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Buildings

West Side Storeys Thomas Wensing visits Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum in Manhattan Photos Nic Lehoux

Left The new Whitney Museum fronts onto Gansevoort Street, between the Hudson River and the High Line – the urban park built on a disused elevated spur of the 1930s New York Central Railroad. Containing substantially more exhibition space than the Whitney’s previous Marcel Breuer-designed home, the new building will show items from the its permanent collection of 19,000 works of modern and contemporary American art, as well as hosting temporary exhibitions. Below Clad in pale blue-grey steel panels, the eight-storey building is distinctly asymmetrical, stepping down with tiers of terraces and walkways to the east. View from across the Hudson River (ph: Timothy Schenck/Whitney); site model (ph: RPBW/Stefano Goldber/Publifoto).

The Whitney Museum’s move to its new building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, ends the long saga to expand the institution. In the early 1980s Michael Graves was asked to design an extension to the Whitney’s 1966 Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, and his three attempts were followed by similarly unsuccessful proposals by Rem Koolhaas (2001) and Renzo Piano (2004). This mother of all stalemates, created by local vested interests, landmark requirements and site constraints, is symptomatic of the combination of money and preservationism that guides or stifles development on the Upper East Side.

A breakthrough was finally made in 2004 when the city offered the Whitney a new location at the end of the High Line, north of the West Village. The move returns the Whitney to its roots; in 1918 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Juliana Force opened the Whitney Studio Club on West 4th street, and in 1931 the first Whitney Museum opened in three rowhouses a few blocks to the south on West 8th Street. The new 20,000-square-metre building at 99 Gansevoort Street fulfils the need for more exhibition space, and adds a much needed collection of public, educational and curatorial spaces that have become so important to the operation of contemporary museums.

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Key DW

REF

PANTRY 807

OFFICE

COPY/ STORAGE

1

Entrance lobby

9 Store

2

Shop

10 Collection gallery

CONF/ TRUSTEE ROOM

16

WOMEN TOILETS

MEN TOILETS

OFFICE

TOILET

VESTIBULE

KITCHEN

JANITOR

COAT ROOM

FEC

OPEN OFFICE

TOILET

TOILETS VESTIBULE

CORR. LOBBY 802 TELECOM CLOSET

FIRE AL./ BMS CL.

3 Restaurant

11 Outdoor gallery

4 Lobby gallery

12 Works on paper

5 Loading

13 Conservation centre

6 Temporary gallery

14 Special projects

7

15 Cafe

FEC

ELEC.CL. ELEC.CL. STAIR A

FEC

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

CORR.

STAIR F

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

ELEVATOR AE-1

CORR.

STAIR B

FEC

GALLERY

CAFE

15

LEVEL 8 EL.133'-6"

14

TERRACE

Outdoor gallery

8 Film and video

16 Conference centre

Level 8 plan

WET TREATMENT/ FUME HOOD MATTING ROOM

OFFICE

PRINTS & DRAWINGS

13 CONSERVATION CENTER

MEDIA ROOM

WORKS ON PAPER PHOTOGRAPHY DOC. ROOM

STUDY CENTER

12

OPEN OFFICE VESTIBULE

FIRE AL./ BMS CL.

ELEC.CL.

TELECOM CLOSET STAIR C

ELEC.CL. PUBLIC ELEVATOR

STAIR A

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

STAIR E

ELEC.CL.

ELEVATOR

CORR. CORR.

STAIR B

CORR. 600a

2

This objective of engag ing the public is immediately apparent when you approach the Whitney from the city, walking along Gansevoort Street towards what is the more attractive side of the building. The hulk of the structure, clad in bluish-white metal panels, hovers over a public square and lobby which interact successfully with the city and the termination of the High Line. The lift and steel structure of the High Line enter into a dynamic interplay of horizontal and vertical lines with the cantilevered steel decks and staircases at the top of the Whitney. Internally a spine with lifts and stairs separates the mass of the building into exhibition spaces to the south and the backof-house or semi-private areas to the north. This aspect has a somewhat bland, industrial character, presumably in anticipation of a future extension when the leases on the adjacent warehouses run out.

Comparison to the Breuer building is inevitable, and a similarity is that the large lifts open directly into the galleries. I was disappointed, however, with the inconspicuous nature of some of the stairs and the fact that they are broken up between some floors, a response to post-9/11 codes. The central open-tread staircase, clad in prefab panels, abruptly terminates on the fifth floor, and the exterior terrace stairs serve only floors six to eight. The unexciting and closed fire escape at the west side of the building connects more floors and was, in fact, in heavy use when I visited.

Upon exiting the core either by stair or lift, one is struck by how the large windows to the east and west, offering long sightlines to the skylines of New Jersey and Manhattan, anchor the building to its site. The eighth floor has shed roof skylights, which due to the fortuitous ang le of the street compensate for the tilt of the Manhattan grid, and give sublime north light. Floors five, six and seven do not have the advantage of the skylights, but this drawback is made up by large picture windows and the flexibility of large, column-free spaces. The scale of the galleries is such that it made me wonder if high and big is always better. Smaller paintings seem to strugg le against the large backdrops, and works such as Alexander Calder’s ‘Circus’ certainly felt more intimate in the previous building. On the other hand, a large painting such as Edward Ruscha’s ‘Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights’ clearly benefits from the ample wall space and the mix of natural and artificial light.

