»Form follows feminine.«

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The Whitney Effect

Renzo Piano’s new museum in New York

  • Detail of the new Whitney’s west façade. It’s 1960s-ish, 1990s-ish, brutalist, even Russian Constructivist: a mixed up language of the postmodern. (All photos: Cristina Guadalupe Galván) 1 / 15  Detail of the new Whitney’s west façade. It’s 1960s-ish, 1990s-ish, brutalist, even Russian Constructivist: a mixed up language of the postmodern. (All photos: Cristina Guadalupe Galván)
  • At first sight the new Whitney, coming from the south on West Street, appears aligned with its residential neighbours... 2 / 15  At first sight the new Whitney, coming from the south on West Street, appears aligned with its residential neighbours...
  • ...only to pop out as you get closer to it, revealing its broken up volumes which helps the ease the large scale of the building. 3 / 15  ...only to pop out as you get closer to it, revealing its broken up volumes which helps the ease the large scale of the building.
  • The concrete vertical core separates functions (galleries on one side, administrative on the other), but also establishes a formal relationship with the Standard Hotel behind, the two buildings linked between by the High Line. 4 / 15  The concrete vertical core separates functions (galleries on one side, administrative on the other), but also establishes a formal relationship with the Standard Hotel behind, the two buildings linked between by the High Line.
  • Elevations à la Koolhaas through which you can read the building’s functional programme. 5 / 15  Elevations à la Koolhaas through which you can read the building’s functional programme.
  • The new Whitney is contextual in a neighbourhood of old warehouses and docks, heavy with a history of maritime and industrial activity.  6 / 15  The new Whitney is contextual in a neighbourhood of old warehouses and docks, heavy with a history of maritime and industrial activity. 
  • From the West Side Highway it appears fortress-like, appropriately defensive against the heavy traffic.   7 / 15  From the West Side Highway it appears fortress-like, appropriately defensive against the heavy traffic.  
  • The Washington Street axis of high-end retail, restaurants and clubs, and hotels – a commercially dense urban mixed-use programme – has the Whitney as a backstop. 8 / 15  The Washington Street axis of high-end retail, restaurants and clubs, and hotels – a commercially dense urban mixed-use programme – has the Whitney as a backstop.
  • There is not really a front façade or visible entrance: it’s more like a spaceship about to abduct you into its belly.    9 / 15  There is not really a front façade or visible entrance: it’s more like a spaceship about to abduct you into its belly.   
  • From the north side, at street level, one can see the Museum like a giant container looming up behind the High Line’s greenery, its balconies overlooking the city. 10 / 15  From the north side, at street level, one can see the Museum like a giant container looming up behind the High Line’s greenery, its balconies overlooking the city.
  • Pure functionality on the terraces, with fire emergency egresses looking and feeling more like on an industrial facility: providing a touch of industrial romanticism. 11 / 15  Pure functionality on the terraces, with fire emergency egresses looking and feeling more like on an industrial facility: providing a touch of industrial romanticism.
  • Ground floor restaurant. This floor, compressed towards the highway, opens out towards the High Line, protecting itself from traffic, while inviting the city inside: similar to that at Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Lincoln Center renovation uptown.& 12 / 15  Ground floor restaurant. This floor, compressed towards the highway, opens out towards the High Line, protecting itself from traffic, while inviting the city inside: similar to that at Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Lincoln Center renovation uptown.&
  • The Museum entrance in the south façade, feels like that of an airport, designed for a high density of traffic. 13 / 15  The Museum entrance in the south façade, feels like that of an airport, designed for a high density of traffic.
  • Views out to the surrounding neighbourhood and the city from the gallery terraces. 14 / 15  Views out to the surrounding neighbourhood and the city from the gallery terraces.
  • View inside. Ad Reinhardt (1913-67): “Abstract Painting” (1960-66) from the Whitney’s collection. 15 / 15  View inside. Ad Reinhardt (1913-67): “Abstract Painting” (1960-66) from the Whitney’s collection.

The new Whitney Museum designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in May 2015 in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, looks at first sight to be a bit too much of a behemoth to bed down easily in its neighbourhood. But as Cristina Guadalupe Galván observes, this is a building that functions well both progammatically and in its urban setting, by drawing successfully on its context, on architectural history and on Piano’s own oeuvre – for the shadow of the Centre Pompidou in Paris is never far behind.

Every architect has a building that kick-starts their career: often a project that has a certain intellectual density, carrying the seeds of ideas and a language which then gets to be developed over a lifetime.

For Renzo Piano, the Centre Pompidou or Beaubourg, in Paris was such a building, which he designed jointly with Richard Rogers and was completed in 1977. This polemical and important project exhibited an intense condensation of ideas that his recently inaugurated Whitney Museum in New York, in some ways, echoes.

Parallelling the earlier situation in Paris, the new Whitney is part of a larger economic pattern of urban change and development allied to commerce and tourism at the heart of the city.  Whereas in Paris, the Beaubourg’s site was the area of Les Halles, in New York it is the Meatpacking District – both are former food distribution and market areas, where a relocation of earlier industry and its allied commercial activity left a lot of empty space for real estate development, but also the opportunity to reimagine and rework the city fabric and its balance of use.

More than 30 years later and with many buildings under his belt (especially museums: from the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, to extensions to the Harvard Art Museums and the Art Institute of Chicago), Piano, with this new industrial-looking container for the arts, revisits again formalistically the utopian ideas of the 60s – with echoes of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace and Archigram – in its rounds edges and windows and open, flexible floor plans. But it also owes a lot to Rem Koolhaas, its bold façades expressive of the inner programme’s functionality, suited for a twenty-first century delirious New York.

This time though the building seems more mature, more practical, than the cadet-work of the Beaubourg, which had to go through many adaptions even from its inauguration, in its attempt to strike an elegant balance between commerce and art. At the Whitney, the open ground floor, which is effectively just an extension of the street, brings the city inside the museum and vice versa; while equally apparent is the strong relationship to the city’s heights, not through a promenade, as at the Beaubourg, but though a series of terraces which always connect back to the exhibition spaces: big and high open galleries – that on the fifth floor being the largest in the US.  There is of course a certain loss of the mystique of the Museum – it now being such a commercially exploited institution – just as was famously critiqued by Jean Baudrillard of the Beaubourg in L’effet beaubourg (éditions galilée, 1977), with its “simulacrum of cultural values”.

But unlike the Beaubourg, this building is more contextual, the 60s technological feel has a kind of industrial romanticism, its DNA that of the warehouses and docks of its district, while it establishes visual relationships with the landmarks around it, such as the High Line and the Standard Hotel.

Overall it is a work of measure, understanding and positivism, and just maybe, one also of a democratisation of art.

– Cristina Guadalupe Galván is a visual artist, architect and writer from Spain based in New York. She is principal at Idée Fixe, a trans-disciplinary studio of art and architecture where she addresses social and cultural issues through critical thinking and social media-specific projects.

cristinaguadalupegalvan.com

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