Approaching from Gansevoort Street, one can't help but anticipate the views from the stepped terraces of the new Whitney Museum of American Art as its glazed-ziggurat aspect becomes a legible homage to the museum's previous home, 3.3 miles to the northeast (as the crow flies), but a world away otherwise. If the iconic Breuer façade haunts the negative space of the roofline like a Tetris piece, it is perhaps more telling that the new building overlooks the High Line, which is more or less where the sunken “moat,” separating the brutalist masterpiece from Madison Avenue, would be.
Photos by Nic Lehoux, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, unless otherwise noted
Indeed, Renzo Piano has succeeded in creating an open, accessible, unpretentious building at street level: visitors will undoubtedly appreciate the piazza-like space (specifically a “largo,” in the architect's own words) that the bankable septuagenarian has created adjacent to the High Line, onto which the queue might overflow when it opens its doors to the public in one week, on May 1st. Inside, they will enjoy the well-received inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See — a museum-wide survey of selections from the Whitney's prodigious permanent collection — as well as the galleries in which the 600+ artworks are the first to be hung, mounted, lit, and exhibited.
The interior is an exercise in restraint, where the exposed steel joists of the ceiling — an echo of not only its predecessor's concrete grid, but also, say, the mullions of the Seagram's building — impart a sense of refined functionality; the finishes are several shades lighter than Breuer's earthy palette (the off-white floor is made of reclaimed heart pine). The overall effect of the 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, including a column-free 18,000-square-foot gallery on the fifth floor, is raw but not rough: Renzo Piano Building Workshop has produced a Machine for Exhibiting.
The exterior of the eight-story, $422-million museum is not nearly so invisible. Although its southeastern quadrant flatters the city with floor-to-ceiling fenestration, other angles disclose the building's massing as an awkward assemblage of chamfered, striated volumes, revealed in turn from the bend of the West Side Highway. (The more conventional, faux-industrial northern façade of the building holds administrative offices; the balance of its 220,000 total square footage includes education spaces and a 170-seat theater, which the Breuer lacked.) Widely likened to a seafaring vessel, but rather more like an iceberg from afar — make of that what you will — the new Whitney dutifully anchors the High Line and its greater environs. Some critics have been more forgiving than others, but the general consensus (invariably invoking a certain unassailable forerunner) is that we, the architecture community, will grow to love the building.
In other words, Piano and his client will emerge victorious once you let the Whitney work its way through your Instagram feed this summer, there is no denying the immediacy of the views afforded by those windows (despite the lament of Davidson and Kennicott) and terraces that extend up and away from the High Line. Even as the receding rooftop defers to the converted el, a stack of prow-like catwalks willfully engages it, affording a bird's-eye view of the greenspace below and a properly elevated panorama of the Manhattan skyline. Perpendicular to the directional park, the tiered bulwark bisects the building as a programmatic axis, its north face a sheer drop to the rectangular expanse of the lowest, largest terrace; like oversized selfie sticks, the incongruous truncated girders extend toward the rest of the island, alluding to fire escapes as well as the hardware of the High Line.
After all, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and James Corner Field Operations have already done the heavy lifting of place-making in the Meatpacking District, subsequently punctuated by the high-modern Standard Hotel, which photobombs the views of the Whitney from the south. In some ways, the museum is a counterpoint — ballast, if you will — to Polshek's monument of rarefied urbanity, espousing instead a kind of lofty populism: glass as a unifier, as opposed to a divider.
Photo by Karin Jobst, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art
Meanwhile, wedged in the canyon between the museum and the boutique hotel, a token meat-processing facility continues to operate as a vestige of the neighborhood's past. The notion of sausage-making may be at odds with the finished products here — all sterile steel cladding, shimmering windows, and delicate landscaping — but it's worth noting the curious symmetry of history: the High Line was originally conceived just over 15 years ago, which is the duration of the meat wholesaler's lease; come 2030, the Whitney will reportedly have the option to annex the prime cut of land to the museum's north.
Thus, the new Whitney is to the High Line as the Metropolitan Museum of Art is to Central Park, a cultural attraction appended to one of Manhattan's premier greenspaces — the pride of place being symbiotic, of course (here it's worth mentioning that the Met has agreed to an eight-year lease for the Breuer, slated to reopen next spring to mark the silver jubilee of the beloved building). Cultural institutions have become an instrument of urbanism, not only augmenting public spaces but actually being them: a city in Spain comes to mind, but the Whitney also finds a precedent in Piano's seminal achievement in Beaubourg, when he and Richard Rogers were considered "bad boys." The Italian architect acknowledged as much in his remarks, asserting that the sense of openness is, as always, "about safety, welcoming people."
If Chelsea's galleries and boutiques are drops in the bucket, the High Line is an aqueduct, of sorts, for the flow of capital into the 20-block stretch of real estate on Manhattan's westside waterfront. To thoroughly mish-mash the maritime metaphor, the museum is meant to hold art, not water, and its porosity is precisely why it is unsinkable (indeed, the fact sheet [PDF] includes more information on "Flood Mitigation" than RPBW). The rising tide lifts all boats, and it is only fitting that the Whitney has made a splash upon its launch — and its concurrent arrival, after a well-chronicled saga of reinvention, at its home port in Lower Manhattan.
Note: This post has been updated for clarity and to include additional facts about the building.