In his article about Renzo Piano’s revised vision for the Whitney, Nicolai Ouroussoff explains that the neighborhood’s criticism and the museum board’s indecisiveness have continually provided stumbling blocks for the museum during its attempts to expand. Upon agreeing to realize Piano’s design for a satellite museum in the Meatpacking district, hope were high that finally, after 25 years, the museum would complete its much needed expansion.
Yet, it seems that Piano is in the midst of a new struggle resulting from the global economic downturn. While construction costs have dropped, allowing the cost of the project to slide under $200 million (persuading the board to commit to breaking ground), the museum is still struggling to contain costs and begin building before prices rise.
To address the financial pressures, Piano has been revising his design, cutting costs in different ways to get this project underway. “But in this case those pressures are unusually intense, and the way they are resolved will determine the answer to a question on the minds of everyone who cares about the museum: Will the final result be an experience as good as — or better than — Marcel Breuer’s Whitney?” exclaimed Ouroussoff.
Called one of his “most sculptural and unusual designs to date,” Piano’s original design was clad in stone, a new take of Breuer’s 1966 design, and seemed to float above a glass lobby. The design featured a dynamic 35 foot long cantilever over the small public plaza looking at the High Line, and the stepped back facade provided space for large outdoor sculpture terraces.
Now, the stone is being replaced with cream-colored enameled steel plates, “The trade-off will diminish the echo of the Breuer building, but it could also give the museum an industrial look more appropriate to its site,” according to Ouroussoff.
The dramatic cantilever will lose some of its original dynamism, as the addition of columns replace the need for structural reinforcement - a design move that saves a few million dollars. Inside, all the mechanical spaces will be relocated from the basement to the second floor. That will also save millions, but, as the galleries begin on the fourth level, “the distance between the front door and the artworks can get stretched out, making the art seem secondary.”
It is a difficult task to shave millions off the design while still having the project retain its architectural integrity. Judging from Piano’s past work, especially his expertise in museum typology, hopefully, he can reach the perfect balance and lower the cost without jeopardizing the strength of the design. ”For Mr. Piano’s design to really succeed, it will need to rise at least to the same level as the original building as a place to view art. Anything less will not only be a shame for the city, but a defining emblem of failure for the Whitney,” warned Ouroussoff.
We have faith that Piano will rise to the challenge.