Avoiding the “starchitecture” trap at the WhitneyShare
She is right to be nervous that the museum’s relevance as a New York institution may decline if nothing is done about its worn-out Marcel Breuer-designed gallery space (above). After all, New York City’s arts scene has had the same pattern of ambitious capital campaigns (Morgan Library, New Museum, Museum of Arts & Design, Brooklyn Museum, etc.) and architectural feasts of excess as the rest of the country over the last fifteen years, but in concentrated form (particularly when you consider that the city’s museums must also compete with hundreds private galleries for eyeballs and patronage).
Similarly, Smith is justifiably anxious that, to the art collection’s detriment, the Whitney’s trustees will fall prey to the temptation of having a major architect design the long-planned new building, even if the resulting design is, like many other recent “starchitect” museums, distinctly sub-optimal.
To Smith, an obvious way to (begin to) ensure that the Whitney gets quality gallery space is to hire an (outside) artist or curator to work with Piano to improve his current proposal. Since the Whitney has already hired Piano, perhaps this is the most that can be done to minimize the risk of Piano’s building being judged in 40 years as Breuer’s building is now. Even so, Smith’s idea can only do so much.
If the Whitney (or any museum for that matter) really wants to fulfill its mission - if it really wants “to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity…[and] give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art” - then it needs to acknowledge what its existing facility makes quite clear: in the long-term,”quality” architecture and more importantly, “quality” gallery space are what attract visitors and preserve institutional relevance. Not starchitect-designed buildings. Quality buildings.
Of course, major architects generally do not become “major” by being ham-handed; but no architect is immune to error and major architects are known for their propensity for self-aggrandizement, a sense of entitlement, and pride-born stubborness. It would be quite refreshing if art institutions adopted a policy mandating an open design competition for any major construction. In addition to the free press coverage and enjoyable task of reviewing dozens of submissions, museums would discover that there are many firms capable of designing architecturally-significant and functionally-capable museums if given the chance. There are indeed more than 15 or so architects practicing in the world today.
Moreover, museums might discover they prefer being the one with all the leverage for a change; rather than making compromises (subconscious or not) in order to convince a major architect to submit (or tweak an existing) design, the museum could simply rely on the competitive process to filter out firms that focus too much on themselves or architectural flourishes, at the galleries’ expense.
Oddly enough, my point was not provoked by Piano’s current proposal for the Whitney’s new home (although the design does have its critics), since he embodies the anti-starchitect - a major architect who has avoided bombast, vanity, and pastiche, in favor of technical accomplishment and understated elegance. But as Marcel Breuer’s building has shown, it is ultimately what you do, not who you are, that will determine success or failure…
Related Posts: (1) Art museums for art’s sake; (2) Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum finally getting expansion, nickname; (3) Is Herzog & de Meuron’s Miami Art Museum just a knock-off of Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago?; (4) Settle down you guys, settle down….
Image courtesy of erikamatthias.