PARIS — “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?” architect Marcel Breuer asked in explaining his design for the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Surely it should work, it should fulfill its requirements, but what is its relationship to the New York landscape? What does it express, what is its architectural message?”
The resulting building that was completed in 1966 was unapologetically modern, a modular construction of concrete and granite that some saw as a Brutalist triumph, others as a depressing fortress. (The 1967 AIA Guide to New York City joked that those walking by should “beware of boiling oil” from the castle-like museum.) Yet it definitely grew into representing the Whitney’s identity of focusing on artists’ visions, and as the museum prepares to move out of its longtime home at Madison Avenue and 75th Street, an exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris gives a retrospective on Breuer’s modular-minded work,
The exhibition is equal parts design and architecture, taking on his whole life from 1902 to 1981, including both his furniture like the the Wassily Chair with its bent aluminum tubes inspired by the handlebars of Breuer’s bicycle, and his architecture, like the monolithic and gravity-defying Armstrong Rubber Co. Headquarters in Connecticut, and St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota that acts as a church to the belief in the power of concrete. The Hungarian-born Breuer’s name and work are now inextricably a part of Modernism, Brutalism, and the whole Bauhaus vision of sharp, solid designs that could appear cold and unfriendly, but which Breuer embraced for his experiments with space, volume, and materials (usually, above all, concrete).
However, his impressive career and influence aside, it’s really the Whitney building that stands as his most recognizable legacy. As he continued in his explanation of his design:
“It is easier to say first what [a museum in Manhattan] should not look like. It should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment. Its form and its material should have identity and weight in the neighborhood of 50-story skyscrapers, of mile long bridges, in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should be an independent and self-relying unit, exposed to history, and at the same time it should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.”
In experiencing art in the Whitney, it could be argued that he achieved all that, as the Breuer building has its own weight with its hard block shapes that still might off-put some people as a sort of Arkham Asylum of art. Even stepping over the walkway that crosses the sculpture court below feels a bit like walking over a castle’s moat to a fortification, not necessarily a museum. Fittingly, the exhibition at the Paris architecture museum is deep in the basement, installed beneath castle-like stone arches, a total contrast to Breuer’s designs, but in harmony with their tone.
This distancing from the expected is what’s given the Whitney an independence in experience from other museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is taking over the Breuer building in 2015 with their own modern art collections, and the Whitney is relocating to a Renzo Piano building in Chelsea, an area much less embedded in Manhattan than the Upper East Side, with a much less imposing architect preferring the airy over the heavy. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact that move has on the Whitney’s identity, which Breuer aimed so directly to instill in its Brutalist home of over 40 years.
Marcel Breuer (1902-1981): Design & Architecture is at the Cité de lʼarchitecture & du patrimoine (1 Place du Trocadéro, Paris, France) through July 17.