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A long time ago, in the wake of World War II, Los Angeles appeared as a welcoming paradise for returning veterans and footloose others in search of new beginnings.
Jobs beckoned and commuting by car or transit was manageable. There was not yet heavy traffic or smog; there was only sunny days and the promise of suburbia—the good life.
The only thing missing was affordable housing. People slept in makeshift Quonset huts and tents in city parks, while lines to purchase new makeshift houses formed over night and snaked for blocks. Then, as now, city government expressed concern and did little.
Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia by Cory Buckner tells the story of an optimistic approach to housing from the period, when four returning veterans who bonded as studio musicians decided to build a cluster of neighboring homes for themselves, sharing some common play space and a swimming pool. Other musicians became interested, and the group, christened as the Mutual Housing Association (MHA), grew to 25, then 100, and after some publicity, to 500. People eagerly signed up, and by the end of 1946, with some bickering and conservative diatribes, Los Angeles had its first large-scale cooperative housing development.
As author—and not incidentally architect—Buckner astutely writes, the goal of the MHA was not to build tacky houses, but rather “innovative structures that could be erected simply and cheaply and that reflected the politically progressive visions of the founding members.” A design team consisting of Whitney R. Smith, A. Quincy Jones, and Edgardo Contini was selected, and plans grew to include—in addition to the community swimming pool—tennis courts, nursery schools, and a cooperative market. In time, other architects became involved, retained by individual cooperative members with designated sites.
A hilly, raw 1,800-acre tract above then-rural Brentwood was purchased, and 350 lots were bulldozed. Construction began by 1950, despite a recalcitrant Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and its insistence on discriminatory race restrictions—supposedly meant to protect their investment, but eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Several members resigned from the MHA over this issue, which also undermined several similar efforts at the time in northern California.
The FHA also initially opposed the cooperative’s modernist design guidelines, which were based in part on LA’s famed Case Study Houses. Only a delegation of architects and others lobbying in Washington D.C. reversed that restriction, and today, despite the ravages of fires and insensitive owners, 47 remaining designs distinguish Crestwood Hills as a designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Buckner, who with her late architect husband Nick Roberts restored three of the landmark homes, details the community’s architecture, aided by a wealth of photos and illustrations. The total is a rich history of a unique community that distinguishes Southern California’s oft-overlooked social and architectural heritage.
It has been a long winter in New York. Spring is finally burning off the fog of malaise that has seemed to settle on many New Yorkers. Fatigued by crowded subways with increasingly frequent delays and endless talk about skyrocketing rents and rising costs of living, New York hasn’t seemed like the vibrant, stimulating urban caldron that it used to be.
In cultural circles there has been endless hand-wringing about the state of the city’s museums, most exemplified by the many critical freak-outs about the current Björk exhibition at MoMA, which most art writers have dismissed as both cynical and superficial—symptomatic of a slavish drive for spectacle events over serious artistic or scholarly engagement. Playful yet earnest, the Whitney Museum has often served as a foil to MoMA’s high gloss enterprises. So the Whitney’s confident return in a new Renzo Piano-designed home at the foot of the High Line feels like a refreshing and edifying corrective.
Jeff Goldberg / ESTO
Whitney officials have touted the new building as a “playground for artists.” A small historical show in the museum’s free gallery off the lobby documents this artist-centric tradition, which dates to the museum’s founding by the sculptor and heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The museum’s smart, low-key curators want to keep that tradition alive even as they join the big leagues, and they have had a direct hand in the shaping of the building to suit their needs. The museum has gained a tremendous amount of new gallery space (50 percent more than in their old Marcel Breuer–designed home) of differing scales and lighting conditions, all of which are designed to be easily reconfigured as needed. They also have, for the first time, a small auditorium and theater for film and performance events, which opens out to a large terrace. Even better, the art looks great on the walls. Now we get to see much more of the Whitney’s important collection, and the museum can better examine and interrogate the history and future of American art.
Just as important, the museum and its architects (Renzo Piano Building Workshop partnered with Cooper Robertson & Partners) have created a viewer-centric space. It’s a big building that never succumbs to gigantism. It offers many places for reflection, refreshment, and repose, like sofas facing out to the High Line or the Hudson. It also offers options to relax and avoid museum fatigue, like a pleasant café on the eighth floor, or a series of terraces overlooking the world famous elevated park. You can also take the exterior stairs from terrace to terrace for still more fresh air and remarkable city views.
