If architecture is the poetry of construction, Renzo Piano's latest creation, the new Whitney Museum of American Art, opening to the public on the 1st May, is a metaphor in concrete and steel. Piano has more than proved he knows how to showcase art with projects like the Menil Collection in Houston and the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel.
Here he has seized his chance to frame a different type of view: stand on the terraces stacked along the eastern edge of the building and take in the expansive vistas of the city that has been the Whitney's home for 85 years and has fuelled its drive for innovation. Turn around and gaze through the column-free galleries to windows that look out over the Hudson River and westward to the nation beyond, the Whitney's self-assigned jurisdiction. It's not just breathtaking; it's a 360-degree view of the Whitney's mission.
There are those who will miss the old uptown Whitney, designed by Marcel Breuer. They need not mourn. When cosmetics mogul and Whitney chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder gifted the museum $131m in 2008, he did so with the proviso that it not sell the Breuer building. Now, it is being leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for at least eight years.
While the Breuer building was heavy and brooding, its form representing the 'purity of the art', Piano's Whitney, by contrast, recognises that 'art is embedded in the life of the culture,' says Director Adam Weinberg. 'This building is about being connected to the world, not cut of from it.' The ground floor is encased in glass at one end, nearly erasing any delineation between inside and out. There is also 13,000 sq ft of outdoor exhibition space on the facade's stacked terraces, which take the cityscape as their backdrop.
The museum was in need of more space for a while. After different attempts to expand the Breuer site by his predecessors, Weinberg turned to Piano, who also attempted to devise an expansion using a cluster of townhouses adjoining the Whitney. 'When the board decided the expansion would not meet our goals,' recalls Scott Resnick, a collector and real estate developer who chaired the building committee, 'Dia [Art Foundation] was backing out of a project they had on Gansevoort Street. It was a big shift to contemplate leaving the Breuer,' but the realisation that there was not a practical way to stay set in, and the Whitney was able to swoop in and do a deal.
Now the Whitney is in one of the city's most dynamic neighbourhoods, the Meatpacking District, just blocks away from Greenwich Village, where the Whitney was born. Granted, the quarter has changed a bit since then, but, says Weinberg, the return is about 'reconnecting to history.'
Of course, the Breuer is part of that history, and there are echoes of it here. Most obviously, the stepped-back, arrangement of Piano's $422m Whitney is the inverse of Breuer's upside-down staircase silhouette. The lifts open directly onto the galleries, as in the Breuer building. There's also a stairwell that bears what Weinberg calls a 'kinship' with the one in the old Whitney, as well as another one inviting visitors to climb the building outdoors. And, after two years of angst debating the crucial issue of ceiling heights, the design team finally chose 15.5 ft and 17.5 ft, the same height as the third and fourth floor of the Breuer building.
Now, in it's brand new home, the Whitney is very close to raising the $760m it says it needs to complete the immediate funding requirements. And at least this move comes with a ready-made expansion plan, says Resnick: first dibs on the plot of land to the north of the museum when the lease, still held by a meatpacking cooperative, runs out in about a decade. And don't rule out a return uptown. Says Resnick, 'It's the key reason we kept the Breuer.'
For more information on the project and the history of the Whitney Museum, read the full article in the May 2015 issue of Wallpaper* - out now