The Renzo Piano–designed museum has a clunky exterior, but when visitors step inside, much is forgiven.
by Paul Goldberger
When the Whitney Museum commissioned Michael Graves to design an expansion of its celebrated Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue in 1981, nobody thought it would be the beginning of a 34-year struggle by the museum to build itself something new. But that is exactly how long it has taken for the Whitney to fight over several versions of Graves’s monumental postmodern building; toss Graves aside in favor of Rem Koolhaas; give up on Koolhaas; hire Renzo Piano; then, after accepting Piano’s plan to expand the Breuer building, change its mind and commission him to design an entirely new museum downtown; and, finally, to construct the thing.
No surprise, then, that the brand-new Whitney, which opens May 1, hard by the southern terminus of the High Line at Gansevoort Street, is one of New York’s most eagerly awaited new buildings. It marks the culmination of more than three decades of planning and false starts. It sits at what has to be New York’s chicest site, in its hottest neighborhood. And it has been designed by one of the most admired, not to say most prolific, museum architects in the world.
So if any building in New York is in everyone’s sights, it’s this one. Actually, it’s been in everyone’s line of sight for a long time. Construction began in May 2011, and its prominent location makes the building visible not only from the High Line but also from the West Side Highway, which it adjoins, and from plenty of other locations in the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea. The new Whitney is eight stories high—a pile of white metal panels, steel, concrete, and glass totaling more than 200,000 square feet—and you can’t miss it.
The building looks industrial but more clunky than romantic. Even in an age that is willing and eager to ascribe beauty to industrial buildings—a tendency we learned in part, it should be said, by looking at Charles Sheeler and other artists whose work hangs on the Whitney’s walls—the exterior of the new Whitney poses a challenge. It is many things, but conventionally beautiful it is not. I don’t know that it is so unconventionally beautiful, either. From the outside, the building, which cost $422 million to construct, seems like an awkward hybrid: part glass box, part big metal beast, with neither the gracefully crafted heaviness of an old industrial building nor the crisp, pristine lightness of a new commercial one. For my money there’s still more lyricism in the great mass of brick and ribbon windows of the 84-year-old Starrett-Lehigh Building, up the West Side Highway at 26th Street.
But do I like this Whitney? I like it a lot, for two reasons. First, the interior, about which more in a moment, is fun to be in—visually active, strongly architectural, and excellent for the display of art. Second, Piano brilliantly comments on the old Whitney, never copying a single element from Breuer’s building but always evoking it, subtly, inventively, and powerfully. When you go into the new Whitney, you see all kinds of allusions to Breuer’s iconic building in the elevators, the staircases, and the ceiling grid in the galleries. But you never sense that Piano was trying to imitate the old building, or even to make you consciously aware of it. It feels like a private homage from one architect to another, acknowledging the fact that the older building was beloved and deserves to be remembered, even as the institution moves on. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken an eight-year lease on the Whitney’s former home; its first exhibition there will open next March.)
Back in 1966, when the Breuer building opened, nobody much liked the exterior either, but I’m not inclined to make much of that point, since I’m not sure that time will ever make us admire Piano’s big whale as much as we have come to love Breuer’s upside-down concrete ziggurat. Yes, Piano designed the somewhat awkward shape for the neighborhood in the sense that it takes brilliant advantage of the views both of the Hudson River on the west and of the rest of the city on the south, east, and north. But it’s always better on the inside looking out than from the outside, where the Whitney’s hulking form seems inert next to the canted slab of Polshek Partners’ Standard Hotel, its most notable neighbor.
Most of Piano’s museums are light, or try to create an air of lightness: think of his great Menil Collection in Houston, or the Beyeler Foundation near Basel or even the Morgan Library in New York and the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago: light buildings that feel even lighter than they are. The Whitney, by contrast, feels heavier than it is. Even though it’s white, somehow it feels dark, especially as you approach it from the north.
But—I’ll say it again—go inside and much will be forgiven. Even the north façade, which makes the place look forbidding when you first see it from uptown, becomes easier to understand when you see Piano’s clear purpose, which was to create a vertical stack of services—curators’ offices, conservation facilities, administrative spaces, library, print study center, education rooms, and so forth—along the north side, stacked so that the staff will always be close to the galleries, which connect on every level.
The galleries offer the best balance I’ve ever seen between the primary mission of allowing you to focus on the art and the secondary purpose of engaging with the city. There are views both toward the Hudson and, even more enticing, toward the city, and a series of sculpture terraces built off from the upper levels of the east side of the building, with spectacular views of the High Line and the Empire State Building. Seeing the Whitney’s David Smith sculptures against a Manhattan backdrop is to see them in an altogether fresh way.
This is a building filled with joyous moments, from the main stair rising up from the lobby to the high, handsome galleries to the sculpture terraces suspended over the city. The glass-enclosed lobby, like so many other elements of this building, evokes Breuer’s Whitney ever so slightly, but in the end it is Renzo Piano’s own, and vastly more inviting than Breuer’s. The old Whitney, whatever its virtues, had a sternness, especially on the inside, that always seemed to get the better of its virtues. The new Whitney is the opposite. All its faults are on the outside, and you forget them once you get past the front door, when an exuberant, upbeat spirit takes over. Inside this ungainly box, Renzo Piano has made a museum con brio.