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The iconic Marcel Breuer–designed Whitney Museum is set to reopen March 18, giving back one of the city’s most beloved architectural spaces. The building will be reborn as the Met Breuer; the Metropolitan Museum of Art will repurpose our old concrete and granite pal as a contemporary arts outpost in an eight-year lease. The agreement includes a restoration and series of contemporary interventions to bring the museum up to speed.
“We wanted to take the building from harsh back to handsome,” said Met exhibition designer Bika Rebek, referencing a 1966 Ada Louise Huxtable article that called the quasi-Brutalist Breuer building “harsh and handsome.” Over time, the Whitney had removed many of the warm, “handsome” parts including rich wood details and colorful carpets.
The Met’s in-house design group and architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) had three main goals in mind at the outset: To create a welcoming visitor experience, to treat the building as a work of art, and to establish a Met identity within the building.
These three goals presented challenges. “We had to figure out how to update the building without erasing history,” said Brian Butterfield, senior exhibition designer at the Met. Four interventions will provide this update, including the removal of the flag display in the front, a large media screen in the lobby, a new welcome desk with a subtle, angular form that nods to Breuer’s geometric twists in the original building, and a new public café space with a row of trees by Swiss landscape designer Günther Vogt.
BBB led the restoration, which included refurbishing the bush hammered concrete using a precise matching aggregate. They also refinished the floors and updated the wood and metal around the stairs, leaving the patina to show where hands had worn it away over the years.
The Met Breuer will open with its lobby and lower floor un-ticketed. The outdoor area below Madison Avenue will be open to the public, drawing in patrons and passersby. The inaugural exhibitions, also opening March 18, will be Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, which focuses on a wide range of unresolved artworks by the likes of Cézanne and Jackson Pollock; and Nasreen Mohamedi, a retrospective of the Indian artist’s career that includes more than 130 paintings.
In nearly every issue, we invite architects, scholars, industry experts, and editors to candidly discuss high-profile projects, urban issues, and events in our architecture criticism column. This year, Los Angeles dominated the spotlight with its collective boom of new museums and buildings, while over on the east coast, Renzo Piano’s Whitney continued to spark conversation.
Rick Joy's design for a commuter rail station in Princeton is endowed with civic importance and grace.
Renzo Piano has not made a building to love, but one in which the art viewing experience is given priority.
Kevin Daly Architects brings the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music into the digital age.
Michael Webb considers Morphosis' latest "scaly silver beast," this time at Cornell University.
Inspired by automotive design, the Petersen Automotive Museum stops traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.
Lorcan O'Herlihy designs housing in a precarious context.
Is prefab the future for affordable housing in Los Angeles? A case from Michael Maltzan Architecture.
Hodgetts + Fung's first religious building creates sanctuary on Jesuit High School's modernist campus.
Rafael Viñoly's Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston complements adjacent JFK Library.
Designed by Renzo Piano, the Jerome L. Green Science Center at the new Columbia University Manhattanville Campus along 125th street and Broadway is basically a square and less expressive version of the Whitney Museum. The Columbia University Medical Center and Graduate Education building at 104 Haven Avenue between 171st and 172nd streets was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It epitomizes the architectural expression of continuity that was characteristic of the late 1990s and early 2000s and is intended to “foster connection and collaboration” among students, faculty and the medical community.
However, it’s Columbia’s 3595 Broadway, a massive, twelve-story concrete structure on the southwest corner of 148th street, that can help us ask questions about the role of the university and its expansion plans. This building is designed by a “specialized” local architectural firm to create “sustainable communities” through “well-designed and high-performance architecture” projects. These designations are highly questionable.
3595 Broadway is not named after a patron or an academic figure, it is only a series of numbers. The numbers are the product of a lot of parcel consolidation, programmatic swapping, development air rights, easement acquisition, and a site strategy that included the demolition of a townhouse built in 1901. 3581-87 Broadway, 3595 Broadway, 3591-3599 Broadway and 600 W 148th Street are all numbers involved in the real estate and architectural operations.
The new building will host the Meeting with God Church Inc., currently next door (occupying 3581-87 Broadway since 2007), formalizing the vacating and lot consolidation with 147th street for a future numbered project (also owned by the university). It proposes to construct and manufacture affordable housing 20 blocks north of the Manhattanville Campus as a measure to supply housing to “some residents” who were displaced by the larger operation on 125th street.
3595 Broadway is a massive opaque structure broken in two main volumes with a distinct brick cladding: Red terra cotta and sand-cream are the agents of contextualism. A third color of brick—black—is used to articulate the space between the two main volumes toward Broadway to formally give the impression that there are two buildings instead of one. A third, setback volume atop is fully clad in sand-cream color with black-brick details. A dark-brown cast-stone base fixes the building to the ground.
