Whither and Whence the Whitney?

Gertrude Whitney's Fountains of El Dorado

The Whitney Museum, designed by Marcel Breuer, is truly one of the most hope-depleting contributions to the Upper East Side. The same year it was completed, 1966, public hearings were held to discuss protecting the neighborhood from future assaults with landmarks preservation legislation. It was a thoroughly rational response in this architect’s opinion. And fifteen years later, the Upper East Side Historic District was born.

For the past 25 years, now, the Whitney has tried to expand its venue. Unfortunately, it commissioned schemes which exacerbated rather than mitigated the problem of the original building’s unsightliness. Rem Koolhaas’s proposal, below, is truly exceptional, as it makes Breuer’s scheme look positively humble.

Rem Koolhaas’s proposal for the Whitney

The Landmarks Preservation Commission did its job–contain the damage. None of the schemes went forward, Deo Gratias. It’s a pity the Whitney’s board did not do the obvious: commission a scheme which would appeal to the people who have to live with it. Is that asking too much?

For the Whitney it is. They’ve decided to expand on a site in the Meat-Packing district where neighbors have not yet organized themselves and are relatively defenseless. Nicolai Ouroussoff supports the move, whining that the new site

offer[s] an escape from a neighborhood whose guardians treat anything out of the ordinary (read brick and brownstone) as an architectural cataclysm.

With pointless ad hominems like this, is it any wonder the New York Times is hemorrhaging readership?

Renzo Piano’s design for the new building is presented with a little more savvy than Koolhaas’ in-your-face model.

Renzo Piano’s proposed scheme for the Whitney

It’s covered up. With the trees and the High Line in the way, it’s quite difficult to make out. And the Whitney’s website does not provide more informative drawings or renderings. Why the diffidence? One can only guess they are trying to make it look very low-key architecturally, and green.

Imagine this view now in winter, when the trees are bare, and I think you will agree that the building will sit on the site with all the grace of Jabba the Hut. It will most certainly be out of place in the neighborhood. And so far as the green claim goes, that remains to be seen. I have my doubts, however, that the embodied energy of the enameled steel plates which cover the building can be justified. And I would expect maintenance costs will be very high.

Ouroussoff claims that the building’s industrial look is appropriate to the site. But surely a museum is not an industrial building and there’s no reason to dress it up as such. Why not make the museum look like a museum rather than a warehouse?

I propose that the Whitney go back to its roots. The collection’s first home, built in 1931 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and designed by Auguste Louis Noel, was not far away, on 8th Street in Greenwich Village.

The collection’s first home

Now the New York Studio School, the building  was a combination of three townhouses (note the hodge podge of windows in the upper stories) which Noel tied together with a strong yet elegant Art Deco base and a plain Tuscan cornice.

An original rendering. Evidently there was no need to camouflage the proposal.
(Image source)

It was simple, as one might expect from a young institution, yet it was noble and civil. Noel had Beaux-Arts training and had worked as a draftsman in the office of Carrère and Hastings, so he knew the tradition well. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Parks Service in 1992.

Gertrude Whitney herself was an accomplished sculptor who produced some wonderful monuments. One of my favorites is the sumptuous Fountains of El Dorado.

Gertrude Whitney’s Fountains of El Dorado

Designed for the Panama-Pacific International Expositionof 1915, it depicts the following scene:

In the panel are seen men and women in their mad race for the unattainable. Many have had a glimpse of the Gilded One, and are rushing on to pass the mysterious gate behind which the desires of life await them. Some faint by the roadside or stop in their race for the goal to contend or to loiter by the way, but those nearest the El Dorado increase their speed. Beside the gateway that has only just allowed the Gilded One to pass through are two mortals who have come close to the land of their desires, but only to find the door shut and slaves beside it barring the way. Their strength is expended, their courage gone in the long race for material things.

 [from Sculpture of the Exposition Palaces and Courts, by Juliet Helena Lumbard James]

I suspect the Whitney Museum, with its current design direction, is in the same futile pursuit. It has grown significantly since its founding, and no doubt deserves a monumental home. We hope it reflects on its roots before building.


  • Terry June 20, 2010 Reply

    Atlanta has it’s own Breuer, our central library. I don’t think it reaches “hope-depleting.” Well, at least one facade is hope crushing. It’s widely unloved with clever touches. The powers here don’t want more of the same. Our modernist fans consider it a shrine – our “Whitney.” They worry that the city will alter or tear it down.

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