AIC Ryan Learning Center

Wheeler Kearns Architects completed the AIC Ryan Learning Center with open spaces for exploration in Chicago, Illinois.

Art, learning, and community are at the heart of the newly renovated Ryan Learning Center (RLC) where children, teens, adults, and educators drop-in for free educational experiences, resources, and creative activities.

Located within the iconic Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Center and its programming have continued to grow and adapt throughout its ten-year history—creating the need for some modifications to the original design. Ongoing concerns included confusion over the entry, ambiguity about how to navigate the space, and uncertainty for new visitors of what exactly takes place, and whether it was ok to come in.

The primary goals of the renovation were to better communicate RLC’s offerings to Museum visitors and to be a welcoming, accessible, and creative space for all. The design employs a few simple, strategic alterations that address the Museum’s goals for the space while thoughtfully engaging with the architecturally significant structure.

The design team first addressed how to better welcome visitors into the RLC. Situated behind the main check-in desk for the museum, two sets of glass doors on opposing sides open into to the space. Formerly, these two entrances led directly into long, double-loaded corridors and visitors were not able to intuit the offerings of the RLC. The design team worked with the Museum to open a new space–the David Vitale Art Exchange–into which visitors are immediately greeted. Now, visitors enter into a room instead of a corridor. Administrative space was relocated, and glass partitions were carefully removed to make space for a welcoming and active creative hub.

In the Art Exchange, learners of all ages, from early childhood to adults, can take part in creative activities. New furniture-like millwork volumes are inserted to indicate different zones within the larger space—the scale shifting from toy storage and nooks for sitting and playing, into a library section where adult learners can read and utilize reference materials. Colorful flooring patterns and furniture also help define program areas for sitting, gathering, and creating, and a special place for the Journeymakers—a tool helping visitors map out their personalized museum experience. The Art Exchange is a place where many different user groups can cohabitate and use the space simultaneously, and the zoning of the space through millwork, flooring and furniture was hugely important to the success of the project.

The millwork interventions extend from the Art Exchange into the adjacent teen room and art studio. Painted a soft blue, the millwork unifies the various spaces and complements the existing material palette. It is designed on the structural module of the Modern Wing but incorporates subtle curves that indicate movement and soften the space.

Another focus of the RLC redesign was an increase in accessibility. Technical improvements include door and hardware modifications, sink access in studios, restroom modifications and the addition of a single user gender neutral restroom. The new floor in the Art Exchange features an improved color palette for those with sensory sensitivity, and acoustic improvements improve the usability of the space for an expanded user group. Redesigned wayfinding and graphics are integrated into the design and complete the visibility improvements.

Through simple modifications, participation and interaction with the RLC and its mission is heightened. Museum-goers, students, families, and educators now have a place to land and launch from in the Art Exchange. An accessible, inviting place to see, touch, and experience all that the educational wing has to offer. A light touch, heavy impact.

Design: Wheeler Kearns Architects
Photography: Hall + Merrick + McCaugherty Photographers