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Whitney Museum building by Renzo Piano gets its design right

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York allows natural light into its galleries.
Nic Lehoux
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York allows natural light into its galleries.

New York — The galleries are the heart of any art museum, and the galleries at the new Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan are glorious.

The Whitney, which used to be uptown on Madison Avenue, opened to the public May 1 in a newly constructed home in the Meatpacking District. If you know the wildly popular High Line linear park, you can place the Whitney. It’s at the southern termination of the High Line. You can walk directly from the elevated park into the museum’s third floor.

As an art museum should, the Whitney loves the art of architecture. Its original building was a landmark designed by the Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer, best known today for his cane-seat chairs. The new, much larger Whitney is the work of an equally celebrated architect, the Italian Renzo Piano, who designed recent additions to the Harvard Art Museums and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Disclosure: I was a consultant to the Gardner on that project.)

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A lot of people, including me, thought the Whitney looked less than promising while it was under construction. Nothing seemed to make sense. Now that it’s complete, it’s clear that all the right choices were made.

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Start with the galleries. Piano places them on the highest floors of his eight-story building, where they can enjoy the most daylight and the best views. Wherever you go in the Whitney, you’re aware of the presence of daylight. The walls on which paintings are hung are softly washed with natural light that is ever-changing. The artworks seem to respond and come alive, almost like flowers. You often don’t see the light source, which may be a window in the next gallery from which light is drifting into yours.

Too often we see placeless galleries where paintings are flattened against anonymous white walls in dead, monotonous light. The artworks look like slides projected onto a screen rather than richly material objects. Of course the Whitney uses artificial lighting, too, but at least in the daytime, the mix is marvelous.

The Whitney Museum of American Art at Gansevoort in New York City, New York, USA. Caption: Galleries seen from other galleries, flow of natural light Gallery. Photographed in April 2015. 03Whitney
Nic Lehoux

Another virtue of the galleries is the way they make you feel you’re still in touch with the world around you. A window may frame a long view westward across the Hudson River to the New Jersey shore. Or you may find yourself looking the other way, eastward, at the Manhattan skyline, capped by the Empire State building in the middle distance. The world of art indoors and the world of reality outdoors begin to comment on each other. It seems like an obvious move, but many major museums draw nothing from the world around them.

Still another virtue is that the Whitney’s elevators open directly into the galleries. There’s no corridor, no hallway to interrupt your experience. When you step out of the elevator you’re already immersed in art. Powerful grids of steel span entire gallery floors without the need for supporting columns. Artworks can be hung from the grid, and partitions can be placed anywhere.

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The grids add something subtler, too. They give each gallery a virtual sky. Ceilings are nothing like the usual boring white planes fitted with track lights and smoke detectors. Instead the grids can feel like clouds overhead, and like the grid of Manhattan, they organize and measure out space.

For the Whitney opening, the museum has created a special exhibition called “America Is Hard to See.” The title is taken from a poem by Robert Frost, in which Frost claims that explorers and writers have been blind to the reality of America. Frost never tells us what that reality is, but hints that it’s “the works of man.” The show includes 600 pieces in numerous media, all drawn from the Whitney’s own collection. It’s not a “greatest hits” exhibit but one that samples the full range of what the Whitney’s chief curator, Donna De Salvo, calls the “inconveniently complex” world of American art.

The Whitney as you see it from outside is something else again. It’s not so much complex as it is incoherent. Viewed from the Hudson River side, it looks like a vertical pile of backpacks and suitcases that nobody has bothered to straighten up. Seen from the east, the city side, steel terraces and fire stairs spill down the building as if it were a training wall for mountaineers. There’s a little mimicry of the industrial look of the High Line and other neighbors, but not much.

I couldn’t get Piano to say so, but the meaning of his architecture here seems clear: The Whitney is saying to us that in a world of celebrity culture, this building is not an expression of personal ego. It isn’t trying to be daring or avant-garde. Its architecture isn’t about architecture. The Whitney is a container of art that doesn’t itself seek to be a work of art. All the architect has done, or so the building tells us, is to create all those wonderful galleries and other spaces, let them reach for the sun, wrap them in glass and painted steel, and call it a building.

Well, New York isn’t coherent, either. The DNA of Manhattan shapes a city ordered by a street grid, like the grid of a Scrabble board. Like Scrabble tiles, buildings may be placed at any location in the grid. Some will be more valuable, some less, but none will dominate. Unlike, say, Paris, with its boulevards and monuments, New York doesn’t present itself, doesn’t explain itself. You don’t see an allee of trees with a palace at the end. New York’s DNA produces the typical New Yorker, the Inside Dopester, who knows where everything is in the anonymous city. The Whitney fits right in.

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I have just one negative. The Whitney’s entry lobby, which contains the bookstore and a restaurant, manages to be banal and grandiose at the same time. With its boldly cantilevered roof, it hovers over little Gansevoort Street like a bomber settling in to land on a carrier. The street space has been blown open and unmade.

Details, details. The Whitney owns 6,500 works of art, and the new building contains 220,000 square feet, about the area of five football fields. The construction cost was $422 million, and the total cost (with expenses and endowment) was $760 million. Piano’s firm, which he calls the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, teamed with New York architects Cooper Robertson.

Piano was also the architect, as noted, of the recently opened Harvard Art Museums. The two are very different museums and faced very different circumstances. Still, it ought to be a concern that the institution Boston wits used to love to call WGU (“World’s Greatest University”) got the lesser piece of architecture.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.