Design brief: According to Marcel Breuer, there was no time to decide upon the building’s design ahead of his selection. (New York Times, “Whitney Museum Finds a New Home” June 18, 1963.)
The initial program requirements included: 3991sf of service and work space; 29,817 sf of gallery and exhibition space; 2,926 sf of office space, 1,050 sf of library space; 1,584 sf of lounges and meeting rooms, 950sf of supply closet and coat check space; 1,500 sf of lobby space. The building committee consulted Philip Johnson on building costs. He confirmed that $50 per sf was reasonable and the total cost was estimated at $1,598,100. The finished building had a gross floor area of 82,000 sf; net gallery area 26,700 sf; sculpture court 3,100 sf, storage area 21,500 sf, office space 12,200 sf.
The main volume of the building is approximately 81 feet wide, 125 feet deep and 97 feet high. The building is stepped away at and below grade, creating a void approximately 28 feet wide and 11 feet deep between the sidewalk and the building that is crossed by an entry bridge. The building progressively moves back towards the street in three steps as it rises. Breuer described it as an inverted ziggurat. Next to the main volume on the south side is a smaller secondary volume, approximately 12 feet wide and 97 feet high, the upper portion of which slopes back away from street. It contains the main stair as well as space for the museum’s restoration service. This secondary volume is made of exposed concrete. The building is constructed primarily of concrete and clad with granite panels. Split slate flooring is used throughout large portions of the building. Precast concrete coffers are hung above the second, third, and fourth floor galleries. An array of circular light fixtures hangs above the lobby. The main façade, which faces west along Madison Avenue, has one large trapezoidal window which protrudes from the building at approximately 20 degrees. The north façade has six smaller windows which have a shape similar to the large window. The building is set off from the townhouses on the block by two thick concrete walls, one on south side of the building and the other on the east side. The south wall has “break though” panels which allow the main building to be connected to adjacent buildings on the block. The building has two floors below grade. The lowest is primarily used for storage and service. The next floor up contains a restaurant, gift shop and public restrooms. The ground floor primarily contains a lobby. The second, third, fourth and fifth floors are primarily gallery space. Most of the space with was added (connected) to the museum by Gluckman Mayner Architects is contain in buildings that have maintained their townhouse appearance. However, a tall masonry building was constructed behind the building at 33 East 74th Street at that time to provide a physical connection between it and the main building. This new construction has a minimal presence from the street.
Name(s) of surrounding area/building(s): The Whitney is located within walking distance of the “Museum Mile” section of 5th Avenue including: El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street; Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street; Jewish Museum at 92nd Street; Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design at 91st Street; National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts at 89th Street; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum at 88th Street; Metropolitan Museum of Art from 82nd to 86th Streets; Goethe House German Cultural Center at 82nd Street.
Visual relations: Many have noted the similarity between Breuer’s Whitney and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim as both share the rough form of an inverted ziggurat.
Functional relations:The Whitney was expanded into the building located at 33 East 74th Street as well new construction between the two buildings in 1998. The annex includes a library, archives and offices. The building at 943 Madison Avenue contains storage and administrative space for the museum and previously contained the museum’s “Store Next Door,” The museum also operates the “Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria” which is located at 120 Park Avenue at 42nd Street, New York, New York 10017.
A comprehensive architect’s report detailing the design was prepared in November 1963. It notes that the north and south wall was reinforced concrete bearing walls. The east and west walls act has deep concrete trusses that span the 81 feet between the bearing walls. The precast concrete coffers, arrayed in a two foot by two foot grid provide power and lighting over the galleries. The ceilings are 12 feet 9 inches above the 2nd and 3rd floor galleries and 17 feet 6 inches above the 4th floor gallery.
The design of the museum was in part a response to the state of modern art at the time. Breuer purposely minimized the use of windows to better showcase the work within. The galleries can accommodate the large sculptures that were emerging at the time.