Many have complained about the building’s somewhat ungainly exterior, which has two very different faces. The Hudson-facing side is canted and ship-like except for a protruding rectangular volume. The High Line facing side is even more of a jumble, with the stepped back terraces and spindly staircases and catwalks. Given the context of the formerly industrial Meatpacking District, Piano’s building doesn’t seem entirely out of place. He seems to have designed the building from the inside out, putting function first and capitalizing on the surprisingly spectacular site.
It is also built to withstand Sandy-scale or worse weather events, a necessity given its riverside location. No art is held below the third floor, save for a small (again, free to the public!) gallery on the ground floor, which could easily be evacuated.
Piano’s building lacks the rich tectonics and the memorable heft of the vacated Breuer building uptown. While moving through Breuer’s building was a profound architectural experience imbued with a sense of craft and traces of the hand of the architect, Piano’s Whitney is more like a machine for viewing. Piano and the Whitney curators understand that viewing art is not a static act, but rather a sequence of experiences of looking, focusing and unfocusing, thinking, moving, standing, sitting, etc. Its gently lit galleries, carefully framed views of city and river, and moments for reflection, combine to create perhaps the most satisfying museum environment among the city’s large art museums. It’s enriching rather than exhausting.
Piano may not have made a building to love, but he has made a building that will allow the Whitney to evolve and grow in its ambitions, and possibly to become an institution about which weary New Yorkers can rejoice.
The beloved Marcel Breuer headquarters for the Whitney Museum of American Art at Madison Avenue and 75th Street was in fact the institution’s third home since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded it in 1931.
With the May 1 opening of a fourth, Renzo Piano–designed Whitney location at the southern Gansevoort Street source of the High Line (and with the Breuer building secure in the operating and contemporary curatorial hands of the Metropolitan Museum), the time is right to understand its architectural origins and creative pedigree.
Miss Vanderbilt grew up in what still holds the record as New York’s biggest residence: the 103-room 1893 Renaissance Revival house built for her father Cornelius II. It stood until 1925 on the Grand Army Plaza site that now features the Bergdorf Goodman flagship as opened in 1928, designed by the 20th century maverick Ely Jacques Kahn.
The Mansion was designed by the Beaux Arts trained architect George Browne Post, whose greatest surviving trace is the newly glistening, hipster-haven Williamsburgh Savings Bank at the foot of its name-sharing Bridge. (If still standing, the old Vanderbilt mansion could by birthright be home to great-grandson Anderson Cooper…)
As a wealthy self-defined bohemian and skilled sculptor, daughter Gertrude set out in 1907 for Greenwich Village, where she created her first studio in a former stable at 19 MacDougal Alley, the mews-like cul-de-sac between West 8th Street and Washington Square North. This first burst of gentrification was steadily followed by the acquisition of four 1830s Greek Revival brownstones, numbered 8 to 14 along West 8th Street proper, as well as the alleyway stables attached to each.
As her real estate footprint grew, so did her circle of fellow contemporary artists and the impulse to collect and display this collective accomplishment. The amalgamation of now interlaced buildings, which she started to call the Whitney Studio Club, set the stage. It was her home, her workplace, her personal kunsthalle, and a welcoming salon for artist friends often shunned elsewhere. Here was held, for example, the first exhibitions of John Sloane and Edward Hopper.
Perhaps of foremost initial design importance was her own personal sculpting studio built atop 19 MacDougal, conceived by her artistic fellow traveler, Robert Winthrop Chanler, as multi-media gesamtkunstwerk of painted bas-relief, decorated surfaces, and stained glass windows. (The Chanler Studio in particular has been on the World Monuments Fund’s renowned Watch List since 2012.)
When the by then Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney’s offer to donate 700 contemporary artworks by Americans was refused by the Metropolitan Museum (Hopper? No thank you.), as well as soon after by the Euro-centric Museum of Modern Art, she created the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. Taking matters into her own hands, Gertrude launched it for the display and appreciation of contemporary art—the 20th-century up until then and proceeding onward. She did so with her long-time assistant, Juliana Force, recognized ever after as the Whitney Museum’s first director.
