Tag archives for: Paul Goldberger
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.
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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.
“It’s all architecture.” So said master designer I.M. Pei some years back, when an interviewer asked him to distinguish between the different styles then prevalent on the American landscape. Pei’s good-humored evasion is true enough. In simplest terms, architecture, as the design and construction of buildings, legitimately includes everything from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to a prefabricated barn outside Dallas and the Shell station at the end of my street. But in the popular imagination, and to most architects and builders as well, architecture is very much more than simple shelter. It is art, and when it is done well, it can inspire the soul.
It is to this conviction that Paul Goldberger addresses his latest book, “Why Architecture Matters” (Yale, $26). In his introduction, Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker since 1997 and prior to that for The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer, elaborates that his purpose is to “explain what buildings do beyond keeping us out of the rain.” To do so, he divides his analysis into chapters with titles like “Meaning, Culture, and Symbol,” “Architecture as Object,” “Architecture as Space,” “Buildings and Time” and so on. These categories are general enough, and the architectural masterpieces he writes about significant enough, that many of his examples could comfortably fit into any number of slots. For example, the Parthenon, highlighted in the chapter “Architecture as Object,” could just as easily be included in “Meaning, Culture, and Symbol.” Goldberger’s aim in making these choices isn’t to present definitive judgments but rather to illuminate specific aspects of the craft.
Though average Americans may not think about architecture in the abstract very much, if at all, they certainly deal with it on a daily basis, from their own homes, businesses and offices to their kids’ schools. As Goldberger declares: “To be engaged with architecture is to be engaged with almost everything else as well: culture, society, politics, business, history, family, religion, education. Every building exists to house something, and what it houses is itself part of the pursuit of architecture.” And, he contends, all those houses, businesses, office towers and schools that we thread our way through, around, into and out of say something about us and our culture. Goldberger’s intent is to help the reader to understand this and learn how to read the built environment and the society that produces it based on some of the best that has been constructed down the ages.
Even so, the finest buildings still have to be practical. After all, if they leak, what good are they? Goldberger is surprisingly forgiving on this score. “It is churlish to complain that Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses leak or that Le Corbusier’s weather badly or that Frank Gehry’s are difficult to construct,” he writes, “all of which may be more or less true, but what of it? That leaky roof is not our problem, and neither is the fact that we might not wish to live in such a building ourselves.” Except, of course, when the leaky roof is our problem or we do live in a mediocre building inspired by some flawed original that was praised by the aesthetic community and whose disastrous knockoffs now inconvenience thousands. Goldberger doesn’t dwell much on design failure and its consequences in this volume, but perhaps that is another book.
What he does emphasize are the principles of good design, and the numerous accompanying, clear, black-and-white illustrations, heavily tipped toward more recent decades, help make his points. In architecture, as in perhaps no other field, is the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” so true. Among the buildings illustrated are the Pantheon in Rome, the Lincoln Memorial, Penn Station, the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the Seagram Building in New York. Goldberger’s prose is admirably jargon-free and straightforward but, alas, lacks the sparkle and pepper that Ada Louise Huxtable, his predecessor at The Times, was so famous for. Still, “Why Architecture Matters” is a good introduction to a fascinating subject that should indeed very much matter to everyone.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic
Question: How do you feel about the progress on One World Trade Center?
Paul Goldberger: I’m disappointed in where things are at Ground Zero right now. I think it’s sad, on the other hand, I do think the people involved are trying reasonably hard, under the circumstances. But there’s really not a great deal of vision there. It begins really right back the morning of September 12th when Governor Pataki, who had the most authority in this situation, made the decision to keep everybody in place who was a player in this situation, the Port Authority, which owned the World Trade Center, the developer, Larry Silverstein, who had leased the Twin Towers. And most importantly, to keep the program in place. The program—by program, I mean the functions of the buildings. So, you know, the World Trade Center was 10 million square feet of office space plus some retail and some other commercial space, that’s what was transferred into the new project with the addition of a memorial and some cultural facilities and the, the prescription that it be in a different physical format, obviously, not 210-story towers again, but spread out around the site in a different way.
