Renzo Piano Meets Artists Downtown

Lately, New York and Texas have enjoyed a public love affair. Fresh graduates of important universities, tech types, and creatives circulate freely between the Big Apple and our state’s major urban hubs (the last group also makes the required pilgrimage out to Marfa, following the constant urging of The New York Times). The East Village was once home to a bar called Marfa, and now there’s the experimental venue Trans-Pecos in Queens; there’s also Javelina, a bistro in Gramercy Park that gives New Yorkers their first proper taste of queso. Here in Austin, we have the classy Weather Up on East Cesar Chavez, its third location after Tribeca and Brooklyn, and we’re now blessed with our first Shake Shack, which opened this month on South Lamar. Further, the High Line’s former Executive Vice President Peter Mullan recently landed in Austin to lead the Waller Creek initiative (Welcome, Peter!). This cross-country exchange makes for a useful viewpoint for understanding the new Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which opened in New York City on May 1.

Architectural Texans are well equipped to remark on Piano’s latest achievement, given our long history with his work. Houston’s Menil Collection, finished in 1987, was, according to critic Peter Schjeldahl’s report on the Whitney in the April 27 issue of The New Yorker, cited by every other architect considered for the job as their favorite museum. After completing Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center in 2003, Piano was tapped to provide a controversial but much needed addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, which opened in Fort Worth in 2013. Piano is a master of the artful precedent, and astute visitors will note the many small ways his structure shines as beautifully matched conversational partner. For example, above his travertine gallery walls, Kahn includes regularly-spaced attachment anchors for securing display walls to finish the side of a HVAC ducting tray. Piano copies this overlap, except he moves the gesture to the floor, pairing a cleverly gapped wood floor (for silent air circulation) with a grid of brass anchors for the movable gallery walls. The Piano Pavilion is perhaps the best antecedent to the new Whitney, as it borrows the cool gray color palette, steel detailing, and white wood floors, but dispenses with the filigreed glass roof poetics and milky concrete walls magically cast without tie holes.

By now, all major American art and architecture critics have weighed in on Piano’s effort. They deliver a collective “Yes!” to the art inside, and a shared “Eh” to the building itself. For sure, the move to the Meatpacking District, doubling the gallery area for the institution (now about 50,000 sf), is clearly a win for the general public, as more of the 3,000 works in the permanent collection can be displayed, and larger exhibitions can be mounted. But the architecture falters under such acidic scrutiny. Michael Kimmelman, in an interactive review for The New York Times, makes great points but also declares, “The new museum isn’t a masterpiece.” Alexandra Lange, blogging for Curbed, digs in deep, starting with her title: “Overwrought Shell Conceals Porous, Visitor-Friendly Design in Renzo Piano’s New Whitney Museum.” Typically polite, Schjeldahl writes of the architecture: “It’s so confusing that, pretty soon, I gave up looking at it.” Dallas’s Mark Lamster even gets a word in, dinging the “vaguely nautical” exterior before resolving to a more supportive note. These burns land true, but then again, what work by a major architect (or starchitect, rather) isn’t ridiculed or assigned its own zingy nickname?

To see the scene for himself, your humble correspondent visited the new Whitney on opening day. In person on a chilly, overcast afternoon, the ship metaphor is unshakably accurate. The angled steel bow floats above the street, as if dry-docked, embarrassingly filleted windows reference the hurricane-proof portholes of a ferry, and outdoor terraces and stairs read like a cruise ship’s decks and crow’s nest outlooks. The miles of exposed handrail, comical exterior HVAC smokestacks, and condenser mohawk don’t help, either.

Still, the Whitney is smart with its massing, stepping down to the High Line (though there isn’t an entrance on the promenade yet), and rising to its full eight floors on the west, towards the aquatic infrastructure whose economy once dominated the neighborhood. Each floor is articulated on the southern elevation, some tapered back or peeling away, a look that gives a definite hydrodynamic read when approaching on Gansevoort Street from the east. In plan, the building splits around a central core, pushing galleries to the south and conservation areas and offices to the north. The west facade will be the least seen, and thankfully so, as its divided stack of boxes is the most awkward prow of the young vessel.