Public and critical response to the building has been mixed. The void in front of the museum as well as the walls on the south and east sides of the building have been considered hostile to the urban environment. Moreover, the visual solidity of the building’s mass has proved inscrutable to many. However, these same tactics allow the building to define a space for its remarkable form within a dense urban framework. At the same it, it allows patrons to view works of art with a sense of remove from the distractions of the city. Instituitionally, the Whitney has come to be so deeply associated with its building. Canonical status: Built at a time when transparent high modernist buildings were very much in vogue, Breuer’s brutalist design distinguished itself with its primitive opacity. There are few works of this style left in the city. The only one other works by Breuer in New York City are at Bronx Community College.
Breuer’s use of the south and east walls to set off the building and define the block’s corner continues to be a source of inspiration to modern architects. Notably, Zaha Hadid used a similar strategy in her design for the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati.
Whitney Museum of American Art Archives, Frances Mulhall Achilles Library
33 East 74th St., New York, NY 10021
The “finding aid” from the Whitney Archives lists the following documents related to the original construction: Whitney Museum of American Art Archives
Properties, 19XX-19XX, n.d.
Folder Contents Dates Box 1 945 Madison Avenue
General, 1962-69; Marcel Breuer and Associates, 1963-68; Building Committee, 1963-67; Construction, 1964-69, n.d.; Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller, 1963;
B.H. Friedman, 1963-67; HRH Construction, 1964-66; Michael Irving, 1963-68; Property, 1962-63; Correspondence and Reports, Wood and Tower, 1964-66, n.d.;
4 Correspondence and Memoranda, Cafeteria and Friends Lounge, 1964-66; Mock-up, 1964; Stationary and Architectural Graphics, 1965-68; US Plywood Corporation, 1965-66; 2 Memoranda General, 1963-68, n.d.; Building Committee,1963-71; n.d., Property Offers, 1963; n.d., Architect’s Report, 1963; Contractor Bids, 1964; Furnishings, 1966; n.d.Building Information, 1978-81.
Box 2, 3, A Program for the New Whitney Museum; Correspondence and Notes, 1964-65; n.d., Newsletters and Brochures, 1964-66; In the Service of American Art, n.d., 2 Membership Applications, Correspondence and Memoranda, 965-66, n.d.; WMAA & Other Museums, 1966-67, n.d.; Cornerstone Ceremony, 1964; 10 Opening Correspondence, 1966; Correspondence – Congratulations, 1966; Memoranda, 1966; Schedule- Meeting Minutes, n.d.; Dedication, 1966; Invitation Lists, 1966, n.d.; Dinner Parties, 1966, n.d.; RSVPs, 1966; Invitations and Tickets, 1966; Placecards, n.d.; Outside Group Parties, 1966; Preliminary Announcement and Report, 1963, n.d.; Press Releases, 1963, 1964; 7 Press Clippings, 1956-Aug. 1966, 1956-66, Sept.-Oct. 1966, 1966, Nov. 1966-Feb. 1986, 1966-86; Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit to construction site 1965; The New Yorker, 1966, n.d.;
General,1963-66;General, Publicity, 1966, n.d.; Breuer correspondence, 1963-66; Reviews; n.d.; Note: Building photographs are in Photo archives
5. 2 principal publications (in chronological order):
Breuer’s Whitney An Anniversary Exhibition, New York, 1996.; Ezra Stoller, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2000.; Whitney Museum Finds a New Home, New York Times, June18, 1963.; Plans Shown for New Building for Whitney Museum, New York Times, December 12, 1963.; Cornerstone of New Whitney Museum Laid, New York Times, October 21, 1964.; Madison Avenue Now Has a New Castle, New York Times, July 23, 1966.; Whitney Museum Holds a Preview, New York Times, September 8, 1966.; Harsh and Handsome, Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times, September 8, 1966; Whitney Museum has Gala Opening, New York Times, September 28, 1966.; Art: The Whitney Museum Shows What it Can Do … In the Right Building, New York Times, October 