Whitney Museum of American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art

Architecture & Design - August 5, 2015

In a synthesis of modern museum design and a dynamic site, Renzo Piano, in collaboration with Cooper Robertson, boldly asserts the role of a 21st century cultural institution.

In his design, Renzo Piano does not offer a definitive answer to how should a 21century museum look like, but illustrates that a solution that responds to a rapidly evolving context is challenging to resolve.

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The new Whitney is lucky in location. It’s in the heart of a radically changing corner of the city. What was once a desolate edge of a forlorn, grimy industrial district is now a nexus of art (Chelsea galleries just blocks away), real estate, money, fashion, and tourism.

Some have criticized the odd juxtaposition of the canted museum massing of white metal panels, steel, concrete, and glass with this historic neighborhood. But, to be sure, it’s a neighborhood of meatpacking buildings turned boutiques and restaurants, a rail line evolved as an elevated park, and warehouses turned into some of the priciest residences in the city. The past—faintly visible—is jettisoned for a view of the future, and the museum 
is now the centerpiece.

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Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with New York firm Cooper Robertson, the new Whitney is not a perfectly rectilinear glass-enclosed jewel box that some may expect from Piano—that would have been odd and even perverse here. In form, the building expresses a rawness and urbanity, and may even be inelegant or hulking from certain angles. Clearly visible cooling towers on the museum’s roof mimic New York water towers, and exterior staircases are reminiscent of fire escapes. A bold presence that is perhaps inspired by Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia’s  drawings in its jagged, angular forms, the museum owns its location. And when viewed from the river’s edge, it even appears as a hard-edged cousin to Frank Gehry’s IAC building just a few blocks north.
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At the street level, Gansevoort Street is now alive with activity from the High Line entrance across the largo, or plaza, that Piano designed spanning across to the museum’s entrance—it’s a new public space that is an extension of the High Line’s public realm and the museum lobby. Here, the open, airy connection between inside and out along a welcoming public plaza is reminiscent of the indoor-outdoor relationship of Centre Pompidou in Paris, which Piano had designed with Richard Rogers four decades ago.

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Resilient. Pragmatically, that may be the best word to describe the Whitney Museum design in the context of severe storm possibilities. But it is also apt in portraying this 84-year-old museum’s relationship to the changing, complicated city, and the evolving view of what excellence in museum design is today. Appropriately, it is a resilient museum of American art.