Johnston Marklee Breathes New Life Into Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art

The MCA approached Johnston Marklee to create a strategic masterplan after the firm’s MCA installation for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

MCA Chicago Renovation
Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili created The Sorceress’ Mirror for the restaurant, inspired by Trinidadian mythology. Courtesy Kendall McCaugherty – Hall+Merrick Photographers/MCA Chicago

“About as inviting as a chancellery.” That’s how Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Blair Kamin flatly summed up Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) when it opened in the summer of 1996. The building, two bookend-like volumes designed by the late German architect Josef Paul Kleihues, is to many a stern presence just off the city’s Magnificent Mile. Kleihues called it “poetic rationalism.” Kamin called it a “$46 million blown opportunity.”

But for Los Angeles–based firm Johnston Marklee, this rigidity was rife with potential. In a 2015 installation for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial called Grid is A Grid is A Grid is a Grid is a Grid, the architects installed a gridded, dropped ceiling into the museum’s double-height cafe space, referencing the building’s inherent symmetries while creating a more intimate space within its harsh geometries.

The exercise was a success: The MCA approached the team to create a strategic masterplan for the institution and—as a first step—revamp some of its interiors, the first such renovation in more than two decades. In particular, the museum sought to create more engaging public spaces. “The museum was doing more and more research to think about the future of the museum–how they could better serve their public and also facilitate exchange with the artists,” explains firm co-founder Sharon Johnston.

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The biggest challenge, according to the architects (who, coincidentally, were later named curators of the 2017 Biennial), was to respect the existing Kleihues building. “At the outset, we wanted to look at the building with love,” says partner Mark Lee. “There’s a certain rigidity, but there’s also some poetry to it.”

In their $16 million renovation, Johnston and Lee tease out this lyricism.  The pair, with surgical precision, converted 12,000 square feet of existing space into three new realms within the museum: a ground-floor restaurant, a flexible commons space, and a third-floor education center.

MCA Chicago Renovation
The Commons features a colorful installation of light fixtures and planters by Pedro&Juana. Courtesy Kendall McCaugherty – Hall+Merrick Photographers/MCA Chicago

The primary interventions occur in the back of the museum, on its East side. Here, their Grid is a Grid installation actually came into play: where the suspended “ceiling” hung, the architects inserted a new floor slab to make room for a third-floor education center. Though they had to sacrifice the original double-height space, “in a way, it makes the central atrium much more dramatic,” says Lee.

Below this level, formerly occupied by the museum’s Wolfgang Puck restaurant, they created the so-called “Commons,” a flexible exhibition and social space that opens onto the back terrace. The Mexico City–based firm Pedro&Juana, also a 2015 Biennial participant, was commissioned to festoon the ceiling with festive, lantern-like fixtures and hanging planters.

Another goal of the renovation, say the architects, was to create connections between the second and lower floors. Referencing the MCA’s elegant, leaf-shaped stair, they inserted a gently curving stair that softly flairs as one descends.  

MCA Chicago Renovation
The architects connected the ground and second floors with a new, gently-curved stair, a riff on Kleihues’s original. Courtesy Kendall McCaugherty – Hall+Merrick Photographers/MCA Chicago

At the bottom of this stair, visitors encounter Marisol, the MCA’s new restaurant helmed by local chef Jason Hammel. Johnston Marklee, in reference to barrel vaulted ceilings in the museum’s fourth-floor galleries, created a series of elegant vaults throughout, a move that makes the space feel hallowed without being precious.

The material palette within is spare, yet sophisticated: birch plywood, gleaming black counters, muted ceramic tiles. “It partly goes back to honoring the palette of Kleihues,” explains Johnston, “but we wanted to create something more contemporary, and with more life.” The museum’s director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, tapped artist Chris Ofili to create a specially-commissioned artwork for the restaurant’s wall, a swirl of figures from Trinidadian mythology, with charging horses and vibrant hues that evoke the work of Marc Chagall. Johnston and Lee translated these jewel tones onto the restaurant seating—goldenrods, amethysts, and sapphire blues. Like Hammel’s menu—roasted sea bass, malfade with sweet pepper, sunflower tart—the dining space is a careful exercise in balance, from start to finish. 

Johnston Marklee’s interventions were unveiled to the public earlier this month, in time for the institution’s 50th anniversary and for the sophomore run of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. The addition—the first step in what could potentially be a larger renovation effort—is quiet, yet essential. “In many ways, it’s almost like we’re playing a chess game with Kleihues,” says Lee. “He did this, and now we’re doing this, but it’s part of the same game.”

MCA Chicago Renovation
Chris Ofili’s vibrant artwork, visible in the back, extends throughout the restaurant. Courtesy Kendall McCaugherty – Hall+Merrick Photographers/MCA Chicago


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