Whitney museum: all aboard Renzo Piano’s steel-clad icebreaker

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Whitney museum: all aboard Renzo Piano's steel-clad icebreaker
Awkwardly industrial: the new Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Whitney museum: all aboard Renzo Piano's steel-clad icebreaker
Awkwardly industrial: the new Whitney Museum of American Art.
Photograph © Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Having outgrown New York’s Upper East Side, the Whitney Museum of American Art has gone downtown, designed by an architect proud still to be a ‘bad boy’

Crashing into New York’s Meatpacking district, like some great Arctic icebreaker washed up from the Hudson and run aground on the High Line, the new Whitney museum makes an unlikely container for a beacon of modern art. It is an awkward hulk, lurching this way and that with a clumsy gait, somehow managing to channel the nearby vernacular of warehouse sheds, refrigeration stores and district heating plants into one gigantic industrial lump.

“You have to be brave with a building like this,” says its architect, the Pritzker prize-winning, multi-museum designing, 77-year-old Italian Renzo Piano, when we meet in the building’s airy ground floor cafe. “The Whitney’s collection is about the liberty and freedom of American art, and the building should reflect that. None of these artists were very polite, after all. So why should we be?”

The genteel, impeccably tailored Piano might seem an improbable character to scrimp on architectural manners. But he has a fine track record of rebellion. He made his name in the 1970s designing the Pompidou Centre in Paris with Richard Rogers, placing an oil refinery of art into the centre of the beaux-arts Marais. It was an act damned as grotesque vandalism by many at the time, but its uncompromising industrial heft is universally lauded today.

“We were the bad boys back then,” says Piano, with a contented smile. “And 40 years later, I’m still the same bad boy.” []

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