TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1987

MUSEUM PIECE

Architecture

This article returns to a discussion Joseph Giovannini began in these pages in November 1985, when he reviewed Michael Graves’ first proposal for his addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art. This return parallels the architectural procedure of change, review, and amendment. Writing about buildings in the planning stages requires a treatment different from that of reviewing finished works of art, and represents an opportunity to reflect architecture’s intrinsic qualities of process.

THE PUBLIC CONTROVERSY surrounding the additions proposed in 1985 and 1986 for the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, can be understood as the outer ring of arguments originating within the designs themselves: in different ways, the schemes by Michael Graves for Marcel Breuer’s Whitney and by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim seemed hostile to the original buildings. The huge Graves addition engulfed and denatured the Breuer, and the Gwathmey Siegel intruded on the Guggenheim, crowding the whole structure, especially the spiral. That neighbors, citizens, and architects reacted so emotionally for and against was an analogue for the architectural arguments between the old and new designs: the stones were speaking through people.

As a result of the vocal reactions, the architects, who had been designing for architectural history in these commissions and presented inflated schemes, went back to the drawing boards, realizing they had to change the plans substantially and rephrase the attitudes within them. This February and March they returned with less massive, more modest proposals. In both cases, smaller has meant better. The issue is whether there is reason to oppose the schemes now that their most obviously objectionable problem—their mass—has been largely addressed.

The parallels between the two additions go beyond the geographic coincidence of being located on city avenues only blocks away from one another. Because of space restrictions, both museums keep large parts of their collections unexhibited, and trustees and directors rightfully feel that the public should be able to see-more works on a regular basis. Both museums occupy (undesignated) landmark Modernist buildings by Modern masters located in neighborhoods with well-organized, well-informed residents. And both museums have ambitious building programs, done by highly esteemed architects, for limited parcels of very expensive land. Finally, both projects are being designed within a set of demanding constraints rather than of suggestive freedoms. The sites on which they are to be built carry social and preservationist sentiments and practical and legal restrictions, as though invisible vortices, like the Guggenheim spiral, were swirling around them. Furthermore, the climate in which the projects are being proposed verges on being opposed to growth, partially because of a general public exasperation at the largely unshaped, opportunistic, and profoundly disruptive development currently occurring throughout the city. The neighbors are self-protective and vigilant.

This February, Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel presented their revised scheme for the addition to the Guggenheim in the High Gallery off the museum’s rotunda. As the two architects stood in front of their drawings and model, before a small corps of the art press, a giant Swiss army knife, with oars, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen could be heard whirring in the rotunda, and natural light fell gently onto the smoothly curved walls around and above it. It was, in the history of the Guggenheim, a charged moment: the architects, who had been forced into a tight corner by the reaction to their previous plan, were presenting a neutralized design, while Wright’s magisterial space seemed to be enjoying itself just a few feet away.

The site of the addition is on East 89th Street, behind the Guggenheim’s smaller rotunda, on a piece of land the width of a brownstone. The structure now there, designed by Wright’s son-in-law William Wesley Peters of the Taliesin Fellowship after Wright’s death, extends the museum’s interior space; its foundation and structure would serve as the base for the new addition. Gwathmey Siegel’s first proposal was for an 11-story structure with a broad cantilevered mass hanging out mostly over the smaller rotunda of the Guggenheim. The narrow facade along 89th Street was styled as a Constructivist composition. The design foundered because the cantilevered section encroached too much on the Guggenheim, and also, Charles Gwathmey has on reflection come to agree, because the Constructivist language used to counterpoint the Wright building was foreign to it.

Wright was a brilliant but problematic choice as the architect for the museum’s original structure—he purportedly did not like much Modern art, did not like cities in general, and did not like New York City architecture in particular. If, as has frequently been noted, the building’s spiraling interior ramp is a difficult environment for art, its cyclone exterior is purposely defiant toward the street grid and its apartment blocks—Wright wanted to break open the avenue, and did so by creating an architectural vortex. A kind of energy field turns around Wright’s building, which any addition must acknowledge. The first Gwathmey Siegel scheme stepped into the field clumsily, while the second simply steps back from it, without making any comment on one of the strongest architectural forms ever built in the United States. The architects seem to have taken the Fifth Amendment with the later design. It is a bland, blank box with several horizontal window slits, certainly not a building to go down in architectural history. The firm, which has been inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, is noted for strongly sculpted, volumetric, interpenetrating forms and spaces, not background buildings, but here it was essentially proposing a box that had the unmistakable look of compromise.

