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Whitney Designs Downtown as Neighbors Fume

August 16, 2007

by Alec Appelbaum

Is the Whitney Museum of American Art’s apparent construction curse site-specific?  Neighbors of the institution’s Brutalist home on Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side have rejected three ambitious proposals in 21 years to expand Marcel Breuer’s 1966 building. Now they’re chiding the institution for construction work that it has failed to do—even as plans for a new branch elsewhere show signs of moving ahead. 

Digital Water Pavilion
Photo: © James Murdock
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Renzo Piano is the latest in a line of high profile architects who have tried in vain to expand Breuer’s inverted ziggurat; the others were Rem Koolhaas and Michael Graves. Two years ago, Piano designed a nine-story gallery tower and civic plaza adjacent to the existing building—a plan that would have entailed demolishing several Whitney-owned brownstones within the Upper East Side Historic District. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved this scheme, but mounting pressure from neighborhood residents and preservationists prompted the Whitney to dispatch Piano to a new location in late 2006

Although they’ve been spared the wrecking ball, the brownstones continue to rankle neighborhood residents. Construction crews attached thick, black netting onto their facades in 2004 ostensibly to prevent crumbling stone from becoming a safety hazard. Three years later, the netting remains in place. “At the moment it is still there as a precaution,” says Whitney spokesperson Stephen Soba. “It is expected that repairs will be undertaken eventually. The matter is being discussed by the museum’s administration.” 

But neighbors claim that the netting was part of a failed scare campaign that never should have started. “They put the netting there to make the buildings look like they were falling apart,” contends Upper East Side resident Don Gringer. An engineer by training, Gringer says that the netting could paradoxically cause a real structural crisis. “They drilled holes into these brownstones and installed mushroom rivets. The only way to take them out is to pry them out, and when you pry it destroys bricks or brownstone.” 

The museum maintains that the netting is needed, but in the meantime it has found what it hopes will be a more welcoming neighborhood downtown. Piano is working on a new Whitney branch to be located in a historic meat market at Gansevoort and Washington Streets. The building—actually two structures that will be joined—sits at the southern end of the High Line, a defunct rail trestle that architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations are transforming into an elevated park. The Whitney’s new branch would include 100,000 to 150,000 square feet of galleries and education facilities, as well as offices for the park and a meatpacking business. It will rise above a cobbled plaza that local activists want redesigned to made more pedestrian friendly.

Juggling these diverse program elements is complicated, and the new locale involves fragile buildings and delicate politics. Piano’s atelier, working with Cooper Robertson & Partners, has yet to make its designs public. But Scott Newman, AIA, a partner at Cooper, suggests that the new branch will feature architecture that’s funkier that the museum’s current neighbors might allow. “The design team has just started work, but given the Whitney’s origins downtown, this project is a kind of return to its roots.”  

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