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The Whitney announces major expansion—again
Last year trustees scrapped an expansion designed by Rem Koolhaas. Now they are pinning their hopes on Renzo Piano

On 15 June, the trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art hired architect Renzo Piano to design an expansion for the institution on Madison Avenue. Details will not be finalised until later this year but the architect’s remit, broadly, is to add up to 70,000 square feet of space to house permanent displays, galleries for temporary exhibitions, an auditorium, facilities for visitors, and offices.

According to museum director Adam Weinberg a study will be completed in the next five months. This will examine the options for moving a part of the museum’s operations elsewhere to free up more space for art. The result will likely be at least one Manhattan annex for exhibitions and the Independent Study Program, and another to consolidate art storage, currently distributed among several warehouses, perhaps with a study centre and conservation laboratory attached. The Whitney already operates a midtown branch sponsored by the Altria Corporation, but Mr Weinberg says he is not interested in more corporate spaces.

In the last 20 years, the Whitney has repeatedly faltered in attempts to expand the five-storey granite building designed by Marcel Breuer in 1966. In the 1980s, the
community derailed a massive postmodern addition by Michael Graves, and last year, the trustees themselves quashed an even more hulking proposal by Rem Koolhaas that would have cost more than they were willing to raise.
In between those abortive efforts, architect Richard Gluckman converted the fifth floor into galleries and relocated offices and the library to the brownstones contiguous to the institution which belong to the museum. But with only 2% of its 14,000-work collection on view, and no proper centre in which to study works on paper—roughly two thirds of the collection—the museum inevitably returned to the drawing board.

In January the trustees hired architecture consultant Reed Kroloff (now dean of Tulane University School of Architecture) to help compile a list of around 50 architects.
An architecture selection committee chaired by trustee Melva Bucksbaum narrowed the field to a shortlist of 12 and interviewed the candidates in March and April. They included Herzog & De Meuron, David Chipperfield, Todd Williams Billie Tsien & Associates, Mr Gluckman, and a number of younger firms. But the board opted for Mr Piano, a Pritzker Prize winner who is currently the architect of choice for American museums.
The Whitney board was so sure of their choice that when Piano refused to participate in a competition, they cancelled it and handed him the job anyway.

They were looking for function, not flash, Mr Weinberg explains, noting that “First and foremost is not the spectacle of the museum, but the spectacle of the art.” Artist Chuck Close, another trustee who served on the architecture selection, strongly supports the choice, noting that “Renzo Piano creates spaces that allow works of art to live and breathe.”

Mr Piano’s Whitney extension will be immediately south of the Breuer building, and will incorporate the row of five 19th-century brownstones and two contiguous townhouses on East 74th Street, all of which belong to the museum. Four of the storefront brownstones are landmarked and, by law, must be preserved, but Mr Piano says the one adjacent to the Breuer building will be demolished to create a mid-block entrance and skylit lobby for the expanded museum. The other brownstones will likely house retail at street level, curatorial offices above, and a restaurant terrace on top overlooking Madison Avenue, the architect says. Behind the brownstones, Mr Piano’s new building will contain larger, naturally lit galleries for the postwar collection or temporary shows. This addition will connect on each level with the floors of the Breuer building, creating an integrated experience for the visitor. To maximize the available space for the extension, at least one of the two dilapidated townhouses on 74th Street will be demolished. “Also, I’d like to try to put a little garden on the east part of the site, so you can see light when you enter the new building from Madison Avenue. This will give it more depth and transparency,” says Mr Piano.
Sensitive to resistance from neighbours and the Landmarks Commission to earlier proposed expansions, Mr Weinberg vows to create a building that “fits comfortably within the fabric of the community and within the building envelope of the property next to the museum.” It will respect the character of the Breuer building and preserve the brownstones’ facades. To reduce the mass and height of the addition, Mr Piano plans to place the auditorium and other functions below ground. “I love the Breuer building,” Mr Piano says. “it has a very strong presence, and the new one won’t be in competition with it,” he says. Mr Weinberg says a capital campaign will raise funds for the building, off-site facilities and storage, and endowment. Whitney chairman Leonard Lauder, the billionaire head of the cosmetic company Esteé Lauder, is expected to play the lead role.