New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has moved house a number of times in its 82-year history. Starting out in a row of brownstones in Greenwich Village, the collection of prized Modernist and contemporary masterworks’ first move took it to a dryly Modernist facility in midtown, which it occupied until 1966, when the institution relocated further uptown to the now-iconic Marcel Breuer structure on the Upper East Side. In 2015, after several false starts, the city is set to get yet another Whitney, a gleaming white wedding cake from Italian architect Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, which will be adjacent to the popular High Line in the Meatpacking District.

The latest move has already begun, with administrators and support staff pulling back from annex spaces around the Madison Avenue location. While the process is under way, the museum (or a part of it, at least) is getting its most unusual facility to date: a construct of metal shipping containers, 18 feet high and 24 feet wide, wedged improbably in the moat that fronts Breuer’s upside-down ziggurat. The temporary structure has been hosting the museum’s educational and public-outreach programs since it was completed in March, and will stay open at least until the moving trucks show up.

Dubbed the Whitney Studio, the installation is the work of Lot-ek, a practice that has made a name for itself reusing cast-off freight boxes and other industrial relics. “We’ve been working on containers for 15 or 20 years,” says Ada Tolla, Intl. Assoc. AIA, who founded the firm with Giuseppe Lignano, Intl. Assoc. AIA, in 1993. Lot-ek had teamed up with the Whitney on a couple of other occasions—including for the 2004 Mobile Dwelling Unit, another container structure on the same spot as the studio—making it the odds-on favorite for the job when the museum first hatched the concept last year.

The idea of deploying a shipping container, and using shipping-container specialists, was driven by at least one major practical constraint. As Whitney education chair Kathryn Potts explains, “The reality is we needed somebody to do this on the cheap.” So Lot-ek and its clients created the 720 square feet of classroom and art-making space for $400,000. Doing it within the existing lot line of the building meant that the team could also skip protracted negotiations with neighbors. And the firm’s expertise helped to collapse the design process, from commission through installation, into five months.

Even for container experts such as Lot-ek, the project posed unique challenges that required novel solutions. For one thing, the program called for a two-story interior, with teaching space below, workstations above, and a slender stair connecting them. The firm ended up stacking three standard-sized containers on top of three jumbo ones, clocking in at 9 feet 6 inches tall—a unit size the firm had rarely worked with before. Bigger boxes meant more bulk to get into the well that separates the museum from the sidewalk—to visitors, the most obvious squeeze is the width of the studio, which leaves free only 22 inches between the museum and the street in the 25-foot-10-inch-wide well. The containers were modified in New Jersey but assembled on site, and Lot-ek helped sketch out a delivery system involving cranes, rollers fixed to the crates, and long steel tracks, which were used to hoist and then slide the components into place. The job was done over two tense weekends in February. “We were just crossing fingers that what we studied and planned with the engineers would work,” Tolla says. “All the guys at the Whitney were there. Including their lawyer.”

Putting a corrugated metal cube up against the textured heft of a New Brutalist monument may seem a bit irreverent, but the architects felt a special respect for Breuer’s landmark design. “Occupying the building is obviously something really special,” Tolla says. Except for a single corridor for storage and mechanical services, the studio is completely disengaged from the museum. Lot-ek even made the container gesture toward its extraordinary context, in part by incising it with angled windows, clad in vivid yellow glazing, which echo the lines of the concrete bridge that spans the courtyard.

Thousands of visitors pour over the bridge each day toward the museum’s entrance, and the windows bring the Whitney’s public programs into the open. “Education departments of big museums are often located in the basement or in a separate wing,” Potts says. “But now we’re front and center.”

Whitney Studio

Project Whitney Studio, New York
Client Whitney Museum for American Arts
Architect Lot-ek, New York—Ada Tolla, Intl. Assoc. AIA, Giuseppe Lignano, Intl. Assoc. AIA, (partners); Virginie Stolz (project architect)
Mechanical Engineer Integrate Comfort Systems
Structural Engineer Robert Silman Associates—Nat Oppenheimer
General Contractor Craft Workshop
Lighting Designer Lot-ek
Size 720 square feet
Cost $400,000 (total project cost)

Materials and Sources

Adhesives, Coatings, and Sealants Dow Corning Corp. (790 Silicone Building Sealant); Sonneborn (NP1 polyurethane sealant); EPDM rubber flashing; vinyl window film
Appliances Samsung (64-inch monitors, in black)
Ceilings Push Design (Purepanels)
Flooring Shipping container; Apitong plywood
Furniture Vitra (Click table); Knoll (Spark stacking side chair)
Glass Orchard Group (custom fabricated by window maker Chris Otterbine)
HVAC Mitsubishi Electric (dual zone split system, MXZ-4B36NA condenser, MSZGE24NA hi-wall fan coil, MSZGE12NA hi-wall fan coil)
Lighting Controls Lutron Electronics Co.
Lighting Legion Lighting Co. (fluorescents)
Metal Shipping container Cor-Ten Steel corrugated walls and corner members
Millwork John Mohr
Paints and Finishes Hempel (exterior paint for containers, primer); Benjamin Moore & Co. (interior paint); Talon Paint Products (primer)
Sprinkling Laurmar Associates (installation)
Structural System TRS Containers (made modification to the ISO shipping containers)