These two women—besides their art collecting—were also an important, unsung catalyst for modern interior design and the evenly-illuminated white cube aesthetic that still sets the standard of museums worldwide, even as they keep growing in scale and room-denying flexibility. This architecture unfolded in a warren of early 19th century domestic residential interiors with attached stables, whose generous volumes emerged with the removal of stalls and haylofts. The result helped foretell the formal future of museums, even as its historic role goes largely unnoticed today.
Mrs. Whitney and Ms. Force did so in partnership with the design team consisting first and foremost of her son-in-law, architect Auguste Noël, and his umlaut-free firm of Noel & Miller Architects. Like Jacques Kahn, this team was Beaux Arts trained, yielding to the classically descended vocabulary of art deco and especially its later offshoot, moderne, which heralded capital-M Modernism. They worked with a society interior designer of like urbanity, Bruce Buttfield.
In 1954, the Museum decamped for its second home, which was a building on West 54th Street just west of Philip Johnson’s reconfigured MoMA sculpture garden, west of where the Taniguchi’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Educational and Research Center stands today. It too was designed for the Whitney/Force duo by Philip Johnson, but it turned out the shadow of its ziggurat neighbor was too strong both physically and metaphorically and off they went to commission the great Breuer reverse juggernaut masterpiece, which opened in 1967 as an instant landmark on the Upper East Side. Contextual it was not.
It was at this time that the old Whitney Studio and Museum crucible on West 8th Street became the New York Studio School (NYSS), opening in the academic year 1964/65. Now at the half-century mark, this Whitney legacy holds a place as a leading independent school of fine art pedagogy grounded in the traditional atelier of life study and a rigorous pedagogy to provide the springboard for a professional career. It resolutely does so in the heart of Greenwich Village, existing today as a precious trace of New York’s first Bohemia on what is now a street undergoing rapid commercial and residential gentrification. Stepping inside, the visitor today discovers a fascinating palimpsest of the old townhouses and former stable voids altered as galleries with then-radical recessed bands of ceiling lights and moderne details of travertine floors, aluminum railings, and jazzy doorjamb thresholds. This glimpse of design modernism and its tie to American art of the 20th century as it prepared for global supremacy in the wake of World War II is a sort of secret cultural treasure, living and breathing still as a place for making art.
The Whitney’s return downtown brings it closer to home as still evident to the roving architectural eye. Take a look when next passing by.
He was a master of invention, and his ability to adapt propelled him to become not only a household name, but one of the most influential architects of his time. Over a 50-year career, he produced a body of work that both reflected and raised questions about the transitional era of which he was a part. In a global market increasingly driven by social media and visual imagery, he showed a way for architects and designers to distinguish themselves through branding, and to help their clients do the same.
Architect Michael Graves, who died on March 12 at 80, started as a wipe-the-slate-clean modernist but grew dissatisfied with the sterility of modern design and eventually embraced history and precedent as a way to add richness and meaning to architecture. He became one of America’s leading representatives of the architectural movement known as postmodernism. He was part of an early wave of “starchitects” who were recognized and won commissions because they had a distinctive, identifiable style. Some of Graves’ best work evinced a warmth and playfulness that echoed the exuberance of the 1980s and captivated clients, such as Michael Eisner at Disney.
Graves was equally well known for designing toasters, tea kettles, and other household products for manufacturers and retailers including Alessi, Target, and JCPenney. He promoted his designer housewares with such aplomb that he became as well known as the stores that stocked them. His showmanship helped pave the way for other celebrity designers to create product lines for retailers, including Martha Stewart for Macy’s, Diane von Furstenberg for GapKids, and Karl Lagerfeld for H&M.
Confined to a wheelchair for the last 12 years of his life due to a spinal cord infection, Graves reinvented himself as a “reluctant healthcare expert.” In that capacity, he focused on improving products and healing environments for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, including America’s “wounded warriors” returning from military service.
In one area Graves did not change over time: As a Princeton University architecture professor for 39 years, during the advent of computer-aided design, he remained a staunch advocate of freehand drawing as the best way to think about and design buildings. His own lavish drawings and paintings offered a beguiling counterpoint to AutoCAD. He also refused to cede the job of designing building interiors to interior designers and space planners, preferring to design the whole building whenever possible.
