The ballooning permanent collection will occupy two upper floors, and sculptures will take up positions on outdoor terraces linked by a profusion of steel staircases. Piano provides more indoor gallery space than Breuer did (50,000 square feet, up from 32,000), but the menu of indispensable amenities—café, restaurant, conservation center, gift shop, classrooms, auditorium, cubicles, and conference rooms—means that only four of its nine stories, and a little over a quarter of its total area, are principally for showing art.
Even if Piano’s building satisfies every artist’s aspirations and curator’s dream, even if it speeds the sales of Whitney watches and overpriced panini and hosts the most glittering gala soirées—even if it performs all the multifarious tasks that fall to a major museum these days, it still has the makings of a dud. Architectural strategies that would once have seemed bold now look secondhand, having been executed better elsewhere. The tilted canopy/ceiling slicing through a great glass wall recalls Lincoln Center’s new Alice Tully Hall, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The levitating gallery above a transparent base echoes the same firm’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Piano’s asymmetrical ziggurat nods to Gehry’s IAC headquarters a few blocks away, but the homage only highlights the disparity in the two architects’ imaginations. Instead of abandoning a great building in order to build a better one, the Whitney is moving toward a new identity that is at once hazy and too slick.