Long before I knew or cared that the Marcel Breuer–designed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was an architectural masterpiece, long before the term “Brutalist” entered my vocabulary, I loved it. As a teenager from the suburbs, I stumbled upon it, and came to think of it as my museum, a place where I could attend screenings of obscure movies that no one else I knew would possibly want to see. It’s where I came to know the work of artists like Charles Sheeler, Alexander Calder, and Ed Ruscha. Decades later, I had friends who worked there, and they invited me to watch a Sol LeWitt show being installed, brush stroke by brush stroke, and to a dinner party held for the Queens stonemasons who had meticulously cleaned and securely rehung the museum’s façade; the 1,500 granite slabs (each weighing between 500 and 600 pounds) had been in danger of slipping off.
It’s the New York museum with which I have the longest and deepest relationship, personal and professional, one that has sometimes felt unexpectedly intimate. And that sensation, in part, was an outgrowth of the architecture: a building modest in size (only 85,000 square feet, total), yet powerfully self-assured, and (like much of what was on display) fiercely ambitious. It wasn’t exactly a museum to get lost in, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but one in which you could comfortably hide.
All that will change, of course, now that the Whitney is abandoning its home of nearly a half-century for a building that is less refuge and more crowd pleaser.
Founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the museum began in 1931 in a collection of townhouses on West Eighth Street. The Whitney quickly outgrew this first home. In 1943, when it was supposed to move into a wing at The Metropolitan, The New York Times lamented the loss of the small, downtown museum: “Something memorable and unforgettable will have vanished.” By the late 1940s, the Whitney had abandoned those plans and chose, instead, to set up shop inside the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A decade later, the Whitney staff, determined to find a real home for the institution, purchased a 13,000-square-foot lot at Madison and 75th Street, the site of an apartment building that had lost its financing.
Breuer, who had been chosen over Louis Kahn and Edward Larrabee Barnes, wrote in his notes on the project: “Its form and material should have identity and weight … in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.” That he designed such a thing—an inverted ziggurat clad in granite and concrete—and deposited it on Madison Avenue seems, today, like a miracle. In anticipation of its September 1966 opening, Ada Louise Huxtable gave her grudging approval. Her review in The New York Times was headlined, “Harsh and Handsome: The New Whitney Is Superbly Suited For an Art That Thrives on Isolation.” She wrote, “the taste for its disconcertingly top-heavy, inverted pyramidal mass grows on one slowly, like a taste for olives or warm beer.”
Sadly, it is a taste that we now seem to have lost. The small, self-contained, and—to borrow the word Elizabeth Diller used to describe Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA's ill-fated American Folk Art Museum—obdurate museum is on its way out. Some architecturally distinct gems, like Louis Kahn’s 1972 Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, have sprouted new wings. Others, like the Frick Collection in New York, are now plotting expansion. The Whitney, for its part, is moving back downtown, from whence it came, and, in a historically fitting gesture, leasing the Breuer building to the museum’s onetime potential landlord, the Metropolitan.
The final Whitney exhibition in the Breuer building opened on June 27: “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,” a survey of the artist’s needling investigations of banality, kitsch, and salaciousness. But instead of being transfixed by Koons’s cavalcade of bon bons, I kept looking at the galleries in which the artwork was displayed. Breuer’s slate floors and concrete coffered ceilings gave me more pleasure than Koons's illuminated vitrines filled with vacuum cleaners. After standing on the museum’s lower level listening to Koons go on about how good art has been for his character—“it taught me to become a better human being”—I drifted out to the museum’s sunken sculpture garden and stared up at the concrete bridge that connects the building to the sidewalk and noticed, perhaps for the first time, what a strange object it is. It looks almost medieval, like the span over a castle moat. All the details, surfaces, and forms in the old Whitney are so very particular. You couldn’t mistake it for any other museum in the world.
Meanwhile, downtown, at the south end of the High Line, the immense new Whitney, designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, is nearing completion. The museum’s staff is scheduled to move in the fall, and the first exhibition there, a 60,000-square-foot indoor–outdoor extravaganza selected from the museum’s permanent collection of 20th and 21st century American art, is scheduled for spring 2015.
On a hard hat tour in May, I found it easy to sympathize with the Whitney’s move. After all, the museum had made a number of efforts to expand uptown: In the 1980 and 1990s, there was an unfortunate series of Michael Graves, FAIA, proposals that paired the Breuer with a postmodern buddy. Those were followed by an ill-fated Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, scheme that plopped an oddly shaped volume atop the neighboring brownstones. That attempt was succeeded by a rather elegant Piano-designed expansion, a nine-story tower that took its cues from Breuer. New York City encouraged the addition by granting a series of zoning variances. The museum’s neighbors, including the Carlyle Hotel, then filed suit to stop it, objecting to the city’s use of variances. The plaintiffs vehemently argued that Piano’s tower had no place in a neighborhood of historic brownstones.