3595 Broadway followed its legal capacities to build to the very edge of the plot line, permanently blocking two windows per floor of the adjacent 100-year-old brownstone on the west, condemning those units to gloomy interiors. The site’s previous retail building—built around 1969—had a typical eight-to-ten foot easement space for light and ventilation to the building next door. That space gained adds roughly 3,000 square feet to the first four floors, a drop in 3595’s 150,000-square-foot bucket. It seems that the domestic living environment of at least four units with three to five people each (12 to 20 total) was not enough of a reason to keep the light and ventilation patio for the mental sanity of all; it was not enough of a community.
The building is said to have three green roofs. I have seen one from my building rooftop and it’s adorned with mechanical air handling units and exhausts. There is already a surveillance system in place, as well as exterior lighting that produces yellow light typical of the 1990s, most importantly, it is vandal-proof.
I am glad Columbia University will divest from for-profit prison companies (they should eliminate all their ties with them), but perhaps they should also revise the legibility and legality frameworks for their expansion plans. They could re-evaluate what their architecture can be: provocative, controversial, agonistic, or radical. They could at least clarify what “high-performance” means for the new building, and which “sustainable community” they are sustaining. Unfortunately, they fall into the “well-designed” project rhetoric that lacks a proposition. I believe a research university at the highest level should also have highest design ambitions and competencies.
To what “community” does this building serve by implementing these architectural strategies characteristic of the neoliberal propositions of the 1980s? 3595 Broadway’s apparent non-confrontational formal language visualizes critical conditions about how the university positions itself when speaking to their ivy-league-educated audience in their Manhattanville and Medical Center buildings in comparison to the public around their 3595 Broadway building at 148th street. The building in Hamilton Heights is evidence of how architecture is manipulated and treated with different standards (nothing new here) and how their formal, material, visual, programmatic, and even legal strategies (this is the only project where there is no executive architect separated from the design architect) are a concrete infrastructure for impressing and perpetuating what this seemingly innocuous building is doing: patronizing, marginalizing, and stigmatizing a neighborhood with the this-is-what-you-deserve-community-building proposition. Here, both the legible and legal framework clarify the role of architecture as a media for formulating ambitions, or lack thereof.
What is being manufactured is probably something different—something that will not speak to two-tone bricks compositions or legal compliance of construction codes. It makes legible some of the hard realities of the local and global expanding American university, where the school is both a real estate developer and an educational facility. Can or should the university aim for less apparent legibility in order to truly embrace progressive modes of building the future following its academic mandate? Can or should the university stop contributing as an inane city developer with their apparent mundane buildings? 3595 Broadway should not be a bland and insipid sample of physical reality. I am sure the university aims for an improved future for all, but it cannot fail in communities where it may be needed more.
The selection of the architect as designer and the executive architect also supports the problematic legibility all these projects are communicating willfully or not. The hiring of a “specialist” firm to work on 3595 Broadway reaffirms both the lack of “specificity” that a project may require (and questions the idea of specialization itself) and the problem of disciplinary knowledge in an architectural commission.
All the university’s expansions will for sure score the “green points” needed for institutional validation including that of the Enterprise Green Communities, although I am still struggling to find the “high” and the ‘”performance” in 3595 Broadway. Perhaps it is only in the less apparent numbers that no one in the neighborhood will see or experience with exception of rent hikes. There is much to discuss about the Manhattanville Campus and the Medical Center, their content, and the role of the university in them. Unfortunately, 3595 Broadway is a mute conversation.
For AN’s third annual design awards, seven jurors gathered in New York to review nearly 500 projects submitted by architects and designers.
The jury included Amale Andraos, dean of Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; Nicholas Koster, project manager at Snøhetta; Chee Perlman, editor and curator of Chee Company; Ana Garcia Puyol, computational designer at Thornton Tomasetti; Ali Tayar; founder of Parallel Design Partnership, Terence Riley, founding partner at Keenan/Riley, and Mimi Zeiger, AN’s west coast editor.
In each category, a winner and an honorable mention were selected, although there were a couple of ties. Over the coming days, we will be posting their selections in the 21 categories.
Building of the Year Winner
Whitney Museum of American Art
Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper, Robertson & Partners
Location: New York
Located on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, the new Whitney Museum of American Art is at the epicenter of New York’s newest cultural district. Clad in pale blue-gray steel panels, the nine-story, powerfully asymmetric building responds to its low-rise neighbors with a series of linked terraces that step back from the adjacent High Line. Next to the Hudson River, the design anticipates the effects of climate change and protects the museum from storm surges and rising water levels with a combination of integrated flood gates, protection at all possible infiltration points, and temporary deployable barricades.
