Updated by Paul Keskeys, September 27, 2016
Today marks 50 years since the iconic Marcel Breuer building opened as the Whitney Museum of American Art. Constructed in 1966, the masonry volume with a cutaway front is a Brutalist awakening along a street of traditional New York brownstones. An incredibly strong architectural statement, its initial reception was controversial.
“The new Whitney is a harshly handsome building. It contains many sophisticated subtleties of design and detail,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic for the New York Times, in September of 1966. “But the taste for its disconcertingly top-heavy, inverted pyramidal mass grows on one slowly, like a taste for olives or warm beer.”
At the time, Huxtable was one of the few critics to give any praise to the Bauhaus-trained architect’s museum. Her contemporaries described it as “oppressively heavy” and “an inverted Babylonian ziggurat.” Some were critical that its construction meant the destruction of three traditional row houses.
Over the years, opinions softened on Breuer’s “oppression.” It was included in the Upper East Side Historic District by the year 1980. Today, it is recognized as one of the city’s most notable buildings.
In the spring of 2015, the Whitney Museum moved into a new Renzo Piano–designed space on the High Line, and the Breuer building now houses an expansion of the modern and contemporary art collections of its Neoclassical Fifth Avenue neighbor, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although Piano’s building now commands the attention of thousands of tourists each year, Marcel Breuer’s Whitney continues to stand as an American architectural icon, built by a Hungarian architect.
All images via The Whitney Museum of American Art; photos by Ezra Stoller