But you know, we never really looked into completely different uses for the site. We never really thought from point zero, we might say, about what the ideal thing to do there would be. Instead we took a program that goes back to the original World Trade Center in the early ’60s, and it was never really that effective or successful for most of its life, and decided to replicate it.
And then came all the complex political things that flowed from that, so it’s taken an inordinately long time, it’s cost a huge amount of money, and we still don’t really have anything that I think the world can look at and say, “This is a great achievement that shows us that the United States has come back from this thing in a noble way.” The office building that’s going up is sort of okay, but it’s not, I don’t think going to be a distinguished or particularly beautiful building. It’s not the… it doesn’t show all that we are capable of in terms of architecture.
Similarly, the other office buildings that have been planned for the site, most of which are on hold now because of the economy, are better than the average piece of junk on Third Avenue, that’s true, but that’s not a very ringing endorsement.
And then for this site that is so critical to the eyes of the world, where we had the opportunity to show the world that we could do something that was bold and visionary, we have really not succeeded at doing that.
I think a great tower would have had a place there. Either a pure tower, just as a symbol, like the Eiffel Tower of the 21st Century, we might say. Or, remembering that the United States is, after all, the birthplace of the skyscraper—a building form that we’ve now given to the world that is now common all around the world—what better place, if we’re looking to show the world that in fact we have not been defeated by this attack, than to come back to this place, in this country, in this time and build the most advanced skyscraper we could possibly imagine. The one that will bring the art of skyscraper design forward yet again.
And instead, we are not doing that. We’re doing a building that is not that different from a lot of commercial buildings built everywhere, and in fact, not as good as many of them. It’s going to be very tall, it’ll have a little more flair to it than the old Twin Towers did, but, you know, it’s not what it might have been.
Recorded on June 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
architect, architecture, architecture critic, recession
David Hirschman, Eiffel Tower, Governor Pataki, Ground Zero, Larry Silverstein, One World Trade Center, Paul Goldberger, Port Authority, Twin Towers
As the owner of Consulting For Architects, I have had the opportunity and privilege to work with the architecture firm, Gwathmey Siegel from the mid nineties to present as a provider of staffing services. Mr. Gwathmey’s passing is a loss for his family, friends, firm and the profession and I hope to bring together some of the things others have said about him recently in regards to his passing.
From the New York Times:
Charles Gwathmey, part of a generation of architects who put their own aesthetic stamp on the “high Modernist” style, died on August 3. He was known both for residential work — he built living spaces for Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jerry Seinfeld — and sometimes controversial public buildings.
In the New Yorker Magazine architecture critic Paul Goldberger said:
Postscript: Charles Gwathmey
In 1965, Charles Gwathmey, three years out of the Yale School of Architecture, designed a house and studio for his parents, the artists Rosalie and Robert Gwathmey, on Bluff Road in Amagansett, on eastern Long Island. Gwathmey was twenty-eight, an age when most architects are toiling away in large corporate offices and hoping for the chance to renovate a friend’s kitchen. When Gwathmey’s project, a pair of crisp, sharply angled structures covered in cedar siding, was finished, a year later, it became one of the most influential houses of the decade: a composition of cubes, cylinders, and triangles, it was a study in inventive modernist geometries. It cost somewhere around thirty-five thousand dollars, and it inspired a generation of beach houses in the Hamptons and elsewhere.
Architectural careers generally develop slowly, which made Gwathmey’s particularly unusual, the architectural equivalent of the young writer who comes out of nowhere and produces a brilliant first novel. In some ways, Gwathmey was the architecture world’s Norman Mailer, with the same bravado, the same raw talent, and the same career-long anxiety about whether he could continue to equal his spectacular first performance. Over the years, Gwathmey’s work became more complex than the house and studio in Amagansett, and vastly more elaborate. The cabinetry in any Gwathmey kitchen was certain to cost several times as much as his parents’ entire house.
