Most buildings cannot escape the awkwardness of transition. Stripped roughly on moving day, they are typically left echoing and vulnerable, littered with vestiges of past relevance and then made freshly chaotic by renovation. Marcel Breuer’s inverted pyramid, on the corner of New York’s Madison Avenue and 75th Street, takes change in its stride. Even bustling with workers, studded with ladders and tarpaulin, and free of its modular internal walls, the five-storey, flame-treated grey granite structure retains a friendly, beautifully proportioned readiness. On 18 March, the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art will reopen to the public as The Met Breuer – earning the accolade of Best Reboot in Wallpaper's 2016 Design Awards in the process.
‘Everyone has always likened this building to a fort, with a moat – defensive, and with an aggressive relationship to the street,’ says Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary art department. ‘In fact, it’s the opposite.’ She points to the lower level, which is being returned to its original purpose as a ‘sunken garden’, and the glass that spans the lower floors, interrupted only by the concrete bridge leading to the entrance. ‘It’s a sculptural form above, but it has this transparency below.’
With fond memories of the building from her time as a fellow in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program in 1982, Wagstaff, formerly chief curator of Tate Modern in London, is savouring the opportunity to reveal not only lost details of the structure but also Breuer’s design intentions. The Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained architect described the stepped-back façade as ‘a surprise in the cityscape’, with its overhanging galleries meant to be inviting rather than forbidding. ‘Outside, it is expression; inside, only proportion,’ Breuer told a reporter at the 1966 opening. ‘It stands back and lets you see the pictures.’
Wagstaff and her team at the Met, which has custody of the Whitney-owned building for the next eight years (with the possibility of extending the agreement in 2023), are both standing back and leaning forward. ‘All we’re really doing is cleaning up the space – being as sincere as we can, and as meticulous,’ says Wagstaff of the restoration work overseen by Beyer Blinder Belle. The original clock has been reset into the lobby wall and concrete benches have been uncovered, bronze is being restored of its glow without sacrificing patina, and the flagstone floors are being unvarnished. ‘What you end up seeing is a building that has an unbelievable array of different types of textures and colours. It’s a very sensual building,’ she explains. ‘This gives the lie to brutalism. So we’re having fun with this.’
And come March, they’ll be more than pictures to see. With some 28,000 sq ft of display space, the Met Breuer will be home to a new series of exhibitions, performances, artist commissions, residencies, and educational initiatives, all led by Wagstaff as part of her charge to invigorate and globalise the museum’s approach to art of the 20th and 21st centuries. (Meanwhile, David Chipperfield is developing a new design for the Met’s wing for modern and contemporary art on Fifth Avenue.) ‘The Breuer building allows us to explore the possibilities of what we as the Met can do that no other museum of modern and contemporary art can do,’ she says, ‘which is to provide the true historic context for artistic practice nowadays.’
The two inaugural exhibitions will be: a major thematic survey of 190 unfinished works of art, entitled ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible’, spanning Titian to Twombly, Rembrandt to Rauschenberg; and the more intimately scaled monographic exhibition (but the largest-to-date) of the work of Indian modernist artist Nasreen Mohamedi, who died in 1990 at the age of 53. Her drawings and photographs will occupy opposing axes, in line with the building’s coffered concrete ceiling. ‘It’s a simple but clear installation that responds to the building, because her work is full of grids and also dynamic diagonals that come out of a number of different sources, including Lissitzky and Malevich, but also Islamic patterning,’ says Wagstaff. ‘So it’s a combination of East and West.’
The Met’s first resident artist, composer and pianist Vijay Iyer, will occupy the lobby gallery for the month of March, performing solo and with collaborators. ‘We’ll get a broad cross-section of unsuspecting people wandering in – tourists, students, families,’ he predicts. ‘So we’ll have to constantly reestablish and reactivate the relationship between performer and observer.’ Iyer has also been commissioned to create a piece inspired by the work of Mohamedi, whose work he lauds for its ‘economy of means, mysterious lines, spaces and patterns, focus, clarity, and elegance’.
As Breuer’s building prepares to welcome new generations of visitors and artists under new institutional auspices, Wagstaff has an idea as to how it has managed to deftly integrate expression and proportion, public and private, vitality and profundity. ‘No matter how experimental his buildings became when he was in the US, Marcel Breuer cleaved to the essential Bauhaus principles of good design,’ she says, ‘and to the idea that art is embedded in life.’