Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Overwrought Shell Conceals Porous, Visitor-Friendly Design in Renzo Piano's New Whitney Museum

Donald Judd + Renzo Piano. Photo by Max Touhey

The best view of the new Whitney (which opens today) is west on Gansevoort Street, if by best view you mean the one where Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s $422 million museum building makes sense. From there, just outside Gansevoort Market, you see the four levels and 50,000 square feet of galleries stepping back above the leafy frill of the High Line, the thrust of the exterior gray steel staircase, a fire escape on steroids, and the sawtooth skylights that say Art Lives Here. The mind edits out the concrete core and the northern block that contains offices and conservation spaces, the back-of-house glimpsed only when the doors of the elevators open on the wrong side. From there, you can imagine those galleries as trays akin to the High Line trestle, an industrial framework for whatever sculpture, paintings or trees the curators choose to deploy.

That’s what Piano’s building wants to be: an elevated and unpretentious set of concrete floors, their edges exposed on the outside. That’s the prevailing idea, at least, when looking at the section sketches for the Whitney: emphasis on the floor as organizing principle, with natural light at the east and west ends, and minimal distinction between inside and out. A building closer to his firm’s hillside Genoa office—gorgeous, green, light-filled trays stepping down a slope—than to either his Neoclassical art palaces, with their fussy layers of scrim and motorized shade, or the high-tech, guts-out Centre Pompidou. So why did he have to go and wrap the thing up? The pale blue metal shell, bulging and tapering, with jet-age round edge windows and sloping sides, has made critics think of many similes, few of them complimentary. Nothing on the inside speaks the same aeronautical language, and the carapace covers what the lumps and bumps seem to want to reveal: the split between back and front of house, which, in the case of the new Whitney, divides the northern exposure from the southern one. The museum would be much more powerful as architecture if it had articulated that split in simple, material language, the kind of back-to-basics choices made on the inside. (A similar move, intriguingly, that Piano’s firm used for the High Line Headquarters building right next door, made of exposed steel and dark brick.)