A few years after the house in Amagansett was finished, Gwathmey and his architectural partner since 1968, Robert Siegel, designed an apartment at the El Dorado, on Central Park West, for Faye Dunaway, and over time they became the architects of choice for clients in the entertainment industry who were sophisticated enough to want something other than an interior decorator’s French Provincial. The firm of Gwathmey Siegel designed modernist houses and apartments for David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, and Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, not to mention grandiose modernist villas for Michael Dell, the computer maker, and Mitchell Rales, a Washington, D.C., industrialist, for whom Gwathmey also designed a private museum, Glenstone.
By the time the large villa that Gwathmey had designed in East Hampton for François de Menil, now owned by Larry Gagosian, was completed, in 1983, it was clear that Gwathmey had become not the avant-garde architect that his early success had promised but something closer to a modernist Stanford White or John Russell Pope. Gwathmey’s modernism, by then, had become not so different from what a Georgian manse was in the nineteen-twenties: a symbol of refinement and sophistication more than of cutting-edge sensibility. Maybe it didn’t matter: after all, his houses were impeccably designed and exquisitely crafted, and his clients were not just any rich people but ones who knew the difference between a Gwathmey house and someone else’s.
Still, Gwathmey hated to be thought conservative, and the unspoken theme of his career was the struggle between his desire to continue to make buildings that were new and different and his passion for a kind of classic modernism, which as time went on seemed ever more to be a part of history. He never copied anything literally, and he couldn’t bear to think of himself as one of those architects who replicate the past. He kept trying, over and over, to find new ways to rearrange the basic geometric shapes he loved so much—he was earnest, almost innocent, in his passion for pure architectural form—and his late work, if not dazzling in the way that his parents’ house was, had a striking richness to it. He tried new surfaces, he tried new materials, he tried new shapes, but there was always the same kind of sleek, crisp formality to his work. If there is such a thing as blunt intricacy, Gwathmey’s architecture has it.
He was at his best at small scale, which made him the opposite of almost every other major architect of our time. He did a few towers, none of which were great, and several institutional buildings, few of which equalled his best houses. (He was almost alone among first-class architects in making houses a central part of his practice, even when he had plenty of bigger, more lucrative projects.) Toward the end of his career, he poured his heart and soul into a non-residential commission he cherished, the restoration and expansion of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, by his teacher Paul Rudolph. The Rudolph building is an impossibly difficult neo-Brutalist masterpiece from 1963, and Gwathmey made it look better than it has in forty years. His addition is smart and well planned on the inside, and too complex and overwrought on the outside. It tells you all you need to know about its architect, who couldn’t bring himself to sit quietly beside his mentor. Gwathmey paid loving homage to Rudolph in the restoration, and then he wanted to get into the ring with him. I don’t think he was trying to show his teacher up. He just worried about what it would look like if he didn’t assert himself. He never wanted anyone to think that he didn’t have the right stuff.
More from the New York Times:
While in his 20s Mr. Gwathmey became a sensation by building a house for his parents on the East End of Long Island. The house, completed in 1966, was consistently described as one of the most influential buildings of the modern era. Two years later he and Robert Siegel founded Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.
Perhaps the firm’s best known work was its addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side, the rectangular tower beside the building’s famous spiral.
Mr. Gwathmey’s Astor Place condominium tower drew criticism from those who said it was insufficiently deferential to its surroundings.
Mr. Gwathmey in 1976, outside of Whig Hall at Princeton University. His renovation of the building was known as one of his more daring projects.
The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
Mr. Gwathmey created a proposal for the World Trade Center site, along with Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl.
Mr. Gwathmey in his apartment in Manhattan.
Via New Yorker Magazine and NYT
aia, architect, architects, architecture critic, modern architecture, modern buildings, new buildings
CFA, Charles Gwathmey, Consulting For Architects, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, Modernist School, Paul Goldberger