Outdoor Celebration at the Whitney

rowland_3-062515_jpg_600x918_q85To my surprise and delight, I like the new Whitney. And that is the consensus of the cities’ major critics. From the outside, all agree that the building is hard to take in. It looks as if a beginner at Legos piled up a variety of horizontal units and they somehow balanced. The eastern and western facades are opposites—closed on the west and wide open on the east—for reasons the architect, Renzo Piano, described in The New Yorker,

On the east, the building congenially descends in tiers—“to bring down the scale,” he said—toward the historic low-rise buildings of the neighborhood. The side that faces the river is “more massive, more strong,” Piano said. A truncated-pyramid profile with jutting banks of large windows, it “talks to the rest of the world” from an attitude of confident majesty. Immodestly, but with proof in the product, the architect cited the elements that he had sought to incorporate in the design: “social life, urbanity, invention, construction, technology, poetry, light—an immense rich bouillabaisse.”

Piano also understood that New York City didn’t need another showpiece of a museum like the Guggenheim and, as a New Yorker, I am grateful for that. Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote in his review,

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. . . . I’m reminded of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which Mr. Piano designed some four decades ago with Richard Rogers. The breakthrough there was not just the inside-out-factory aesthetic but the development of a populist hangout, with a plaza in front, as opposed to a temple for art. Mr. Piano and Mr. Rogers were branded heretics. . . . A generation or two later, the new Whitney asserts that temple and hangout aren’t mutually exclusive —— that a modern art museum neither has to dumb itself down nor make itself intimidating, but can be both sanctuary and civic center. . . . Mr. Piano also recognized that people want to look at other people; they want to see stuff happening, not stare at the water. So his terraces face east, toward the city, . . .

The clearest architectural description of the building is in current issue of The New York Review of Books by Ingrid D. Rowland, a professor at University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. She cites Renzo Piano’s metaphor of sailing and relates the building to its setting and overall functional design as if it were a cruise ship.

Piano himself has repeatedly described the Whitney project as a ship. A native of Genoa . . . he knows a thing or two about navigation; thus his latest structure’s similarities to a seagoing vessel are neither casual nor superficial. . . . [It] faces onto the Hudson River and the remnants of New York Harbor’s once magnificent piers; . . . like a cruise ship, with an impressively inviting stack of observation decks . . .

The Whitney’s west façade, with its stack of observation decks extending from each floor and connected by outdoor stairs, deliberately evokes the fire escapes that zigzag across the red brick faces of onetime meatpacking facilities. . .

rowland_1-062515_jpg_600x824_q85When I returned home from my visit to the Whitney, I realized that I had worn my baseball cap from The Gates of 2005, Christo and Jeannne-Claude’s celebration for New York City in Central Park. It occurred to me that my good feeling about the Whitney was similar to my reaction (and a lot of others) to The Gates. The Whitney’s unexpected terraces or observation decks, as Rowland describes them, provide a welcoming space for unhurried, intimate conversation in a setting of spectacular views from angles one has never experienced before. In between terraces one visits the galleries without feeling rushed—there is another terrace waiting to continue the conversation about art or not—it doesn’t matter. I remember loving The Gates because of the surprising conversations that happened while strolling through the park. The celebratory atmosphere provided something intangible that allowed for a kind of socializing we rarely find in public spaces anymore. This, for me, is the one of the great joys of the new Whitney. It cost 422 million and The Gates, that lasted a mere 16 days, 21 million. The Whitney is a bargain.images-5





— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Contributor


A note: Someone might point out that the High Line, which starts at the doorstep of the Whitney, provides a similar public space for socializing. For me, it doesn’t unless circumstances are just right and that is rare. I find it too crowded and hot with no areas for shady comfort out of the blazing sun. At sunset, with tourists off to shows, it can be lovely.

Photographs of the Whitney from The New York Review of Books

I recommend looking at The New York Times review for its active photographs that allow the viewer to navigate through the galleries and see the art.


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