2, 1966.; Norman Foster (proposed addition, unbuilt); Whitney Museum of American Art extension, 1979, Architectural record 1979 Mid-Aug., v.166, n.3, p.54-55.; Michael Graves (proposed addition, unbuilt); Paul Spencer Byard, The Architecture of Additions, New York, p.151-53, 1998.; Michael Graves tackles the Whitney, Roger Kimball, Architectural record 1985 Oct., v.173, no.12, p.113,115.; Growing pains, Metropolis 1987 May, v.6, no.9, p.22-23.; Third time's a charm, maybe?, Architectural record 1989 Mar., v.177, no.3, p.43.; An Appraisal; A Daring and Sensitive Design, Paul Goldberger, New York Times, May 22, 1985.; Whitney Addition Planned, New York Times, May 22, 1985.; Architecture View; For the Whitney, Adding Less May Result in More, Paul Goldberger, New York Times, August 11, 1985.; Neighbors Criticize Plan to Expland Whitney, New York Times, November 14, 1985.; Expansion at the Whitney: The Debate Broadens, New York Times, November 26, 1985.; The Whitney Unveils Smaller Expansion Plan, New York Times, March 11, 1987.; Architecture View; Adding a Little Less to the Whitney, New York Times, March 15, 1987.; Whitney Expansion Raises Preservation Issue, New York Times, May 24, 1987.; Whitney Proposal Wins Backing of Local Board, New York Times, June 19, 1987; Review/Architecture; 3d Try on an Expansion Design for the Whitney, New York Times, December 20, 1988.; Architecture View; The Whitney Paradox: To Add is to Subtract, New York Times, January 8, 1989.; Considering the Once and Future Whitney, New York Times, November 17, 1996.; Richard Gluckman (addition built 1998); Revamping the Whitney, Philip Nobel, Metropolis 1998 Feb.-Mar., v.17, n.6, p.50.; Let the Sun Shine In, New York Magazine, April 6, 1998.; Expanding an icon, Allan Schwartzman, Architecture 1998 June, v.87, n.6, p.108-113.; Inside Art, New York Times, August 5, 1994..; Postings: Project Leaves the Exterior Unchanged; Whitney Planning $13.5 Million Expansion, New York Times, August 20, 1995.; Inside Art, New York Times, September 20, 1995.; Art Review; Whitney Whittles Intimate Corners, New York Times, April 3, 1998.; OMA (proposed addition, unbuilt) Newhitney - scheme A, A + U: architecture and urbanism 2003 Nov., n.11(398), p.9-74.; Newhitney - scheme B, A + U: architecture and urbanism 2003 Nov., n.11(398), p.75-98.; Inside Art, New York Times, February 16, 2001.; Whitney Scraps Expansion Plans, New York Times, April 15, 2003.; Whitney Museum Cancels Koolhaas-Designed Expansion, Architectural Record, April 16, 2003.; Renzo Piano Building Workshop (proposed addition, unbuilt); Renzo Piano chosen to design Whitney Museum expansion, Sam Lubell, Architectural record 2004 July, v.192, n.7, p.21.; Whitney Museum unveils model for its expansion, Sam Lubell, Architectural record 2004 Dec., v.192, n.12, p.32.; Once Again, the Whitney is Planning to Expand, New York Times, May 19, 2004.; Whitney Hires Renzo Piano to Design its Expansion, New York Times, June 16, 2004.; Piano to Design Whitney Museum Expansion, Architectural Record, June 16, 2004.; Whitney’s New Plan: A Respectful Approach, New York Times, November 9, 2004.; Whitney Museum Unveils Models of Renzo Piano’s Museum Expansion, Architectural Record, November 12, 2004.; Whitney’s Expansion Plan Concerns Preservationists, Architectural Record, February 14, 2005.; Whitney Wants Plan A, but Says it Has Plan B, New York Times, May 24, 2005.; Modified Whitney Expansion Plan Wins Approval, Architectural Record, May 25, 2005.; Arts, Briefly; Green Light for Whitney Expansion, New York Times, January 13, 2006.; Whitney Museum May Move Expansion to Downtown Site, New York Times, October 31, 2006.; Architecture; Uptown or Down? The Whitney’s Identity Crisis, New York Times, November 2, 2006.; Whitney Museum Considers Nixing Piano Expansion, Architectural Record, November 22, 2006.; Whitney’s Expansion Plans are Shifting South, to the Meatpacking District, New York Times, November 28, 2006.; Whitney Inks Conditional Deal for the High Line, Architectural Record, November 28, 2006.