Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The New Whitney Museum

By Charles Kessler

Seventh floor terrace of the New Whitney Museum (New York Review of Books, image by Nic Lehoux).
I hate the museum that Renzo Piano designed for Harvard, a ponderous bunker of a building, and his addition to the Gardner Museum rudely dominates the original museum (see below); so I was suspicious of all the acclaim his design for the new Whitney Museum was getting.
On the left: Renzo Piano's new Harvard Museums, view from Prescott Street; on the right: Renzo Piano’s addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with the original Venetian-style palazzo on the right.
I'm not going to take back anything I said about his other museums (here and here), but the Whitney is the best new museum I know of since the Getty Center in 1997 and the Yale Gallery in 2012-13. And in some ways it’s even better because the new Whitney is unique among museums in that it succeeds in creating a welcoming and convivial atmosphere.

The new entrance to the Brooklyn Museum aspires to be a welcoming space, but it's so uncomfortable, awkward and discordant that it almost feels hostile.
The Rubin Pavilion entrance to the Brooklyn Museum. 
And the new proposal for yet another MoMA expansion, this one by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is also trying to be "engaging and welcoming," but it looks more like a department store, and it has been universally panned for its "market-driven populism."
 Diller Scofidio + Renfro's proposed new entrance to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 
(A better way for MoMA to be engaging and welcoming would be for them to remove that obnoxious wall on 54th Street that blocks the view of their sculpture garden.)
Wall along 54th Street blocking the view of MoMA's sculpture Garden. 
With colorful outside seats and tables, and food trucks nearby, the new Whitney entrance is as festive and leisurely as an Italian Piazza.
Plaza outside the Whitney entrance.
The Whitney has this same gracious and inviting air on the inside too.
Cafe on the eighth floor deck
I don't know if it was a matter of having a better client, or Piano just got better as an architect, but the Whitney is about as different from the Harvard Museums as it could possibly be.  The Harvard building, with its solid, blank wall, is obnoxiously hostile to the street and its neighbors.
The exterior of Harvard Art Museums. Photography by Peter Vanderwarker.
But the decks and exterior stairwells of the new Whitney visually open the building up to its surroundings and integrate it with the nearby High Line. From the street below, the people climbing the outside stairways and looking out from the decks of the Whitney seem to be the vertical equivalent of the people promenading along the High Line. 
I wasn't able to take a good photograph myself; however, I got this excellent one from photographybykent.
The entrance to the Harvard Museums is so insignificant I thought I'd mistakenly come in through a side entrance, whereas the Whitney's entire ground floor is glass and visually open to the street. As if this isn't enough, Whitney employees give you a warm welcome when you enter. 
Ground floor entry of the new Whitney Museum. 
Piano's signature interior stairways, which look so corporate and cold at the Harvard Museums, are lively and fun here, mainly because of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's witty stairwell installation.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1994.
Outside stairways and decks.
At the Harvard Museums a lot of space is wasted with a disproportionately grandiose five-story atrium – something that unfortunately has become obligatory for new museums. I'm pleased to report that there's no wasteful atrium here. This was undoubtably the decision of the Whitney board who chose not to have a gigantic ostentatious space for fundraising galas, but instead to use more space for the display of art. They will probably have their galas in the galleries, a more appropriate space for a museum anyway. 

And what beautiful galleries they are! Art looks fresh and alive in them. The rooms are high and light, and, since the walls and lights can be moved, different size galleries and configurations of the space are possible. Whatever the size of the galleries, they still feel intimate, and they don't distract from the art in any way.
Seventh Floor gallery.
Eighth floor gallery
Fifth Floor Gallery

Seventh Floor gallery, Alexander Calder's Circus, 1926-31.
The Whitney also has an all-purpose 170-seat black box theater (a neutral theater space with a movable seating area, a movable stage, and a flexible lighting system), and it's a beauty. They've had music and dance concerts there already. 
The Susan and John Hess Family Theater. 
And finally, one small but telling thing: at a time when museums are taking away seats to make more room to push crowds through, they considerately provide several pleasant places to sit and enjoy the view, or watch the parade of people, or to just rest up. 
Chairs were designed by Mary Heilmann to "encourage visitors to interact with one another and the cityscape beyond."
Seating area overlooking the High Line.

1 comment:

Karen Rand Anderson said...

Wonderful overview of the new Whitney, and a concise comparison to the other Piano museums. Thanks for this comprehensive and engaging review... I happened to be able to be there on the special Member's Opening Preview day, so was able to see everything and experience it all with very few other people. I didn't realize just how lucky I was at the time, and cannot wait to go back.