Missing the Whitney
The announcement this week of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s decision to relocate to a new downtown building, designed by Renzo Piano, filled me with sadness. It is not that I have that great a fondness for the Upper East Side of Manhattan, nor that I doubt that Piano’s building will deliver improved galleries and public spaces to the institution (though, given such recent missteps as the Art Institute of Chicago’s new wing, I do have my doubts), but that it makes it clear that the dream of a greater, better Whitney building through an addition onto the magnificent Breuer design of 1966 will remain just that.
The conservative set that inhabits the Upper East Side killed that vision, three times over, as they have so many other plans to make that expensive, but not terribly architecturally distinguished, neighborhood better. First, there was the Michael Graves plan of 1985, then one by OMA in 2001, and, most recently, a more modest proposal by Piano. While the last one might have passed muster, it was horribly bland and would not have given the Whitney nearly what it needed, so it was a de facto death warrant for the Whitney’s sojourn on Madison Avenue.
The original Breuer building is a marvel. It breaks a lot of rules, and is not a pretty thing, but what a magnificent moment cantilevers out to the street edge in that design. The structure embodies the very character of modern American art, filled with its ambition to assert a form that translates this country’s might into culture, abstracted into building blocks for a future city, cut through with openings and tiers that have the energy of urban synthesis.
I liked the Michael Graves design, at least in its last version, because I felt it tapped into the same vein of romantic bravura, this time dressed up in an abstraction of the forms America is so fond of borrowing from Europe. It took the horizontal metropolitan mountain or crag of Breuer’s design and turned it into a more urbane castle of culture, filled with beautifully developed sequences of spaces and promising a great variety of effects as you walked down Madison.
Even better was the Koolhaas design, which went Breuer’s bravura one better by lifting a new gallery up and over the existing composition, making the looming brow into a supporting gesture below a feat of derring-do that liberated the Whitney from its surroundings, while responding to the true scale of the neighborhood and its many bland apartment blocks. Its interior sequences were vertical, rather than horizontal, and included a long slice at the building’s back that would have been truly vertiginous.
The Koolhaas design was not only de trop for the neighbors, it was also rather too expensive, and marked the very height of the art market’s irrational exuberance. If it has been built, it would have been the era of hedge fund managers’ and other titans of derivative industries’ answer to the monuments the robber barons of previous, more solidly grounded exploitations left us.
Now we will have something altogether different, a tortured prow setting sail over New York’s new fashion allee, the High Line, while the Breuer building will remain marooned among the over-priced shops and white brick apartment buildings where it is so obviously and deliciously out of place. It is unclear what will happen with the building. Perhaps it should remain empty, a monument to what American art and architecture once thought it could achieve, It might be an annex to the mother ship of New York’s visual culture, the Metropolitan Museum. Or perhaps Ralph Lauren can festoon it with columns inside and out, turning it into part of his retail empire. and then all will be well again on the Upper East Side.