PRINT November 1966

The Building

MUSEUMS ARE FREQUENTLY THOUGHT to be an anachronism in 1966, an opinion proved wrong not only by the soaring attendance figures but equally by the important current problems which all mu­seum design typifies; problems of communication, of movement, of the creation of a controlled phys­ical environment, of increase and change, of the validity of a symbolic position in an urban setting. These are all critical questions for design in gen­eral and any attempt at their solution, as in the new Whitney Museum, is thus of particular inter­est. This is not for one moment to deny that the Whitney Museum of American Art is, like every other building, also the solution of unique prob­lems in a particular place. Buildings are not after all colored wrappings around undifferentiated space unconnected to their locality. Important buildings require therefore consideration in both a general and particular sense, and the newly completed museum by Marcel Breuer and Hamil­ton Smith in the heart of New York undoubtedly belongs to this category.

What distinguishes a museum of art from any other building is that within it a communication occurs between an individual observer and a unique object; there is no intermediary agency, no sense of illusion, no group involvement. Direct­ness and immediacy are dominant. For this com­munication to be effective however, observer and object have to be placed in a juxtaposition strongly determined by the uniqueness of the object; not every space is thus equally appropriate to every object put on display. Klee's Twittering Machine, Gabo's Linear 2, David Smith's Cubi XXVI each need a different kind of space both in terms of enclosure and lighting. Such differences can be created by temporary means but they can also, and perhaps should, exist as part of the initial con­cept of the museum, especially as the range of what is possible within temporary adaptations is always limited. It is easy to change size, extremely difficult to alter character. Even in a building which is to have changing exhibitions there ought thus to be categories of space, connected to each other, but exploiting a particular situation. One of the serious difficulties of the Guggenheim seems to me precisely this inability to create differences by temporary means, quite apart from; any initial acknowledgment of space categories except for the small two-story gallery to one side of the spiral. The design for the Whitney appears to recognize the need for such differentiation; not only are the three major galleries each somewhat dif­ferent in size due to the inverted pyramid section of the building, but on two floors there are also smaller side galleries which have occasional views of the Manhattan world through the trapezoidal lunettes which bulge through the north elevation on to 75th Street. The intention is there; the exe­cution does not quite fulfill it.

The reason may be that these differences stem not from a desire to make particular places, or to open up the building towards the light, as in Oscar Niemeyer's project of 1954 for a museum in Caracas, where the inverted pyramid section created a large naturally roof-lit gallery on the top floor, but perhaps rather more from a wish to ex­ploit to maximum effect certain structural possi­bilities. Breuer has said that “today's structure in its most expressive form is hollow below and sub­stantial on top––just the reverse of the pyramid. It represents a new epoch in the history of man, the realization of one of his oldest ambitions: the defeat of gravity.” Museums however deal with display, not the reversal of physical laws. The in­verted pyramid section creates only small differ­ences in size of space, differences which in any case can be created by the movable screens, and creates none in the character of the galleries. On the second floor moreover the side galleries main­tain the same ceiling height as the main room and create spaces which, though smaller than the large gallery in its present state, are likely to be very similar to those in the gallery as subdivided by the screens. The main difference, in fact, is the use of a dominant—and likely to prove difficult—wood veneer on the walls. On the fourth floor the ceil­ing heights of the side galleries are lower and the veneer has fortunately been omitted. There is no doubt that this floor is in fact the most successful of the whole building, a large high room, magnifi­cent as a single space but also full of possible subdivisions and flanked on one side by smaller connected spaces. It is every museum director's, even if not every gallery visitor's, dream of what an exhibition space might be.

