It's just past midnight and the atmosphere is more party than funeral for the final hours of the Whitney Museum of Art's home on the Upper East Side. The crowds are lined up around the block, waiting to get in. Inside, wall-to-wall people, some with more than a slight buzz on, meander through the Jeff Koons retrospective that will close out the museum. The work is quite broad in topic and medium, but the artist is probably best known to the general public for his highly reflective reproductions of balloon animals and other mundane, kitschy objects. Although most of these were created long before the invention of the ubiquitous smartphone camera or Instagram, the pieces are perfectly suited for the current "selfie" craze. It was near impossible to move about the galleries without disrupting some group taking selfies in anything that reflected. Among all the crowds someone was even able to tag the wall of the fourth floor gallery just after midnight during the marathon 36 hour closeout of the building.
At 11 PM last Sunday, the Upper East Side location of the Whitney closed for the final time. Next year, the Breuer building will become a satellite location for the Met in an eight year agreement. The Whitney will reopen next spring in its new location at the main entry to the High Line. Breuer's building was but one chapter in the Whitney's long history of housing its collection. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the Whitney in 1931 from her Whitney Studio (1914) and Whitney Studio Club (1918). The building was located at 8-12 West Eighth Street with renovations by G. McCullough Miller and Augustus L. Noel. Pressure quickly mounted from donors and patrons to leave the bohemian downtown for a more refined neighborhood. In the ensuing decades, alliances were attempted with numerous other institutions in the city, including a failed deal to relocate the collection to its own new wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1945 before falling apart by 1948. Robert Moses, serving on the board of the Met, fought against the plan due to its negative visual impact on Central Park. The failed alliance with the Met was followed by another attempted agreement with the Met and MoMa together, and a separate deal that led to their brief move into a wing of the MoMa in 1949 at 22 West 54th Street. Conditions proved unacceptably small and by 1958 the museum started looking for a new home three times its current size, in a building of its own.
In June of 1963, the Whitney organization announced the purchase of a 13,000 square foot parcel of land at 945 Madison Avenue, already under excavation for a co-op with financing troubles. After a selection process for an architect, which included Louis I. Kahn and Edward Larrabee Barnes, Marcel Breuer was announced as architect and released a design by December of the same year. Anyone familiar with the museum's decades long attempts at expanding Breuer's building will understand the incredible speed at which the initial building took shape.
Breuer's design occupied a corner site at Madison Avenue and 75th Street. Intended as sculpture, the project was conceived as three cantilevered boxes over a sunken court. The form appeared as an inverted diagram of New York's ubiquitous tiered towers To emphasize its sculptural quality and create a separation from the adjacent buildings, shear walls of exposed, board-formed reinforced concrete bookend the granite-clad cantilevers with a glass enclosed stairwell in between. Bush-hammered concrete aggregate enclose the stairwells, contrasting well with the large expanses of smooth, white gallery walls. Other than the stairwell and the all glass west lobby entry, the only other apertures above ground are the six angled bay windows of varying size on the north facade and a larger version on the west facade, which looms over Madison Avenue from the uppermost cantilever like the eye of Cyclops. There are galleries on the ground floor and within each of the three cantilevered volumes. A library and staff offices occupy the top floor, with an outdoor terrace created from its street setback. In the galleries, bluestone and split-slate line the floors and a concrete ceiling grid accommodates movable partitions and the incandescent lighting system. Below ground, a restaurant and sunken court for displaying large sculptures can be accessed from the lobby via an open, sculptural stair of rough concrete, continuing the design language of the gallery circulation stairs above.
When it opened in 1966, the Whitney was met with mixed reviews from the critics for its stark, heavy form at a time when most projects emphasized lightness and transparency. It found a champion of its design in Ada Louis Huxtable, the first architecture critic for The New York Times. Huxtable found merit in the project while acknowledging its challenging form to a public that valued lighter architecture.
"It may be too somber and severe for many tastes, but it is still a careful, conscientious search for a creative solution..."
Others, like critic Emily Genauer of the New York Herald Tribune, found it arrogant, aggressive, and "as alive as a clenched fist."
Like many buildings that initially challenge the public with non-familiar design, with time the Whitney has won over the majority of critics and general public alike. Hopefully the building will find a long term tenant committed to preserving the building and maintaining its function as gallery space.
Architect: Marcel Breuer; Program: Museum; Location: Upper East Side, New York, NY; Completion: 1966.