Tomorrow, the Met Breuer opens to the public. The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds an eight-year lease on the building that Marcel Breuer originally designed for the Whitney Museum, which first opened its doors in 1966. In early responses to the Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibitions, critics have remarked on the jarring delight of seeing global and historical works in spaces where they had previously encountered modern and contemporary American art. The familiarity with the building as the Whitney, and the new role for it as a wing of a venerable encyclopedic museum, makes it easy to forget the ripples of shock Breuer’s designs caused when they first appeared.
In a 1964 A.i.A. article, Peter Blake, an architect, critic and editor of Architectural Forum, saw the designs as a riposte to the commercial culture of Madison Avenue’s advertising firms: “The new Whitney will be art’s answer to the huckster,” he writes, “where the ad agencies operate behind flimsy glass walls, the Whitney will be wrapped in concrete faced with granite; where the commercial ziggurats push the pedestrian off the sidewalk, the Whitney will invite him in; and where the right-side-up ziggurats down the avenue now symbolize the hucksters’ perversion of art, the Whitney’s upside-down monolith may become a powerful symbol of art ‘sailing against the currents of its time.'”
Two years later, having seen the museum in its almost complete form, Blake didn’t change his mind. But he could judge how it functioned as an urban landmark and as a museum. In an article titled “How the Museum Works” in A.i.A.‘s September-October 1966 issue, Blake describes Breuer’s achievement as a machine for viewing art. Last May, in advance of the opening of the Whitney’s new site in the Meatpacking District, we published an article by scholar Timothy Rohan on A.i.A.‘s coverage of the Whitney in that 1966 issue. Now we offer Blake’s 1966 assessment in its entirety.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is about to unwrap its new building, and the event has considerable significance not only for architecture, or museum design, but also in the history of the Whitney. This will be the first time that the Whitney has been housed in a building that will, quite clearly, establish the museum’s own independent identity.
Its first home on Eighth Street was an anonymous, pseudo-Colonial mansion (actually four remodeled townhouses), inadequate not only in the space it provided but also as an expression of the vitality of the painting and sculpture that, increasingly, occupied the space. When I first came to New York, I used to think the place was a retreat for Senior Citizens, mostly female, and hat-pinned.
Its second home, behind the Museum of Modern Art, seemed to be a curious symbol of subservience to that highly polished and highly publicized institution. Indeed, one of the second Whitney’s façades (the one facing the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden) was designed by the Modern’s architects; and the other façade, Fifty-fourth Street, was a slightly misguided attempt to match the first. To any uninformed visitor to New York, the second Whitney looked, from the outside, like some sort of warehouse-annex to the Modern, possibly used by Alfred Barr to store a part of his collection. (This is precisely what it is about to become.)
In its new and third home the Whitney will, at long last, have a building as distinctive as that of any museum in the world, a building as expressive of the inherent irreverence and radicalism of art as anything put up since the Guggenheim. Because of these qualities of irreverence and radicalism, which Marcel Breuer, the architect of the new Whitney (in association with Hamilton Smith), sought to symbolize, the building is certain to be controversial. It will be attacked by curbside critics as being top heavy; it will be attacked by housebroken critics as being either not sufficiently disciplined or too mannered–in short, as not being to their taste; and it will be attacked by artists as being too plastic, that is, too powerfully competitive with their own work.
Regardless of the merits of these and other criticisms, I would like to suggest that controversy is precisely what a museum should arouse. Any museum of art that does not, somehow, shake up the neighbor-hood is at least a partial failure. Whatever else Breuer’s museum may do to its neighbors, it will never bore them.
It is a bit difficult for me to evaluate the Whitney dispassionately, since–as a practicing architect, among other things–I am bound to think of alternative solutions that were available to Breuer. In fair-ness to and in respect for him–he is, after all, one of the great innovators of modern architecture, and perfectly capable of recognizing an alternative when he sees it–I will try to look at this building from the point of view of Breuer’s program, Breuer’s intentions and Breuer’s preferences, and to find out how successfully be accomplished his objectives in his own terms.
Any public building in a city should be judged by at least four criteria. First, how well does it function as a symbol? Second, how well does it serve the streetscape? Third, how well does it work as “manscape”? And, fourth, how well does it function as a “machine”?
The Whitney as a symbol
Two years ago, when Breuer’s designs for the new Whitney were that published, I wrote this in Art in America: “The real reason for the Whitney’s shape may be found in the language of symbolism rather than of function. For here, on Madison Avenue, Breuer is about to mount a massive attack against those who have made the name of this avenue synonymous with their racket. The new Whitney will be art’s answer to the huckster: where the ad agencies operate behind flimsy glass walls, the Whitney will be wrapped in concrete faced with granite; where the commercial ziggurats push the pedestrian off the sidewalk, the Whitney will invite him in; and where the right-side-up ziggurats down the avenue now symbolize the hucksters’ perversion of art, the Whitney’s upside-down monolith may become a powerful symbol of art ‘sailing against the currents of its time.'” (This quotation was from one of the last speeches of President Kennedy, in which he eulogized the artist in America as a “solitary figure. . . [playing] not a popular role.”)