This second proposal is for a ten-story building (plus a mechanical floor) with a simple, rectangular limestone facade and no cantilever. The facade is scored with a grid of lines, recalling a block of artists’ studios that Wright proposed for this site (or for an adjacent one—the debate about the location seems unresolved). The lines associate the new addition with the Wright proposal, as though the grid were a signature of his approval. The political realities of getting the addition built appear to have been the dominant shapers of its exterior form. The interior fares better: it marries the interior of the small rotunda, forming a cogent flow of gallery space. The fifth floor opens onto a sculpture terrace overlooking Central Park. But in total the proposal remains a defensive response to the political process rather than a positive response to Wright’s building and to the neighborhood. An unfortunate failure of poetry, it also defeats a basic principle of historic preservation: that new buildings within or near historic districts not be imitative or slavish, but the best of their own time.

The problem for Gwathmey Siegel seems inherent in the New York condition—the attempt to squeeze too much building into too small a parcel. This, of course, has forced the building upward in height—though lower than the earlier proposal, it is still relatively massive, and the architects have had to compensate for its mass by neutralizing its form. They have also seemed set against the alternative of cutting down its height by placing even part of the addition underground. As Manuela Hoelterhoff pointed out in her review of the first scheme in the Wall Street Journal, the upper floors of the addition are offices, not galleries, and could be placed elsewhere. The second scheme makes the same spatially expensive mistake, which balloons the addition’s mass: the proposal sets about 5,000 square feet of offices in several floors at the buildings top, and it is this square footage, along with an overdesigned mechanical floor, that gives the building all its bulk above the level of the large rotunda’s top. Hoelterhoff has suggested placing the office space “off campus” in nearby buildings. Another possibility, investigated by New York architect Michael Kwartler, is the surprisingly spacious area underground between the existing foundations of the large rotunda and the several feet short of the curb line. Kwartler has advocated putting the addition underground, a proposal the museum has called too costly and potentially destabilizing for the structure of the Wright building. There has been no mention of placing just the offices underground, which would be sufficient for the office requirements and would not necessitate deep or disturbing excavation, according to Kwartler. There is ample precedent for humane, naturally lit underground additions to architecturally significant structures, including those to Harvard’s Houghton Library and Yale’s Sterling and Beinecke libraries.

If it is the bulky height of the addition that necessitates the computer-card blankness of its slit-windowed facade, a lower alternative could allow the architects to act more as architects than as defendants, and to respond to the potential of the museum with a more venturesome design. As now conceived, the addition is a servant structure, and a lost opportunity; it will also require variances from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals—it is, among other things, technically a sliver building, which are no longer allowed in New York. A much more tantalizing scenario would be a design manifestly a Gwathmey Siegel scheme, based, perhaps, on the Le Corbusier vocabulary the firm has so often used. A smaller, Corbu-inspired building sensitively juxtaposed to the Wright would be a historical match of some interest and wit; that potential, or a similar one, is lost here. The building as now proposed promises to be a type of Pyrrhic victory—if it is approved and built, the architects will have won the battle but lost the war.

Michael Graves' first plan for the Whitney called for a five-story Postmodernist addition next to Breuer’s five-story building. Astride both was a massive, templelike addition. Unfortunately, that superstructure demoted the Breuer—a cantilevered building that rests solemnly on its own shadows—to the status of a mere cornerstone: an “oedipal" design, wrote Michael Sorkin in The Village Voice. Some people liked the addition because of what they felt were its artistic tensions—the deliberate awkwardness of its top-heavy design; its confrontational relationship to the Breuer; its act of artistic appropriation. Implicit in this view, however, was the idea that the end justifies the means, that all is fair in love, war, and architecture—it overlooked the moral issue that this was an architectural kill. In addition, Graves had sabotaged himself with his proposal: it was difficult to look at his design without feeling a reflex reaction to protect the Breuer, one of the great pieces in the Whitney collection, and one of the few Modernist masterpieces in New York. Graves’ design was also vastly overscaled for the neighborhood, and a close look at the floor plans revealed that the building was inflated because of an awkward organization of functions inside.

Graves has returned from Princeton with a much smaller version of the temple-on-a-base scheme, and though the Breuer is still subsumed within, and appropriated by, a larger composition, it is no longer reduced to a cornerstone. As perceived from the street, it no longer seems underfoot in relation to the temple, but lifts the temple on its shoulder. While the museum portrays the reduction in the addition’s size as a sacrifice, the net square footage for direct museum use is, according to its own figures, only 6.5 percent less than that of the original addition (or 7,515 square feet less than the original proposal of 114,050 square feet. There is also a decrease of nearly 50 percent in leasable commercial space, but the commercial footage does not figure as part of the working museum.) No functions have been eliminated; space has been shaved in some areas. A more reasonable organization of the interior has allowed the architect to collapse the building into a smaller shell—there has in fact been very little sacrifice. (This is also true of the new Guggenheim proposal, with less than a 5 percent reduction in net square footage, or only 3,100 square feet less than the original 69,000-square-foot addition.) The galleries in the Whitney are now concentrated on the first six floors, as they should be, rather than stretched out over eight. The ground floor now has one entrance, not two, and that entrance is through the original shaped-concrete canopy. The Breuer now remains a leading element: its meaning may be somewhat altered because it is no longer asymmetrical unto itself, but part of an essentially symmetrical composition, yet it has been more respectfully treated, and emerges with its dignity and presence intact. At last it is possible to look at the design on its own terms, because the decrease in size has mitigated the impact on the Breuer, limiting the preservation issue.

