Ungainly and awkward, the Whitney's $422 million, 220,000-square-foot new home asserts its presence at the High Line's southern edge. Renzo Piano's addition to the Meatpacking neighborhood is indicative of the district's decade-long transformation from working class industrial to trendy tourist destination. What started in the previous decade with the conversion of unused elevated train tracks into the High Line elevated park, has culminated in a major new museum for the city in a neighborhood now dominated by buildings from an elite group of architects.
The Whitney Museum of American Art, begun with a collection of artwork amassed by Gertrude Whitney in 1908, has called several places home in its first century of existence. Most recently the museum was located on the Upper East Side, in a building designed by Marcel Breuer in 1966, at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 75th Street. Breuer's building, with its stone clad, inverted ziggurat form, was also considered at its opening to be awkward and panned for its unusual massing. With time, the building gained acceptance but was never able to adequately hold the museum's vast collection.
Many attempts were made to expand the museum at its Upper East Side location, with designs from Norman Foster, Michael Graves, OMA, and finally Renzo Piano. Given the scale of the neighborhood and the historic value of buildings on site and adjacent, large scale expansion plans proved too contentious to realize.
With the advent of the High Line in 2009, properties that surrounded the park gained new value and the exodus of industrial businesses in the area left behind many sites ripe for new construction. Realizing the futility of its expansion plans at the Breuer building, the Whitney brokered a deal with the city of New York for a site at the southern entrance to the High Line and occupied by a meatpacking business. While the business has remained on the northern half of the massive site, the Whitney's deal with the city allows them to acquire the remaining half should the business relocate elsewhere.
Piano's building is arranged with gallery spaces and other public functions in the southern half, while offices for the museum's staff, education programs, and other support spaces occupy the northern half. At the primary public corner, where Gansevoort intersects Washington Street, the Whitney engages the public at both street level and the High Line as the building's form folds skyward at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Street, creating a multi-story volume enclosed by vast expanses of glass. Piano uses this element in conjunction with the more solidly clad galleries cantilevered above to subtly invoke the Breuer building's iconic massing, a motif that will reoccur throughout. The folded facade also evokes Diller Scofidio + Renfro's overhaul of Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hull (renovated, 2009), where a double height entry is also formed by peeling up the building's original travertine facade. For the Whitney, this space houses Danny Meyer's latest restaurant, Untitled. Stretching along the restaurant's Gansevoort Street frontage, the open kitchen visually dominates the space. At night, the scene from the street is reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, with the patrons spread out along the bar and the glow of Robert Indiana's illuminated word "EAT" artwork hanging above.
Museum visitors enter mid-block off of Gansevoort Street into a glass enclosed 6,000 square-foot lobby that is adjacent to a free gallery and a museum shop consisting of open shelving to maintain visual porosity. Galleries on the upper floors can be accessed by a grand stair or by one of four elevators, featuring commissioned artwork in the elevator cab by the artist Richard Artschwager. Glazing above the elevator entry at ground level allows the visitor to see the machinery needed to operate, continuing an oft used theme by Piano. The concrete and steel of the stair serves as another subtle reference to the Breuer building.
Special exhibitions are housed on the eighth floor, which currently features "America is Hard to See." The show serves as a means for the Whitney to reexamine American art since 1900 with works from their vast collection that has long gone unseen. The galleries at this level feature the typical white walls and reclaimed wide-plank pine flooring found throughout the museum. Because of its top floor location, Piano has designed the ceilings as a grid work that allows in light from the sawtooth skylights, resulting in a much brighter and inviting environment to wander the galleries than the Breuer building. There, the dark tones of the stone flooring and the concrete waffle ceiling gave the galleries a heavy and dark atmosphere. Although Piano's galleries are a sharp turn from the previous aesthetic, he continually references the Breuer ceilings with the varying take on grids created at each level of galleries. On some floors the ceiling grid is present but solid while other floors reveal the conduit and ductwork of necessary services in a modern building, a muted and vertical take on Piano's first museum, the Pompidou.
On floors six and seven reside the permanent collection galleries in spaces unmatched by their previous home. Now visitors can peruse the work in vast spaces that give the pieces enough real estate to stand on their own but still create a dialogue with adjacent works. With the added space comes spectacular moments of rest and reflection, where visitors can sit at one of two large walls of glass and take in the High Line in the morning light from the east facade or the setting sun from the west facade's window. Moments of connection to the surrounding neighborhood can even be experienced while in the midst of perusing the galleries, as slots of space cut through gallery walls leading to the facade's glazing.
Not to be outdone, the 13,000-square-feet of outdoor galleries and terraces provide additional opportunities to pause and reflect. Views of the city skyline serve as a backdrop to outdoor cafe seating and several large sculptures. On the fifth floor outdoor gallery, the Whitney has commissioned a site specific work by Mary Heilmann, Mary Heilmann: Sunset, which features colorful chairs scattered about the terrace that visitors can use. Also included is a projected film and panels of colorful shapes that mimic the stepping of the building's terraces.
At the northern half of the building, Piano has located the support space for the Whitney's staff, which has grown steadily in recent years. Like the galleries, these spaces are generous in size and provide ample light and views to the neighborhood.
With the opening of the Whitney, the city has gained another spectacular cultural destination. Yes, it's exterior is a quirky wrapper, more muscle than beauty, but the interior more than compensates with its spot on take on the contemporary museum. Piano expertly crafts a museum that accommodates the visitor with the right mix of galleries and leisure space, allowing the museum to coexist with, rather than be consumed by, the commercial program of contemporary institutions. Like the Breuer building, Piano's structure will likely be embraced by most over time, as visitors forgive its exterior clumsiness for the expertly crafted experience within.