Breuer Whitney/Met Breuer

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The Met Breuer, formerly the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Met)

The Met Breuer opened today. It is the Brutalist building that the Whitney Museum of American Art left before moving last year into a building designed for it by Renzo Piano in New York’s Meatpacking District. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has leased the old Whitney – designed by Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer and opened in 1966 – for eight years.

My former Providence Journal colleague, the syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, asked me to write about this for her elegant new news/culture site, Silkstocking.NYC, mainly about the Upper East Side, where the old Whitney sits on Madison Avenue. Here is the second paragraph of my piece for Froma, “Breuer’s Whitney to Met’s Breuer.” (Click to read the whole thing.)

Rarely has any building better epitomized “form follows function” than the old Whitney. It was designed by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer (pronounced BROY-er) precisely to hold modern art. It’s difficult to imagine the Met exiling any of its vast collection of traditional art to the Met Breuer’s cold confines. So perhaps the building really cries “function follows form.” Like so many works of modern art and architecture (and their slogans), you can turn it any which way without affecting its ability to do its job.

“It’s ability to do its job.” I tried to be gentle with the building. It was built to resist the Met’s former longstanding arm’s-length, hand’s-off – okay, let’s say cool, though some will insist hostile is the more accurate word – attitude toward modern art. In my opinion, Beuer’s building sticks out like a sore thumb, and putting part of the Met’s collection of modern art there won’t soften its impact on the famous streetscape. Froma used a shot of it upside down with her social media versions of my blog post. But at least the old Whitney’s façade is not boring like its rival, the Museum of Modern Art.

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American Folk Art Museum, left. (hyperallergenic.com)

MoMA recently demolished an iconic modernist building attached to its hip – the American Folk Art Museum – designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. It went backrupt and their building was bought by MoMA, which recently tore it down – to the howls of le tout modernism. My take on this was giddy: Let’s you and him fight!” To make matters worse, the demo makes way for an addition by the the rising starchitectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro – yes, the very same “Dildo Scrofulous + Rent-free” who designed Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. It opened in 2013 looking for all the world like an accordion being struck by an earthquake. In fact, the new Granoff looks like what the old Whitney might look like if it had been designed by Mies.

So click on my “Breuer’s Whitney to Met’s Breuer,” and then explore the rest of Froma’s enticing new site.

(Here is the New York Times’s summary of the Met Breuer, “Becoming Modern: The Met’s Mission at the Breuer Building.” Becoming modern”? Odd way to put it.)

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Brown’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. (mitchellcenterforthearts.org)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Breuer Whitney/Met Breuer

  1. It hit exactly the right notes for its time, and no I don’t mean that in the typical modernist way. It has a civic presence that is perfectly appropriate for a modern art museum. That presence doesn’t require it to step out of line or define the space of the streets any less — and it manages to provide an outdoor space without eroding that spatial definition.

    And it works by using contrast, so every modernist incursion in the vicinity injures it.

    It’s quiet and dignified in a way that is only appropriate for an important modern art museum. It is not brutal in its context. Of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate for today or for any other site or for any other purpose.

    Like

    • I generally agree with all of your observations, Bruce, and recognize it as less hurtful than almost every other major modernist building, but I still cannot bring myself to “like” it. I respect it as a less than typically offensive member of its class, but I do not like it.

      Like

  2. I don’t like it. I can see why it is titillating, especially in the heart of so much wealth – epater la bourgeoisie! I’m not suggesting that’s why you like it, Bruce, but it might be true of many others.

    Like

  3. I’ve always liked it, frankly. It’s one of the few modernist buildings that I like. Especially the stairway.

    Like

  4. sjo2346@aol.com says:

    Such an eyesore.

    Sent from my Sprint phone.

    Like

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