It was 1981, and it was finally happening. The Whitney Museum of American Art, sited on New York City’s Upper East Side in the iconic Marcel Breuer-designed building first completed in 1965, had successfully acquired the five town houses south of its location on Madison Avenue. After nearly 16 years, the institution had the room and was expanding with help from renowned architect Michael Graves. There was just one problem: the residents of the neighborhood and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission took issue with Graves’s eccentric, layered design that would knock down the brownstones in the Whitney’s historic district. After three revisions, the plans sputtered, and the museum tabled them around 1986.
Fast-forward to 1999, and once again the Whitney began to entertain ideas of expansion. Its board worked with Rem Koolhaas, who conceived a space-age design that could reach up and over the area’s brownstones. But, before the plan could get past the proposal stage, the events of September 11, 2001, pushed the museum to scrap it entirely.
By this point, the Whitney, whose total number of collected pieces had reached well into five digits, was desperate for more space, so it began a third expansion discussion in 2003, this time with Renzo Piano. His plans made it past community-board and Landmarks Preservation Commission reviews, but the gains they offered the Whitney seemed negligible compared to their price tag, and the museum’s board was thus left debating whether to proceed with them.
In short, the frustrated plans to expand the Whitney had been more than 20 years in the making when the city approached the museum in 2004 with a discounted offer on a lot in the Meatpacking District. It was hard for the museum not to see the opportunity as a golden one, and within two short years, the institution signed a letter of agreement with the city to buy up the land and build a brand-new location. The resulting tiered, angular structure, also designed by Piano and scheduled to open this spring, represents a newfound freedom for the Whitney—aesthetically, spacially, and curatorially.
“We decided moving downtown would be the best thing because it provided that horizontal space that for years the museum had been seeking,” says project manager Larissa Gentile, who joined the museum in 1999 as the assistant to the deputy director before taking on a leadership role overseeing its capital improvements. “The property is about a 40,000-square-foot lot—versus uptown, which is about 10,000. So, right there, that tells you what you’re going to be able to fit on one floor.”
The lot, at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets, is located at the southern end of the High Line, the popular elevated park, and the city hoped that the new Whitney building might help anchor it, even contributing $55 million to the project’s overall construction budget of roughly $422 million. So, from the beginning, Piano sought to merge his design with the adjacent green space. The resulting light-colored structure stairsteps back from the city, its primary mass positioned nearer the Hudson River immediately to the west, and each of its three stepped tiers has a terrace with outdoor gallery space and sprawling views of Manhattan. The building’s top three floors are tilted in at a shallow angle that keeps views of the river unobstructed from the High Line, and the ground-floor lobby is largely glassed in on three sides to keep it open to its surroundings, including an 8,500-square-foot public space shaded by the building’s cantilevered second floor.
Piano conducted several meetings and reviews with members of the community, and the reception he and the museum received there was markedly more enthusiastic than on the Upper East Side. “There really is no museum, at least in that immediate area, of the Whitney’s stature,” Gentile says. “There was some back and forth with design—but very little. And Renzo did a lot to make sure light and air was preserved for the High Line.” Additionally, historical protections in the more commercial Meatpacking District, overseen by the State Historic Preservation Office, are far less stringent, so outside of discussions regarding building materials, Piano had to change his design very little to fit the neighborhood and conform to codes.
More difficult for Piano and the Whitney was fitting the building to the site itself and accommodating the particular needs of the museum as a gallery and preservation space. As part of its deal with the city, the Whitney had to first take care of the meatpacking tenants occupying the lot, raze the three buildings there, and clear the land for construction. Then, Renzo’s design had to accommodate the High Line’s maintenance and operations facility, which was originally supposed to be part of the Whitney’s building but, because of differences in scheduling, ended up being built separately. “If you come to the site now, you’ll see this dark brick building that looks like it’s almost nested into ours, but it is, in fact, its own building,” Gentile says. “And the good news with that is, given that it was going to be so close to us, Renzo Piano decided to work with [the city’s parks and recreation department] to design that one as well.”
Conversations with the Whitney’s board also led Piano to limit the angular aspects of his design, which in early planning stages were leaving the museum with inadequate floor space for exhibitions. He and the board were able to come to a compromise, with tilted cladding on the top three floors and a rectangular mass below. “I think it’s funny,” Gentile says. “You hire a ‘starchitect’ because you want them to think out of the box, and then in the end, you just want the box.”
Ground broke on the museum in 2011, and its construction took place in three stages: roughly one year for foundation work, another for the steel superstructure, and a final one to fit the building out. The main concern, unsurprisingly, turned out to be water since the building is so close to the Hudson. “We are 10 feet [down] to water and 100 [down] to rock,” Gentile says, noting that the project involved “a lot of dewatering.” The issue became most salient when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, overtaking the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s predicted 500-year flood line of 10 feet and completely flooding the Whitney’s foundation. The museum hired German firm WTM to help fortify its mostly finalized design with additional water protections, including a specialized sealant around conduit lines, submarine-style flood doors for openings at lower elevations, and an aboveground stop-log system that raises the building’s flood line to 16.5 feet.
The completed structure, scheduled to open this spring, encompasses 220,000 square feet in total, and it will allow the Whitney to show its exhibits as it has always meant to. Its display spaces include a public lobby gallery, an 18,000-square-foot, column-free gallery for special collections (the largest of its kind in the city), and three additional gallery floors comprising about 25,000 square feet for the museum’s permanent collection, which has grown from 2,000 pieces in 1966 to more than 21,000 today. In its Upper East Side location, the Whitney only ever had about 6,000 square feet for its permanent collection, so the difference will be felt. “Uptown,” Gentile says, “you take out one floor, and you’re immediately taking out one-third of the museum.”
The new building also has a number of facilities that are firsts for the Whitney: a theater for special events and film screenings seats 170, a classroom and a seminar room offer dedicated space for art education, and a works-on-paper study center stores 85 percent of the museum’s collection, making it readily available for visiting researchers. Additionally, the institution’s conservation lab has been significantly upgraded, with three times the room it had at the Upper East Side location and new equipment for the preservation of film, digital, and photography collections.
Helping with energy efficiency, daylighting is a huge part of the new building, entering through skylights and massive windows looking out on the Hudson from select floors. The Whitney therefore chose glass with the proper amount of UV reflection to protect its art, and it worked with Piano to conceive an elaborate shading system that’s fully controllable, allowing the museum to adjust the brightness in individual spaces. Other sustainable elements include LED lights (with the right level of warmth for illuminating exhibitions), high-efficiency chillers, a cogeneration plant, a storm-water tank for water conservation, and reclaimed-pine flooring collected from old factories, including two in the Tri-State Area. The museum hopes to achieve LEED Gold certification.
The staff of the Whitney has taken to referring to the institution’s move as “a return to our roots.” After showing exhibitions in her home for many years, sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney opened the museum in 1931 on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, but in 1954 it moved to 54th street, and a little more than a decade later, it occupied the Marcel Breuer space. It’s taken 61 years for the Whitney to come back below 14th Street, but now that it’s there, it’s taking every last advantage of its new location to support the artistic community it rose from. “It’s kind of full circle; we ended up back in the West Village—with a bigger building,” Gentile says, adding, “We like to have the opportunity to let artists come in, think about or do site-specific works, and things like that, so this really kind of opens it up for us.”