Finish Line

By Kiley Jacques

Pending LEED Gold-certification, the Whitney Museum capitalizes on its new, unique location.

Photography By Nic Lehoux

It was clear that the High Line was to be the major point of our attention and the Hudson River, of course. The project needed to relate to both,” says Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) partner Elisabetta Trezzani, who was involved from the very beginning when New York City’s new Whitney Museum was but a concept being discussed at its former Madison Avenue location.

The museum’s move downtown is a “return to its roots in the Village,” since at its opening in 1931, the Whitney stood on West 8th Street. Its second reincarnation, in 1954, saw it grow to 65,000 square feet on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. Ultimately, however, the Marcel Breuer-designed building could accommodate only 10 percent of the museum’s permanent collection, which led to yet another relocation. Now, situated at the southernmost entrance of the High Line, it is a strong visual and physical tie to the urban landscape.

“One of the main points was to create a place at the ground level that was transparent and calming and connected to the city,” says Trezzani. RPBW wanted to take full advantage of the “fantastic new feature” in the city (the High Line), in a complementary way. Toward that end, the team—in partnership with waterfront design specialists Cooper, Robertson & Partners—decided to mass the building such that it would scale down on the High Line side while the bulk of it would face the river. “The idea was to always have a connection between inside and outside,” says Trezzani. “The gallery needed to have not just a view out but an outside gallery.” Hence the stepping terraces, which serve as “urban stages,” at each level on the east side.

The museum’s curtain wall is made with insulated glass with a three-tiered shading system.

Sheathed in blue-gray enamel steel panels, the eight-story museum is powerfully asymmetrical and appropriately industrial, given its surroundings. The character of neighboring loft buildings and the streetscape, as well as the property lines, setbacks, and city regulations all determined what was to become its signature shape. The team wanted to maximize the ground level space, maintain a view of the High Line and the river, and take optimum advantage of natural light sources as well as opportunities for open areas.

The expansion nearly doubles the museum’s exhibition space, enabling the first comprehensive view of its growing collection, which today comprises more than 19,000 works of modern and contemporary American art. The entrance, lobby, and ground floor make up a dramatically cantilevered plaza, or “largo,” which serves as a free and open transitional space between the street and the collection. The whole structure contains approximately 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries, 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space, and an 18,000-square-foot gallery for special exhibitions. An education center; a 170-seat multiuse theatre; a black box theatre for film, video, and performance with an adjacent outdoor gallery; and a Works on Paper Study Center, Conservation Lab, and Library Reading room all resulted from this most recent expansion. Additionally, a top-floor studio café offers a sit-down respite, where visitors enjoy natural light from a sawtooth-configured skylight system.

“The building is quite simple,” says Trezzani. “It has this central core where all the vertical elements are aimed.” To “express” what lies beyond this core, RPBW looked to key characteristics of the city itself. They used concrete, they exposed the cooling tower, and they built an exterior stairway with glazed walkways that connect all the terraces. Combined, these elements reference the urban landscape—its primary building material, water towers, and fire escapes, respectively. “We wanted to create a language that was specific to the museum but related always to the city,” explains Trezzani.

Lighting in a museum is a sensitive issue as the purpose is to display artworks in the best color rendering. Today the museum is lit with LED fixtures as opposed to incandescent lighting to avoid excessive energy consumption.

Lighting in a museum is a sensitive issue as the purpose is to display artworks in the best color rendering. Today the museum is lit with LED fixtures as opposed to incandescent lighting to avoid excessive energy consumption.

In terms of its LEED Gold certification, green measures include glass windows designed to take in diffused natural light from the north, which Trezzani describes as “the best light,” as it allows for more control and results in less energy consumption. Additionally, the whole museum is lit with LED fixtures. “In a museum… lighting is one of the most energy-consuming [features],” notes Trezzani. “In the last five years, the market has really changed… a lot of progress has been made in the quality of LED lights and color control.”

Building project manager Larissa Gentile concurs: “Lighting is an especially sensitive issue for museums, whose whole purpose is to display art works in the way they are meant to be seen—in the best light, literally.” Traditionally, contemporary museums have gone with incandescent lighting, which is, of course, hugely consumptive. “We were waiting for advances in LED lighting to come up to where we wanted them to be, specifically for color rendering,” notes Gentile.

Other energy saving efforts included the installation of a 75-kilowatt co-generation engine and a ventilation system that makes use of outside air. “Most of what we were trying to achieve related to energy savings,” notes Gentile. That’s no small feat for a museum that needs to strictly regulate its climate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. “Looking at ways to reduce consumption was key to the design,” she says, noting that the original goal was LEED Silver certification, but she adds, “We found with a little extra hard work and a little extra commitment, we could go over and above and get LEED Gold.”

Low-flow, automated faucets and toilets, a stormwater retention tank—which retains all runoff from roofs for irrigation and for the cooling towers—a green roof, and plaza-level planters that help reduce runoff to the sewage system are all at work in the new location. Of special note are the gallery floors, which are made of reclaimed heart pine wood beams from defunct area mills. “We love them,” says Gentile. “You could only find them here. It’s a very Whitney thing.”

Additionally, the museum’s curtain wall is devised of specially insulated glass and a three-tiered shading system. “Our envelope was quite robust already,” notes Gentile, “meaning [we have] a highly insulated sandwich between the interior and exterior spaces for controlling glare and diffusing light to protect the art works.”

Affiliates discuss their green initiatives whenever possible, especially during tours. “From the museum standpoint, it is something we absolutely highlight whenever we are talking about the building,” says Gentile, adding it was never an option to not make the building sustainable: “It was very important to Renzo that our new building be designed as a sustainable building. He said not thinking of that is just wrong. You have to go forward and build with that mindset. The museum was very much on board. We wanted to do whatever we could.”

So, how has the new museum fared since its opening? “In the last three months, it has had the same number of visitors it normally has in one year,” says Trezzani. “In general, we have heard very, very good feedback.” That reaction comes not only from visitors, but also from insiders like Gentile who inhabit the building daily. “To create a new museum—the only art museum in New York City to be LEED Gold—is phenomenal, and to have a hand in that is even better.”

The new building, completed this past spring, will be the first LEED Gold-certified museum in NYC. Located in the booming Meatpacking District and sandwiched between the Hudson River and the High Line—Manhattan’s recently completed urban park built on an abandoned elevated spur from the 1930s—the Whitney occupies an extraordinary site indeed. “The city was always supporting the idea of a cultural project in this location,” notes Trezzani, who together with her team specifically designed the museum to connect visitors to the downtown community as well as the cityscape.