Architecting the Experience of a New Type of Art:
An Analysis of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art Building
Walking along the Upper East Side of Manhattan is an experience inarguably filled with beauty– the perfectly gridded streets are lined with respected, historic American urban architecture and sprinkled with just the right amount of greenery. The Upper East Side in an abstract sense is a brick and limestone blend of neutral colors coming together with tree-lined facades that overpower the concrete hardness of the ubiquitous pavement with tradition and an undeniably American sense of taste. Despite the attention to detail seen in the Upper East Side’s architectural design and the meticulously designed grid of streets and blocks, the overall impression to the careful eye is one of sameness. It is too easy to overlook the designed beauty that can be found in this mostly residential neighborhood due to the rule of conventionality that governs these blocks of Manhattan. As to every rule, however, there are exceptions, and the Upper East Side’s black sheep with regards to architectural design is the American epicenter of contemporary art– the Whitney Museum of American Art. Currently housed at the southeastern corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street, the Whitney building was completed in 1966 and was designed by the visionary Hungarian architect and designer Marcel Breuer. The way in which Breuer captured and combined the innovative and progressive design zeitgeist of the era made it a largely criticized structure upon its completion, yet it has lived on into the 21st century as an exemplary model of architectural innovation. The Breuer building is in its last year of housing the Whitney’s collection and is about to be leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art– where it will house the Met’s international contemporary art collection– making this the relevant time to dissect how the building’s design itself makes it the ideal home for contemporary art well into the future.
Understanding the importance of Breuer as a 20th century designer is tantamount to understanding the importance of the Breuer’s Whitney Museum building both within the cannon of design history and among New York City’s architectural history. Although born in Hungary, Breuer was trained as a designer at the Bauhaus, the famed and radical German design school. Breuer attended the school as one of its first students in 1919. His specialty was carpentry, where he developed a sculptural vocabulary that is later seen in his impressively wide range of design work. Upon graduating, he returned to teach at the Bauhaus, while at the same time rising to global prominence through his professional design work. Although best known for his architectural works, Breuer designed everything from furniture, products, and interiors– all of which had the common thread of being radically innovative and defining of the crucial era in which he worked.
True to Breuer’s background, the building itself is a unique Modernist structure with heavy Bauhaus influences– a staple of mid-20th century Modernist architectural innovation. A grey cube of granite jutting out onto the Upper East Side street corner, the building’s only decorative elements are the three large, inverted step-like insertions that face Madison Avenue and give it the impression of a pyramid or ziggurat sloping downward onto the street. The steps may seem abstract elements of the structure but are in fact indicative of each of the four floors of the museum, indicative of the Bauhaus and Modernist principle of form following function. The few windows that can be found on the structure’s faces are abstractedly slanted, contrasting the rigid geometry of the structure’s cube-like form that delineates itself through straight, heavy lines and right angles. The granite structure is made all the more present, and all the more a Modernist staple, through its starkly contrasting surroundings, made up mostly of postwar brick, limestone and brownstone apartment buildings.
The building’s design is a valuable confluence of design styles of the period– Modernist, Bauhaus, International and Brutalist styles of architecture–, speaking to Breuer’s ability to innovate as a designer and to the time period’s crucial importance in modern design history. Speaking to the principles of both Modernism and Bauhaus, the Breuer building’s form strictly follows its function, with no efforts wasted on decorative elements or embellishments– simplicity and minimalism being the building’s loudest attributes. Breuer’s design work was on the forefront of the International Style of architecture, and the Whitney building is no exception with its strong emphasis on geometry and lines. Similarly speaking to the International Style is way in which the building’s ziggurat-style structure, bottom-to-top jutting exterior, and indented entrance help to suggest a perilous fragility and a certain weightlessness. There is also an undeniable Brutalist influence in the choice of concrete as the primary material, and in the hardness and presence that this choice adds, as well as in the sculptural weight that allows the building to evoke structure above all. The way in which Breuer designed the Whitney building with so many relevant and innovative references in a cohesive way present speaks to Breuer’s strength as a designer, the building’s importance in the New York City architectural design landscape, and to the vitality of the mid-20th century as a crucial time in design history.
However, it is safe to say that the general public of mid-20th century that was paying attention to architecture and design did not immediately recognize the importance of the innovation that Breuer sought with his design for the Whitney. For the most part, reviewers and critics found the building unlikeable. Ada Lousie Huxtable, a design critic for the New York Times, wrote upon the building’s completion in 1966 that the building came with “a constant complement of sidewalk critics.” She summarized the design-aware public opinion to be that the building was another example of other recent projects in Europe and America that were “architecture for sculpture’s sake,” and that Breuer was considered by many to be “largely an architect’s architect.” Although public opinion was not initially generally positive, in her own review, Huxtable hints at grasping the importance of the building’s design in a more long-term, contemporary art context when she writes:
Mr. Breuer’s stark and sometimes unsettling structure may be less than pretty, but it has notable dignity and presence, two qualities not found uniformly in today’s art. It will lend these qualities to its contents, by extension and by ambience… the new Whitney uses the strict, understated fulfillment of a functional program as the basis for a serious and successful work of architecture.
Huxtable’s understanding of the architectural design of the Whitney building in the context of its function to house and exhibit contemporary art is in line with the way that public opinion shifted through the decades until now, where it is considered not only an architectural staple in and of itself, but a truly innovative design as a museum for the purpose of housing cutting-edge contemporary art for the present and into the future.
Once the Whitney moves downtown to its new building currently under construction, the Met will lease the Breuer building, where, under a temporary lease, it will house the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of global contemporary art. This slight repurposing proves that Breuer’s design excels in its purpose of housing innovative contemporary art well into the future. The exterior of Breuer’s design, although simplistic and minimal, gives a clear indication of purpose through its contrast to its Upper East Side surroundings. There are no conventional decorative elements to the building, with form following function to let the art housed within be the defining characteristic of the building’s designed user experience. Similarly, the interior of Breuer’s design lends itself solely to the displaying of the art, with each of the five floors built to be changing, open spaces. The simplicity, openness and malleability of the interior and exterior are reinforced through the ceilings of each floor, made of grids that allow walls and separations to be easily installed and removed. In these principal ways, Breuer designed the structure with the display of contemporary art at the forefront of his mind. Breuer himself confirms the experience of contemporary art as his priority in the design of the Whitney when he wrote in his design notes, “Its form and material should have identity and weight… in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.”
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