Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum of American Art opened last month, and to the relief of New Yorkers dismayed at the escalator-driven, department-store addition to the Museum of Modern Art by Yoshio Taniguchi, Hon. FAIA, not to mention the squash-court galleries of SANAA’s New Museum, the design is a success on many levels—as urban piece, as ethos, as galleries, as home worthy of the collection. Piano’s eight-story, 220,000-square-foot, $422-million project ends the Whitney’s long and exasperating search, starting in the mid-1980s, to find a fitting building for its expanding and diversifying collection.

For museum watchers, the design also marks a welcome departure for Piano, Hon. FAIA, whose trajectory over the course of a dozen American museums projects has gone from original and refreshing to uneven and formulaic. Since his two one-story museums for the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas—the main building in 1987 and the Cy Twombley Pavilion in 1995—each notable for glowing natural light filtered through elaborate skylights, Piano has been repeating his success. Whether a one story or multi-story building, the architect has started at the roof, working from the sun, by designing elaborate skylights that create luminous environments. In some buildings, the skylights are integrated within roof planes that cantilever beyond the edges of the boxes over which they hover. 

In essence, Piano’s ground has been the roof, from which he builds down. Whether it’s his recent one-story addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, or his three-story 2009 addition to the Chicago Art Institute, the same floating roof appears as a signature. Even when the museum has several floors, Piano has focused mainly on the space beneath the roof, making little effort to open floor plates to bring light to lower floors. He is a planimetric rather than sectional architect, his geometries usually Platonic and simple.

For Piano, who grew up in Italy's historic urban centers, the density and intensity of the raw urbanism was pure oxygen, and he inhaled it.

That all changed with the new Whitney, located on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. The old Whitney, Marcel Breuer’s self-contained block with cantilevered masses, completed in 1966, respected its place within a strict urban hierarchy of brownstones at a corner of the Manhattan grid on the Upper East Side, in what is now a historic preservation district. Piano’s context downtown was less structured—and even loose, if not messy—with jumps in scale between a motley collection of former industrial warehouses, many equipped with steel fire escapes and rooftop water towers.

In one of those urban storms that regularly overtake parts of New York, the Meatpacking District has in the last decade changed from a gritty industrial district filled with delivery trucks to a streetscape gentrified with luxury shops, restaurants, and limousines. Gansevoort Street, at the heart of the district, is the new Madison Avenue. 

For Piano, who grew up in Italy’s historic urban centers, the density and intensity of the raw urbanism was pure oxygen, and he inhaled it. The Meatpacking District represented an intellectual homecoming for this Modernist who, with Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, designed the High Tech 1977 Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Many of Piano’s museums in the U.S. were in suburbs or on semi-urban sites next to parks. On Gansevoort, he was in the thick of the city at a strategic position, next to the southern terminus of the High Line and a street corner that pivots the city to the Hudson River a block away.

So many of Piano’s other American museums start with a simple geometric primitive—i.e., a box topped with an elaborate roof of skylights. At the Whitney, the architect did not start with a preconceived geometry or concept, but he confronted both the conditions on the outside—urban context, sight lines, sun exposures—as well as those on the inside—views, gallery sizes, proximities, adjacencies. The play of forces broke any possibility of a pure geometric enclosure, yielding instead an assemblage of volumes and parts that looks more like a fragment of the city than a self-contained building. 

In a sense, he re-created the façade of the Pompidou Center, though not as a facade of staircases and escalators, but as a three-dimensional armature that mixes galleries and public spaces with staircases and elevators in a rich matrix that urbanizes the building: Manhattanism moves into and through it. 

Piano carved cones of vision through the body of the building to open a visual corridor from the High Line to the river. And he cut the corner of the structure and angled the ceiling of the lobby down, creating a megaphone that funnels sightlines west. Along Gansevoort, on the site’s southern edge, he glazed the entire ground floor so that the street flows into the lobby visually, creating a virtual piazza served inside by a restaurant, café, bookstore, and reception desk, a space where passersby can linger without buying a ticket. He angled the glass wall so that it shapes the outdoor space ona diagonal that sends sight lines toward the river. 

There were countervailing forces and demands shaping the building from the inside, resulting in a push and pull of volumes corresponding to program.

Piano’s usual interest in sunlight took an unexpected turn at the Whitney: Instead of capturing it solely for the top floor, he optimized sunlight in the lee of the building, to the east. Rather than building an eight-story structure that would cast shadows on the low-rise streetscape, he terraced the building so that it steps down toward Chelsea, ensuring that the neighboring streets get the afternoon sunlight. He linked each of the terraces with an external steel staircase that recalls the city’s exposed fire escapes and its steel water towers. The staircases have proved as popular as the High Line, giving access to outdoor sculptures and installations on the terraces, not to mention sweeping urban vistas. 

There were countervailing forces and demands shaping the building from the inside, resulting in a push and pull of volumes corresponding to program. Much like Starrett & Van Vleck’s 1929 Downtown Athletic Club, which Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, described in his manifesto “Delirious New York” as a vertical city within a building, Piano stacks and mixes activities so that visitors and staff encounter a vertically and horizontally layered environment. The auditorium, library, and offices are on the third and fourth floors, and the differently sized galleries follow above, the largest on the fifth. A top-floor café has indoor and outdoor seating. The terraces, programmed with art, add another layer and further activate the museum. 

Piano also layers programs front to back, with the public spaces in the south-facing lobby, followed by a service core of elevators and a grand staircase in the middle, and then by curators’ offices and conservation labs to the north. The curators are located on the same floors as their collections, in close proximity. 

More than a repository for artworks, Piano’s design effectively redefines the character of the Whitney.

More than a repository for artworks, Piano’s design effectively redefines the character of the Whitney: big, generous, self-confident, with nothing to hide and everything to share, including its openness to both the city to the east and the landscape to the west. Prodded by the surrounding urbanism, Piano brought extroversion to what has usually been an introverted building type. By loosening architectural syntax, he was able to express rather than repress the complexity of all the parts. In a major shift from the Pompidou, the componentry of the building is not industrial and mechanical but programmatic, each program expressed as a block.

The result is not a serene, contemplative, introverted environment intended for the connoisseur who only wants to study various canvases, but a people’s museum that engages the visitor through episodic experiences and activities—whether in the lobby, in the cafés, or on the jungle-gym staircases and terraces. The elevators open smack dab into the galleries, making the experience of the art immediate. The architecture involves the public in a participatory experience.

And so Piano has established a new museum precedent for himself in the U.S. The new Whitney not only has 50% more interior gallery space (50,000 square feet) than its predecessor, but it also broadens the way art can be experienced. Exchanging reductive Modernism for expansive Modernism, Piano elasticizes the way in which the museum can engage visitors and display and explain art. His design is not just a vessel for art but an effective tool of the museum’s mission.