Through it all Graves remained a strong willed provocateur and change agent, who gained an almost cult like following at Princeton and came to national prominence by questioning the status quo. Why can’t buildings be more welcoming? Why are hospitals so depressing? Why can’t good design be for everyone, at every scale? His timing was impeccable, in that he began his career at a time when modernism was no longer new and many architects were ready to explore other directions. Though he is associated with postmodernism, a label he resisted, Graves might more usefully be remembered as a proponent of humanistic design, an approach rooted firmly in the awareness and study of the human body, historic precedent, and context.
Graves became acquainted with the limelight early in his career, largely because of his education and connections. Born in Indianapolis in 1934, he studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University in the 1950s. He won the Rome Prize in 1960 and spent two years studying at the American Academy in Rome. After returning to the U.S., he began teaching at Princeton University in 1962 and founded his architecture practice in 1964. Early in his career, along with Richard Meier, John Hejduk, Charles Gwathmey, and Peter Eisenman, he was named one of the New York Five, a group of architects who adhered to modern design tenets. By the late 1970s, he had broken away from that approach and began designing buildings known for their color, ornament, and classicist forms.
Graves’ breakthrough project, and one that clearly signaled his shift away from modernism, was his competition–winning design for the 15-story Portland Municipal Services Building, which opened in 1982 and was considered the first major postmodern building in the United States. Colored in blue, green, salmon, and cream, and featuring ornamentation that some likened to gift wrapping on a holiday package, the building spoke in a new language for architecture and put Graves at the forefront of the postmodern movement, with which he was thereafter inextricably linked.
Over the course of his career, Graves designed more than 350 buildings around the world and more than 2,500 products. Besides the Portland Building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, his portfolio included the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky, the Denver Public Library, the San Juan Capistrano Library in California; the Michael Eisner Building in Burbank, California for the Walt Disney Company, featuring the Seven Dwarves as caryatids; the Swan and Dolphin hotels for Disney in Orlando, Florida; and scaffolding for the Washington Monument while it was undergoing renovation. He drew widespread attention for his renovation of “The Warehouse,” his residence in Princeton. In the 1980s, he designed an expansion for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, but it drew strong opposition and was never built.
Watch the Empire State Building put on a special light show in honor of the Whitney Museum's grand opening
Six months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) opened the revamped OLIN-designed Fifth Avenue Plaza (David H. Koch Plaza), the institution announced its decision to hire British architect David Chipperfield to redesign its Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art. Renderings have yet to be released, but the larger scope of the project includes increasing gallery space for the collection, doubling the size of the Roof Garden, adding on-site storage, and improving wayfinding and accessibility to and from Central Park. The renovation may also extend to the adjacent galleries for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. This project, along with the Fifth Avenue Plaza, marks the first phase of a larger plan, dubbed “Building the MET of the Future,” developed with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners.
“The goal in our work with David and his team is to take a giant leap forward in the presentation of modern and contemporary art at the Met within the broader context of our collections across different cultures and more than 5,000 years of history, and to be able to better tell the multiple narratives of the art of our time,” said Thomas P. Campbell, MET director and CEO, in a statement.
Chipperfield was chosen following a yearlong selection process. The architect is known for his impressive museum work, which includes the rehabilitation of the Neues Museum in Berlin and the new Museo Jumex in Mexico City, housing the largest private art collection in Latin America.
“David Chipperfield’s global architectural experience and sensibility, along with his commitment to the collaborative aspect of creating architecture, make him a perfect partner on this milestone project,” added Campbell.
The project buoys the MET’s greater mission to broaden its contemporary art programming. In February, a substantial gift from donors established two new curatorships in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, to support the museum’s expansion into the now vacant and former home of the Whitney at 945 Madison Avenue. (Beatrice Galilee assumed the new Daniel Bordsky Associate Curator of Architecture and Design last year.) Its residency at the landmarked Marcel Breuer-designed building will commence in 2016 with a show called Unfinished.
Planning for the Southwest Wing is already underway, but will first have to undergo an extensive review process with the city and community and obtain approvals before breaking ground.