After many years of buildings that denied Chicago’s architectural traditions, Berlin-based architect Josef Paul Kleihues has designed the handsome new Museum of Contemporary Art using the past as the foundation for an inspired essay in design.
—Cheryl Kent, architecture critic, Architectural Record
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, designed by architect Josef Paul Kleihues and completed in June 1996, is the first building made specifically for the MCA’s use since the institution’s founding in 1967. With almost seven times the square footage of the museum’s previous facility, the MCA building hosts a variety of programs that make use of its unique architectural features. The plaza has become a living stage for the museum’s public, with rotating installations and a seasonal farmers’ market; while the back terrace offers jazz overlooking the sculpture garden. With these opportunities to encounter art in almost every corner of the edifice, visitors from all over the globe have embraced the MCA as a vibrant and challenging forum for contemporary art and culture.
About the Architect
As one who has long loved Chicago, I feel the commission for the MCA fulfills one of my greatest dreams.
—Josef Paul Kleihues
Josef Paul Kleihues (1933–2004) was born in Westphalia, Germany, and studied architecture in Germany and France. He taught in his native country as well as at New York’s Cooper Union. After Germany’s reunification in 1989, he worked frequently in Berlin as part of the city’s “critical reconstruction,” which advocated following the preexisting scale but with contemporary construction methods and materials, and established a reputation for bringing functionalism to classical proportions in his elegant buildings—as the MCA so graciously exemplifies.
Kleihues’s previous museum projects include the Museum of Prehistory in Frankfurt (1980–86), the Civic Gallery and Lütze Museum in Sindelfingen (1987–90), and the project for the Berlin Museum of Contemporary Art, an adaptive reuse of the old Hamburger Bahnhof train station (1990–96).
About the Building
Simplicity, openness, and serenity, as well as the interplay of transparency and coherence—these are the hallmarks of the MCA design.
—Josef Paul Kleihues
In May 1991, the MCA selected Josef Paul Kleihues to design its new home. It was his first commission in the United States, and a fitting one for an architect who admired the architectural traditions of Chicago, especially architects William Le Baron Jenney, David Adler, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Root, and the firm of Holabird & Roche.
Kleihues designed the MCA’s building with respect not only to its function but also to its unique site and position within Chicago’s architectural history. The MCA is situated in the middle of an elongated corridor of city park land between Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan, where a National Guard Armory once stood. The towering walls of the surrounding buildings represent a cross-section of Chicago’s architectural history, and motivated Kleihues to design a building with classical proportions. Kleihues based the dimensions of the MCA building on the square grid of Chicago’s city plan, and made this grid visible in the facade and floor plans.
Kleihues drew on Chicago’s architectural history for the museum’s construction materials as well. Inspired by the Chicago School of architecture—in particular, Louis Sullivan’s and Dankmar Adler’s use of cast iron and bronze—Kleihues selected a strong, evocative material for the MCA’s facade: aluminum. He combined it with a warm Indiana limestone base, anticipating that both would weather and age gracefully over time. The light-colored, natural Indiana limestone of the base of the MCA building also establishes a relationship to the neighboring, iconic Water Tower and its pumping station.
Arguably the most iconic feature of the MCA’s facade is the main staircase. Teeming in the summertime with locals and visitors alike, the front entrance of the MCA is inspired by the original propylaea—or gateway—of the Acropolis. It also references the Altes Museum in Berlin, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, which has a similar wide stair in the center. To enhance the MCA Plaza’s functionality as an extension of the museum, the entrance also features two plinths on either side of the staircase that are used as bases for sculptures.
Similar to the plinths on the exterior of the museum—which expand the gallery space, declaring to passersby the building’s purpose—the architectural layout of the museum also draws attention to its purpose: for art. Kleihues’s design focuses the majority of the exhibition spaces in the center of the building, the heart of the museum. Kleihues wanted the 45,000-square-feet galleries of the MCA to enrich visitors’ experiences of art instead of competing with the works on view. He also designed the galleries to be flexible: divided by temporary walls, they can be customized for each exhibition.
While the galleries are designed without embellishment, allowing the art to speak for itself, the staircase allowed Kleihues the freedom to design a dramatic ascent to the galleries. Constructed of Black Impala granite, Kleihues intended for the MCA’s interior staircase—lit by fixtures he designed—to guide visitors through the building. The architect echoed the ellipsoid shape of the stairwell, one of the museum’s most photographed features, in the MCA’s elevator button panels and other architectural details.
Kleihues was known for his theory of poetic rationalism, an attempt to enliven the functionalist aesthetic of the modernist glass box with straightforward but elegant architecture. The architect’s design for the MCA adapts this theory to the functions of the building—specifically by providing the space to showcase, educate, learn, and entertain. He provided the space to install both temporary and collection-based exhibitions; a sculpture garden; an 18,000-volume art library; the Mayer Education Center, which incorporates 15,000 square feet of studio-classrooms; additional space suitable for symposia and performances; and a deluxe, state-of-the-art 300-seat theater. Kleihues’s versatile design is not only sensitive to the tradition of modern architecture in Chicago, it also conveys a clarity of structure and a spirit of innovation that successfully accommodates the museum’s evolving mission.