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

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Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. Lange's last installment skewered the process behind the Thomas Heatherwick-designed, Barry Diller-funded Pier55 park in the Hudson River, and this week she heads to the Meatpacking District of Manhattan to scope out the brand-new Whitney Museum, which officially opens to the public on Friday, May 1.

All photos by Max Touhey.

The best view of the new Whitney 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.)

It's funny that a good portion of the Whitney coverage has acted as if the museum is bringing something to the neighborhood—more money, more gentrification, more prestige—because it feels too late to add more to the Meatpacking District. The Whitney fits right in. It was the Dia Art Foundation, the arts organization that originally had its eye on that site, with real vision. Similarly, it was the obstructionist Upper East Siders who drove the Whitney to this, by condemning the proposed nine-story tower addition, also designed by Piano, to the old Marcel Breuer building. (In a mode of prescience, the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussof wrote, "Great design is never cautious; it cannot arise amid a climate of fear.") The museum moved downtown to get away from the neighbors but, thankfully, didn't use that as an excuse to get encyclopedic, but to lighten the mood. You can spend a day at the new Whitney, but it won't be an exhausting one. Everything about its internal arrangements suggest a stroll—perhaps a passeggiata, to borrow a bit of Piano's Italian vocabulary—with breaks for coffee, fresh air, and staring at the skyline. It's not going to work so well in the winter, when I fear the cafes, couches and lobby will get crowded (just like the old Whitney, though at least the coat check is downstairs), but it is a California-esque thought for New York.

If there are many things wrong with the outside of the new Whitney, the essential experience of the museum, the gallery space, is all right. You step off the elevators on the eighth floor into a top-lit gallery that gives early 20th-century works room to breathe without swallowing them whole. On an overcast day, the light was pale and cool, making delicate colors glow. Here, old friends like Stuart Davis and Lyonel Feininger, once exiled from the main event to the Breuer building's attic addition, may have the nicest space in the museum. It is quiet, daylit, and cleverly arranged to set up the refrain that runs through both the art and architecture on display: landscape and, more specifically, the cityscape to which Piano's building constantly points.

From Florine Stettheimer's 1918 painting New York/Liberty to Lewis Hine's photograph of a building worker on his sky-high lunch break, the references to the skyline are embedded in the curatorial selections. There's even a John Storrs sculpture from 1924 that looks like one of the tower models most architects have in their storage closets. You can look at the artists' interpretations of New York's origins, or you can step outside to the top terrace for a panoramic view of other people's buildings. (Someone should make a fold-out pamphlet identifying the many new and shiny baubles to the north, east, and south.) There's a small David Smith sculpture on this level, as well as vertiginous stairs to take you down to ever-larger balconies on the floors below. You have to go all the way down to the fifth floor for Mary Heilman's installation Sunset before you hit any color (those are her candy-colored, boxy chairs on the terrace). This seems like a missed opportunity for the Whitney to wave at the streets. The frilly trees at the south end of the High Line, leafing out for spring, look much more enticing than the bare balconies.

Looking up past the lighting channels and steel beams, both painted white, you could see the slanted slides of those sawtooth skylights. The effect is well organized, and recedes into the background. The floors, made of reclaimed pine, have a similar no-nonsense feeling: They are going to get scuffed, and they are going to be fine. The interior details feel clean and plain, a welcome step back from the deadly, placeless drag of oak floors, floating walls, and glowy dropped ceilings that makes it impossible to remember which museum of the last ten years you might be in. In places, RPBW have taken this faux-povera aesthetic too far. The brown stone floors in the lobby and visible stairwell look pre-damaged (and not in bush-hammered, Brutalist fashion), rough and unappealing. But the concrete-walled interior staircase, nicely accented by Felix Gonzales Torres's multi-story light strings, also suggests a simpler, tougher building struggling to get out. Maybe exposed concrete would have been too close to Breuer's Whitney (now leased by the Met, and reopening in 2016), or to the neighboring Standard hotel, already a close homage to Breuer.

The museum's inaugural exhibition, "America Is Hard to See," is arranged roughly chronologically, from top to bottom, with "chapters" on specific themes. I appreciated the care with which it was installed for maximum visual impact as well as art historical accuracy. As the elevator doors opened, the artwork before you quickly established the time and tone for that floor, from the cool pastels of 8 to the writhing bodies on blue of 7, from Pop brights on 6, to visual and political cacophony on 5, with Barbara Kruger's giant We Don't Need Another Hero layered over Donald Moffet's He Kills Me wallpaper with a repeat of bullseyes and Ronald Reagan's face. Within galleries, works created their own narratives: Marisol's blocky Women and Dog posed in front of Jasper Johns' Three Flags and Andy Warhol's Green Coca-Cola Bottles, as if on a period sidewalk.

Some of these themes relate directly to place, like "Breaking the Prairie" or "Course of Empire," but a common thread of towers, mountains, and sky running throughout gives one permission to be distracted by the views and even absorb them into the curatorial narrative. At the darkest point in the museum, a gallery in the center of the long and deep fifth floor shows Cory Archangel's Super Mario Clouds, a video piece that isolates lo-res clouds floating in a blue sky. Don't worry, it seems to whisper in the cacophony, daylight isn't far away.

For many years the piazza has been an organizing principle for Piano's work. I can't tell you how many presentations I've seen in which that word, with lilting Italian pronunciation, was all-but-assumed to make clients swoon. The Morgan has its (oversized, leaky) internal piazza; Piano's failed Whitney expansion design of 2004 had a miniature one tucked behind the Madison Avenue brownstones to form a new, moat-free museum entrance. But here, there was no room; everything is a shoebox and not a square. Instead, at street level, we get the Pamella and Daniel Devos Family Largo. Largo! It means small plaza, or open sea, and refers to the narrow open space, with hideous sharp-edged planters, between the High Line and the new building. It's not a place to dwell, not with the High Line next door. The first thing you see walking west, under the tipped-up ceiling of the glassed-in lobby, is the museum restaurant, Untitled, with giant lamps and red Saarinen chairs. (Outside the galleries, the only color in the museum comes from chairs; brilliant red accents being a hallmark of Piano's.) At the moment the rest of the lobby is minimally furnished, with movable blonde wood shelves and carts for the shop. Food trucks had already pulled up in the street by the entrance steps, perhaps imagining them shrunken version of the Met. I can imagine people sitting there in a pinch, but the whole ground level lacks curb appeal. Listen to the siren song of the elevators, fitted out by late artist Richard Artschwager as trompe-l'oeil installations. Go upstairs and ignore the rest.

All photos by Max Touhey.

· All Critical Eye columns [Curbed]
· The Ultimate Tour of the New Whitney Museum, Inside and Out [Curbed NY]
· New Whitney Likened to 'Prodigiously Misassembled' Ikea Item [Curbed NY]
· All Whitney Museum coverage [Curbed NY]