Since 1985, the Whitney Museum of American Art has presented three separate expansion plans for its 42-year-old home in Upper Manhattan—all of which have fizzled. Once again, the institution is trying to increase its square footage, with hopes that an entirely new strategy will make the fourth time a charm.
In late April, the museum debuted Renzo Piano’s scheme for a new satellite building in the city’s Meatpacking District. The unveiling comes less than two years after the institution purchased the 185,000-square-feet downtown site, where the Dia Art Foundation had originally planned to build a New York flagship museum. The city currently is reviewing Piano’s scheme after a community board approved it in June.
The 50,000-square-foot facility will include some 15,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space across several stories. According to Whitney Director Adam Weinberg, the new branch will increase the museum’s capacity to exhibit its permanent collection, and will offer events that its uptown headquarters cannot accommodate. The project also allows the museum to return to its “downtown roots,” Weinberg says, adding that the pale cantilevered form of Piano’s design reflects “the roughness and simplicity” of nearby warehouses and cobblestone streets.
With five terraced floors situated above an all-glass lobby, the parallels between Piano’s vision and the Whitney’s 1966 Brutalist home by Marcel Breuer are telling. Piano’s shape, like Breuer’s, inverts the building as it climbs. But in contrast to Breuer’s solid granite mass, Piano envisions a light structure with big windows that offer river views and make art visible from nearby streets. Weinberg likens the design’s spirit to the Whitney’s first home, a Greenwich Village salon that evolved over time into an august collection of American art.
Weinberg has reason to stress downtown pride, given the opposition to earlier expansion plans for the institution’s Madison Avenue home. In 1985, Michael Graves’s proposal fell through when neighbors called it too radical; Rem Koolhaas’s 2003 scheme to expand into nearby brownstones cost too much; and Piano’s 2004 proposal languished amid local questions about its effect on nearby landmarks. In 2006, the institution purchased the site in the Meatpacking District, a decidedly funkier part of Manhattan. “This is a place for artists to hang out,” asserted Weinberg during a presentation to a community board, even showing a slide of notable artists who live within walking distance of the site.
Indeed, despite the new museum’s location next to an operating meatpackers’ cooperative, the recent announcement underscores the neighborhood’s conversion from industrial-era workhorse to fashionable residential enclave—a condition that suits Piano. “I love being in a changing place,” he says. “I love transformation.” Like other areas in Manhattan, the Meatpacking District has gentrified rapidly since the late 1990s and now draws tipplers and trendmongers. The museum will face the High Line, a historic elevated rail track that the city is converting into a park. Weinberg says he plans for exhibitions on the outdoor terraces, later opening hours, and more after-dark events once the building opens in 2012.