Six years have passed since the old building of the Whitney Museum on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 75th Street in New York closed its doors for good with a multitudinary retrospective show of Jeff Koons, and now the new Whitney has just opened, a work of the Genoa-born architect Renzo Piano. At a cost of 422 million dollars, it is the result of a commission assigned in 2004, and makes true the long-held dream of doubling the capacity of the institution. Before Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Michael Graves had tried for the job, but their proposals for enlarging the beautiful original building by Marcel Breuer in 1966 were turned down, not without sparking a whole train of arguments and controversies.
With such a background, it is no wonder that reception of Renzo Piano’s work has been varied. New York critics have even be demagogic, calling the museum a “factory or hospital” or an “awkward kit of protruding parts and tilting surfaces,” whilst ordinary New Yorkers have been quick to adopt it as something that’s theirs, and appreciate its open character, its engagement with the context, and its capacity to serve as an urban catalyst in an area of Manhattan now in vogue, the so-called Meatpacking District. In fact, though the collage of faceted volumes that form the building is rather unharmonioius, the calm and clear-cut interior spaces do manage to bring out the splendor of the museum’s 14,000 objects of North American arts and crafts. It is indeed neither a masterwork nor the best building of Piano, but the new Whitney has personality, and most importantly, it works.