Building of the Year: East
Project: Field Public Elementary School
Architect: Jonathan Levi Architects
Location: Weston, Massachusetts
The history of landscape architecture in America goes back to the writings and activism of Andrew Jackson Downing and, of course, Frederick Law Olmsted. While there has always been a segment of the profession that focuses on estate gardening and horticulture, there are other firms who have a more socially engaged and expansive view of the profession. One thinks, for example, of Thomas Church, Dan Kiley, Lawrence Halprin, and Garret Eckbo, who all brought new ways of thinking and transforming the built landscape but primarily focused on the public nature of their practice and commissions.
Perhaps the most famous of these figures was Ian McHarg, a Scotsman who founded the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, but who more importantly brought a renewed emphasis on urban planning and what he called “natural systems” (with his 1969 book Design with Nature) into the profession. Today, landscape architecture combines McHarg-influenced environmental awareness, city planning, storm water management, and aesthetic concerns of the in-between spaces we inhabit in the city. This public nature of the profession is the focus of many firms today—no more than at the New York office of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, who work almost exclusively on public, state, and institutional projects. More than nearly any other firm, they have transformed the postindustrial landscape of New York. It is very important, Signe Nielsen said, “that our work is publicly accessible and as a result we don’t generally do private residential projects or we don’t do green field sites, i.e. commissions to transform farmland into housing or forests to shopping centers.” Improving the life of everyone in the city is important, and if there is a social justice component, then all the better.
The 30-member firm (approximately 60 percent are licensed landscape architects) believes that “designers are public intellectuals” and as such they teach, are engaged in professional societies, and lecture around the country on their profession—one that Kim Mathews writes, “embodies hope and requires a longer, larger vision.”
Signe Nielsen has also served as president of the New York Public Design Commission for four years and claims that “we don’t just work in challenged neighborhoods, but our work has to be publicly accessible and leave the city better than before we were engaged.”
Food Center Drive
South Bronx, NY
This transformation of Food Center Drive takes one of the least pedestrian-friendly and polluted boulevards in the South Bronx and makes it a public amenity. This mile-long route serves as an entry into the city’s Food Distribution Center for its 16,000 employees and those who live around the center. The design evolved out of Mathews Nielsen’s earlier South Bronx Greenway Master Plan and creates a shared pedestrian vehicle path by reconfiguring the traffic pattern to a one-way loop, thereby reducing the road from six to five lanes. But even more it incorporates innovative storm-water capture and biofiltration strategies to contribute a significant new biomass. Within the median and new greenway buffer, there are over 700 trees in addition to understory grasses and shrubs. The project is scheduled for completion in October.
Industry City Courtyard
The redesign of Brooklyn’s long-derelict Industry City courtyard is a model of how to take an impressive, but slightly oppressive interior open area and make it desirable. The space divides two 600-foot-long buildings (and a shorter third side connecting structure) with 33,000-square-feet of courtyard space open toward Gowanus Bay, the sunset, and a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. To complement the large mass and immensity of the overall space, they used a plant palette of ferns and various monotone greens laid out in large directional swaths. Further, the form of the columnar maple trees plays off of the repetition of the building columns as well as the industrial smoke stacks and ventilation pipe remnants. Trees were chosen for the beautiful red fall color that will inevitably complement the weathering steel forms in the courtyard. The schedule of the project from concept to construction was condensed into just ten months.
New York City
In 1993, the firm began designing what would become the most complete (and badly maintained) contemporary park and infrastructure in Manhattan—Hudson River Park. Now, they have been chosen to add to the park with the creation of a new freestanding Pier 55 that sits off the shoreline just north of the new Whitney Museum. The Pier, which they are designing with the English Heatherwick Studio, is meant to be a 2.4-acre public park and performance space on the Hudson River. The form is conceived as a “leaf floating in the water,” and contains “an unexpected topography” of four lifted corners, each manifesting a landscape typology derived from their solar aspect, slope, and relationship to paths and performance venues. A variety of paths and stairs create circuits throughout the pier to maximize engagement and convenience for event-goers. The project is largely funded through a private donation of the Diller–von Furstenberg Foundation and is scheduled to begin construction in May 2016.
Randall’s Island Connector
South Bronx, NY
Mathews Nielsen seems to be single-handedly transforming the South Bronx into a borough of green boulevards, parks, and pathways. Taking off from their South Bronx Greenway Master Plan, they have created a brilliant connecter from the area to the recreational facilities on Randall’s Island. It not only creates access to badly needed recreational facilities, but also increases the area’s green infrastructure by treating all storm water on site and using native, drought-tolerant plants to avoid irrigation.
The quarter-mile connector runs from 132nd Street in the Bronx, underneath the Hell Gate Bridge viaduct piers, through a historic railway facility still in use, and over the Bronx Kill waterway to Randall’s Island. It includes a sustainable landscape, an at-grade rail crossing, pedestrian-bicycle improvements, and a pedestrian-bicycle bridge. Pedestrians and cyclists have a powerful landscape experience as they pass through the massive Hell Gate Bridge viaduct piers. The project will be open to the public fall 2015.