Where the Breuer is an irregular volume, Graves’ addition, on the parcel south of it, is approximately the shape of a cube, and it is dressed with abstract architectural forms that give the building a reading. The most obvious of these shapes are silhouettes of the brownstones the addition is intended to replace—the forms establish a brownstone scale and evoke their memory. It is, however, a window in the center of the addition’s upper register that is most redolent in meaning. Graves’ window, working as a symbol, engages the large asymmetrical window on the brow of the Breuer building, and transforms it too into a symbol: the two together serve as comparative emblems of the architects’ intentions. Graves’ window is tall, paned in translucent alabaster, and aligned with the flow of weight in the building from the top to the bottom. Shaped as a trapezoid, it reads from the street as a forced perspective with converging sides, obeying laws of Renaissance space. It is a comment on the forced perspective in the Breuer window—which appears as a horizontal more than a vertical form, and seems to float in a nongravitational field, much like the rest of the hovering facade. The Breuer window is dissociated from gravity, like the buildings dynamic cantilevered masses. The Graves is purposely static, centered and centering, the counterrevolution to the Modernist revolution the Breuer once represented.

Graves, a leader of Postmodern classicism, has for more than a decade used and transformed the classical language of architecture, and here he is applying its lessons in an almost before-and-after comparison. He is a historicist more than a historian, and applies historical forms inventively rather than literally, often for compositional purposes. But beyond Graves’ interest in history is his background in painting and collage, which is the basis of many of his architectural instincts. In some respects the effort and significance in his design for the Whitney lie more in its artistic composition than in the Post-modernist language it employs. The design is one of syntax rather than semantics. The columns, windows, and other details are simplified and highly controlled, and it is the compositional arrangement of the proposed museum’s four principle volumes—Breuer’s building, Graves’ equivalent, the top temple, and a cylinder in the middle—that binds it all together.

Like Gwathmey Siegel, Graves was pushed into a defensive position by the debate that greeted his first design. In redoing it he has chosen to keep its basic gesture and idea—the composition of volumes that subsumes the Breuer—but by including the Breuer Whitney as a leading element of his four-part strategy, he has had to keep the forms simple, since the sober Breuer forces a comparable sobriety on its latter-day twin. The architectural results are not as inventive and unexpected as, for example, Graves’ deeply carved and powerful Humana building, completed in 1985 in Louisville, Kentucky, for example, where the tensions come from explosions of scale and the unusual use of classical parts. On Madison Avenue, Graves subdues the architecture in favor of the overall composition. He could have created more architectural maneuvers had he built entirely on the site south of the Breuer rather than introducing the bridging temple. Elaborated as he elaborated the Humana building, the Whitney addition would in the end have been a more interesting proposal.

When Graves was commissioned to design the Whitney, six years ago, his Postmodernist classicism was the prow of a movement leading architects out of Modernism. Now, many have debarked for other movements going other places, and what today is a historicist style may prove, by the time the addition is finally built, to be historical. In the ’70s Graves’ investigations were fresh and revolutionary for the profession, but they have since become overused by others. The anthropomorphic humanism of his architecture—his elaborate entries ennoble those who pass through them; his columns echo the columnar form of man—may still be valid philosophically, but the images no longer command the attention they once did. While Graves has always believed that these forms are a language to be spoken by the many rather than the few, the language by now has been abused, overused, and inevitably vulgarized. The images have come back to Graves, and to the Whitney commission, watered down. The time it takes to realize a project in New York today is apparently longer than the half-life of contemporary architectural movements in America.

Graves remains the master of the idiom, however, and the city has yet to acquire a pure, dense example of the architectural movement he represents, a movement that has been vastly influential and significant. His addition to the Whitney could have a meaning in the ’80s equivalent to that of the 1966 Breuer—perhaps not the most interesting artistic object that Graves has ever produced, but a controlled and knowing design that could be an artifact, a record, and a part of the Whitney collection. The new proposal, more respectful of the older building, may not be compelling, but it is tenable. It is also tenable because Graves, in altering the scheme, has not neutralized it: the meanings and forms of his own Whitney are intact.

Joseph Giovannini trained as an architect, writes on architecture and design for the New York Times.