In 1963, looking to expand from a modest space on West 54th Street that it shared with the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art commissioned Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith to design its new home on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and East 75th Street in Manhattan. The building’s bold sculptural form and prominent location on the Upper East Side ensured that it would become one of the most remarked upon and controversial buildings of the late Modern period in the United States. When it opened in 1966, the museum was cautiously admired for its expressive monumentality and craftsmanship, even as it was attacked by others for its stark contrast with the traditional, low-rise town houses of its neighborhood and cited as an example of Modernism’s exhaustion by proponents of Postmodernism.
Before settling into its home at 945 Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum had suffered a peripatetic existence. Founded in 1931 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, its original site on West 8th Street lacked adequate space for galleries and storage. In 1949, seven years after Whitney’s death, the museum entered into an agreement with the Museum of Modern Art to share space in its newly constructed wing. By 1958, the Whitney was looking to move again and eventually purchased a 13,000-square-foot site on a low-rise block along Madison Avenue. The original town houses that occupied the corner lot had already been demolished in preparation for the construction of a condominium building that was never built due to funding problems. In selecting Breuer, the trustees of the Whitney sought a building that would not integrate itself into the neighborhood, but would act as a beacon for the kind of transcendent experience high modernist theory argued was the quintessence of art. As Breuer argued, the building was meant to “transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.”
The building reflects the attempts of Breuer and other late Modernists in the 1960s to give modern architecture a greater monumentality by turning away from the transparency of the glass curtain wall that came to define American architecture in the 1950s. An L-shaped, inverted ziggurat sheathed in unpolished granite panels, the building’s bold cantilevered forms step out toward the street. A sunken sculpture garden in the shadow of the upper projections becomes a moat. A reinforced concrete bridge, shaped like a bird, elegantly balanced on a single tapered support, becomes a sculpture in its own right, as does the entire building. The building’s solidity and simple, massive form reflect Breuer’s increasing interest in the simple, solid masses of Egyptian architecture, which he made clear in his preface to Jean Louis de Cenival’s The Architecture of Egypt. These Egyptian overtones were noted in many of the building’s critical appraisals, including those by Ada Louise Huxtable in the New York Times and James T. Burns in Progressive Architecture. Huxtable further cited the building as an example of the emerging Brutalist aesthetic, using her review of Breuer’s building to introduce her readers to the concept, while drawing attention to the contradiction between the apparent rugged crudeness of the material and the highly aesthetic process of its making, as well as its elitist function.
These very same features were also cited by the building’s harshest critics as its most glaring flaws. For them, the monumentality and the solidity of the building, its hulking cantilevers, and its remote moat made it foreboding and hostile to its neighbors. The texture of its rough granite surfaces was not an aesthetic device useful for creating patterns of light and shadow, but a further aggression. The elegantly slender concrete wall that projects from the stairwell seems to push the neighboring town houses to the side. Yet, as much as the building seemed to stand apart from its neighbors, the setback, cantilevered form was also a response to the context. It inverted the famed setbacks of New York City’s skyscrapers and it allowed the museum to insert itself into the property line of its residential neighbors, somewhat mitigating its overblown scale.
Windows appear sparingly on the structure, and resemble trapezoidal gems projecting from the building’s rugged surface. The single, centrally placed trapezoidal window on the front facade lends the building the appearance of a squat Cyclops, as Isabell Hyman has observed. Across the northern facade, they are organized somewhat haphazardly, though they hint at the interior organization of the galleries and floors of the building. Their sparing use reflects Breuer’s belief that, “transparency becomes more crystalline next to solidity—and solidity makes it work.” This emphasis on the aesthetics of the windows overshadowed their practicality, however, as they often fail to control natural light in ways that are advantageous for the viewing and preservation of works of art.
The rugged granite surfaces on the exterior were matched by exposed concrete surfaces on the interior, particularly in the stairwell adjacent to the building’s main facade. There, a variety of materials and surface treatments contrast with each other in an elegant collage. Poured-in-place concrete staircases imprinted with the wooden textures of their formwork jut from bush-hammered concrete walls, supporting polished granite risers. Each distinctive material and its finishing is tied to a specific function, and Breuer carefully reveals how each element comes together with the others. This clarity in terms of material expression and function reveals the continuity of the Bauhaus ethos in Breuer’s thought, even as his aesthetic evolved toward the expression of textured concrete.
In terms of space, Breuer’s building temporarily solved the Whitney’s problems. Organized on five successively larger floors, as well as a basement level, the building provided nearly 30,000 square feet of gallery space. This included the sunken sculpture garden below the lobby, as well as galleries on the second, third, and fourth floors. Offices and storage were located on the fifth floor. In the galleries, Breuer preferred an austere expression, with simple plastered partitions dividing open spaces under a gridded concrete ceiling. The spaces were designed to be flexible to accommodate the diversity of contemporary American art. In the fourth floor gallery, the ceiling expands to 17 feet and is dominated by the large trapezoidal window on the building’s front facade. At its opening, critics favorably contrasted Breuer’s modest interiors, which deferred to the art, with the showy spiral ramp of Wright’s recently completed Guggenheim.
By the 1980s, however, the rapid expansion of the Whitney Museum’s collection challenged the spatial limitations of Breuer’s building. Proposed expansions by Michael Graves in the late 1980s and Rem Koolhaas in the early 2000s showed little respect for Breuer’s original design and went nowhere. Finally, in 2015, the Whitney Museum moved to a new Renzo Piano–designed building along the High Line. Since then, Breuer’s building has been in a state of flux. While the Whitney still owns the structure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art leased the building to serve as a temporary exhibition space for modern and contemporary art. This was accompanied by a renovation by Beyer Blinder Belle that made only subtle modifications to the building. At the end of the Met’s lease, the building was turned over to the Frick Museum in 2020. After the Frick’s lease expires in 2022, the future of the building will be up in the air.
Gatje, Robert F. Marcel Breuer: A Memoir. New York: Monacelli Press, 2000.
Huxtable, Ada Louise. “The Whitney Building Shows What It Can Do… In the Right Building.” New York Times, October 2, 1966.
Hyman, Isabel. Marcel Breuer, Architect. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
Stern, Robert A.M., David Fishman, and Thomas Mellins. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York: Monacelli Press, 1995.
Von Vegesack, Alexander, and Mathias Remmule, eds. Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture. Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 2003.
“Whitney Museum of American Art.” Marcel Breuer Digital Archive. Accessed December 7, 2020. https://breuer.syr.edu/.
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