The April 30 debut of Renzo Piano’s shimmery design for a Whitney Museum branch at the High Line featured none of the hallmarks that usually greet international architects in moneyed Manhattan. Nobody protested the plan, called it “out of scale” or demanded the architect plead his case. Such are the advantages of building on a vacant city-owned site that abuts a meatpackers’ processing facility.
But, Whitney director Adam Weinberg told a public forum as he unveiled the plans, Piano’s design uses the friendly context to deliver a crowd-pleaser. “The simplicity and character of the neighborhood are things Renzo really wants to pick up in his design,” Weinberg told a placid crowd in the half-full auditorium. “And this is the most outdoor neighborhood in the city of New York.”
The project made its debut at this forum, which Manhattan Community Board 2 hosted, because it needs a variance from manufacturing zoning and approval of city conveyance of air rights to go forward. (The Parks Department will use part of the ground floor for High Line maintenance and operations.) That approval seems likely.
Piano’s plan pushes the museum outdoors. The generous 43,000-square-foot site, Weinberg said, would allow an outdoor restaurant, an outdoor performance space, and a lobby big enough for concerts. And in order to free 25,000 square feet for displays from the permanent collection, Piano proposes 15,000 square feet of showcase on the roof.
At the same time, the plan intensifies the quiet of its indoor zones. At ground level, Weinberg promised a series of free programs for visitors who enter from the High Line or the nearby boutique-y blocks. Glass walls, like a glass elevator and oversize window at the second floor landing, mean that visitors will look over the river and into the West Village while passersby see works from the street. “Before an installation, you’ll see art going up and down the elevator,” enthused Weinberg.
Then a red-tinted escalator, echoing the High Line’s anticipated “slow stair,” delivers visitors to the western edge of the site and a 250-foot-long special exhibition space. The permanent collection, Weinberg said, will live on the top three floors in setback galleries. But outdoor spaces extend to the lot’s edge on each upper floor, mirroring the setbacks. “You could go from staircase to staircase and just do the museum via the exterior in good weather,” promised Weinberg. “Artists could do projects that could be seen from the High Line itself.”
Not that Piano’s logic matches the Miami-manqué of nearby hotels. It’s local. The upper floors would be clad in a stone layer that, judging from early sketches, suggests a more curvaceous quote of Marcel Breuer’s flagship Whitney uptown. The white facade on the upper stories is a visual link to the meatpackers’ site and nearby High Line, while the glass lobby and elevator emphasize views across the city and the river. “The Whitney forms an outdoor bridge between the High Line and Hudson River Park,” said Weinberg.