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    Breuer's Whitney Museum

    continued

    Before the building design for what would be the new Whitney Museum of American Art was begun, careful consideration of special needs was undertaken. Here is a summary of a comparison of the 54th Street venue to the projections for the Madison Avenue building:

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    Function Existing Square FeetSquare Feet Recommended
    Storage2,588  5,176  
    Work areas1,814  2,935  
    Exhibition space9,939  19,899  
    Office space1,808  2,926  
    Library and files700  700  
    Lounges/ meeting rooms1,089  1,584  
    Total17,938  33,220  
    Total (square meters)1,666  3,086  

    Thus the program that would be given to Breuer to guide his design would be 85 percent larger than the existing museum on 54th Street. The only space not expanding in this basic program was the library and files (though the library would expand greatly in the eventual expansion undertaken in the 1990s).

    By 1964 Marcel Breuer had come up with a definitive design for the new Whitney, which was published in a fundraising report for the museum with the title A Program for the New Whitney Museum of American Art: In the Service of American Art. The model, renderings, and plans published in this pamphlet were virtually identical to what would be executed on the building site.

    This very bold inverted ziggurat would become, along with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, one of the most recognizable museum buildings not only in America, but in the world. The successive outwardly projecting floors and central window on the fourth-floor gallery would form one of the facades in New York City that would be loved most by some while reviled by others.

    The Whitney would be a radical departure from the staid white steel-and-glass International modernist buildings and would be one of the great monuments of a more personal interpretation of modernism.

    Breuer's use of richer materials would differentiate the Whitney from the brutalism that was becoming more and more dominant in the modern architecture of the time, though the general massing and use of projecting higher floors like inverted steps would be themes explored by that movement.

    The new galleries, based on a free plan with movable floor-to-ceiling partitions, would also become some of the most versatile and flexible spaces for displaying successfully a very wide variety of artistic media and practices.

    This was, naturally, perfectly suited to the mission and needs of the Whitney, an institution firmly committed to contemporary art and therefore in need of such flexibility to exhibit the ever-changing types of work in that always unpredictable world.

    As designed and built, the Whitney was originally completely self-contained in the Breuer building. The space where today's fifth-floor galleries are located was originally a courtyard, open to the sky and surrounded by the museum's offices. This floor was not accessible by the general public. The mezzanine, still only reachable from the fifth floor, was originally home to a Publications Office at the foot of the staircase, followed by the Museum Library, in the space now occupied by the Gillman Photography Gallery.

    The basement, with its opening on the western (front) side to the ground floor, which today houses the restaurant and gift shop, was originally used as a sculpture gallery (double-height and continuous with the sunken sculpture court fronting Madison Avenue), with a smaller restaurant situated behind it.

    With the exception of the alterations mentioned above, the Breuer building today is much the same as it was when it opened in 1966. The museum is entered by crossing a bridge over the sunken sculpture garden, leading into the lobby that contains ticket sales, membership and information desks, bookstore and coat check.

    On the south side are the elevators (including a large freight elevator that doubles as a public elevator during open hours), main staircase, and stairs leading down to the restaurant and gift shop. The southeast corner contains a small exhibition gallery. The loading dock is in the northeast of the floor and completely separated from the public areas. Collection storage is housed behind the restaurant in the basement and subbasement.

    The second through fourth floors house the large exhibition galleries, all built on a free plan with movable partitions. The different floors have varying ceiling heights, allowing for the optimum display of works in all media and scales. The second floor contains a small auditorium on the south side that now serves as the Film and Video Gallery.

    In May 2011, the Whitney Museum of American Art broke ground in Manhattan for a new museum building designed by Renzo Piano. The Whitney has also announced a multiyear agreement, in principle, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which the Met will present exhibitions and educational programming at the Whitney's Breuer-designed building beginning in 2015.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Eric M. Wolf is an art librarian and independent scholar. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and received his Ph.D. in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University's Department of Fine Arts. Currently working as head librarian at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, he has previously worked at the New York School of Interior Design and the Frick Collection. Wolf has published on topics ranging from the Renaissance architecture of Francesco di Giorgio Martini to the career of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art.

    This article is excerpted from American Art Museum Architecture: Documents and Design by Eric M. Wolf, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.

     

    AW

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    An angled trapezoidal window offers views along Madison Avenue from the fourth-floor gallery space of the Whitney Museum.
    Photo: Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy W.W. Norton Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    Breuer designed full-height movable partitions for the fourth-floor gallery space of the Whitney Museum. The partitions fit within the grid of a continuous coffered ceiling.
    Image: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Northwest-southeast section drawing through the Whitney Museum of American Art, looking southwest.
    Image: Marcel Breuer Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A six-story wall and narrow portion of the Whitney Museum, both using raw concrete as their finish material, serve to buffer the building's stone-clad mass from adjacent low-rise 19th-century structures.
    Photo: Courtesy W.W. Norton Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    The sunken sculpture garden is mirrored on the interior by a two-story gallery space, implying a single spatial volume that is bisected by a glass wall.
    Photo: Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy W.W. Norton Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    To enter the Whitney Museum at street level, visitors cross a concrete bridge that spans the sunken garden.
    Image: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The northeastern facade of the Whitney Museum is marked by an array of small trapezoidal window alcoves that mirror the large one on the main facade.
    Photo: Marcel Breuer Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    American Art Museum Architecture: Documents and Design by Eric M. Wolf.
    Image: W.W. Norton Extra Large Image

     

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