Communication is closely meshed with move­ment. It occurs sequentially, a moving observer encountering stationary objects. The path which will be followed is thus critical. Here the extreme separation between the floors may well create in­terruptions which can in no way be thought of as simple pauses, as commas in the linear progres­sion. While one is not clamoring for the un­punctuated continuity of the Guggenheim or nec­essarily even for the kind of spatial interlocking of internal and external planes which is to be found in, say, Rudolph's Arts and Architecture Building at Yale, the absence of easy flow and of some recognizable pivot to which it is simple to relate, may well prove a serious limitation on the possible use of the whole building. It was Philip Johnson who once said that in a museum the public needs some place from which to make a choice, some orientation space, “like a dog who, upon entering a room, will sniff one or two circumambulations of the room and will at last coil himself in one particular spot.” This extreme compartmentalization of space is taken right through the building: even the cafeteria on the lower ground floor is cut off from the sculpture gallery and the sunken court outside.

The publication of the design at its project stage in the January, 1964 issues of both Architectural Forum and Progressive Architecture already showed in some detail the system of screening and illumi­nation. The vital controlling elements of the dis­play have thus always been intimately considered and are likely to prove versatile in use. The floor­-to-ceiling height screens have small wheels in their bases which makes it possible to move them and they can then, somewhat on the pogo stick principle, be wedged between floor and ceiling. There is a suspended concrete egg crate which receives a rubber ferrule on the top of the screen and this egg crate also carries movable tungsten light fittings. Lying along the top edge of the egg crate and shining upwards are fluorescent tubes, controllable in intensity, which can give a varying sense of some lit space beyond the seemingly im­mediate confines of the gallery. Both paintings and sculpture can therefore have directional light­ing coupled, if wanted, with some overhead dif­fuse illumination.

This finely attuned control of the physical sur­roundings tends to be shattered by the arbitrary punches in the north elevation which not only produce an excessively bright surface, destroying the adjustment the eye had made to the internal lighting levels, but which offer no compensating visual release which is in some way associated with the movement sequence within the galleries. Space, natural light and movement do not interlock here into a comprehensible system.

The screen system within the three large gal­leries allows for changes in the size of enclosure. The screens conform to the ceiling grid which is four feet in both directions and, provided the screens are arranged at right angles to each other, an enormous number of subdivisions is obviously possible. The lighting is part of this grid system and can work in conjunction with it. Tungsten lights can be varied in direction and in their fre­quency, and therefore the intensity of light can be adjusted. From this point of view the tungsten lights now installed are a great improvement over the fluorescent tubes which in the initial designs were to span between the fins of the egg crate. The tungsten lights are also, it so happens, more desirable from the point of view of conservation.

Change is thus relatively easy, growth on the other hand is impossible. There is not much one can do about this on an urban site 104 by 125 feet. It presupposes that increase takes place else­where, that a new museum is eventually built on some other site, and perhaps this is just as well. It prevents at least the agglomeration of buildings within some vast Lincoln Center-like complex where, as Christopher Alexander has pointed out, they have nothing more in common than their linguistic label. One does not, after all, dash out of an Opera House straight into a theater just because both have to do with the performing arts. Given that these things are dispersed there is at least a chance that the whole town will be used, even celebrated, that perhaps, what is more, even the difference between the environment inside a museum and that outside it will be recognized and redressed.

The Whitney makes a strong gesture towards its urban setting and is intended to do so; it is not, for instance, the anonymous background building which might have been advocated by Walter Gropius, who was at one time Breuer's partner. The reverse position was defined by Breuer in that “a museum in Manhattan should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment. Its form and its material should have identity. It should be an independent and self-relying unit.” All this im­plies, not very explicitly it is true, that we know what buildings for business, light entertainment and, by inference, serious art display should look like, that the use of a building can be recognized from its appearance, that there is same type­casting in architecture. Despite this statement by Breuer, the Whitney fortunately does not follow these rules. Its solid exterior could, judging by other solidly clad buildings recently built in the U.S., equally belong to a department store, a labo­ratory, a high school or an academic office build­ing. What distinguishes it from these is not its appearance but its organization which produces an exterior space which in turn contains objects which signal, or at least begin to signal, its use. It is this exterior sculpture court which is both its signal of content and its link to the urban mesh. If the inverted pyramid has any meaning, it is in the creation of this sunken court rather than the demonstration of the apparent defeat of gravity.

