Photo Essays

From the Couches to the Conservation Labs, the Whitney Museum’s New Building

The exterior of the new Whitney Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The exterior of the new Whitney Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

They say you don’t realize what you were missing until you get it. Well, New York City was missing a building for showing modern and contemporary art. The Whitney Museum‘s new home, designed by Renzo Piano and located in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, underlines just how poorly suited to their purposes the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and the Whitney’s former home on Madison Avenue are.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the latter, the Marcel Breuer building, opened, and walking through the new Whitney you get the sense that, for the past five decades, the museum’s staff has been making a list of problems it wanted to rectify with its next home. More natural light: check. Bigger and more flexible galleries: check. A worthy conservation lab: check. Auditoriums for performances and screenings: check. Dedicated spaces for education programs and studying objects not on view in the galleries: check. A covered loading dock: check. Everything has been done to optimize the display and appreciation of 20th- and 21st-century American art.

Approaching the new Whitney Museum from Washington Street
Approaching the new Whitney Museum from Washington Street
The lobby of the new Whitney Museum
The lobby of the new Whitney Museum

Some feel that Piano’s privileging of interior spaces and back-of-house amenities over outward appearances has resulted in a clunky, inelegant building, but I disagree. With its open, glassy entryway and dramatically bulging, cantilevering upper floors raised on a narrow cement base and a row of massive steel pillars — leave it to an Italian architect to smuggle a stylized Roman colonnade into a contemporary art museum — the new Whitney manages to simultaneously look squat and featherweight, like a plus-size ballet dancer on pointe or a supertanker in a dry dock. The impression that the bulk of the museum is somehow floating makes climbing from its lobby up into the galleries feel like boarding a spaceship.

An inscription in the lobby floor and the staircase leading up to the galleries
An inscription in the lobby floor and the staircase leading up to the galleries
Félix González-Torres's "Untitled (America)" (1994) hangs down five flights of stairs, pooling in the building's basement
Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled (America)” (1994) hangs down five flights of stairs, pooling in the building’s basement
Félix González-Torres's "Untitled (America)" (1994)
Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled (America)” (1994)
The eighth floor galleries
The eighth-floor galleries

The new Whitney’s star attractions, appropriately, are the four long galleries on its fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth floors. Each stretches east to west, with walls of windows at either end admitting varying levels of natural light depending on the interior configuration. The resulting vistas face toward Manhattan and the High Line, or across the Hudson toward New Jersey. The eighth floor also benefits from a ceiling made up entirely of skylights. Beyond the glass walls, each level has outdoor exhibition and seating areas thanks to a series of terraces on the building’s east side that are connected by an exterior staircase.

The building's west façade features a series of terraces
The building’s east façade features a series of terraces.
Video of an Yvonne Rainer performance at the Whitney Museum in 1970 plays on one of the terraces
Video of an Yvonne Rainer performance at the Whitney Museum in 1970 plays on one of the terraces.
Works by Scott Burton on the sixth floor terrace
Works by Scott Burton on the sixth floor terrace
Many of the museum's administrative offices, rather than being tucked away, are adjacent to the galleries
Many of the museum’s administrative offices, rather than being tucked away, are adjacent to the galleries.

In addition to its abundance of outdoor space, another refreshing feature of the new Whitney building is the openness and accessibility of its staff, conservation, and research areas, which are directly adjacent to the galleries. In the Sondra Gilman Study Center, the public and scholars will be able, by making an appointment, to look closely at any work on paper in the museum’s collection. The adjacent Bucksbaum, Learsy, Scanlan Conservation  Center integrates the needs of conservators working on pieces in every medium; today those included a motorized Alexander Calder sculpture, a large Mark Rothko painting, and a fragrant rectangle of beeswax that Robert Gober made to resemble a giant stick of butter. These facilities’ proximity to and visibility from the gallery spaces contribute to a pervasive sense of transparency that one hopes will become the new norm in museum design.

The Whitney's new print, drawing, and photo study center
The Whitney’s new print, drawing, and photo study center
The Whitney's new integrated conservation center
The Whitney’s new integrated conservation center
The Whitney's photo documentation lab
The Whitney’s photo documentation lab
Pigments in the conservation department's new wet lab
Pigments in the conservation department’s new wet lab
Sunlight pours in from the building's all-glass western façade
Sunlight pours in from the building’s all-glass eastern façade
A view from the sixth floor galleries to the west, across Manhattan
A view from the sixth-floor galleries to the east, across Manhattan
The wide open floorplans allow for a variety of gallery and wall configurations
The wide-open floor plans allow for a variety of gallery and wall configurations.
On the fifth floor, couches face a wall of glass that looks out onto the Hudson, allowing some natural light to filter through to the adjacent galleries
On the fifth floor, couches face a wall of glass that looks out onto the Hudson, allowing some natural light to filter through to the adjacent galleries.
The fifth floor, the museum's largest
The fifth floor, the museum’s largest
The view from the other end of the fifth floor, where visitors can sit under Glenn Ligon's "Rückenfigur" (2009) and look out toward the High Line
The view from the other end of the fifth floor, where visitors can sit under Glenn Ligon’s “Warm Broad Glow II” (2011) and look out toward the High Line.
Glenn Ligon's "Rückenfigur" (2009) seen from the street
Glenn Ligon’s “Warm Broad Glow II” (2011) seen from the street
The entrance to the new Whitney Museum seen from beneath the High Line
The entrance to the new Whitney Museum seen from beneath the High Line
The new Whitney and its meatpacking plant neighbor
The new Whitney and its meatpacking plant neighbor

The new Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) opens to the public on May 1.

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