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Designed by architect Josef Paul Kleihues and completed in June 1996, the MCA’s cast aluminum and limestone facade stands out against the surrounding glass towers Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago


As one who has long loved Chicago, I feel the commission for the MCA fulfills one of my greatest dreams.

—Josef Paul Kleihues

The architect

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).

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, we selected Josef Paul Kleihues to design our new home. It was his 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 functionality 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: 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 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; the Mayer Education Center, which incorporates 15,000 square feet of studio-classrooms; additional space suitable for 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.

Named spaces


Efroymson and Hamid Family Sculpture Plinth

First floor

Arthur and Helen Baer Foundation Learning Lab
Dick and Helen Lenon Classroom
Edlis Neeson Theater
Marjorie I. Mitchell Museum Store (MCA Store, first floor)
Kanter Family Foundation Meeting Center, a gift in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Burton W. Kanter (Kanter Center)
Lance L. Knox and Mary E. Lambert Classroom
Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Education Center
Sculpture Garden

Second floor

Anne and John Kern Terrace Garden
Bergman Family Gallery, Lindy and Edwin A. Bergman
Bernard A. Mitchell and Marjorie I. Mitchell Family Foundation Museum Store (MCA Store, second floor) ComEd Lakefront Café
Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Family Lobby
Marjorie Blum Kovler Atrium, a gift in her memory, the Blum Kovler Foundation
McCormick Tribune Orientation Gallery
Stefan T. Edlis and H. Gael Neeson Lakefront Café
Suzanne Hammerman Barancik Visitor Gallery, a gift in her memory
Sylvia Neil and Daniel Fischel Galleries

Third floor

Alyce DeCosta Dining Room
Dr. Paul and Dorie Sternberg Family Gallery
Ed and Jackie Rabin Gallery
Marianne Deson Herstein Lounge in honor of Samuel and Sarah Deson
Marjorie and Louis B. Susman Lounge
Ruttenberg Family Conference Room

Fourth floor

Griffin Galleries of Contemporary Art
Albert and Anita Robin Family Gallery
Carol and Douglas Cohen Gallery
Edith and Edward Anixter Gallery
Frances and Thomas H. Dittmer Gallery
Harris Gallery, Bette and Neison Harris, Caryn and King Harris, Kathy Harris
Helyn D. Goldenberg Gallery
Hortense G. Singer and Joseph L. Stone Family Gallery
Joan and Irving Harris Gallery
Marion and Jerome H. Stone Gallery
Marshall M. Holleb and Doris B. Holleb Gallery
Pritzker Family Gallery
Ruth Horwich Lake Gallery
Stone Family Gallery, Ellen Stone Belic and Dr. Nenad Belic, Cynthia and Richard Raskin, Carole David Stone and James H. Stone
Turner Gallery Lynn and Allen Turner, Jennifer Turner Gordon and M. Scott Gordon, Christopher M. R. Turner and Melanie Liss

Fifth floor

Donna and Howard Stone Conference Area
Gerald S. Elliott Conference Room


Margie and Louis N. Cohen Reading Area
Artist Book Archives are supported by Marcia and Irving Stenn

Featured image

View of the MCA's ovular spiral staircase, from the first floor looking up
An impressive, if dizzying, view of the MCA stairs Photo: Steven Hall © Hedrich Blessing