The museum-like display of sculpture within public view has good precedent: the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence has done this for several cen­turies. It puts the sculpture within an enclosure raised a few steps up from the level of the Piazza della Signoria within view of even the most casual passer-by. The small dropped court cannot do this because the visual cut-off from the ground and the balustrade masks any view until one actually leans over the railing. Noguchi's sunken court at S.O.M.'s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Li­brary at Yale had already adequately proved this. There is again, here, a divergence between intent and execution; the reality is so much less than the idea.

Marcel Breuer is an architect whose name natu­rally comes to mind when the important figures of the Modern Movement are discussed; his achievements of the late twenties and the thirties are already in the history books. Why then do the buildings of the middle sixties seem so much less vital? It is a question which is moreover by no means confined to the work of Breuer; it applies surely with equal force to the work of many others whose contribution at an earlier period was criti­cal to the whole development of architecture. The early period, like all pioneering phases, reacted against the established disciplines and thus devel­oped a fighting zeal that carried it forward: down with the academies, the Victorian pretenses. It substituted for these obsolete dogmas beliefs which, again, as in all pioneering phases, were simple and easily grasped. They were based on a purging simplicity, a simplicity based on the social conscience of a scarcity economy. With this went some kind of a constructional creed of honesty, of a morality in the use of materials and structure. This was a necessary cleansing operation, and talked about, but not necessarily practiced by the great figures of the second and third decade, who created the masterpieces of the Heroic Period of Modern Architecture.

The functional rationale for these beliefs no longer exists, however, in the affluent society of the U.S. of the sixties, and the dragons of the academies have retreated or, perhaps, more fre­quently, just metamorphosed. Yet no compelling alternative set of beliefs has emerged or has at any rate made sufficient impact to provide some guid­ance. I believe, though, that the clues are there.

The hallmark of every affluent society is that it is consumer oriented. The effect of this is obvious where automobiles or cosmetics are concerned, but it is perhaps a little less clear where architec­ture is involved. That does not diminish its rele­vance, however. The shift toward consumer orien­tation can best be seen by contrasting it with the preceding phase in which the orientation is towards production, towards the means rather than the ends. A great deal of the modern movement was, particularly at the Bauhaus, influenced by de­cisions about the simplest, most economical, most rational method of producing an object. Frequently what was considered rational and simple was, of course, also heavily biased by what was apparently visually so, namely the geometric solid. If one went beyond this, it was to exploit the inherent capac­ities of structure so that there could be some feat of production. This attitude was undoubtedly coupled to a belief in the virtues of sun and air and a kind of amorphous visual openness which did not too closely define either space or activity. Though sun and air have gone, many of the other aspects remain at the Whitney.

Consumer orientation has, at the basest level, meant a pandering to the lowest reaches of the market place; at its best, however, a full under­standing of the complete range of the user's needs (including those not specified in the program) and at times a heightening of those activities into a celebration, to use Dubuffet's description, of all art. It means also an active involvement of the user and it is not surprising, for instance, that Op art should flourish in consumer oriented socie­ties. Ends not means become paramount.

The difficulties of affluence are that too many things are too easy, that anything goes in a search for novelty, for a proof of that affluence. This is to treat it at a superficial level. The intellectual re­sponsibilities of affluence are as compelling as those of scarcity. They require—and what is more, allow—the most rigorous examination of the problem so as to discover its genuine peculiarities and needs. Given such consideration there is, then, hope of solutions which might create that celebration, that enlargement of our understand­ing which distinguishes great buildings. It is the absence of such involvement which becomes so evident in far too many buildings, including, it would appear, the just-completed Whitney Museum of American Art.

––Michael Brawne