Tucked in Chicago’s historic Lincoln Park neighborhood north of downtown, an unassuming Tadao Ando-designed gallery opened in late 2018 with minimal fanfare.
Af Finn MacLeod
On a tree-lined street of historical Chicago-style apartments and sprawling single-family townhouses sits Wrightwood 659, a retrofitted gallery space dedicated to the exhibition of architecture and socially engaged art. Originally built in 1929, the renovation breathed new life into the four-story apartment block, now a contemporary five-story gallery space anchored by a multi-story atrium. Ando’s renovation of the building can hardly be seen by the untrained eye, gracefully fading into the fabric of the street.
Owned by the Alphawood Foundation — founded by American entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Eychaner, Chairman of Newsweb Corporation —Wrightwood 659 was constructed at an undisclosed cost, and sits just east of a private residence Ando designed for Eychaner years ago. Known to Chicagoans as the Eychaner Lee House, the residence is very difficult to see from the street due to an expansive concrete wall running the length of the property, with access only through one small door. The house has carved out a place as one of Chicago’s favorite pieces of contemporary architecture, having hosted the Obamas, the Clintons, and many more dignitaries.
It comes as no surprise that Eychaner would turn to Ando for Wrightwood 659, simultaneously creating the ideal location from which to look at his home designed by the Pritzker-winning architect. A stunning adaptive reuse, the design for Wrightwood 659 called for the complete hollowing-out of the building’s interior, creating an opportunity for one of Ando’s signature architectural interventions of concrete and glass. Recalling Ando’s adaptive reuse of a former Italian Customs building at Punta della Dogana in Venice, the design for Wrightwood 659 preserves the building’s exterior meticulously. Only at night is the renovation evident, when lights illuminate the building’s striking central staircase and atrium to passersby.
Inside, a new axis is formed against the building’s north-south parti, with a concrete slab and adjoining staircase bisecting the rectilinear space, introducing circulation to the four-story atrium. From all floors, visitors can look outside through the original windows. Brick along the interior is exposed and gracefully lit, elegantly framing the cured polished concrete, stainless steel, and glass details. White cube galleries on each floor offer flexible spaces in which to exhibit work, while long corridors to the western edge offer rare views into Ando’s neighboring house, showcasing a courtyard that lies behind the residence’s fortress-like concrete wall.
On the building’s new fifth floor, Ando’s intervention is particularly unique. Set back from the street so as to avoid disrupting the vernacular of the neighborhood, a glass-enclosed gallery rises above adjacent buildings to provide views in all directions. A generous balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows introduce a new, contemporary language to the adaptive reuse, while Ando’s signature polished concrete extends the building’s raw energy in the penthouse gallery space. In the gallery, a long, skinny skylight slices the ceiling and opens it up to the sky, bringing daylight into a lofted two-story space carved out by Ando to accommodate larger artworks.
In true Ando fashion, the building’s details are what make Wrightwood 659 a sublime architectural experience. Each stair tread, each concrete seam, each meeting of glass and brushed steel is perfectly executed with the level of precision for which Ando is known. Gone are the original floor plates, replaced with solid slabs finished with stone and hardwood; original walls are replaced by crisp white walls that meet the expansive resurfaced brick throughout the atrium. Lighting features can barely be seen, hidden in recesses of brick, concrete, and steel, yet the space remains perfectly illuminated at all hours.
Accommodating more than just exhibitions, the 35,500-square-foot building is also home to educational spaces, with the aim to become a vital part of Chicago’s civic fabric through contributions to the broader creative community.
Wrightwood 659 hosts two exhibitions annually; its first shows included a retrospective on Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando, and an exploration into Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei. In the spring of 2019, the gallery hosted the United States exhibition from the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture.