Depending on how you measure it, Renzo Piano's new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (designed in collaboration with New York practice Cooper Robertson) could be the most long-awaited museum of the 21st century. At just a fraction under seven years since the first designs of the building were released, the incubation period has been long enough on its own - but in fact the project has its roots in a scrapped 1981 design by Michael Graves, when the Whitney was instead planning an extension to their previous home in Marcel Breuer's 1966 masterpiece on Madison Avenue. With such a highly anticipated building, the Whitney could hardly have a better man for the job; Piano is one of the most prodigious museum builders of our time. Yet despite this, since construction began in 2011 the design has been beset by criticism for its ungainly external appearance.
Ahead of the Whitney's grand opening on May 1st, this past Sunday saw a slew of reviews from New York's many reputable art and architecture critics, who attempted to make sense of the institution's long-overdue move from their idiosyncratic but endearing former home. We've rounded up some of the best of them, after the break.
In a visually stunning multimedia review for the New York Times, Kimmelman describes the building's external form as "a servant to pragmatism and a few zoning anomalies," explaining:
"Yes, it is a mishmash. But buildings take time to reveal their true selves. Mr. Piano’s galleries borrow from the old downtown loft aesthetic, with windows on both ends. They’re nonprescriptive spaces with artfully gridded ceilings for hanging movable walls in myriad configurations. They give the museum more elbow room and may prove to be the ticket: nimble and airy... Or they may end up a headache: monotonous, with too much light swarming through those huge glazed walls."
As with many other writers, much of his review is dedicated to excusing that "mishmash" of forms, as he describes the building's function in relationship to its surroundings:
"Grand, columnless, rectangular galleries spill onto large, stepped terraces linked by an outdoor stairway, mimicking the neighborhood’s jumble of low- and mid-rise black-tar rooftops and aging fire escapes. The museum becomes an implicit extension of the High Line: an outdoor perch to see and be seen."
Kimmelman also draws comparisons between the Whitney and the museum with which Piano began his career:
"I’m reminded of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which Mr. Piano designed some four decades ago with Richard Rogers. The breakthrough there was not just the inside-out-factory aesthetic but the development of a populist hangout, with a plaza in front, as opposed to a temple for art. Mr. Piano and Mr. Rogers were branded heretics.
"A generation or two later, the new Whitney asserts that temple and hangout aren’t mutually exclusive."
For all these positive traits, though, Kimmelman remains measured in his overall assessment of the building:
"The new museum isn’t a masterpiece.
"But it is a deft, serious achievement, a signal contribution to downtown and the city’s changing cultural landscape. Unlike so much big-name architecture, it’s not some weirdly shaped trophy building into which all the practical stuff of a working museum must be fitted."
"All of this seems like it has been built for art and artists." - Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine
As if to encapsulate the media frenzy around the opening of the new museum, New York Magazine offers readers not one, but two reviews of the Whitney. The first of these - and the magazine's front page story - comes from art critic Jerry Saltz, who has written an extraordinary four part essay on the history and future of museums, positing that from its collection to its curation and of course, its new building, the Whitney may just be a turning point in art history. Much of his actual review is focused on the Whitney's first show in the building, but where he does bring Piano's design into the equation, he understandably focuses not on its appearance but its utility for art display:
"the Whitney has had the brilliant instinct to make the setting, not the building, the spectacle, which is the next reason for optimism. On my first visit, I walked in and out of the building, onto roof decks and terraces, up and down outdoor steel staircases, through galleries... My heart started beating faster as it occurred to me that these outdoor and indoor spaces might actually be integrated."
Much like Michael Kimmelman, his assessment highlights the idea that the focus of the Whitney - unlike so many other high profile museum buildings - is as a place to host art exhibitions, more than it is about flashy architecture:
"I don’t care what it looks like. It’s “likable enough,” but my only concern as an art lover is with the inside of museums. Were I to judge the new Whitney exterior, I’d say it looks like a hospital or a pharmaceutical company... But, for me, the genericism of the building suggests that what matters to the Whitney isn’t vanity, grandeur, showboating, celebrity, or destination architecture — it’s what goes on under its auspices."
"The new Whitney is a wonderful place for people who get easily bored by art." - Justin Davidson, New York Magazine
Unlike his colleague Jerry Saltz, in his own review for New York Magazine Justin Davidson is quick to address the Whitney's external appearance:
"I’ve been watching Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art take shape for two years, waiting for its jumble of forms and facets to make sense. The fences are gone and the steel skin’s been shined, but it remains a complicated contraption, ungainly on all sides."
In a final word on the building's appearance, he offers a biting critique:
"The thing might have arrived in an Ikea flat pack and then been prodigiously misassembled."
With the external appearance suitably dismissed, Davidson moves on to other aspects of the building, but he seems to find little else encouraging. Like other reviewers, he latches on to the Whitney's connection to its surroundings, but where others find this interesting, exhilarating even, Davidson's assessment takes a sarcastic turn:
"Piano seems to be wondering whether intense communion with art is still enough to keep the public engaged. Maybe a perpetually distracted audience demands even more distractions. Majestic windows and broad terraces beckon visitors to step outside for a view of the museum’s native turf... The new Whitney is a wonderful place for people who get easily bored by art."
In the end, Davidson's assessment is colored by the building that the Whitney is leaving behind. While Breuer's design is lovable in spite of the many inconveniences it presents, the new Whitney is quite the opposite:
"Piano’s new Whitney is so sensitive to its location and earnest mission, so generous in its supply of views, light, and convenience, that it mistakes virtue for personality."
"Compared to other Piano buildings, it looks a bit of a jumble, but it certainly looks like New York" - Philip Kennicott, Washington Post
Like Davidson, Philip Kennicott's review for the Washington Post highlights the fact that Piano's museum is as much a place to experience New York as it is a place to enjoy art, but for Kennicott this seems less of an issue:
"Diviners of the popular temperament claim no one wants to leave the city behind when looking at art. Rather, new audiences want the city ever present. So contemporary museums, including Piano’s Whitney, erase the monastery walls of concrete and granite and replace them with gaping portals of glass... Even in the long, rectangular galleries of the Whitney, a centrifugal force prevails, drawing visitors to the edges, to the windows, to the light."
In his deft conclusion, he sums up what it is like to experience the building and its connection to the city, in a way that might bring us to question the assessments of Kimmelman and Saltz that the new Whitney is primarily a place to view art; it seems that for Kennicott, Piano's design is as much a lookout post as anything else:
"As you descend through the galleries, you ultimately find yourself on a capacious outdoor terrace that seems to hover just above the end of the High Line. Perhaps as you look down, someone will look up at you, and thus engage that strange loop of voyeurism, envy, imagination and desire so fundamental to this city. The building is framing you, and framing the city for you, and you may feel for a moment that you have become part of the picture.
"Oh yes, and what is all that stuff behind you? It’s called art, and it’s been beautifully presented by the inaugural exhibition — if you can forget the city long enough to really see it."
"What defines the new Whitney are the remarkable outdoor spaces for enjoying art" - Clifford A Pearson, Architectural Record
In his review for Architectural Record, Clifford Pearson highlights a positive aspect of Piano's design that few other critics picked up on:
"A strength of Piano's Whitney is its clear organization: galleries on the south side, curatorial and support spaces on the north, and an exposed precast-concrete core running through the middle that contains vertical circulation and mechanical ducts."
However, following from Michael Kimmelman, Pearson largely judges the building alongside Piano's other great museum designs:
"The magic Piano has worked at places like the Menil Collection in Houston and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, which have mostly top-lit galleries, is missing from most of the indoor art spaces at the Whitney. In the east and west galleries that do get daylight and big views of the river and the city, the spaces and the art look fantastic."
And of course, this side-by-side assessment of Piano's work wouldn't be complete without a return to the beginning:
"With its exterior stairs animating its city side, the Whitney nods to Piano's first big commission—the Pompidou Center, which whisks visitors up one facade on clear-tube-enclosed escalators. The Whitney doesn't shock the way the Pompidou did when it opened in Paris in 1977 and doesn't represent a bold new direction in architecture. But it combines the maturity of an architect who has been honing his craft for five decades with a jolt of big-city energy."
"I’ll say it again—go inside and much will be forgiven" - Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair
Finally, Paul Goldberger's assesment for Vanity Fair offers perhaps the most measured assessment of many of these themes. He starts by addressing the building's appearance:
"The building looks industrial but more clunky than romantic. Even in an age that is willing and eager to ascribe beauty to industrial buildings... the exterior of the new Whitney poses a challenge. It is many things, but conventionally beautiful it is not. I don’t know that it is so unconventionally beautiful, either."
But, he believes that the building is best experienced from the inside. Like so many others, he comments on the connection it has to New York, perhaps offering the first clear-cut assessment of what this means for the art itself:
"The galleries offer the best balance I’ve ever seen between the primary mission of allowing you to focus on the art and the secondary purpose of engaging with the city."
Similar to Davidson, Goldberger seems to view the new building through the lens of their old Marcel Breuer-designed home. In many ways, it seems, he thinks Piano wanted to intentionally draw this comparison:
"Piano brilliantly comments on the old Whitney, never copying a single element from Breuer’s building but always evoking it, subtly, inventively, and powerfully. When you go into the new Whitney, you see all kinds of allusions to Breuer’s iconic building in the elevators, the staircases, and the ceiling grid in the galleries. But you never sense that Piano was trying to imitate the old building, or even to make you consciously aware of it. It feels like a private homage from one architect to another."
If these comparisons are to be made, then, is Piano's building comparable to the one which it replaces as the Whitney's home?
"I’m not sure that time will ever make us admire Piano’s big whale as much as we have come to love Breuer’s upside-down concrete ziggurat."