A top priority of my recent stay was to visit The Modern Wing at The Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Avenue). The work of renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, this new pavilion-like structure is topped with a “carpet” of 2,000 aluminum blades that direct light into the galleries. Inside, elements of the design — especially the elegant floating staircase — contribute to a feeling of weightlessness. While the purpose of the 264,000-square-foot building is to provide a home for more than 1,000 works of art, it stands as a work of art on its own.
The chief collections here are of modern art, photography and architecture. The breadth and depth of the holdings are impressive, and you could easily spend a good part of the day here without exploring the rest of the Institute. But I could not resist the opportunity to visit one of my favorite paintings, Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
The Shedd Aquarium (1200 S. Lake Shore Drive) has several fine exhibits that include “Amazon Rising,” which examines the environmental havoc wrought by rising water levels in the Amazon Basin. The central hall is home to a reproduction of a Caribbean coral reef, which, in a circular 90,000-gallon tank, features a mesmerizing cavalcade of reef fish, turtles, rays and sharks.
The most impressive part of the Shedd is the Abbott Oceanarium, which comprises tanks holding 3 million gallons of saltwater. Built in 1999, it is home to Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions, sea otters and white beluga whales. A complete renovation in 2009 gave it up-to-date animal care facilities and improved underwater viewing. A children’s learning center has been added, and the food service options have been greatly improved. Its backdrop is a sweeping 475-foot glass-panel wall facing Lake Michigan.
En route to the Art Institute, I have often walked past the lovely Beaux Arts building housing the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington Street), which was originally built to serve as the city’s library. This time, I made the felicitous decision to take a look inside. It is a feast of turn-of-the-century decorative arts, and features an array of fine marble, rare hardwoods, glass mosaics, mother-of-pearl inlays and cast iron.
The centerpiece is the breathtaking Tiffany Dome in the Preston Bradley Hall. Believed to be the largest project Louis Comfort Tiffany ever undertook, the dome is 38 feet in diameter and is made up of 30,000 pieces of handcrafted faceted colored glass. The overall design features a central rosette with a surrounding band that displays the signs of the zodiac. It alone would make a visit worthwhile.
I also enjoyed an extensive exhibit covering the career and work of the great Prairie School architect Louis Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of the modern skyscraper. This included drawings, photographs and poignant letters to his follower Frank Lloyd Wright asking for money. In addition to exhibitions, the Cultural Center stages concerts, theater performances and more. It will certainly feature on future Chicago itineraries.
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