Back from something between a long weekend and a short week in New York, mostly for pleasure but including one stop by Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney in Chelsea.
Piano’s building has been the subject of the kind of ecstatic, billowing buzz that any architect would dream of. In April, Michael Kimmelman of the Times wrote that
The new museum isn’t a masterpiece.
But it is a deft, serious achievement, a signal contribution to downtown and the city’s changing cultural landscape. Unlike so much big-name architecture, it’s not some weirdly shaped trophy building into which all the practical stuff of a working museum must be fitted.
It clearly evolved from the inside out, a servant to pragmatism and a few zoning anomalies.
Not so long ago, having the Times call your design a “servant to pragmatism” wouldn’t count as praise, but Kimmelman’s review (accompanied by some deftly integrated animations–a pretty signal contribution to architectural criticism itself) made the point that Piano’s building was so successful because it began from a fairly humble assessment of the urban situation and the required programmatic innards. How these two often-competing forces meet up formed the basis for the building’s massing and inspired some of its more notable spaces, in particular the sheltered entry, tucked in under the bulk of the galleries above and the pyramidal form that offers a sort of cultural jungle gym on the outside that lets patrons wander up and down the building’s exterior while taking in views of the city and the High Line.
But the straightforward solution to the problem of circulating through a fairly narrow lot and the obvious setback restrictions also led to what Kimmelman described as a remarkably background approach to the building’s urban character. The circulation tower on the north side relates to the lingering industrial quality of this part of the West Side Highway (though it’s likely to back up to a monster of a new development soon…) while the galleries and terraces to the east complement the human scale of the High Line’s southern end–a welcome that’s furthered by the carved out colonnade along Gansevoort Street.
The ‘elevation’ along Gansevoort is–to my mind–a tribute to Marcel Breuer’s famously stoic wall of stone and a single eyebrow window on Madison Avenue in the original Whitney. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but it’s part of an overall strategy of stating simply what’s going on in each part of the building. From the southwest, you can see plainly the lobby and bookstore at street level, the floors of enclosed gallery space above and, as the galleries get wedged into the zoning envelope, the circulation core along the northern edge. Simple diagram, uncluttered and confidently expressed.
And, best of all, this being Piano, the whole thing is covered in immaculate detailing. The cladding is a super-precise bent steel with a finish that doesn’t seem to have a single episode of oil-canning, or even any real variation in shade or tone. Just like his terra cotta screens of the 1990s, Piano seems to be going back to old materials and seeing whether there’s anything to re-invent. In this case, there’s a definite sensibility that comes from the ribbon buildings of the last decade, but if you compare the fluidity between ceiling and wall here to that of–oh, say–Diller and Scofidio’s elegantly conceived but clumsily executed Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston it’s clear that a more modest but crafted approach has its advantages.
The one complaint that seems common and fair is that the circulation–an undersized stair and far too few elevators–doesn’t work as fluidly as the rest of the building. This, you could argue, is another tribute to Breuer’s building, where the wait for the elevators was legendary.
So, a cultural monument that negotiates a complex program with a rich but delicate urban setting, executed via a strong diagram and thoughtful detailing. That pretty much sums up what’s been our approach to Comprehensive Design for the last ten years, and it really does feel like one of our better studio projects come to life. The new Whitney has re-set the bar high–the last time I can remember so many people–critics, academics, but more importantly the public–being so engaged by a building like this–and having it live up to the hype (looking at you, Seattle Public Library)–was the Phoenix Library, which opened about 20 years ago. It, too, was “hardly a masterpiece,” to borrow Kimmelman’s phrase, but maybe that’s the point–that we should stop praising buildings that so dramatically overshoot and instead recognize buildings that accept their programs and sites with all the limitations and opportunities that these bring, and that try to forge the best possible solution out of them. Here, Piano’s shown what a building that tries to be really good instead of really dramatic can do.
That bodes well locally…while on our way to the Whitney the phone rang with news that Piano’s scheme for the new Des Moines headquarters for the regionally ubiquitous but unfortunately named Kum’n’Go convenience store chain had been announced. Plans are sketchy but also straightforward, cleanly diagrammed, and promising…