One is sucked off the street under the hull into the fully glassed lobby and, quickly, into the elevators. Immersive murals in the lifts by Richard Artschwager are a treat, but sadly, the artist passed in 2013 before seeing them installed. Piano's study of the old Whitney — the beloved

1966 megalith by Marcel Breuer, on the Upper East Side — is seen in the direct arrival into galleries from the vertical core. The circulation works, at least in good weather: the visitor pops up to the eighth floor, trickles down via exterior stairs to the sixth floor, and finishes on the fifth level before descending the powerful central stair, a tall, slightly trapezoidal space made magical by the light bulb strings installed by Félix Gonzáles-Torres. The northern fire stair is also used, but is bland, except for the odd painted streak that runs down the outer handrail. Wayfinding is aided by the No Wave branding by the Dutch trio Experimental Jetset. The blocky Neue Haas Grotesk typeface charms, but I don’t buy the endlessly flexible “W,” annoyingly used everywhere for everything. You can read the designers’ presentation of the brand and pass your own judgment (full disclosure: I dislike the “W” so much, that, upon the release of the identity, I made a fake logo in protest for the Marfa Book Company, available on a T-shirt here). The larger, silent question of why American designers weren’t tapped to reinvent a museum of American art will be left unanswered in this review.

Inside, the building is a master class on battleship gray, supplemented by the slightly creamy white walls and pale wood floors. For Texans who know Piano’s dark, luxurious Menil floors and the even-grained white oak Kimbell flooring, the reclaimed pine of the Whitney, a knotty homage to loft living, comes off as cheap. It will hopefully disappear further as it is worn in. For the $422 million pricetag, the building lacks bling, at least until you consider the details, which shine brightly, thanks to the RPBW playbook. Up close, all of the industrial steel rail detailing is gorgeous, down to the circular lights. Seen up close on an outdoor terrace, the tall steel panels actually flute outwards at their joints, accentuating their shadow line and allowing clearance for a tool bit inside to secure the connecting bolts. Windows have a thin gradient of ceramic frit adjacent to the vertical mullions, hiding gaskets and cleaning up stunning views to the metropolis beyond. On the third floor, I stumbled into a dark theatre, only to confront a custom telescoping steel bleacher system, lovingly detailed by the architects to match every other handrail. Bellissima.

My complaining ends when we talk about the art. The clear span spaces, as normal as they are, are a curator’s dream and, when stocked with the Whitney’s treasures and the city’s best-dressed denizens, are so nice. The inaugural show, titled "America is Hard to See," which runs through September 27, 2015, captures a century of American art, split into 23 themed chapters. Some are better than others, but the procession is a serious smorgasbord. Reviewing my notebook, standout pieces include the early synesthetic landscapes of Charles Burchfield, a collage by Romare Bearden, a long-favored Robert Bechtle painting, and topping the list, "Door to the River," an absolute pinnacle of Abstract Expressionism from Willem de Kooning. Many mediums are represented, from woodcut to video, but the collection is admittedly predisposed to works made in this city. The show does, however, make the important step to showcase art by women and minorities, in an effort to shed the cerebral white man image still attached to New York artistic production.

To praise the Texans, I observed the work of early female filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute (from Houston), a phallic drawing by Lee Lozano (who decamped in obscurity to Dallas after her long residency in New York), a loud collage by Port Arthur’s prolific Robert Rauschenberg, and a big steel piece by adopted son Donald Judd, which looks great against the backdrop of Soho. Thankfully, no selfie sticks are allowed in the museum. I only found one piece by a living artist that could even be loosely classified as Texan: a textual 90s work by Christopher Wool, who splits time between New York and northeast Marfa. Completing the art trail in a few dense hours, I collapsed into a sofa that has the most satisfying view in the building, a full glass portal to the east, showcasing New York as the beautiful beast it is.

This is how the new Whitney succeeds — not as architecture, but as an urban playground for the arts. It is a building for looking at the city and, close behind, at art. Its own envelope is almost irrelevant as long as it provides the basics, which it does quietly and competently. Form plays second fiddle to function here, and rightly so. Viewed from the Hudson, the tugboat Whitney shrinks in front of its mammoth background of skyscrapers, evidence of the rising real estate tide that delivered the museum downtown again (I also wonder if the elevated ark-like design is a response to the flooding that will no doubt inundate Manhattan again as stronger storms arrive on the East Coast). The implications of this capitalistic wave remain to be fully played out, but we can at least be thankful it has resulted in the hard-working, individualistic, ugly beauty of Renzo Piano’s Whitney. Here’s to its ongoing chronicle of the messy landscape that is contemporary American art. Cheers, y’all. 

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin.