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 participated in Berlin’s “critical reconstruction,” which advocated following the preexisting scale but with contemporary construction methods and materials. Kleihues 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).
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As one who has long loved Chicago, I feel the commission for the MCA fulfills one of my greatest dreams.
In May 1991, the MCA selected Josef Paul Kleihues to design our new home. It was Kleihues's first commission in the United States, and a fitting one for someone 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 our building with respect not only to its function but also to its unique site and position within Chicago’s architectural history. The museum is situated in the middle of an elongated corridor of city park land between Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan, the former location of a National Guard Armory. 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 on the square grid of Chicago’s city plan, and made this grid visible in the facade and floor plans.
Kleihues also drew on Chicago’s architectural history for the museum’s construction materials. 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 our 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.
The most iconic feature of our facade is the main staircase. Teeming in the summertime with locals and visitors alike, the front entrance 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 function as an extension of the museum, the entrance 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: the display of 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 museum 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 offered 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 building'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. His design for the MCA adapts this theory to the building's functions to showcase and preserve art, and to educate and entertain our audiences. He provided space to install both temporary and collection-based exhibitions; a deluxe, state-of-the-art 300-seat theater; space for studio-classrooms, symposia, and performances; an 18,000-volume art library; and a vibrant sculpture garden. Kleihues’s versatile design pays tribute to the tradition of modern architecture in Chicago and conveys a clarity of structure and a spirit of innovation that successfully accommodates the museum’s evolving mission.
Simplicity, openness, and serenity, as well as the interplay of transparency and coherence—these are the hallmarks of the MCA design.