California Academy of Sciences, 2000–08.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Tom Fox California Academy of Sciences, 2000–08.

With construction on the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building by the Renzo Piano Workshop slated for completion in 2015, it’s perhaps not surprising that just a few blocks away, Gagosian has already launched a show in anticipation of the project. “Fragments” surveys 30 years of work by the Renzo Piano Workshop with the goal of educating audiences on architecture—at a time when the New York art world is poised to listen.

It’s a shame, then, that the exhibition, organized and funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation with the Fondazione Renzo Piano, manages to achieve so few of its stated objectives. Audiences may come out of the exhibition with a better idea of the volume of work produced by Piano, but they won’t learn why more than 20 museums across the globe have turned to Piano in the last 30 years.

"Fragments" at Gagosian, installation view.
Credit: Paddy Johnson

"Fragments" at Gagosian, installation view.

The problems are numerous. The exhibition floor plan resembles a county science fair, and it’s about as exciting as one, too. Twenty-four work tables fill the gallery, each highlighting such famed projects as the Centre George Pompidou Paris, the Menil Collection, and the Kansai Airport Terminal. More recent work, including the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing and the New York Times building, are also on view.

The fairground approach on its own wouldn’t be so bad, but add to that endless images and mobiles hanging overhead, none of which are labeled. The exhibition design makes it almost impossible to know what mobile goes with what project. Gagosian, it seems, has very little to do with the show—past providing the storefront.

“Fragments” relies too heavily on documentation: The table for the Harvard Art Museums boasts three workshop binders corresponding with the dates of key planning meetings. Each notebook is filled with construction shots, project renderings, skylight schematics, and floor plans. The documents clearly have significant use value (each table has them), but they require the kind of extended viewing most people are only willing to do at their computers. I didn’t see anyone taking the gallery up on the red folding chairs provided.

Jean-Marie-Tjibaou Cultural Center, 1991–98.
Credit: Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Pantz Pierre-Alain

Jean-Marie-Tjibaou Cultural Center, 1991–98.

The Menil Collection building in particular suffers from this approach. An information label on the table tells viewers that the celebrated Houston museum touts a custom lighting system that changes throughout the day, thanks to a light-filtering system that uses “leaves” to block and reflect light. A model showcases the ceiling structure, and a few wooden modules from the actual building are hung over head, but the lighting isn’t set up(!) How the light actually falls is anybody’s guess, until they visit Houston. From my own experience at the Menil, I recall that the whites in a Robert Ryman painting exhibition almost hummed in the warm light–which was nevertheless a subtle effect.

Communicating the more experiential aspects of architecture could have easily been accomplished had the show included some sort of purpose-built space. Where’s the trendy pavilion? Nowhere to be found. I suppose that’s a little much to ask of a vanity show, but it might have added a little life to a show that at times seems more engaged with builders than the public.

IMB Traveling Pavilion, 1983–86.
Credit: Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Stefano Goldberg

IMB Traveling Pavilion, 1983–86.

In all fairness to Gagosian, it’s hard to imagine a pavilion in this gallery. Unlike galleries such as Gavin Brown Enterprise or 303 Gallery, which make a practice out of inviting artists to dig holes in them or transform their construction projects, Gagosian uses their space almost exclusively as a showroom. I've also never seen their space used as a lecture forum, which would have been welcome here, particularly in the case of the upcoming Whitney. With so little of the building completed, most New Yorkers have almost no sense as to what the museum will gain past square footage once the building opens to the public.

It’s a cold presentation for such an exciting project, and oddly, reminds me a little of an anecdote I’d heard from a friend who worked at The New York Times (whose office building is one on view). When I visited her at work a few years ago, she’d told me Piano had spent months at the building after the project was completed watching how people used the space. Often he removed plants and knick knacks employees had placed on their cubicles because he didn’t want the sight lines of the cubicle grid interrupted.

Years later I still find myself thinking about that story. Does Piano really weight his plans over the people who use them? “Fragments” certainly does.