I taught in Boston for the spring semester and commuted from New York City on the shuttle. The university discount applied only to the lower-rent US Airways version, which meant that the free in-flight reading material was somewhat limited, and as a result I was stuck with The Wall Street Journal and The New Criterion. Why the right is more inclined than the left to gratis distribution to this particular commuter demographic is a mystery, but I dutifully took my trips on wings of freebie reaction.
The New Criterion published two articles about architecture during the term; curiously, both were about museums designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano: the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City’s meatpacking district. Previously, the journal had enthusiastically supported Piano, covering his “splendid” modifications to New York’s Morgan Library in 2006 and his “masterpiece” addition to Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum in 2014. But something has changed. The review by Peter Pennoyer, a New York architect practicing in the “classical” manner, of Piano’s upgrade and expansion of the Fogg is chilly. Focused on the suture of modernity and “tradition,” Pennoyer—bemoaning “exquisitely detailed stone aedicule balconies” threatened by the proximity of a new wheelchair ramp—overvalues the tepid 1927 building, itself much of a muchness with other Georgian-oid construction from Harvard’s Roaring ’20s boom.
To his credit, Pennoyer also decries another ramp, this time on the back side of the building—a wretched and trivializing extension of the great bifurcating distributor of the Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s masterpiece next door. And he nails many of the Fogg’s deficits, from its graceless facades and crude negotiation of the old/new seam to its indifferent finishes and tepid circulation (although calling the main stair “anti-humanist” is over the top; “too narrow” would do). He also rightly points out that the most habitable new space in the building is the conservation area under its huge glass roof, a spacious working environment with killer views, far more “functional” than the rather dour new galleries.
Tarring the whole by praising the incidental success of some use ancillary to the actual display of art (the staff quarters, the views, the café, the comfy sofas) is a critical strategy that recurs in almost every piece written about the Whitney, including one by New Criterion executive editor James Panero. His animus is freer-floating than Pennoyer’s, perhaps because there’s no literal victim to be defended. In lieu, he idealizes “the museum” as a place of “elevated design,” one that embodies “coherence, symmetry, and a sensitivity to materials.” The Whitney thus fails on two counts: as a flunky within a Platonic category, and also by falling outside it. It’s a building of a completely different type. Whatever “this construction resembled…it clearly did not look like a museum…hospitals, prisons, cement plants, Fukushima, and Eastern bloc governmental agencies all come to mind.” Although Panero lands a few commonplace blows about the behavior of the building, his architectural argument relies almost entirely on whimsical simile: The Whitney can’t be a decent museum because it looks like something else.