Art

The New Whitney Museum, a Machine for Looking at Art — and Being Seen Looking at Art

The new Whitney Museum of American Art and the southern tip of the High Line as seen from the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington streets (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The new Whitney Museum of American Art and the southern tip of the High Line as seen from the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington streets (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 1977, Jean Baudrillard published his take on a shiny new art museum that had just opened in Paris. He described the new complex as “an incinerator, absorbing and devouring all cultural energy, rather like the black monolith of 2001 — a mad convection current for the materialization, absorption, and destruction of all the contents within it.” The museum that occasioned such Manichaean metaphors is the Centre Georges Pompidou, known to the French critic simply as Beaubourg after the area in Paris in which it sprang up. As the story goes, Beaubourg responded to the wish of its presidential patron Georges Pompidou to make modern art accessible to the everyman. Parked before a sprawling new public plaza, the Centre Pompidou dramatized the wish to purge the museum of its elitist pretentions. It did this by literally turning its architecture inside out, bearing its metallic guts to the city, and leaving nothing but an insistently no-frills warehouse to display the latest output of the cultural vanguard.

As Baudrillard was quick to articulate, the architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano translated the ideology of transparency — the faith that greater visibility and disclosure can bring about social cohesion — into architectural terms: their scaled-up Erector Set of colored pipes, ducts, and structural and circulatory systems did more than aggrandize the inner workings of an art museum; it represented a new, unmediated relationship between art and the masses, made possible, as it were, by populist architecture. But to Baudrillard, these democratic pipedreams spelled the violent death of culture: “the masses rush there not because they slaver for this culture which has been denied them for centuries,” he wrote, “but because, for the first time, they have a chance to participate, en masse, in this immense work of mourning for a culture they have always detested.” As artworks and audiences mindlessly cycle through Beaubourg’s galleries at technologically accelerated speeds, “the actual labor of the death of culture is enacted,” Baudrillard wrote. At the contemporary art museum, “the masses themselves will finish off mass culture.”

Whether we buy it or not, this naming of the “Beaubourg effect” almost 40 years ago provides plenty of critical perspective with which to assess a recent grand gesture to bring art to the “man in the street,” the new Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by none other than former Beaubourg wunderkind Renzo Piano. Having since earned his stripes — and gold medals and prizes — as a premier architect of white-walled art institutions, the Italian designer and his eponymous Building Workshop clinched the 2007 commission to mark the southern entrance of the High Line with a new home for the Whitney Museum. Previously housed in a stone-sheathed fortress designed by Marcel Breuer, the former cultural mainstay of the Upper East Side was to leave its brutalist shell for not just a new neighborhood but also a new identity in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Piano and his team of architects were tasked with articulating the Whitney’s transition from its storied past along New York City’s historic high-culture belt to its vision for the future — an eight-story, 220,000-square-foot future in rapidly gentrifying Lower Manhattan.

The new Whitney Museum's stepped terraces
The stepped terraces on the new Whitney Museum’s upper floors

Some breaks with the past are made abundantly clear. Breuer’s inverted ziggurat is re-inverted at the new Whitney. The east-facing portion of Piano’s building — which triples the exhibition space of the old museum — features a cascade of open terraces uniting the upper three floors. Its stepped-back form is accentuated with skinny, faux-utilitarian metal stairways and extended balconies recalling the details of the High Line. The effort to dialogue with the railway-turned-park is more than obvious. Whereas the Breuer building played up its enclosed, bunker-like quality, providing just a few, telescoped views to the outside world through compact, trapezoidal windows, Piano’s building insistently draws visitors out to its open-air platforms, encouraging them to participate in the popular contemporary pastime of seeing and being seen. As soon as the elevators deposit museumgoers at the eighth floor, visitors are faced with the decision of either turning right to begin the main exhibition or turning left for an al fresco shot of espresso and access to some of the most photogenic panoramas of Lower Manhattan.

This brings us back to the so-called Beaubourg effect. Piano’s new design carries traces of Beaubourg’s brash, 1970s-era social ideology and modernist aesthetic, though updated to suit its contemporary New York site. At street level, the design labors to puzzle together different zones of public space. Its cantilevered upper stories hover over a petite plaza which, moving west, tapers into a thin, stepped perimeter of outward-facing chairs and flower beds that strains to stretch all the way to the building’s west façade. Without the site conditions to match the Centre Pompidou’s vast public square, the Whitney’s street-level scheme encourages visitors not to linger outdoors but to explore the museum’s un-ticketed indoor offerings, including the gift shop at the west end, the restaurant at the east end, and the free lobby-level gallery in between. Wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glazing, the lobby area generates an illusion of continuous public space, of sophisticated cultural activities mixing with the vibrant hubbub of the city, of fine diners enjoying lamb chops and quinoa steps away from hot dog vendors and Italian ice carts.

