The project for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York would essentially double the area of the current museum, which presently exists in an iconic Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. The site of the expansion includes the Breuer building and the adjacent Whitney owned brownstones that lie directly to the south. These brownstones are located in a historic district, and are under the protective jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The directive given to OMA was that the Landmarks Commission would not permit the demolition of the brownstones, but to note that there are recent modern museum additions where the perceived virtuosity of the proposal outweighed the loss of the historic, thereby permitting demolition. The subtext: make a proposal so brilliant that the Landmarks Commission will allow the buildings to be torn down.
Rather than having the design depend on the demolition of the brownstones, they were treated as an opportunity to display art within the scale of space for which it was created. The greatly expanded area for the permanent collection will be housed in the existing buildings. Pre-war art displayed in brownstones will recall the original West 8th Street Whitney. Post-war art, usually much bigger, would be displayed in the Breuer building.
The new extension contains varied special exhibition spaces, as well as Experience© spaces such as restaurant, café, library, store, which are now ubiquitous in contemporary museums. OMA proposed that these Experience© spaces be utilized for the display of art, a proposition seized by artists as the more interesting place to show their work, along with the brownstones.
The physical manifestation of the new extension is derived from site conditions (which provide an exceptionally small footprint located at the rear of the brownstones), the zoning envelope (which steps and slopes as it mediates between a commercial district on Madison and a residential district to the East), the existing Breuer building and brownstones. The extension grows out of the small footprint into the zoning envelope while maintaining a respectable distance from the existing buildings.
The extension will be constructed in concrete, the most efficient and cost-effective material for the form. The concrete will serve a dual purpose as the exterior cladding of the building, with a direct relationship to the Breuer wall that slices the site in two. The “lace” fenestration is derived from a structural analysis performed by Ove Arup Engineers. Openings are made where the stresses in the skin are lowest, and where the program commands.
Each entity – the Breuer building, the brownstones, and the extension – maintains individual identities, yet each is clearly connected at critical junctions. A new lobby on level three is a point of connection for all the buildings, and is the dispersion point for visitors to a choice of journeys. Rather than being an adjunct wing, the new extension is the core of the complex, and unites the entire site.