The Whitney Museum of American Art: Museum as a piece of Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art

Pushing a column-free design to its limits, Renzo Piano and a team of innovative architects and engineers bring unique exhibition space to the Meatpacking District. However, the Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1931 by sculptor, socialite, and art collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Whitney settled in its first purpose-built home designed by Marcel Breuer, on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. In 2008, after decades of grappling with space issues in the controversies. The Whitney released designs for a new building by an Italian architect and bespoke museum-maker Renzo Piano.

Museum as a piece of Art: The Whitney Museum of American Art
The Whitney Museum of American Art with context

About The The Whitney Museum

The new museum, situated in New York’s vibrant Meatpacking District, fronting onto Gansevoort Street, lies between the Hudson and the High Line, Manhattan’s recently completed elevated urban park. Piano’s building has 50,000 square feet of gallery space—only 17,000 more than the Breuer building. The new museum also now has a library, two theaters (one black-box), 13,000 square feet of outdoor terraces, and dedicated curatorial, educational, and conservation spaces.

Museum as a piece of Art: The Whitney Museum of American Art
Museum and meatpacking district

Clad in pale blue-grey steel panels, this eight-story building is powerfully asymmetrical. The mass of the full-height museum to the west, Hudson-side, with tiers of lighter terraces and glazed walkways stepping right down to the High Line, embracing it into the project. Compared by both the architect and many critics and writers to a ship, Whitney’s steel-framed conglomerate volumes and containers look like they came into port from the Hudson River. Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), which worked in collaboration with Cooper Robertson, chose to hang the eight floors of galleries and supporting spaces of the north and south sides with exposed precast concrete core elevators, circulation, bathrooms, and labs. Moreover, the architects used the concrete spine as the dividing line in their plan and placed galleries to the south and offices and curatorial spaces to the north.

Museum as a piece of Art: The Whitney Museum of American Art
Looking like a ship with column less spaces

Construction

Stabilized laterally by its concrete core, the building uses a steel frame for vertical loads and needed cross bracing only at the southwest corner. RPBW enveloped most of the structure in vertical ribbons of 0.3-inch-thick 3.3-foot-wide steel, which bend subtly at the sides where the body of the building folds in. However, on the museum’s eastern façade, an exterior staircase connects outdoor terraces on floors five through eight, providing spectacular birds-eye views of the High Line and allowing visitors to bypass the elevators or interior stairs circulate through the galleries.

Museum as a piece of Art: The Whitney Museum of American Art
Outdoor terraces and staircase

The terraces extend the museum space of the museum by allowing large works of art to be anchored to the ground or suspended from 7-inch-thick precast concrete panels. And also, a number of which weigh quite 20,000 pounds. Cooper Robertson helped create a custom system of vertical and horizontal anchor points to install screens, canvases, or freestanding sculptures.

Column less museum spaces

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Access of The Whitney Museum

The museum is accessible via a dramatically cantilevered ‘largo’. A public space that serves as a kind of decompression chamber between streets. Also, the museum, a shared space, with views of the Hudson and the High Line entrance a few steps away. Accessed from the ‘largo,’ the chief entrance lobby also is a public gallery – of free-entry exhibition space. Double-glazed window walls are held in situ by a tensioned cable arrangement secured within the structural beams. Slender columns within the lobby and out are 15 inches thick. “These are pipes they use in atomic power plants, they aren’t standard steel,” said Cooper.

Cantilevered ‘largo’ as a public space

To make their way to galleries or other spaces above, visitors have the option of riding the elevators or climbing a delicate, suspended interior stair. Some of Whitney’s most extraordinary interior spaces are its column-less gallery floors, which run the building’s length. The 5th floor is the most extensive column-free gallery in a museum in all of New York, at 18,000 sq feet. Moreover, this gallery is reserved for temporary exhibitions. And its expansive volume will enable the display of extensive works of contemporary art.

Two floors, levels six and seven exhibit the permanent collection. These two floors also step back towards the west to form 13,000 sq. ft of open-air sculpture terraces. On Whitney’s 8th floor, where visiting artists will hone their craft, serrated, north-facing skylights span between the ceiling beams and bring in daylight to enhance the museum experience’s apex. A skylight system naturally lights space in a saw-tooth configuration. 

Pale blue cladding as a canvas to the outdoor spaces

About Spaces of The Whitney Museum

Renzo Piano is the grand champion of public space. Whether the visitors and citizens of the town are aware of it or not. He improves their quality of life by sharing a living space designed explicitly for the cultivation and dispersal of ideas. Therefore, civic life enrichment. Also, he’s the architect who cares about the individual’s experience of a building. Also cares about how people interact with space, and how it interacts with the world. Additionally, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, very similar to the Centre Pompidou. He displayed this by including an enormous area in front. A “piazza” he calls it—for people to greet, congregate, chat, and even stroll. He’s somehow simultaneously innovative and selfless.

Overlooking the High Line, the outdoor stairs connect the art terraces above the ground floor. So visitors can circulate through the gallery floors while connecting on each level with the city. “In my first sketch of the project,” says Piano, “I drew a building that flirts with the High Line and talks to the city.”

Museum as a piece of Art: The Whitney Museum of American Art
Outdoor welcoming piazza

What outlines the new Whitney is the notable outdoor spaces for enjoying art. However, the museum plans to put the sculpture on the terraces. And therefore the largo invites artists to project video works on its facades and mount performances on its steel stairs. “We want to use the building because the material for art, not just a site for art,” says Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director. “We see the building as an instrument to be played.”

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