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How the New Whitney Will House Art & Embrace the High Line

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Since its last day on the Upper East Side in October, the next step for the Whitney Museum of American Art is to officially move to its new Meatpacking District flagship. The under-construction, Renzo Piano-designed building at the southernmost end of the High Line is slated to open in the spring of 2015. An exact date will announced by the year's end.

In the meantime, architect Scott Newman of Cooper, Robertson & Partners and Larissa Gentile, the building's project manager, gave a detailed explainer of the new building as part of an Archtober presentation. There were some great illustrations, renderings, and floorplans shown, but almost all of it was not for publication. So we'll walk you through it. Before we get to the new structure at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington streets, though, let's see how we got here.

The Whitney is hardly the first major New York institution to make a move. The Metropolitan Opera's home base used to be near Times Square, and the current Madison Square Garden is actually the fourth arena to bear the name. Gentile pointed out that the new Whitney will also be the fourth location for the museum. The museum was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (who had been amassing her collection for quite a while) in 1930, and in 1931, it moved into its first home, which was at 10 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village, where it remained until 1954. From 1955 to 1965, it was up on 54th Street near MoMA.

In 1966, the Marcel Breuer/Hamilton Smith-designed building at southeast corner of Madison Avenue and East 75th Street opened, and the museum was housed there until October 19 of this year, when it closed so the museum could make the historic move downtown. The Whitney will still own the Madison Avenue building, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art will rent it for eight years to house its contemporary collection. Gentile said she hopes the relationship will be renewed when the lease is up.

To say that the museum needs more space would be something of an understatement. By 1966, there were 2,000 works in the collection. There are now 21,000 works in the collection. There were various expansion plans over the years, Gentile said, but they were looking for what she called a "horizontal site." In 2006, they found the site at the bottom of the High Line, and have been at work on it ever since. Because the museum was founded downtown, she called the latest move a "return to our roots." Gentile said the new location will allow them "flexibility" and the use of all surfaces.

Newman said the new location is an "extraordinary site for a museum." But the site also presented a variety of challenges. Several meatpackers had to be bought out and relocated. The narrow streets and the High Line dictated a different relationship between the building and its surroundings. The ground is organic fill (like Battery Park City) and museums are notorious for being light buildings, which meant it had to be anchored. Also of major concern, given its proximity to the Hudson River, is flooding. Sandy sent six million gallons of water into the basement, which had to be redesigned for flood protection, which includes flood gates at the loading dock. Also, no collections will be housed below the fifth floor and primary art storage will be on the sixth floor (as well as offsite).

The new building is nine stories tall and has 220,000 square feet of space (compared with 83,000 square feet on Madison Avenue). There will be 50,000 square feet for galleries (compared with 32,000 square feet on Madison Avenue). The design team is hoping for LEED Gold certification, a feat to be achieved by the use of plate steel on the exterior, LED lighting on the interior, a green roof, and a microturbine within the building.

The main entrance of the building is positioned so that the stairs at the bottom of the High Line will deliver people right to what Piano has called the "largo"—Italian for "wide," it'll be a big plaza for the public. The angles of the building are designed to allow people to see past the building to the Hudson River from the High Line, and the heavy use of glass is also on purpose, so visitors can, again, see through the building. Newman also said it is stepped back from the High Line so as not to "overpower it." The galleries and public areas, which include a theater with double-height views of the Hudson River, will be located on the south side of the building, while the spine and north side of the building will contain staff and mechanical areas.

The ground floor will be open to the public and contain visitor services and retail as well as a restaurant run by Danny Meyer, Untitled, which is moving from uptown, plus a lobby gallery. The floor will be finished stone. Newman said it will have an "indoor/outdoor feel." Like the Madison Avenue building, it will also feature a giant elevator for use in transporting both works of art and people to the upper floors.

The third floor will house offices, a dedicated classroom space (a first for the Whitney), a seminar room, and the theater. The theater is reconfigurable. The ceiling can be modified and the stadium seating can be compressed to open up the room. Also, the interior shape of the room can be changed for different acoustical needs.

The fifth floor will house the special exhibitions in an 18,000-square-foot column-free space which Newman said will be the largest in the city. Its ceiling will contain all of the lighting, electrical, and HVAC functions and "do all the work." While the lights will be LED, the ceiling can be configured to use incandescent lights if needed. There will be an outdoor gallery, a film and video room, and dedicated areas for staff.

Above that will be the permanent collection, organized in a "chronological narrative." The floors will be reclaimed pine from 19th-century barns, tested out using mockups in Red Hook. Unlike the fifth-floor ceiling, which will evoke the grid found in the Madison Avenue building, the sixth-floor ceiling will be closed. The seventh floor will showcase the eastern view towards the skyline, like many of the early paintings of the collection. The eighth floor will feature another gallery and more staff areas along with a café with a terrace (also run by Danny Meyer). The eighth floor will also feature skylights with baffles to make the light indirect. The system has heat tracing. So, it's ready for winter.

Also worth noting are a few of the new museum's exterior elements. There will be a publicly-accessible outdoor staircase on the east side of the building. The building will be lit at night, but no colors are currently planned. Finally, putting a logo on the outside of the building is currently a hotly debated topic, and no decision has been made. The Madison Avenue building was initially very minimalist in this regard. It didn't even have signage on the inside, Gentile said.


They're still planning their inaugural exhibitions, but the above works of art are very likely to be included. Who's excited?
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Whitney Museum of American Art [official]
· Saying Good-Bye to the 'Old' Whitney Before The Met Moves In [Curbed]
· Renzo Piano's Whitney on the High Line Nears Completion [Curbed]
· Whitney Downtown Is Taking No Chances With Future Floods [Curbed]
· Watch 15 Months of Whitney Construction in 45 Seconds [Curbed]
· All Whitney Museum coverage [Curbed]

Whitney Downtown

820 Washington Street, New York, NY