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At nearly three times the size of its former home, the new Whitney Museum of American Art is practically another species. Where the Madison Avenue building (1966) by Marcel Breuer was compactly monolithic, the downtown Whitney (at 220,000 square feet) is multifaceted and bulky, punched with porthole windows and bristling with outdoor terraces. Since opening on Friday, visitors—some 30,000 of them—could be seen clambering up and down its marine gray, metal-grated exterior stairs much the same way that tourists swarm the decks of the Intrepid. Indeed, the new Whitney is as tough and ready for action as a Navy warship.
It was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, this millennium’s McKim, Mead & White. Mr. Piano understands that the brief has changed from the days when architects built neoclassical shrines to local cultural heritage. Museums today need to function smoothly at processing and provisioning large numbers of visitors at an efficient clip, sometimes fueling a lament from locals that they no longer feel a sense of ownership.
The key to Mr. Piano’s success in so many projects is that he is neither cynical nor condescending about translating the meaningful encounter to a much bigger scale. Where failure would mean bloated spaces with all the allure of an airport terminal, Mr. Piano can be counted on to avoid that dispiriting fate with two favorite strategies—a social mixing space at the entrance and the judicious use of highly crafted detail.
Both are executed with finesse at the Whitney. The lobby is vast, bright and impervious to heavy traffic. It is a sponge for people milling outside the ticket-punchers’ rope. They are absorbed by the gift shop in one open corner or the glassed-in restaurant, Untitled, in the other corner. On Sunday, lines formed outside but were efficiently directed toward an extra-long ticket counter with 10 registers. […]