The Meatpacking Whitney


The Whitney Museum of American Art has just released a preliminary design–mostly energetic jottings– by the Italian architect Renzo Piano for its proposed second museum in the meatpacking district. The incongruity of the setting has apparently inspired Piano to abandon the repetition of light, airy forms that made him famous and to embrace a darker vision.

The recent history of the meatpacking district is emblematic of current trends in Manhattan as a whole: moving directly from brute force industrialism to the sale of some of the most useless goods ever devised, with only a brief period of dereliction in between. Put more crudely, the neighborhood went from the cutting up of bodies to the accessorizing of bodies. Unlike SoHo or Greenwich Village, there was no intervening period of creativity, no indigenous community-building.

This history may account for Piano’s uncharacteristically barricaded exterior. Nicolai Ouroussoff describes Piano’s design as "presenting a strange, even forbidding aura," with a "faceted surface [that] seems hewed from a massive block of stone." Nature can only reach the building from the top. There are terraces on the side facing downtown Manhattan, with a sculpture garden on the roof.  To the West Side Highway and the crowds of boutique shoppers–the invasive forces of urbanism–Piano’s museum presents an unscalable wall. There’s also a small, grudging public plaza in front of the building, about the size of a cab stand.

The interior design of the building is a little sketchier, but presumably it will make one forget the Alhambra-like exterior. Piano has given himself plenty of dappled sunlight to work with. The inorganic materials with which most contemporary artworks are made won’t decay in direct sunlight, so he’s OK there. All he has to do is make sure the donor base will fund the expensive glass ceilings. As the Spertus Institute demonstrates, soaring interior spaces are usually the first to go when the fundraising comes up short.

Ouroussoff also notes how Piano overtly manipulates bodily experience, another instance of a mildly coercive architecture. Upon entering the ground-floor lobby the weight of the building presses down like a giant carcass. Toward the rear of the lobby, though, the space suddenly opens up to the sculpture garden above and the building "suddenly lets you breathe again."

The site is haunted by more than the ghosts of countless dismembered bovines. There is, of course, Marcel Breuer’s Madison Avenue Whitney, yet another carefully-scaled modernist building that can no longer accommodate the proliferation of goods years of tax cuts for the wealthy have made possible.  The Whitney has made several attempts to expand the Breuer building, but they have come to nothing, so the current plan is to reserve the Breuer for spillover exhibits from the meatpacking Whitney, which will become the institution’s main exhibition space. The curators have finally escaped from Breuer’s Brutalist box, only to find themselves in a more expansive, light-filled box in a rougher neighborhood.

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