Changing Skyline: Piano's new Whitney: functional, reliable, not lovable

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The High Line, with the new Whitney Museum in the background, is sure to generate more attendance for the museum. (TIMOTHY SCHENCK)

NEW YORK - The public may go gaga for the museum designs of Frank Gehry, but museum directors prefer Renzo Piano, the Italian minimalist who just completed an expansive new home for the Whitney Museum of American Art overlooking the High Line. Since partnering with Richard Rogers in the '70s on the crayon-colored Pompidou Center in Paris, Piano's firm has gone on to create well over two dozen art museums. In America, the notches on his belt include major designs in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Fort Worth, Texas.

A Piano museum is now a recognizable brand, the art-world equivalent of the sleekly understated and tech-conscious Apple store. His galleries glow with an effervescent natural light. The architectural details are so fine that even a humble wall joint becomes a gorgeous piece of precision craft in the hands of his aptly named firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop. His designs politely defer to their surroundings, to their forebears and, especially, to the museum's art. It's as if Piano had no ego.

Museum directors like Piano's self-effacing approach because he provides them with galleries that are infinitely flexible and reliably functional. That holds true with the new Whitney, which replaces Marcel Breuer's darker, but more stylish, citadel on Madison Avenue.

While you certainly have to respect Piano's humble, well-made successor, it's not something you can really love.

You can only hope that Piano's efficient, column-free galleries, which will open next Friday, will enable the Whitney to contain the hordes that are sure to flow in from the High Line, now one of Manhattan's top attractions, with five million visitors a year.

As with New York's other marquee museums, the Whitney expansion is all about making itself more of a populist destination. That means twice the exhibit space, a better restaurant, more buzz-generating outreach and programming. Without a doubt, the more people who can be inspired by art, the better. But the irony, as MoMA's 2004 expansion has demonstrated, is that the resulting crowds can make serious contemplation impossible, canceling out the benefits of those art-friendly galleries.

The Whitney may not have entirely realized what it was getting into when it decided in 2006 to abandon its stodgy Upper East Side location for an edgy downtown location. Construction was only starting on the High Line, and the area was still a gritty industrial area dotted with meatpacking factories. Now that elevated rail park is the main street of a trendy fashion-and-gallery district, home to what must surely be the world's densest concentration of beautiful people.

Piano's $422 million design takes full advantage of the recent transformation, as well as the neighborhood's maritime past. Rising up from the waterfront, the battleship-gray Whitney resembles an ocean liner, complete with a canted funnel. The nine-story building docks into the High Line with a series of stepped terraces that serve as outdoor sculpture galleries. The allure of people watching is sure to provide heavy competition for the art viewing.

Despite several calculated homages to Breuer's dark granite ziggurat, Piano's design is really the aesthetic opposite of that 1966 museum - light instead of heavy, transparent rather than concealing. Instead of having to cross a narrow bridge to reach the entrance, visitors are now welcomed with a generous porch scattered with outdoor tables.

With glass walls on three sides, Piano's lobby allows you to see your place in the city; the old pier buildings practically brush up against the glass. (For now, anyway. They're slated for demolition.) What Piano's Whitney lacks is the brio of Breuer's creation.

Hardly anyone who visited the old Whitney bothered to take the elevator after an exhibition because the stairwell's bravura mix of textures was a thrilling experience in itself. For all its fussy minimalist detailing, Piano's "grand stair" at the new Whitney feels generic, like something you might find in a faux-industrial condo going up along the High Line.

The preference for Piano's neutral approach illustrates the great divide in museum design today. Perhaps to atone for the excessive, egocentric designs of the early 2000s, the goal now is to make sure the architecture remains a silent backdrop to the art.

Piano lets loose a bit with the exterior, though it may not be immediately apparent. Viewed from the north, the gray steel facade appears to be some bland municipal office building.

Only when you get closer do you appreciate its complexity, dictated by the museum's functional needs. The Whitney's administrative offices and conservation labs are stacked conventionally on the north side, while the galleries bulge and contract as necessary on the south. Piano wedges an immense picture window below the steamship funnel, allowing the Whitney to display works to passersby.

Piano's mash-up of geometric shapes gives the Whitney some of the futuristic strangeness of Pompidou, which celebrated technology by putting all its infrastructure on the outside. That Paris cultural center, which opened in 1977, long before anyone dreamed of toting a laptop, can be seen as a forerunner of today's co-working spaces. Besides art galleries and a flexible, open floor plan, it offered visitors sleek work tables for study and writing and an early version of a media center, where you could pop on headphones to listen to music or watch a movie.

You arrived by ascending an escalator housed in a tube attached to the facade. Its windows offered magnificent views of Paris, not unlike the views from the Whitney's more analog, exterior staircases overlooking Manhattan.

Still, the Whitney doesn't have nearly the exuberance of that early work. It seems more likely that Piano's design will be compared to Gehry's billowing, sail-like IAC headquarters, located a few blocks north on the Hudson.

Both are stand-alone buildings that can be seen in the round. Both are piles of unusual shapes. But while the Whitney's form is a logical result of its functional needs, Gehry's shapes are an intuitive, expressive response to the world around us. In other words, it is art.

 


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