Beyond Buildings


Missing the Whitney

Submit A Comment | View Comments

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.

Breuer design

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.

Piano design

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.  

Graves Design
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.

Koolhaas Design

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.  

Piano Downtown

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.


Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:48 AM Thursday, June 03, 2010

    Richard, I love the photo and hope that a caption is added crediting you for it.

    Report this as offensive

  • Posted by: CHodgetts | Time: 5:08 PM Wednesday, June 02, 2010

    Betsky, as usual, has the gonads to put in print what many people lack the courage to say. I've admred his ability to score direct hits since we worked together in LA, and only wish that more of us were on his wavelegth.

    Report this as offensive

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:05 PM Wednesday, June 02, 2010

    Hi, Thanks for the great post about the Whitney's relocation. I am the author of the lead photograph of Breuer's iconic building. I was surprised that Architect Magazine would use my image without proper identification. Here's the link: Best, Richard

    Report this as offensive

  • Posted by: gideonfinkshapiro | Time: 11:34 AM Monday, May 31, 2010

    So the Whitney will go from a radical building in a conservative neighborhood to a more conservative building in a trendy neighborhood. The Breuer building challenges and invites visitors in a way that few museum buildings do. The OMA proposal was indeed “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.” It is all too typical of New York that the exciting prospect of adding on to the original building was stymied by various obstacles. At least the Whitney has promised never to sell the building, meaning it will be preserved in some shape or form. If the Breuer building “embodies the very character of modern American art,” can Piano’s new proposal be seen as somehow parallel to context of contemporary American art?

    Report this as offensive

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.