A museum for contemporary art on a corner site in an urban setting that, in fact, resembles a work of art.
An art museum, especially in a city, needs to separate and distinguish itself from its surroundings as well as give some indication of its type and be expressive without upstaging what is inside. It also needs to make full use of limited space, and since wall space outside equals exhibition space inside, it can only have a few windows. Further, curators need full control of lighting, and natural light can be an intrusion. Yet somehow it has to make maximum use of limited space without appearing as a monolithic block.
The former Whitney succeeds in all of those requirements. Breuer on his design:
Its form and material should have identity and weight in the neighborhood of 50-story skyscrapers, of mile-long bridges, in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should be an independent and self-relying unit, exposed to history, and at the same time it should have visual connection to the street, as deemed fitting to the housing for twentieth-century art. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.
Sincerity and profundity is perhaps an overstatement—his is an informal design, striking and unconventional, appropriate for the art it once exhibited. In fact that is one of the things I liked most about the museum, its informality and accessibility. After the drama of crossing the bridge over the basement garden, visitors were taken into a lobby, comfortable, not imposing, then left free to explore the exhibits on the upper floors where the art controlled design and layout, not the architecture. The cantilevered levels add drama and create the tension of the negative space of the part that would have belonged to a full cube. Invert the order, with the smallest level on top, and the tension is lost.
The protruding trapezoid window on the front is essential. It breaks the plane and energizes the large mass of the top level. A square window would be static. Its low position brings in the two levels below.
This design has about the same footprint as the Whitney, some 114 x 114 feet, and is about 70 feet high. Height should be adequate, 14 feet from floor to ceiling, 16 on the ground level. There’s a street presence on the first floor in the rows of windows, but after that there is only one large window on each floor, offering spatial relief, a view, and a chance to extend one’s eyes after close viewing.
The basic design follows loosely that of a Mondrian painting, individual rectangles within a dark grid.
I’m assuming a back alley, but a delivery door could be added on the side, as in the Whitney. A basement would hold preparation, a shop, and storage. The open space on the first floor could be used as a lobby or for exhibition. There is room for other functions—ticketing, a small book and poster shop. In the back, for other functional rooms.
The second and third floors are devoted wholly to exhibition. The back third of the fourth would house curatorial offices, leaving the rest for more exhibition. There is also room on one of the floors for a small auditorium for lectures and screenings.
I also made a version with a fifth floor, which breaks up the cube further.
The open space at the top could be a sculpture garden or a cafe. It would provide a destination and release from the ascent through the closed galleries on the lower floors.
Curatorial offices would be at the back third, leaving the fourth floor fully open for exhibition.
The grid could be left open, or glassed in and louvered on top.
First Whitney image and Breur quotation via Phaidon
Mondrian Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow via Wikipedia
Second Whitney image via NYC Urbanism
The site also has floor plans and sections.