Compare/Contrast

Mark Hertzberg sent along this article on the building housing the Whitney Museum of American Art from The New York Times. The article doesn’t mention Frank Lloyd Wright, but I’ll go all meta here, and classify it as a resounding confirmation of Wright’s legacy.

The Whitney will be moving from its modernist home on the Upper East Side to a new, Renzo Piano-designed building in Lower Manhattan. Its current building was designed in the 1960s by Marcel Breuer, a well-known modernist who taught at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and later at Harvard, where he joined Walter Gropius in the architecture school. His students included Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei. Not well known today, in the middle decades of the last century, Breuer was anything but a minor light in the circle of modernist architects.

When built, both the Guggenheim Museum, by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Whitney’s new building were high profile projects, designed by high-profile architects. Each was meant to establish its museum as an architectural patron, to put a stamp on mid-century New York and stand as tangible sign of each museums next stage of live. Wright’s Guggenheim had a long gestation, but was completed in 1960. The Whitney’s building, designed by Modernist Marcel Breuer, was designed in the early 1960s and opened in 1966.

There the commonalities end. Unlike the soaring, graceful and light-filled Guggenheim, the Whitney’s building was often described as dark, brooding and formidable:

A fortnight later Mrs. Huxtable backtracked slightly, saying that “it might be too somber and severe for many tastes,” but was still “careful” and “conscientious.” Her description, however, used the words bulky, sunken, gloomy, stygian and Alcatraz within three sentences.

The Whitney opened in 1966, and the hayseed lobby had apparently made itself known to Mrs. Huxtable; while acknowledging that it was “the most disliked building in New York,” she still admired Breuer’s design.



But Miss Genauer called it “the Madison Avenue Monster.” And Thomas B. Hess, writing in Art News, was of the opinion that the granite gave the museum “a mineral, prison look.” However, the stark concrete interiors received wide praise.



In 1967 the brash new “A. I. A. Guide to New York City,” by the architects Norval White and Elliot Willensky, quipped that passers-by should “beware of boiling oil,” but also called Breuer’s work a must-see. It was as if, as Olga Gueft put it in Interiors Magazine, the high-culture stamp of the Whitney and its trustees made it “completely invulnerable.”




While the Guggenheim hasn’t lacked for critics through its half century, no one has ever described it as “medieval” or compared it to Alcatraz.

Today, Wright’s signature building is the definition of “iconic, lending its form even to teapots. I’ve never seen — and don’t want to see — a Whitney Museum teapot, necktie or table runner. The Guggenheim redefined the museum building, making the building that housed the collection, part of the collection. Wright’s Guggenheim lead famously to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, but significant museum buildings in cities as far off the beaten museum path as Toledo, Ohio (Gehry and SANAA) and Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Guggenheim transformed, and a half century later continues to transform, the role of the museum:. The museum in vibrant partnership with the artist, and the building itself in partnership with the museum visitor, a museum that doesn’t just house the collection, but elevates it.

When the Guggenheim asked Wright to design their museum, they got one of the greatest works of art for the 20th Century; they wanted a great building; Frank Lloyd Wright gave them a transcendent one. When the Whitney asked Breurer to design their museum, they got a white elephant. Now, thirty years later The Whitney is running away from it as fast as its endowment can carry it.