COLLECTION

GALLERY

LEVEL 6 EL.88'-2"

11

10

OUTDOOR GALLERY

Level 6 plan Above Marcel Breuer designed the Whitney’s first purpose-built premises on Madison Avenue in 1966 (ph: Whitney Museum/ Jerry L Thompson). Extensions were planned by Michael Graves (1987, above right), Rem Koolhaas (2001, below left) and Renzo Piano (2004, below right). The building, recently renamed the Met Breuer, will host exhibitions organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 2016.

PROJECTION RM/ VESTIBULE

CLOSET

9

FEC

PROJECTION RM/ STORAGE

CRATING/ UNCRATING

CRATE STORAGE/ WORK ROOM

OFFICE

OUTDOOR GALLERY

7

8

FILM & VIDEO / BLACK BOX

9 LEVEL 5 EL.68'-0"

LEVEL 5 EL.64'-5-1/2"

OPEN OFFICE

TOILET VESTIBULE

TOILET STAIR B FEC

FEC

LEVEL 5 EL.64'-6"

TOILET

FIRE AL./ BMS CL.

ELEC.CL.

CORR.

TELECOM CLOSET

STAIR C

VESTIBULE

ELEC.CL. STAIR A

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

CORR.

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

ELEC.CL.

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

GRAND STAIR

ELEVATOR

STAIR D CEILING BELOW

VESTIBULE FEC

FEC

CORR. FEC

FEC

FEC

TEMPORARY EXHIBITIONS GALLERY

6

Left The building is entered via a cantilevertopped ‘largo’, a public space between the street and museum with views to the Hudson and the High Line entrance. Accessed from the largo, the main entrance lobby also serves as a free-entry exhibition space.

LEVEL 5 EL.64'-6"

Level 5 plan

LOADING DOCK

5

ART DOCK

Level three houses a 170-seat theatre with double-height views over the Hudson River, along with technical spaces and offices. Levels five, six, seven and eight contain 4650 square metres of gallery space, including a 1670 square metre, column-free gallery – New York’s largest – for temporary exhibitions. The permanent collection is exhibited on levels six and seven, which step back to the west to form 1200 square metres of outdoor terraces. Staff offices, an education centre, conservation laboratories and a library reading room are to the north of the core on levels three to seven, including a multi-use theatre for film, video and performance on level five. On the uppermost floor is the ‘studio’ gallery and a cafe, toplit by a saw-tooth skylight.

LOBBY GALLERY

4

NON ART DOCK

RECEIVING AREA 3

GUARD

TOILET

STAIR B

TRASH

STAFF ENTRANCE

FIRE AL./ BMS CL. FEC

FEC

ELEC.CL. CORR. PUBLIC ELEVATOR

STAIR A

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

CORR.

PUBLIC ELEVATOR

ELEVATOR

SERVICE ELEVATOR KITCHEN

STAIR C

GRAND STAIR

TOILET

TOILETS VESTIBULE

F

STAIR D

TOILET

FEC

KITCHEN

VESTIBULE

CORR.

2

UO

US

SL OT

DR

AIN

CORR.

NT IN

LOBBY

CO

3

RESTAURANT

LARGO

1 2

3

MUSEUM SHOP

AC

AC

Ground floor

30

Gansevoort Street

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Above Upper-level sculpture and cafe terraces. Right The entrance ‘largo’ provides a sheltered public space off Gansevoort Street.

When I sat down on one of the sofas, gazing out to the Jersey shore, my head dropped back on a drywall partition, and for a moment I lamented the absence of the heft and rough tactility of the Breuer building. The fundraising effort for the new Whitney amassed $760 million, and what you get for this kind of money in New York City feels at times like a collage of steel and drywall in need of snagg ing. There are poorly executed shadow gaps, stone joints that are are misaligned with columns, prefab panels that are non-coplanar and steel panel joints that are uneven.

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Renzo Piano’s buildings usually stand up to the closest scrutiny, but like many architects, he has suffered the indignity of poor execution that characterises the US construction industry. Against this backdrop it has to be said that the Whitney’s new building is a skilful and mature expression of Piano’s late work. Unintentionally, however, it is also testament to the fact that with New York’s inflexible building codes, and ludicrous zoning laws seeming ly designed mainly to promote real estate speculation, it is nearly impossible to build buildings in this city that have the quality to endure. 

Project team

Architect Renzo Piano Building Workshop with Cooper Robertson (NYC) Structure Robert Silman Assocs MEP, fire prevention Jaros Baum & Bolles Lighting Arup Facade engineer Heintges & Assocs Civil engineer Phillip Habib & Assocs Theatre consultant Theatre Projects

AV, acoustics Cerami & Associates Landscape Piet Oudolf with Mathews Nielson Construction manager Turner Construction Cladding Josef Gartner Fire glazing Vetrotech Saint-Gobain Suspended eilings Armstrong Green/built-up roofing American Hydrotech

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Renzo Piano Whitney - Architecture Today  

Building Review by Thomas Wensing of the Whitney Museum in New York by Renzo Piano Building Workshop

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