Having spent years trying to bust out of its concrete compound on Madison Avenue, proposing towers too tall or flamboyant for the Upper East Side, the Whitney Museum of American Art is finally decamping back downtown, where its story started and where the city is still a work-in-progress. So one would have to have a cold, cold heart indeed not to feel for Whitney czar Adam Weinberg as he cried tears of joy at the Whitney’s downtown groundbreaking ceremony.
Like other cultural institutions, the Whitney has discovered a silver lining to hard times: even as fund-raising has become more arduous, construction costs have dropped, cutting a big chunk from the new Whitney building’s price tag. That savings helps brings the estimated cost of the project down to under $200 million — and helped persuade the board to commit to breaking ground. Situated between the High Line and the Hudson River, the new building will vastly increase the Whitney’s exhibition and programming space, providing the first comprehensive view of its unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary American art. The new site also offers an escape from a neighborhood whose guardians treat anything out of the ordinary as an architectural cataclysm.
The new design is the work of the hyperdistinguished architect Renzo Piano, who has peppered this country with elegant if sometimes bloodless new museums and additions. Renzo Piano was born in Genoa, Italy. In 1971, he founded the studio Piano & Rogers with Richard Rogers, and together they won the competition for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the city where he now lives. From the early 70s until the 90s, he collaborated with the engineer Peter Rice, forming Atelier Piano & Rice, between 1977 and 1981. Finally, in 1981, he established Renzo Piano Building Workshop, with a hundred people working in Paris, Genoa, and New York.
It is no accident that the new Whitney will be smack dab in the middle of the new meat market, with the oceans of Carrie Bradshaw wannabees who crowd Gansevoort Street each night with their Marlboros and Jimmy Choos. According to Mr. Piano, “The design for the new museum emerges equally from a close study of the Whitney’s needs and from a response to this remarkable site. We wanted to draw on its vitality and at the same time enhance its rich character. The first big gesture, then, is the cantilevered entrance, which transforms the area outside the building into a large, sheltered public space. At this gathering place beneath the High Line, visitors will see through the building entrance and the large windows on the west side to the Hudson River beyond. Here, all at once, you have the water, the park, the powerful industrial structures and the exciting mix of people, brought together and focused by this new building and the experience of art.”
A retail shop on the ground-floor level will contribute to the busy street life of the area. A ground-floor restaurant and top-floor café will be conceived and operated by renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group, which recently opened Untitled, the new restaurant in the Whitney’s current building on the Upper East Side.
Piano comes from Italy’s industrial port city of Genoa, which he refurbished nearly twenty years ago, so he knows something about adapting the relics of a grungier age to today’s consumerist glitter. The dramatically cantilevered entrance along Gansevoort Street will shelter an 8,500-square-foot outdoor plaza or “largo,” a public gathering space steps away from the southern entrance to the High Line. Mr. Piano’s design takes a strong and strikingly asymmetrical form—one that responds to the industrial character of the neighboring loft buildings and overhead railway while asserting a contemporary, sculptural presence. The upper stories of the building will stretch toward the Hudson River on its west, and step back gracefully from the elevated High Line Park to its east.
But, one might ask, what about the art? The new building will include more than 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries and 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space on a series of rooftops facing the High Line. An expansive gallery for temporary exhibitions will be approximately 18,000 square feet in area, making it the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City. Additional exhibition space includes a lobby gallery (accessible free of charge), two floors for the permanent collection, and a contemporary artists’ project space on the top floor.
The building also will include an education center offering dedicated space for state-of-the-art classrooms; a multi-use black box theater for film, video, and performance with an adjacent outdoor gallery; a 170-seat theater with stunning views of the Hudson River; and a Works on Paper Study Center, Conservation Lab, and Library Reading Room. The classrooms, theater, and study center are all firsts for the Whitney.
The Whitney’s vibrant program of exhibitions and events will continue in its uptown building until late 2014. After the opening of the Whitney’s new building in 2015, the Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to present exhibitions and educational programming at the Whitney’s uptown building for a period of eight years, with the possibility of extending the agreement for a longer term. The two museums will seek to collaborate on collections sharing, publications, and other educational activities.
But why move to a neighborhood where not many years ago, the blood of butchered beasts still ran among the cobblestones? Now that the museum has finally found the money, the site, and the time to build a fantasy home from scratch, now that it has unloaded its old building on the Metropolitan Museum as a contemporary-art satellite, and now that the meatpacking district has been spruced up and made safe for a major cultural brand, no doubt the Whitney hopes harness a new current of raw creative power.
Owner’s Rep: Gardiner & Theobald, Inc.
Design Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Executive Architect: Cooper, Robertson & Partners
MEP Engineer: Jaros, Baum & Bolles
Lighting/Daylighting Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates
Construction Manager: Turner Construction, LLC