Renzo Piano is too good an architect for his new Whitney Museum, in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, to be a total failure. The interior is, in general, quite good and surely a vast improvement over Marcel Breuer’s nuclear bunker on Madison Avenue, which housed the museum for half-a-century. And even aspects of the exterior of Piano’s building, taken piecemeal, are quite dexterously done. But seen from the outside and taken as a whole, the new Whitney is somewhat awful.
The main problem is a certain extremity of ugliness. In part, of course, that is the point, the postmodern, deconstructivist point. But it is not a good point or one that Lower Manhattan, with its abundance of inaesthetic buildings, especially needs to learn at this late date. Like the committed postmodernist that Piano sometimes is, the new Whitney, like many of his buildings, embodies an almost literary subtext. Seen from the north, its pale, soot-white façade recalls the industrial aesthetic of several Charles Sheeler paintings from the 1920s that are among the treasures of the Whitney’s collection. South and west, however, the massing and the cantilevered main entrance at Gansevoort and 10th Avenue allude (or so I believe) to that of Breuer’s old Whitney. And yet, there is no angle from which the new Whitney stacks up to create an impressive or definitive form. Big without being imposing, it has mass without presence. Say what you will of Frank Gehry’s varied projects, at least there is one angle from which they are apt to look good and to make sense, whatever unintentional chaos—as opposed to intentional chaos—ensues when one views them from any other angle.
The new Whitney is also quite different from the other projects that Piano has designed in recent years. Whether at the Morgan Library, the New York Times headquarters on 8th Avenue and 41st Street, or the contemporary wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, Piano has achieved a certain pristine classicism within the context of his pared-down neo-modernist vocabulary. Those are works of a consoling and elegant symmetry.
At the new Whitney, however, Piano has chosen a willfully imperfect and asymmetrical arrangement of forms that nevertheless accumulate to create a menacing, box-like mass. It is almost as though the architect had returned to the aesthetics, or anti-aesthetics, of his earliest success: the Centre Pompidou in Paris (designed with Sir Richard Rogers) whose industrial vocabulary bristled with similarly willful irregularities.
The interior, however, is a great improvement over the old Whitney. One went to the Breuer building out of a sense of lugubrious duty. Although it was not without some virtues, like so much modernist architecture it lacked a certain experiential fineness. One never felt happy or entirely comfortable being there, and nothing looked especially good. There was something dank and dismal about that bare, reinforced concrete with its aggressive professions of honesty and aesthetic probity. Of the hundred exhibitions I saw and reviewed in the older building, only one struck me as beautifully installed: The great Agnes Martin retrospective of 1992. On that occasion you had the sense, as you often have in the Metropolitan Museum or at the National Gallery in Washington, that the art and the rooms in which it was placed had coalesced into a seamless and satisfying whole.
There is more chance of that in the exhibition spaces of the new structure. These take up much of the building’s eight stories and vastly expand the area available for the display of special exhibitions and the permanent collection: 50,000 square feet of interior space and 13,000 for outdoor space. The wooden floors—recycled from the nearby piers on the Hudson—give a satisfyingly organic feel to the whole thing, and the lighting has a warm and caressing quality that makes the art, whether by Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, or Jeff Koons, look about as good as it ever will.
If there is any criticism to be made of these spaces, it is that they lack a certain specialness or idiosyncrasy. After exhaustive calibrations on the part of the architect, in consultation with the curators and the director and the trustees and god knows whom else, the result looks essentially like every other equally expensive gallery in 50 other contemporary art venues that have arisen in the past decade, most obviously those of the Museum of Modern Art, as it was reconceived by Yoshio Tanaguchi in 2004. This is not to deny that these interior spaces do their job very well. It should also be said that visitors will rejoice in the elevators, a great improvement over those of the Breuer building, which came about as frequently as the C train on a weekend (not very frequently).