Having now seen the new Whitney virtually complete, I find little reason to change my mind. It is a great, big brute of a building–an insult to the Madison Avenue of the grey flannel suit (or is it Terylene now?). It is a wonderful beast, as incomprehensible to the hucksters as it is to the architectural Establishment at the Ivy League colleges. It is both a forward assault-position for America’s artists and a fortress for the consolidation of their gains. If someone had not first used the term for Philip Johnson’s private, subterranean art gallery up in New Canaan, I would be tempted to call the new Whitney “Breuer’s Kunst-Bunker.”
I am not sure that I really like the shape of the Whitney; but I am sure that I would never bother to go to visit the place if I did. And I am glad that Breuer’s “Kunst-Bunker” bugs me as do few other buildings in New York because I want to be bugged by museums, not tranquilized by them. I have been back to see that beast of a building more often than I have looked at any other New York edifice under construction, and so I suppose it works very well indeed as a symbol, at least for me.
The Whitney as streetscape
Some years ago Lewis Mumford wrote a fairly rhapsodic piece about the then new Parke-Bernet building just two blocks north of the new Whitney. One of Mumford’s reasons for praising what seemed, to most of us, like a rather prosaic job, was that the Parke-Bernet fitted unobtrusively and well into its urban setting.
Perhaps so. The Parke-Bernet certainly did not exceed the height of its neighboring townhouses, nor did it seem to muscle its way into its block. It was just there one day, looking as if it had always been there. Indeed, Gertrude Stein’s famous swipe at Los Angeles applied, in a different way, to Mr. Mumford’s favorite: “There was no there, there.”
There certainly is a there, there, where the new Whitney has sprung up. By all the standard criteria of good streetscape-design (continuity of existing lines, surfaces, planes, materials), the new Whitney is no Parke-Bernet. It does not make any attempt to tie into the existing streetscape; in fact, it has blinder-type side walls both on its Madison Avenue and its Seventy-fifth Street property lines, to separate it from neighboring buildings. Its blank granite-faced walls do not relate to the stucco or brick façades next door. Its upside-down ziggurat profile relates to no existing structure on the avenue–except, perhaps, in the sense of mocking the right-side-up ziggurats of the ad agencies, as suggested earlier. And its erratic, splayed bay-window fenestration has no parallel anywhere in Manhattan.
One reason for the seeming contempt for its surroundings can be found in an obvious fact which Breuer understood quite clearly: unlike the Parke-Bernet building, which occupies an entire block and can, therefore, create its own streetscape, the new Whitney occupies an almost pitifully small site–a 104 by 125-foot corner lot–so that its architect could exercise no control whatsoever over developments to the south and east of the new building. Judging by what has been happening in that part of Manhattan during the past few years, any attempt to relate a new building to its walk-up neighbors would be doomed to eventual failure.
A second reason for the Whitney’s seeming lack of neighborliness has been suggested earlier. Breuer did not believe that a museum should look like any other kind of building; he wanted it to be different, to symbolize the uniquely different position of art in any society.
These rationalizations are, in a sense, excuses. When the building is considered, not as part of a conventional streetscape pattern, but in terms of the reality of a street as it appears to pedestrians as well as motorists, then the new Whitney seems infinitely more considerate of the street than many of the new buildings that pay elaborate lip service to urban design.
The Whitney as manscape
The pedestrian plaza has become so common a cliché in New York and in other American cities that one is not surprised to find the new Whitney’s ground floor, the sidewalk level, deeply recessed. But how many buildings put up on sites as small as this one have been so generous in donating open space to the pedestrian? Though the Whitney’s site is only 125 feet deep, Breuer sacrificed almost 30 feet of that depth at sidewalk level to create a meaningful, open space for the enjoyment of pedestrians. Moreover, he did not make this recess a bland plaza swept by winds and often drenched by sprays from the inevitable fountains; instead, Breuer created a sunken sculpture court, accessible by a broad stairway from the main-floor lobby and protected from the winds and even, to a degree, from rain. Furthermore, it forms an extension of the two-story-high sculpture gallery that is visible behind a wall of glass.
The glass wall, incidentally, being shaded by the projecting upper floors of the building, will be truly transparent, not an opaque mirror for façades opposite, or for the sky. Thus the upper floors not only serve to recapture the floor space lost at street level, but they also shelter the glass and the sculpture court outside it. A bridge across the sunken court makes an inviting entrance to the building. Meanwhile, to motorists driving up Madison, the stepped-back façade provides added visibility at an increasingly busy street corner.
