On Thursday, I had the opportunity to see one of New York’s biggest works in progress, the new Whitney Museum on Gansevoort Street, whose official opening is still some ten months away. The structure is topped out and largely complete in its bare bones, though it remains very much a hard-hat zone, and the interiors are still a tangle of dry-wall, dust, and exposed electrical fixtures. Nevertheless, it was possible to get a more material sense of the place than one had before. The eight story structure promises, for the first time, to offer the amount of space that will enable the museum to exhibit its permanent collection as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art now do – not as an afterthought to temporary exhibitions, but as the main event of one’s visit.
The spirit of real estate hangs self-evidently over this fourth and latest incarnation of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Whereas the Marcel Breuer megalith on Madison Avenue was largely windowless and cut off all sense of the city beyond, the new building revels in curtain-walled windows 16 feet high and a hundred feet across, offering the sort of views of the high line, the Mid-town Skyline, the skyline of lower Manhattan and the Hudson, that are the stuff of developers’ hyperventilating brochures. This amenity is enhanced at the top three levels by delightful terraces that offer incomparable glimpses of the great metropolis.
As for the architecture itself, of course, a final verdict will have to await the completion of the building. No project looks worse than it does in the purgatorial interval between the rendering and the consummation. That said, despite the repeated assurances of the Whitney staff that the interiors were not cavernous, they certainly looked cavernous on this most recent visit. Indeed, they seemed to reenact the well-oiled, over-funded maximalism that plagued the Modern’s expansion some ten years ago.
If the interior is still an open question, however, the exterior is starting to come into far clearer focus. I was never too impressed by Renzo Piano’s plan, and I am afraid that my recent visit has made me less so. Piano has had two idioms in his career, a neo-industrialist phase, most evident in his early work on the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and an austerely rectilinear style — one might almost call it industrial Gothic — that is evident at the Times Building on 41st Street and 8th Avenue, as well as at the Morgan.
In the new Whitney, the former reappears, and it looks no better for the passing of the decades. Thing are not helped by the goofy conviction that it is somehow a good thing to allude, through the stacking of the upper stories, to the massing of the various levels of Breuer’s building. Thrown into the resulting stylistic mumble is enough deconstructivist asymmetry to confuse matters even further. Surely the completed exterior will look better once the hard-hats are gone and the dust settles and the scaffolding bridges come down. But I am not confident that it will look sufficiently better to call the new Whitney — architecturally speaking — a success.
[Editor’s note: In James Gardner’s last column, we inadvertently omitted the name of the architectural firm responsible for the new structure in Washington Square Park. The firm is BKSK Architects.]