Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014) begins with the narrator walking down New York’s High Line park after ‘an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses which the chef had literally massaged to death’. Sitting in the High Line’s amphitheatre suspended over Tenth Avenue, watching the traffic, he felt ‘subject to a succession of images, sensations, memories and affects that did not, properly speaking, belong to me’. What we consume and how we do so is mediated by the lifestyles we try on. In Chelsea and the neighbouring Meatpacking District, consumption is conspicuous. Indeed, display has become endemic to the area: the High Line is a catwalk, straddled by the Standard Hotel, which, with its huge glass windows, is a peepshow. Abutting the High Line, and clad on either end in floor-to-ceiling glass, the new Whitney Museum of American Art seems, at first, to amplify this condition. In fact, it’s the antidote.
The Renzo Piano-designed museum, which opened in May with a sweeping exhibition titled ‘America Is Hard To See’, coaxes our attention into focus. After almost half a century in its brutalist Upper East Side manse designed by Marcel Breuer in 1966, the Whitney has also acquired a new purpose. At a time when contemporary viewers are accustomed to broadcasting Tweets and Instagramming as ways of engaging with their surroundings, the museum must become commensurate with our viewing habits if it stands a chance against our smartphones.
From the exterior, the building seems like a compromise. Moulded by circumstance – the human flows of the High Line, the gentrified hubbub of the Meatpacking District, the Hudson River skyline – the museum appears too eager to please. It looks like an agglomeration of industrial motifs, jury-rigged to accommodate its various needs. As Peter Schjeldahl aptly put it in his review of the building in The New Yorker: ‘Form doesn’t so much follow function as happily succumb to it.’ In contrast to Breuer’s fortress-like Whitney or, more recently, SANAA’s gleaming-white, minimalist New Museum (2007), which juts out next to the Bowery Mission homeless shelter, Piano’s Whitney found no reason to challenge its context, choosing instead to slip into place by camouflage. Approaching it on foot through the aspirational Meatpacking District, past Santina – an Italian restaurant, also designed by Piano, tucked under the Highline – one arrives at an immense cafe and riverside gift shop. The museum’s ground-level glass frontage mimics the aquarium trope of its neighbours; from the street, the whole area is an exhibition of shopping and dining.
All the same, Piano is a master of art museums. Trading in neither the contemporary museum’s propensity for cosmetic flamboyance (Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, 1997) nor tectonic asceticism (Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz, 1997), a Piano museum is designed to support the viewing and exhibiting of the art itself. Writing about Piano’s 1997 Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Roman Hollenstein observes this design approach is ‘influenced by museological reasoning’. It seems obvious that a museum should glorify looking, engagement and contemplation rather than itself, but in Piano’s studio this position is treated as a puzzle, not a given. While Piano is still most famous for the 1977 Centre Pompidou in Paris – his early collaboration with Richard Rogers – it’s the architect’s Texan museums that best showcase his ‘museological reasoning’. The Menil Collection (Houston, 1986), Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, 2003) and his addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, 2012) are all variations on the same theme: generously proportioned white volumes, flooded with natural light softened through louvres.
While they offer underground exhibition spaces – concessions to curatorial needs – these museums are, fundamentally, ground-level containers that turn their surroundings into landscapes: the harsh Texan sun is diffused into a warm glow overhead. The simplest way to understand Piano’s Whitney is to see it as a stacked series of these containers. The galleries frame views over two fluvials – the High Line and the Hudson River – marking the mouth of the former and gleaming like a cubist sailboat off the coast of the latter. Unlike the Breuer building, views outside the museum are lavish and daylight streams in everywhere through the tinted glass. The galleries, which occupy the top four of the building’s eight storeys, are around five metres tall, echoing the height of the fourth-floor gallery of Breuer’s building. The top-floor gallery, which shares space with a cafe, glows with filtered sunlight like its Texan predecessors. Below, the ceilings have an unfinished look, as if they, too, were meant to open to the sky, but have been provisionally covered up. On the sixth and seventh floors, the spaces between the steel ceiling beams are surfaced in panels that appear removable like lids; on the fifth floor, the ceiling is exposed, revealing ductwork and electrical piping. Unlike the grey, lacquered slate in the Breuer building, all the gallery floors here are covered in reclaimed wide-plank pine, giving the space a crisp quality. Maybe it’s the presence of historic warehouses, cargo piers and meat-distribution halls in the vicinity, but there’s a sense that the Whitney is embracing production and development as an integral part of the museum more than before. In the former location, the conservationists made do with a cramped 32 m². Here, they can progress their work in ten times that space. The curatorial offices on the seventh floor are separated from the exhibitions by glass, giving people a rare opportunity to inspect what day-to-day curating looks like.
The top three floors spill out onto large, city-facing patios, where sets of outdoor industrial stairs take you from one level to another, as an alternative to the internal elevators and stairs. These forays outdoors between the upper levels have the effect of folding the city into the museum experience. From high above the Meatpacking District’s constant commotion, New York appears still and model-like; the city enters the museum as artifice – another man-made treasure amongst the many on view in the collection. With his design, Piano seems to understand what architecture historian Robin Evans saw as ‘the preconditions for the way people occupy space, on the assumption that buildings accommodate what pictures illustrate and what words describe in the field of human relations’.
The fifth-floor gallery, like the eighth, is dedicated to special exhibitions and, extending over 1,672 m², it claims to be the city’s largest column-free museum space. The room is like a tube, open on opposite ends, creating a panorama of its respective city and river views. The east window is positioned directly above the High Line’s south entrance. If the High Line allows visitors to survey those at street level going about their lives, the view onto it from the museum produces a secondary moment of self-awareness, in which the people-watchers on the High Line are themselves on display. For ‘America Is Hard To See’, the curators seem accepting of this dynamic and, sometimes, the scenery appears privileged over the art. A wall standing in front of the window is lined with sofas, while Glenn Ligon’s neon Warm Broad Glow II (2011) spells out ‘negro sunshine’ above heads. Clearly, everyone is invited to relax and take in the city view. Sitting on the sofas at the other end of the gallery admiring the Hudson, visitors’ backs are turned to a wall painting by Jonathan Borofsky (Running People at 2,616,216, 1978–79). From the High Line, Ligon’s neon looks like a theatre marquee and the people below it are actors on the proscenium, as if taking their curtain call. Amidst the neighbourhood’s visual profusion of commercial signage, ‘negro sunshine’ is a logo that recasts the museum as a store, retailing something mysteriously unspecified.
If Breuer’s museum is a stronghold, Piano’s is a welcome mat. Where the former is a hulking inverted ziggurat that looms over visitors as they cross a bridge separating the museum from the street, the new Whitney lures you in with brunch. ‘One of the most anticipated restaurants of the year,’ boasts the press material, is acclaimed chef Danny Meyer’s Untitled, located on the museum’s glass-enclosed ground floor. Indeed, this is the second Piano-designed restaurant visitors encounter before even reaching the museum’s displays. If Breuer’s building imposed its weight and authority, Piano’s is comprehensive in its forbearance. Today, the distinctions between high-, low- and middle-brow culture are as irrelevant as they are false. Art as resistance, the stance in the late 1960s when Breuer’s building opened, has a very different purchase in a culture shaped by the effects of authority and power in our interconnected world. Should art or architecture pander? Certainly not, but ignoring the present culture is backwards. For an institution that aims to ‘collect, preserve, interpret and exhibit American art of our time’, for better or worse, being embedded and integrated in an area so obsessed with consumption seems like a good start. Consumption could use a discursive edge.