The eastern end of the Whitney Museum's public plaza
The eastern end of the Whitney Museum’s public plaza

The conceit of exposing basic architectural functions, a hallmark of Beaubourg, permeates the design of the Whitney as well. From the north side of Piano’s new building, the façade appears particularly machine-like, with a bundle of undressed metal pipes slotted into one volume of the edifice and a line of mechanical accouterments crowning the rooftop of another. The eighth floor gallery is topped with a crest of saw-toothed windows, which filters in natural light and invokes the early avant-garde fascination with factory design that still characterizes retail spaces in the area and galleries in nearby Chelsea. Yet from most angles, the new Whitney recalls 21st-century electronic hardware more than 20th-century industrial manufacturing. Bands of vertical windows cut into the museum’s slick, prismatic exterior like the ventilation slits of a computer modem, while the hodgepodge massing of the museum appears to update the Centre Pompidou’s modular kit-of-parts aesthetic, expressing its heterogeneous makeup not through rectilinear scaffolding and color-coded pipes but through highly articulated blocks and pieces that join together in a manner reminiscent of circuit boards.

Intentional or not, the allusion to computer hardware seems fitting in more ways than one. Like revealing the interior of an electronic device, the rhetorical exposing of the Whitney’s inner workings can often appear more mystifying than edifying. In the interior especially, moments of visual disclosure tend to leave visitors wanting, if not simply confused. Those who opt to take the stairs rather than the elevators will, prior to seeing any of the main exhibition, ascend past a level dedicated to the museum’s education center and theater, followed by a restricted-access floor that permits views into several glass-walled conference rooms. With no incentive to enter these spaces without a firm reason, visitors catch what seem like accidental glimpses of the backend or the less public activities of the museum. Likewise, a floor-to-ceiling glazed prevue of the eighth-floor kitchen offers a peek into the behind-the-scenes work that makes the cultural machine run so smoothly; linger in this area for too long, though, and risk being bowled over by servers or visitors looking for bathrooms. Meanwhile, the upper-level stairwell, a seemingly instrumental part of the building’s circulation, is strangely hidden from sight. Dislocated from the more polished lower-level stairwell, the fifth- to eighth-floor stairs are unceremoniously crammed into the west end of the building, made accessible only through an all but secret door flushed against a white wall. Clearly, what Piano’s design reveals and conceals is not a matter of fact but a matter of choice.

Couches facing the Hudson on the new Whitney Museum's fifth floor
Couches facing the Hudson on the new Whitney Museum’s fifth floor

This is not to assume the design of the Whitney endeavors the same all-out statement of transparency attempted decades ago in Paris. But Piano’s aesthetic, however refined since his Pompidou days, revels in that same modernist impulse to elevate everyday utility to the level of art. In 2015, this notion of functionalism seems to do far less with the artful reproduction of machine-like forms and more with the analogous layering, connecting, and mixing of programs. The Whitney aspires to make art more accessible not by presenting it in a charismatically vernacular envelope — announcing that even something so banal as the innards of a building can fit our society’s definition of art — but by inserting the activity of viewing art into the complex choreography of everyday urban life (referring, of course, to the way a particular demographic has chosen to organize urban life). As mentioned earlier, a trip to the Whitney means engaging in the increasingly compulsory dance of seeing and being seen. The mixed-use lobby is only nominally enclosed in glass, presenting the museum’s loungers, shoppers, and diners as if they themselves were on exhibition. The fifth-floor gallery, meanwhile, is bookended with expansive windows and outward facing seating areas, providing visitors a break from contemplating canvases, sculptures, and installations with high-definition views of city life, enjoyed from the comfort of a couch. Finally, the lofty summit of terraces gives museum ticket-holders a trump card over strollers on the High Line, enabling voyeuristic views of the public park and, at the same time, strutting out a procession of culture-seekers for all to see.

An outdoor terrace on the new Whitney Museum's fifth floor with chairs and a wall sculpture by Mary Heilmann
An outdoor terrace on the new Whitney Museum’s fifth floor with chairs and a wall sculpture by Mary Heilmann (click to enlarge)

In light of all this, how real is the Beaubourg effect? Has bringing high culture down to the street (and the elevated street) really incinerated it, devoured it, reduced it to the routine formation of lines, crowds, and hashtags for reasons we don’t really understand or remember? That might be one way to look at it. But perhaps we don’t need to indict the new building, blame it for flattening the contemplation of art — and architecture — to the practice of snapping selfies, buying souvenir tote bags, and eating organic toast points. That was already happening — at almost comic levels with the Jeff Koons retrospective that ended the Whitney’s run on the Upper East Side.

What the new Whitney could offer is not the final nail in the coffin, not another public service announcement that art has been sucked into the black monolith of consumerism that characterizes much of collective life today. With its play of disclosure and concealment, its effort to expose, generate, and combine flows of movement and varied activities, the new building may present us with an opening, a chance to develop further what the architecture has only tentatively begun. This shiny new art center — which has already been called everything from dull and badly proportioned, to pragmatic and deftly executed, to highly crafted and masterful with its “social engineering” — could goad us to envision and experiment with new, more resonant patterns of socializing, to rethink the given terms of openness and transparency and bring other typically concealed elements to light. This is already happening with the recent protests over a fracked gas pipeline running beneath the Whitney’s new home — one pipe that was definitely not rendered visible. While it is true the new Whitney Museum may abet the transformation of Lower Manhattan into a characterless tourist attraction, with no shortage of creativity, organization, and effort, it may also present a chance to reclaim the spirit of the art within its walls.

The new Whitney Museum's upper level terraces as seen from the High Line
The new Whitney Museum’s upper level terraces as seen from the High Line
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