by Meghna MehtaNov 30, 2020
Since 2018, Chicago’s affluent residential neighborhood of Lincoln Park has been home to Wrightwood 659, a private gallery for exhibitions on architecture and socially engaged art straightforwardly named after its street address at 659 West Wrightwood Avenue. Designed by Pritzker Prize winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the new structure is hidden within the shell of the former 1930 building. The four-story, 38-unit apartment building was entirely excavated to preserve only its neo-American Federal style front façade and perimeter walls.
The gallery, run as a Kunsthalle by Chicago-based grant-making Alphawood Foundation, was commissioned by its owner - an entrepreneur and philanthropist - Fred Eychaner, who lives in his house next door also designed by Ando and built in 1997. The house was the first freestanding structure by Ando in the United States. The two buildings couldn’t be more different. Rather than merely reflecting one architect’s signature style they pay tributes to the times in which they were created. The house, built during the decade, which obsessively celebrated unique identities of leading international architects, turns its public face – a blank concrete front that could be mistaken for a loading dock – on lovely historicist townhouses and apartment buildings all around to focus on self-referential inner world of the architect. In striking contrast to that, the new structure is almost entirely hidden behind the existing historical façade and what awaits behind it is the kind of architecture that’s no longer pure; it is multi-referential, which is a clear nod towards our increasing respect for context and infatuation with preserving ruins.
From the outside, Ando’s intervention reveals itself only at the very top where the architect added a minimalist, see-through penthouse structure. The building’s main façade acts as a mask, which is freed from all floors and clad uninterruptedly without marking former floor divisions in so-called Chicago Common brick of beautiful amber colour on the interior side. The new building within a building of Ando’s trademark exposed concrete is pushed back to form a soaring three-story atrium where gorgeous brick wall is celebrated as the key dramatic feature. This atrium space, the absolute gem of the new gallery, is reminiscent of Ando’s 2009 restoration of Punta della Dogana art museum in Venice. But if in Venice the architect kept original 17th century red bricks in place, in Chicago the bricks were carefully removed not only from various parts of the building but even from other structures demolished in the area, and then reassembled into abstracted, beautifully textured plane to commemorate the original building in a non-literal way. The bricks with deeply recessed mortar and lit indirectly add a sense of solidity and depth. The solution evokes much celebrated 2008 Ningbo Museum by Chinese architect Wang Shu whose mountain-like building is clad on the outside in bricks and tiles collected in the region.
The new interior is built as a composite structure of steel frame reinforced with both structural and non-bearing poured-in-place smooth-finish architectural concrete. The space comprises non-public partial basement; administrative offices on the ground floor; second and third floor white-walled galleries, which are connected by a concrete feature stair cantilevered from a freestanding fin wall; and finally, the top fourth floor, which is reached through the back stair. The top floor offers an enclosed gallery, flexible event space, outdoor terrace, and long narrow gallery along a glazed wall offering expansive views over Chicago skyline, surrounding low-rise neighbourhood, and Ando’s original house, wrapped around organically shaped reflecting pool, right below.
Admirable quality of concrete was achieved through producing multiple mockups for every critical component that was personally reviewed and approved by Ando. As a result, many independent experts agree that the building represents the highest quality of concrete ever achieved in America and is comparable to the finest examples built in Japan, where building industry craftsmanship, particularly when it comes to handling architectural concrete, has reached a cult-like status.
The gallery’s inaugural show was on the work of Ando and Le Corbusier, who remains to be the Japanese architect’s most revered professional idol. In 2019, the gallery held two separate exhibitions devoted solely to Ando’s works. Other shows featured the work of such artists as Ai Weiwei and Tetsuya Ishida. And from this month until early May the gallery presents a much-anticipated exhibition The Allure of Matter that brings together works by Chinese contemporary artists from the past four decades. Later in the year, from September to December, the gallery will present Balkrishna Doshi : Architecture for the People, organised in partnership with Vitra Design Museum. It will be the first and only U.S. retrospective of the Indian-born, 2018 Pritzker Prize laureate.