Mark Lamster | Essays

The Whitney Museum’s Other New Building

The Whitney Museum, Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum, is nothing if not resilient. Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano all failed in their assaults on Breuer's great gray fortress. The Whitney itself has surrendered and, as we all know, will sadly abandon the place in 2015 for new and more friendly confines adjacent to the High Line.
 Irony, then, that with the white flag waving high over Madison Avenue, the museum has finally managed to sneak an entire new building right under Breuer's projecting facade. Symbolically it's perfect: it looks like a giant shipping crate, which is precisely what it is. 

This black-and-yellow box sits unapologetically in the moat of the Breuer building, and like the Breuer it is a tough and idiosyncratic block that somehow manages a strong sense of humanity. It is the creation of Lot-ek, the New York architectural firm of Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, who have made a specialty of working with shipping containers. Here they have stacked six of them, three on bottom, three on top, and opened them up on the inside to form a double-height space with a loft on the second level. Diagonal window bands, tinted yellow, stretch across the containers, giving the whole a unified, supergraphic affect. Inside the space is suffused in a warm glow. It opens this week, but curious visitors to the Biennial have been peeking in for some time. The building will be used as a "pop-up studio" for educational programming until the museum decamps for its new digs downtown. What happens to it then? If you're interested in a 600 square-foot portable studio, call 1-800-WHITNEY. 

Putting the building together in the cramped quarters of the Breuer moat required some fairly complex structural gymnastics: the containers were converted in New Jersey, and then carefully craned into the moat for assembly. Lowered in one at a time, the containers were then shunted into place on rails. B
racing was installed beneath to ensure the floor, which sits atop a museum storage room, would not cave. A lawyer kept a careful eye during the proceedings, in case of problems.

"We wanted it to be a monolith," says Tolla, "to be engaging but reverential at the same time." The relationship to the Breuer building is nevertheless uneasy--how could it be otherwise? It's nothing if not a reminder that the museum will soon be elsewhere. "We're glad to be at the Whitney when the Whitney is still the Whitney," says Tolla. I think we all feel that way. 

A long time coming. And not around for long. 

The containers during fabrication in New Jersey.

Craning a container into the Whitney moat—delicate business.

Interior perspective.

Detail of window framing

Tolla and Lignano

* Full disclosure: Years ago I edited Lot-ek's first monograph. I'm still a fan. 

Jobs | May 22