Searching for an Architect

Building Design Global Move

The world-tour search for a new architect: Allen Turner describes the finalists for the building design commission.

One of his restrictions, though, which impacted our architectural issues later on, was we could build something, but only with the current framework of the site. Nothing higher, nothing broader, nothing different. So we got a 2-acre site, but by contract, we're only allowed to build on 1 acre of it. So that's why the museum occupies half the site.

After the site was looked at and secured, they asked me to head the architectural selection committee. So I said, okay, I know how to do that. So our committee was formed with significant donors who were also interested. Kevin Consey. We got some outside people. My friend, Ada Louise Huxtable came on, and we had two other outsiders. And it was great. There were 11 of us and we traveled around the world. First of all, we had people submit. We looked at them. And we narrowed it down to two architects in Asia, two in the United States, and two in Europe. So the 11 of us went on the trip to Asia. And there we first saw extraordinary buildings.

We saw buildings by Fumihiko Maki. They were spectacular and would've looked great in our site, but he built in stainless steel and glass, and we couldn't afford to do that. Then we went to see Tadao Ando. Tadao Ando was a former boxer. Didn't speak much English. His wife, Elizabeth—no, not Elizabeth—but his wife spoke English and translated for him. And we went to look at his buildings.

He would have been my first choice. His buildings were spectacular. They had huge volumes of space, enormously sensitive to the environment as well as the visual aspect of it. But later on as we discussed it, we learned that those buildings could not be built in the United States. Not only would they be hugely expensive because of the volumes of space, but he built in concrete and formed the concrete. And our American workmen could not form the concrete that way. And in addition to that, we were concerned that we couldn't have enough exhibition space if we had to choose volumes of public space. So he did the most beautiful buildings, but in the end, wasn't a good choice for us.

We went to the United States and we saw two architects in the United States. Emilio Ambasz, who had a big building in Texas. And we chose him because he was interested in the environment. He had plants and things surrounding his buildings. We went to see his place in Texas, this big public building. It was really bad. It hadn't been kept up. It was cracking. And so we thought that he would not be good choice.

Then we went to see Thom Mayne in California. Thom did great buildings. And I know Thom now; he's a wonderful person. He won the Pritzker Architectural Prize, and I see him all the time. The probably with Thom Mayne's buildings is they were brutal. Big steel and heavy concrete. And we thought in the end that they wouldn't look right in the park.

So next we went to Europe. We saw two architects in Europe. Christian de Portzamparc, who I knew because he had won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. I knew Christian and his wife, Elizabeth. And he showed us some wonderful buildings, sensitive buildings, which we really enjoyed looking at.

Then finally, we went to Berlin to Josef Kleihues. Well that was an experience. Josef, who I became friendly with over the years, was just a wonderful person. He and his wife, Sigrid, we became friendly. But what was amazing about Josef was a couple of things.

First of all, we went into his studio and he had huge paintings. He had a giant Baselitz "Hero" painting. He had all the things that were so important to the art world at that time. So we knew he knew something about art. And he was friendly with Baselitz and he was friendly with Gerhard Richter. So we knew he had the right sensibility. 

And then we went to see his museum, which he had built not for contemporary art, but for other kinds of objects, but we found it very sensitive to the light and the construction and it was synthetic to us. The other thing about Josef was he loved Mies van der Rohe, and he knew all about Mies. And since we are in a Miesian city, he pointed out for example, that if you looked out from the site where we were, taking into account all the buildings around us, they were all sort of squares, like this. The windows and the construction. And he thought that was very Miesian. He thought maybe he could do something, which was not a copy, but sympathetic to the conditions. Well, there as another thing about Josef as well, in addition to the wonderful lunch he served us in his studio and his charm. By the way, he drove us around at breakneck speed to see all these buildings.

But there was another thing about him as well. His manufacturing techniques were very wonderful and inexpensive compared to some of the others. It wasn't stainless steel. It wasn't a lot of glass. It was a stone and he had a form, which he thought about, which was more square, more rectangular, with not a lot of unusual angles. It wasn't a Frank Gehry building. It was very sympathetic to what Miesian sorts of things. So we liked Josef. So we picked him.

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Video still, Behind the Scenes at an Art Museum. © MCA Chicago.

Behind the Scenes

MCA staff members are interviewed in 1997 about their work. Interviews include Torri Johnson, security officer; Margaret Farr, assistant director of education; Pablo Helguera, coordinator of public programs; Dominic Molon,. . . more
1990s Community Education Staff