Piano Whitney Clunker; Snohetta San Francisco Behemoth: Review

Whitney Museum
A rendering of the Whitney Museum, unveiled at the May 24, 2011 groundbreaking, is shown from the High Line Park. Terraces of outdoor exhibitions spaces rise above the popular park in Manhattan's West Chelsea neighborhood. Source: Whitney Museum via Bloomberg

The latest design for the $210 million Whitney Museum of American Art looks like a top-heavy container ship run aground in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.

The metal-paneled building by busy architect Renzo Piano makes nothing of a richly textured neighborhood. Did he never take in the golden light reflected from the Hudson River?

In San Francisco, the news isn’t much better. Norwegian architect Snohetta has stuffed a bulky $200 million addition behind the 16-year-old building of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Though it strives not to overwhelm, it doesn’t yet succeed.

Unique conditions allowed transformative growth at both institutions, but the designs submerge a distinctive artistic voice. They defer to an aesthetically puritanical time that condemns expressiveness as a decadent remnant of an era of excess.

To celebrate the groundbreaking of its new building May 24, the Whitney has put its final design on view at its current home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

For three decades, well-heeled neighbors thwarted the Whitney’s attempts to grow beyond its stern, granite-clad 1966 building by Marcel Breuer. An unsuccessful attempt by Piano to add a mini tower in rumpled metal to the Breuer building was preceded by a craggy overhanging addition by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a lugubrious columned palace by Michael Graves.

Having obtained a downtown site in a neighborhood where sleek galleries have displaced blood-spattered butchers, the museum will quadruple its total space to 200,000 square feet. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to take over the Breuer.)

What Happened?

Piano has muddied his 2008 preliminary design. He had sculpted a towering silhouette in sloping, stone-faced prismatic facets. That surface would have coaxed the river’s sparkling light inland. It would have stood in primordial contrast to the surrounding melange of sooty brick warehouses and tenements.

The Whitney asked Piano to straighten the angled galleries and sloping walls. He squished the building’s bulk into a clumsy sandwich of vertical and horizontal boxes. How could this evocative collision of city and river have defeated him? Perhaps he is too busy. He also afflicted us New Yorkers with the awkward expansion of the Morgan Library & Museum.

The new Whitney sits next to one end of the wildly popular High Line, a park built atop an abandoned railroad viaduct. Piano enriched the setting by locating sculpture terraces so that visitors could gaze on people strolling in the park, and park visitors could return the favor.

In the current design a block-long 18,000-square-foot temporary exhibition hall shoves its bulk obtrusively into the High Line view. This cavernous, column-free hangar is supposed to be the new museum’s centerpiece, large enough to display the monumental scale of today’s art stars.

Many Millions

Much better are the three exhibition levels that surmount the hall because they open onto the sculpture terraces. From them, art can engage the splendid urban cacophony of the surroundings.

The Whitney has raised 70 percent of its $720 million goal, but only one third of this amount goes to the building, an unusually small percentage of a capital campaign.

In San Francisco, Snohetta curved and creased a massive box to slither into a tight mid-block site.

The museum will double its size (to 400,000 square feet) to display the collection of Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap Inc. clothing chain.

No Engagement

From the back of the 1995 building, the addition extends sideways to Howard Street, forming an L. The architect squeezed the bulk to leave a gap between adjacent buildings that accommodates a narrow outdoor passage. It runs from Howard past a picture-window gallery to a garden and a second entrance. The new design keeps the existing building’s showpiece atrium lobby striped in marble by the Italian-Swiss architect Mario Botta.

The $480 million fundraising campaign will add $100 million to the endowment.

Viewed from the adjacent Yerba Buena Gardens, the addition’s pinched-in top, with a bit of droop in its silhouette, softens its presence behind Botta’s natty pin-striped palazzo. The warped surfaces appear to crack open, making room for a couple of terraces that will offer expansive views.

Still, this preliminary design doesn’t distinctively engage its setting nor yet speak to the art-viewing experience.

In Piano’s hands, architectural deference plays out as convictionless. SFMoMA feels a bit squishy for such a big building that will have to gracefully handle a lot of people. It may yet find the sweet spot between gravitas and welcome.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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