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Westside Whitney: Fortress Mentality?

Renzo Piano’s design for the new downtown Whitney
Courtesy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Cooper, Robertson &

In a press release dated today, the Whitney Museum misleadingly said that it “today released plans” for its “new six-floor, 185,000-square-foot building” in downtown Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Actually, it released those plans earlier than today…to Nicolai Ouroussoff. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked Whitney officials, from director Adam Weinberg on down, to let me know about the design for the new facility at the earliest possible moment (all the while knowing that my efforts would be futile).

The Whitney’s preferred co-releasor, in his NY Times article today, favorably appraised a design that “forms an impenetrable block facing the West Side Highway. [Actually it’s West Street, Nicolai; the highway does not extend to Lower Manhattan]. But as you study the form more intently [preferably with the architect or Whitney officials at your side], more layered meanings emerge.”

Maybe so; I’ve (belatedly) received the press release describing such amenities as “approximately 15,000 square feet of rooftop galleries…on various levels of the building, allowing for dynamic outdoor exhibitions. A dramatically cantilevered entrance along Gansevoort Street will shelter a public plaza that is destined to become a popular outdoor gathering space….The new building will engage the Whitney directly with the
bustling community of artists, gallerists, students, educators, entrepreneurs, and residents in Chelsea and Greenwich Village.”

I’m cautiously optimistic, not because of a four-page press release and a few drawings, but because I’ve always thought Piano’s most brilliant museum work occurs when he has free reign to design a freestanding building (Menil, Beyeler, Klee, Nasher), rather than an add-on to an existing institution (High, Morgan, Los Angeles County Museum).

Speaking of the Nasher, what was Ouroussoff thinking when he wrote:

Mr. Piano plans to use a weblike structure of delicate steel, glass and
fabric scrims for the roof on the top-floor gallery: the kind of
intricate lighting system he has created before, in projects like the
Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

Unlike his famously elaborate (and expensive) lighting-control roof systems for other museums, the Nasher’s is simple and elegant—an aluminum mesh of slanted openings that admit ample, indirect natural light. Most sculptures, after all, are not light-sensitive. Nasher was a guiding force in creating this porous covering. As the Nasher’s website says:

The Nasher Sculpture Center represents Ray Nasher’s vision to create an outdoor “roof-less” museum.

The cost of giving Ouroussoff first crack at this story appears to have been to invest him with a sense of mission to singlehandedly redraw Piano’s designs. Among other fixes, he asks the architect to change his choice of material to be used for the cladding. First he asserts that “the building’s faceted surface seems hewed from a massive block of stone.” We later learn, however, that this material is the preference of the critic, not the architect:

Mr. Piano…said he was leaning toward a steel
frame structure covered in welded steel plates….But the
massive form of the downtown design suggests a building drawn from a
single block rather than one built of individual structural pieces. That
image would probably be strengthened by cladding the building in a
stone compound. A concrete exterior could also form a psychological
bridge between the new museum and the Breuer building, making a trip
downtown feel more like a homecoming. Mr. Piano certainly has the skill to resolve these issues.

Why don’t they just name Ouroussoff as architect and be done with it?

What I find most astonishing about the Whitney’s approach to this project is that, according to Ouroussoff, museum officials have “yet to define the relationship between the two buildings. (One
possibility is that the Breuer building will be used for exhibitions
that focus on one aspect of the collection or a single artist, with the
core of the collection relocated downtown.)”

In any museum project that I know of, the plans for use of the building are developed in close coordination with the architectural plans. Different uses might dictate different types of spaces. You would think that the Whitney wonks would have already sorted these issues out. Maybe they actually have, but aren’t ready to tell us yet.

The museum hopes to raise $680 million in total, for construction and endowment, with “anticipated opening in late 2012.” Some of that money has already been raised in the campaign’s “silent phase,” but my queries as to how much have not been answered. (I will update here if and when I get that information.)

an ArtsJournal blog