An Out-of-Tune Piano

An artist’s rendering of the future Whitney.Photo: Courtesy of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Collaboration With Cooper, Robertson & Partners

Having spent years trying to bust out of its concrete compound on Madison Avenue, proposing towers too tall or flamboyant for the Upper East Side, the Whitney Museum of American Art is finally decamping back downtown, where its story started and where the city is still a work-in-progress. Now that the museum has finally found the money, the site, and the time to build a fantasy home from scratch, now that it has unloaded its old building on the Metropolitan Museum as a contemporary-art satellite, and now that the meatpacking district has been spruced up and made safe for a major cultural brand, the Whitney should be riding a current of raw creative power. Why, then, has it brought uptown uptightness to a neighborhood where not many years ago, the blood of butchered beasts still ran among the cobblestones?

The new design is the work of the hyperdistinguished architect Renzo Piano, who has peppered this country with elegant if sometimes bloodless new museums and additions. This one is a missed opportunity of majestic proportions. Piano’s Whitney needed to live up not just to his own immense portfolio but also to the array of 21st-century architecture clustered around the High Line, and to the museum’s current home by Marcel Breuer, one of New York’s most distinctive architectural achievements. Instead, he has capped the High Line with a pale, metal-clad tower, interlocked with a stack of horizontal blocks that step back in the manner of a clunky cruise ship. (The groundbreaking took place last week; the building is scheduled to open in 2015.)

Whether or not the Whitney was wise to migrate, the design suggests that it has misperceived its future neighborhood, a formerly run-down area where mottled brick, painted iron, and salvaged wood are still pleasingly rough. The district’s architecture of the past decade has put a sophisticated gloss on this neighborhood’s industrial past. The elevated train bed of the High Line was repurposed into a park for strolling, retaining its brawny rivets and weathered rails. The Standard Hotel stands astride it like a glass colossus on thick concrete legs, challenging the park’s horizontality. A few blocks away, on 15th Street at Ninth Avenue, SHoP’s Porter House consists of a zinc-and-glass addition hung jauntily over the back of a handsome brick warehouse from 1905. The Diane Von Furstenberg headquarters sports an asymmetrical crystal cupola by WORKac atop a nineteenth-century warehouse, a feature that demands attention on the low-slung skyline and also channels daylight through the building’s core.

Piano comes from Italy’s industrial port city of Genoa, which he refurbished nearly twenty years ago, so he knows something about adapting the relics of a grungier age to today’s consumerist glitter. Here, though, he has produced a monument to the wrong phase of industry—not the sooty waterfront of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries but the seamless, shiny household objects of his postwar youth. With their enameled metal panels, vast sheets of limpid glass and polished steel trim, and white walls floating just above blond wood floors, the renderings of Piano’s Whitney evoke a modern fantasy of manufacturing, populated not by stevedores but by executives and engineers. The result is MoMA South, a thoroughly corporate museum—airy, spacious, efficient, and utterly sterile.

The kernel of the new building is a giant, column-free gallery housed in a raised slab and cantilevered above the ground-floor restaurant. In an early sketch, Piano labeled that section galleria per antonomasia—the “ultimate art gallery,” ultimateness being defined as a featureless expanse. Curators will no doubt chop it up with movable partitions, a solution that in a double-height space like this one often winds up resembling convention-center booths. It’s easy to understand the museum’s desire for maximum flexibility, but is the only way to experience contemporary art really in a huge hall that blends the aesthetic of the Soho loft with the dimensions of a hockey rink? Surely even a new museum can offer the progression of large and intimate chambers, of vestibules and nooks found in a converted mansion, where an artwork is treated less like a specimen than as an appurtenance of life.

Despite that capacious ballroom, the new Whitney, like the old one, will be a vertical museum. As it’s proposed, a wraparound glass wall at street level opens views beneath the High Line to the Hudson River and encloses an austerely minimal lobby finished in the slate-and-charcoal shades of a good business suit. A stairway that is quite ample—but not, as the architect would have it, “grand”— encourages visitors to climb. It’s a hike, though, past the theater and two floors of offices, before you finally reach the heart of the art experience. Most people will probably opt for the elevators.

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.

An Out-of-Tune Piano