And so, when the Dia Art Foundation in New York abandoned its plans to build a museum at the foot of the High Line in 2006, the Whitney, tired of battling with its neighbors, seized the opportunity to purchase the city-owned site from New York’s Economic Development Corp. Kate D. Levin, the Bloomberg administration’s cultural affairs commissioner, endorsed the move, labeling it “a wonderful moment.”
You can’t blame the museum for wanting to leave the confines of its 104 by 125 square foot lot, or the suffocating preservation culture of the Upper East Side. The last Piano design for the Madison Avenue site, with a $200 million price tag, would only have given the Whitney 16,000 to 20,000 additional square feet of gallery space instead of the 30,000 it had hoped for. Piano’s downtown design, with a $422 million price tag, is a 220,000-square-foot building, albeit with only 50,000 square feet of interior exhibition space, or 17,000 more than at the old Whitney. But there’s also 13,000 square feet of outdoor gallery space and a plethora of facilities the uptown museum lacked.
The new Whitney rises in a Manhattan neighborhood that is uncharacteristically hospitable to architectural invention, a free-for-all of built form inspired by the High Line and encouraged by the city’s efforts to spur the redevelopment of the surrounding industrial landscape. The museum’s nearest neighbor is the Standard Hotel, a slim tower angled like the pages of an open book that straddles the High Line and is, perhaps, the most startling design done by Polshek Partners (now Ennead Architects). A building in that location could, arguably, probe the outer reaches of architectural form, but the Piano design is workmanlike. It looks like something else: A corporate headquarters. A power plant. A factory. It is a gigantic hunk of concrete and glass that saves its most assertive gestures for the Gansevoort Street entrance. There Piano nods to Breuer’s ziggurat with floor plates that cantilever out over the street. Inside there’s an oversized elevator. “That again is Renzo rhyming with the Breuer building,” noted Carter Foster, the museum’s curator of drawings, somewhat wistfully, as he led my tour group.
This new Whitney is less conspicuously iconic than the old, and its virtues are mostly apparent within. The floorplates are generous, most particularly the 18,200-square-foot, fifth-floor special exhibitions gallery—“the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City,” according to the museum’s website. And the building has all the things the Whitney has never had: a real theater (170 seats), with views of the Hudson River (and New Jersey); lots of café and restaurant seats (operated by Danny Meyer’s Union Square restaurant group, just like MoMA's The Modern); space for artwork conservation. Instead of being small, quirky, and a little bit lost on Madison Avenue, the Whitney is perfectly positioned—physically and geographically—to become a formidable downtown counterpoint to MoMA.
Fortunately, the Whitney’s old building isn’t an orphan. Unlike Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ American Folk Art Museum, no one intends to tear it down. Not yet, anyway. Instead, the Metropolitan will lease the building for eight years with, according to tour guide Foster, an option to renew for another five, in what the Whitney’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, and the Metropolitan’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, have referred to as a “collaboration.” “With this new space, we can expand the story that the Met tells, exploring modern and contemporary art in a global context,” Campbell announced in 2011. At the time he declared that the Breuer building would “open up the possibility of having space to exhibit these collections in the event that we decide to rebuild the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing where they are currently shown.” No surprise, then, that the Metropolitan’s intention to do just that was reported in May.
What happens to the Breuer building when the Metropolitan opens a rebuilt modern and contemporary art wing—possibly by 2020—is difficult to say. While the word “landmark” is often used to describe it, the building has never been so designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Metropolitan didn’t respond questions its long term plans for the building. A Whitney spokesperson confirmed the existence of the Metropolitan’s lease renewal option, but not its duration, and added: “We cannot comment on plans for the Breuer building beyond the Met’s lease.”
At the Koons survey, I found myself wishing the last show in the Breuer building had instead been the Biennial (which closed in late May). Partly this is because the big, messy group show is the museum’s signature event. Also, it would have been a more appropriate swan song because at least one the exhibition’s trio of curators, Anthony Elms, tried his best to honor Breuer. An associate curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Elms asked some of the artists he chose to think about the relationship between their work and the museum itself.
“For me, the Biennial wasn’t happening any old place,” Elms later told me. “It was happening at that specific building. At the same time, it was the last show in that building. For me it was more like, ‘Let’s have fun with this building.’ ” To that end, he commissioned artist Zoe Leonard to create a camera obscura, fitting a lens into one of Breuer’s trapezoidal windows, filling a darkened gallery with a low-res projection of the Madison Avenue streetscape opposite the museum. Another Elms artist, Charlemagne Palestine, created a sound installation that lured visitors into one of Breuer’s loveliest spaces, his cool, monastic stairway. “There is something humble about that building that has given the Whitney part of its character,” Elms told me.
Which is funny, because I’ve never regarded the Whitney as humble. Breuer designed a building for a museum capable of punching above its weight, one that has generally had more influence than square footage. Sadly, that model—small but pugnacious—appears to be on its way out. And while I fully understand why the Whitney needed to shed its skin, I lament the demise of the kind of museum that engenders intimacy. It’s as the Times framed it back in the 1940s: “Something memorable and unforgettable will have vanished.”