The Whitney Museum of American Art
 The Whitney Museum of American Art ©  Ed Lederman

Architectural criticism must account for the full range of a building’s affect and effects: social, functional, aesthetic, and contextual. Provenance matters. But Panero’s piece—with its defense of “elevated design”—is clearly also meant as riposte to the functionalist aesthetics that have dominated virtually all of the building’s critical coverage to date. The New Criterion’s flatulence over symmetry and coherence is not simply neocon nostalgia for the eternal verities; it reflects a more general impoverishment of critical interpretation. Critics of the Whitney have made this problem particularly clear by their tendency to heap praise on the galleries while expressing indifference or hostility toward the building as a whole—a schizy split often reflecting a division of editorial labor in which the art critic cheers how great the art looks and then hands off to an architecture critic to trash the structure that houses them.

This focus on the mismatch between inside and out is ubiquitous. Holland Carter divvies it thus in The New York Times: “From the outside, Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art, set beside the Hudson River, has the bulk of an oil tanker’s hull. Inside is entirely different.” Pete Wells’s review in the same paper of Untitled, the Danny Meyer restaurant on the ground floor, repeats the trope of the marginal building as container for marvelous art: “All the energy and beauty…are on the plates.” In her Times piece, Roberta Smith loves the inside, asserting that the building “accommodate[s] art and people with equal finesse…. Art looks better here, to my eyes, than it did in the old Whitney, and it is amazingly comfortable to be in.” Back on the sidewalk, though, Smith writes that “the outdoor staircase epitomizes the operative and symbolic logic of Mr. Piano’s design,” calling it “the most aggressive part of the multiple components that make the building a kind of architectural assemblage. From the street, the switchback juts over the building’s east face like a fire escape on steroids or a fragment from an aircraft carrier.” This seems a pretty unbalanced idea of assemblage and the elusive compound wholes it seeks; instead she sees—perhaps because it’s architecture—something put together with the wrong parts and assembled into the wrong thing. ... The Times’s admirable architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, is more tempered but also falls back on generic tropes. Seen from the west, the museum is “ungainly and a little odd, vaguely nautical, bulging where the shoreline jogs, a ship on blocks, perhaps alluding to one of New York’s bedrock industries from long ago.” On the other hand, “From the north, it resembles something else, a factory or maybe a hospital, with a utilitarian wall of windows and a cluster of pipes climbing the pale-blue steel facade toward a rooftop of exposed mechanicals.”


Virtually all the criticism I’ve read sees the Whitney’s social effects either in this sort of passing parsing of patronage or as the consummation of the gentrification of the meatpacking district and Chelsea, on par with the High Line, for which it provides a literal culmination. Barry Schwabsky, writing in this magazine [“Inside Out,” May 25, 2015], riffs on a 1971 Hans Haacke documentary takedown of a slumlord included in the show and discusses the gentrification of his old neighborhood on the Lower East Side. Peter Schjeldahl concludes his New Yorker review by observing that the museum will quash the chances of any “young artists, writers, and other creative types” to live anywhere nearby. Holland Cotter, too, invokes this eliminationist trope, describing Chelsea as “the precise opposite” of an artists’ neighborhood: “a gated community.” And, for good measure, he mentions that there’s only one Native American included in the show.


Criticism that insists the Whitney cannot be described sui generis, that the only way in is by comparison to either another kind of building or another kind of object, ends up treating buildings as sculpture, as form stripped of any actual function save to be looked at.

The true high-water mark in Whitney crit has to be Ingrid Rowland’s shipwreck in The New York Review of Books, which completely drowns in nautical-metaphorical overdetermination. “Piano himself has repeatedly described the Whitney project as a ship. A native of Genoa, the hometown of Christopher Columbus, he knows a thing or two about navigation; thus his latest structure’s similarities to a seagoing vessel are neither casual or superficial.” Rowland doesn’t actually specify why this is the case, save to suggest that “the building, like a ship, is made of a steel frame, sheathed in steel panels,” which, of course, also makes the building a lot like… a building. In the more directly mimetic realm, however, she’s more precise: “approaching from its east side…it looks like a cruise ship.” But “from the harbor side…the museum reads as a container ship piled high with the portable freight units, dazzling in their simplicity, that have transformed international shipping.”