What’s the best way to appraise a building: from the inside out or the outside in? You might think the best approach would be from the outside. After all, we always enter buildings that way, with one exception: When we’re born (assuming we were born indoors), we enter the building from within.
Yet perhaps seeing a building like a newborn is best, especially when the building itself is just an infant. The Whitney Museum of American Art has just opened its new home within eyeshot of the Hudson River on Gansevoort Street, in what used to be Manhattan’s meatpacking district. With its ponderous glass-and-metal skin, the new edifice, designed by Renzo Piano, is neither visually dazzling nor particularly elegant; nor is the structure the sort of shape-as-logo design that makes its mark on the city as a graphic silhouette. It is not architecture trying to be sculpture. But I challenge anyone to stroll through its galleries for more than five minutes without taking pleasure in the sheer generosity of its proportions, and how it calmly ushers in light from the river as graciously as it welcomes visitors. In comparison with the Whitney’s old uptown space on Madison Avenue—“harshly handsome” (as Ada Louise Huxtable declared on its debut) and designed by Marcel Breuer as a fortress to keep the urban jungle at bay—the new building is huge, yet its scale is never oppressive, just as the beautiful light spilling across the floors never hardens into a glare. Unlike so many other trophy museums of recent decades, Piano’s does not compete with the art for your attention, but neither does it try, as Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 redesign of the Museum of Modern Art unsuccessfully does, to disappear entirely in its favor. The building is quiet and congenial, but no pushover. Without question, the best place to see modern and contemporary art in New York City is now on Gansevoort Street.
Clearly, the building was designed from the inside out—in order to do what a museum is meant to do for the things it houses and the people who use it. But then, the new Whitney has no need to seduce anyone looking at it from Hudson River Park. Sitting at the foot of the High Line, it’s in the thick of one of Manhattan’s newest tourist destinations. More than that, as Michael Kimmelman recently observed in The New York Times, the museum’s location seals a “definitive shift in the city’s social geography”: Downtown is the new uptown, where capital and culture consort under the happily watchful eye of the real-estate industry. As everyone knows by now, gentrification is an art lover, just like you and me. The museum’s nearly anonymous appearance speaks to its merely supporting role in the transformations that the city has been undergoing.