In short, the Whitney may not he conventional streetscape as understood by planners of the past; but in terms of actual use it suggests a kind of street-development that is respectful of people, if not of next-door buildings. Because the Whitney’s inverted-ziggurat facade is so strong, the building may perform a further service not often performed by new structures: it may influence what will happen around it in the future. Breuer has demonstrated that we possess the technical means to open up our streets, to create new kinds of arcades, even in buildings whose floor space is at a premium.
The Whitney as a machine
“The first thing Breuer asked us after we picked him to be our architect,” Lloyd Goodrich, Director of the Whitney, said recently, “was to let him see exactly what happened to our paintings and sculptures, step-by-step–how they were unloaded, stored, transported, hung, lit, crated, shipped and so forth. He wanted to know absolutely everything that happens in a museum. Not many architects would have become so deeply involved.”
There are many theories and preferences about ways in which works of art should be shown, and every museum director holds his own. In the case of Goodrich and John Baur, the Whitney’s Associate Director, certain preferences may have been tempered by the unavoidable restrictions of the new museum’s site. For instance, in a multi-story museum (basement, five gallery floors, one office floor and a mechanical equipment floor on top) it would be virtually impossible to get much natural light into the gallery spaces. The sculpture court and the indoor sculpture gallery do have natural light; but the three upper-floor galleries have only an occasional, splayed bay-window, angled so as to keep out direct sunlight. Breuer and his clients agreed that this was no particular drawback. “You hardly ever get clear, natural light in a city anyway,” Breuer has pointed out. “The light is almost always reflected off some nearby building that may be yellow, red, brown or blue. Nothing could be worse for a painting.”
Some museum directors will disagree; they may feel that the constant changes in the quality and intensity of natural light add a liveliness to any gallery exhibit that cannot be duplicated by artificial light. Still, the new Whitney will have some gallery spaces with bay-windows (plus plenty of wall space between the windows for hanging paintings); but most of the upper-story galleries will be artificially lighted.
Breuer’s lighting system, designed in collaboration with Edison Price, is an integral part of a precast concrete grille hung parallel to the ceiling. The grille consists of two-foot squares which do several things: first, they serve to hold in place and stabilize floor-to-ceiling panels that can be easily moved around to form varying gallery spaces for different exhibitions; second, channels in the concrete grille will accept specially designed lamp housings that can be plugged in virtually anywhere in the ceiling and cast a directional light upon the exhibition panels; third, the concrete grille carries, above it, a system of indirect lighting that will supply general background illumination if and when desired; and fourth, the grille conceals the unavoidable beams, air ducts and conduits in the ceiling proper, yet it makes them easily accessible for maintenance purposes. The suspended concrete grille leaves clear a gallery height of close to thirteen feet on the second and third floors, and of more than seventeen feet on the fourth floor. It looks effective, but whether or not the lighting will work out as planned remains to be seen. Still, the system is flexible enough to permit any number of future adjustments.
Like any other museum, the new Whitney has elaborate facilities that most museum visitors will never see: out of a total of about 77,000 square feet of enclosed floor space, only 30,000 are devoted to exhibition areas. The rest of the floor area is taken up by storage rooms, offices, an auditorium, restaurant, kitchen, meeting rooms, a library, a restoration laboratory and those many stairs, elevator shafts, etc., required by today’s building codes. Under the circumstances, the public galleries seem almost miraculously spacious.
The Whitney complete
In short, it seems to me that the Whitney works as symbolic architecture; that it serves its street in a new and, possibly, superior way; and that it is likely to function as well as any urban museum recently built, and, possibly, far better.
“When we selected our architect,” Goodrich recalls, “we decided that we wanted someone who had never done a New York museum before.” What Goodrich was saying, of course, is that the Whitney was seeking its own identity at last. In that search the museum has been completely successful. It makes little sense to compare the new building to the Guggenheim, or the Huntington Hartford tower at Columbus Circle, or the Museum of Modern Art complex; these three, in effect, occupy the entire city blocks or dominate the blocks they occupy. The new Whitney is a street-corner museum, occupying a site that is only about one-third the size of the sculpture garden behind the Modern; to have developed an unmistakable identity, a remarkable sense of spaciousness, even a touch of monumentality against such odds is quite an achievement.
The other day, when I took another look at the hunk of concrete and granite at Seventy-fifth and Madison, a curbside critic said that “they ought to tear it down and build it right-side up.” My guess is that Breuer would have enjoyed the crack; and my further guess is that, instead, they may soon tear down some other things in Manhattan, and build them upside-down. Anyway, let’s hope they will.