After all the superficial museum folderol post-Bilbao, we should perhaps be grateful that Piano has eschewed the architectural one-liner
An anti-icon? Toby Stewart, co-project architect for the Whitney, looks bemused by the very suggestion. But the Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s new gallery is notably reserved even for a practice that veers between the showmanship of the Shard or the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre for New Caledonia and the well-mannered Art Institute of Chicago extension or the stately Beyeler Foundation in Basel.
The latter is regarded by some curators as one of the best small galleries on the planet and Piano has made a career of serving the art world seriously. But in an age when museum directors are demanding flexible, generic spaces, has the response ultimately gone beyond self-effacement to the bland? It depends on your attitude to functionalism because the Whitney - far more than Breuer’s concrete sculpture on Madison Avenue - is a machine for art. You couldn’t be further away from the hysterical forms of recent openings such as Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton or Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Musée des Confluences in Lyon, both of which looked like last season’s old-hat before they even opened.
What we have taking up a West Side block in the Meatpacking District, looming over the crowd-pleasing High Line, is what appears to be a logical layering: in plan are east-west strips of offices and gallery spaces acting as a sandwich to a thin circulation filling of lifts and stairs; in section, the galleries are stacked on four floors above three floors of offices and the entrance foyer.
Externally, the whole is clad in long strips - up to 21m long - of blue-grey coated steel that attach to the rain screen and kick up at their edges to provide some modelling to the angled-back facade demanded by zoning setbacks. On the east side, a tangle of external staircases, clearly inspired by the New York fire-escape vernacular, tumbles down between terraces on some gallery levels and the roof of the High Line facilities building next door (also by RPBW). They are the only display of playfulness and dynamism.
The permanent and temporary gallery spaces are entirely plain with reclaimed southern yellow pine floors and picture windows confined to either end, overlooking the Hudson or the largely post-industrial neighbourhood. The Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo has previously stated that, ‘we conceptualised [the building] as a total work of art’, but the studied pragmatism on display does not make this apparent and trumpeting its status as ‘New York’s … largest column-free museum gallery’ only underlines the overwhelming desire for ultra-flexible generic space. The model is not, as some have said, the post-industrial loft or even the white cube, but the aircraft hangar. It is a strategy pursued by other contemporary art museums including the 2008 Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles (also by Piano) where a new wing by Diller Scofidio + Renfro rejoices in a 61m by 61m column-free space.
At the Whitney, this white-out is not confined to the galleries themselves (the largest of which is 85m x 21m) but pervades the entire building. While at ground floor there is a small tucked-away gallery devoted to the history of the Whitney’s collections and a space above the ticket desk is kept free for display, otherwise the entire foyer could equally well serve an office tower or various other building types - a particularly swish hospital or university department perhaps. Ticketing, shop et al can all be moved out of the way to allow for corporate functions, while a restaurant takes up much of the daily space and spills out into the forecourt outside (pretentiously dubbed the Largo).
The foyer’s sloping ceiling does not accommodate the rake of an auditorium above but is there to meet the planners’ demands for views through the building from the High Line to the West Side Highway. In actuality, the views are so marginal as to be almost non-existent. In many ways the space resembles the foyer of Benthem Crouwel’s wing at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, although at least in the latter your encounter with art comes soon enough.
The museum’s blank expression to Gansevoort Street is equally unaccountable even allowing for the Whitney’s expansion north when the leases of the meat distribution businesses adjacent expire - why not enliven the street with the museum’s office windows?
Internally or externally there is little to say that you have arrived at an art museum at all. Most visitors will not encounter art in any meaningful way until they have travelled several storeys up the building. Astonishingly, the Whitney believes that it has addressed this issue by commissioning artist Richard Artschwager to decorate the lining of the lifts, but the basketware design looks like genteel wall graphics that you might encounter in the deli section of a supermarket.
This installation will also do little to distract you from the dog’s breakfast of a circulation pattern. Visitors are expected to take the lifts to the top-storey gallery and work their way down through four floors. On a sweltering summer weekday, gallery-goers have the pleasure of skittering down the external stairs via cafés and sculpture terraces to do this. Or wait for the slow and crowded lifts to descend a single floor. Oddly, the main gallery stair (an elegant affair suspended from above) only reaches between the foyer and lowest gallery floor (level five) rather than its full height. The only indoor solution to visit the gallery floors in turn is to use a humdrum fire stair at the west end of the building. You can only imagine the chaos on a wet weekend when the outside staircases are slick with rain and the dismal fire stair and lifts have to take the entire strain of movement around the building. The largest doubles as a service lift and is often occupied by staff moving wheelie bins in the building.
As both a curatorial and an architectural strategy, interchangeability works against the character that specificity can lend. The Whitney is, despite pleasurable moments such as Piano’s meticulously detailed end windows and typically proportioned glazed screens, entirely forgettable. Given the endless meetings between client and architect to get to this point you can only assume that this is the deliberate intent - an attitude that nothing should distract from the art within. This does not make for a memorable museum experience and it is hard to imagine people holding the new Whitney in the same affection as the problematic but characterful old Whitney, despite carefully similar ceiling heights to the galleries. Breuer’s charming bunker has been leased to the Metropolitan Museum for contemporary art and architecture exhibitions. The Whitney has its additional space but the Met got the best of the deal.
After all the superficial museum folderol post-Bilbao, we should perhaps be grateful that Piano has eschewed the architectural one-liner. But is the anodyne really an antidote to the icon?
Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop with Cooper Robertson (New York)
Structural engineer: Robert Silman Associates
MEP and fire prevention: Jaros, Baum & Bolles
Photographs: Nic Lehoux