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Should the Whitney’s Breuer Become an Architecture Museum?

The Whitney's iconic Breuer building (image from nymag.com)

In a New York magazine article, Justin Davidson calls for the Whitney’s Breuer building to be turned into an architecture museum, a space devoted to exposing a side of the practice that we don’t normally see. Davidson points out New York’s lack of an institution to educate the public about architecture. But is that what the Breuer is meant for? As the Whitney moves downtown, we’re faced with different possibilities for the iconic building. Could an architecture museum take the place of a huge contemporary art museum in the architectural icon?

“Architecture is the aesthetic side of New York’s abiding obsession—real estate—yet the city lacks a comprehensive museum to tell that story,” Davidson writes. And yet architecture is an undeniable, unavoidable part of all of our lives:

Architecture is the one art that insinuates itself into virtually everybody’s life, independent of taste or desire. Anyone can shun novels, let the television screen go dark, or indulge an allergy for hip-hop or opera, but avoiding all contact with architecture would mean choosing the lifestyle of a hermit or a hunter-gatherer.

Pretty strong stuff. Davidson continues to point out the feasibility of such a museum and the need for a space devoted to the kind of models, diagrams and documents that could teach us the ins and outs of architecture, not just a facade experience. He makes a good case, and backs it up with reference to specific exhibitions: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim retrospective and MoMA’s 2004 Tall Buildings, that both attracted large numbers of visitors and created critical dialogue.

What worries me about the possibility of an architecture museum is that though there are terrific exceptions, architectural exhibitions are often extremely dull, overly oppressive and badly planned, not to mention difficult to publicize. There are huge advantages to overcoming these hurdles. With a well-designed, well-curated architecture museum, architecture could finally become the (more) public dialogue that contemporary art is today. The public could become better-versed in the languages and problems of architecture. Yet with a badly-designed architecture tomb, we could all just get bored and walk out just as easily, and Breuer’s building would become the dead, dusty monument that it already resembles.

A Renzo Piano rendering of the Whitney's planned downtown branch (image from artyouknow.com)

I want to love Davidson’s idea. But something’s holding me back, and I think that it’s the fear that an entire museum of architecture is unsustainable and unsuitable for such an expansive space. The burden to fill the entire museum space would be considerable and would only attract large enough groups of people if the programming were uniquely designed for public consumption. Given a hugely talented group of people and a director and backers willing to be innovative, I think that a Whitney museum of architecture could be fantastic, even revolutionary, for our perception of architecture. But if it failed, it would fail hard, and obviously.

That said, I’m still optimistic. Architectural exhibitions need rethinking, and a new space would be a huge incentive to innovate and for visitors to change their perceptions. I don’t disagree with Davidson’s proposition, but his vision is still a little rosy. Manifestos are great, but logistics would be hard. Such an architecture museum would take ambition, and there’s no shortage of that, but what it would need most of all is an original vision.

Given a fresh perspective and a willingness to create a new New York City institution, bring on a Breuer museum of architecture!

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