice, but they are a bit...relentless. It would be nice if the lighting levels -- or the ceiling heights/section -- or the materials -- or the sound quality -- or the color -- or something/anything at all varied from space to space in the new wing. It's time for a backlash! Let's get some galleries with character, with hierarchy, and with a little variety of experiential qualities.


Anonymous said...

I am devastated to have read this. I haven't been there in years, but that spot was a secret for me that I only shared with those closest to me. The place I envisioned exchanging intimate vows with my soul mate.

Everything good must come to an end, I suppose.

Lethe Erisdottir said...

This space had long been a refuge for me when I was working downtown. I left town for work for a while, and on my first visit back to my special hideout, I felt like my spirit had been crushed. So let me understand this. The AIC feels perfectly comfortable in 'rearranging' masterpieces of art that don't quite fit their own limited ethos. Huh. What's next? Shall we, oh, I don't know, connect the dots in Seurat's 'Grande Jatte'? Maybe tone down that garish green complexion on the woman in Toulouse-Lautrec's 'At the Moulin Rouge'? And that Caillebotte, you know the one - 'Paris Street; Rainy Day' - so gloomy! Let's brighten that baby up with some sunshine!

The AIC should be brought to trial at some sort of international art-crimes tribunal and hung out to dry for altering Ando's spiritual experience of space, a precious work that they felt their ownership gave them the 'right' to alter as if it was just some undesirable bit of interior decorating.