How the Met Breuer went back to the future

Could the Met's restoration of this fifty-year old building point the way for contemporary art gallery architecture?
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Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, 1963–6; view from corner. From our new Breuer monograph
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, 1963–6; view from corner. From our new Breuer monograph

Marcel Breuer’s 1966 Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan remains one of the architect’s most prestigious commission and his only building in Manhattan. However, this masterwork of mid-century modern architecture was saved from redevelopment thanks not to any direct preservation order but, as Julian Rose pointed out in a recent Art Forum article, thanks instead to its less impressive neighbours, which are officially recognized landmarks, alongside, as Rose puts it, “good old-fashioned Upper East Side NIMBYism.”

This preservation by proxy has enabled the buildings’ new tenants, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to bring the Met Breuer, as the building as been renamed, back to Marcel’s original intentions, turning the upturned ziggurat on Madison Avenue, “a kind of living fossil,” as Rose puts it, into “a museum building from another era.” Yet could this earlier relic serve as a guide for today's gallery builders?

 

The Met Breuer. Photo by Ed LedermanPhoto Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met Breuer. Photo by Ed LedermanPhoto Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just how different that was, and just what the Met have managed to preserve is outlined in Robert McCarter’s new book about Breuer. McCarter quotes Breuer at length, as he describes his compact, honorable building, able to hold its own in an already overwhelming environment. “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.”

The prizing of ‘sincerity and profundity’ speaks of early age, as does Breuer’s early drafting methods; Breuer sketched the distinctive Madison Avenue front facade of the building, with its outward-stepping massing and large trapezoidal window, on the back of a letter from Louis Kahn.

 

The Met Breuer. Photo by Ed LedermanPhoto Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met Breuer. Photo by Ed LedermanPhoto Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yet, despite this apparently scrappy early draft and lofty aims, Breuer’s vision remained undimmed, from conception to completion. “Breuer proposed a sculptural expression of what he had earlier called the 'demonstrative architectural form' of modernity, the cantilever,” McCarter writes. “The massive, solid, cubic granite-faced museum cantilevers out toward Madison Avenue in three successive and superimposed steps totaling 30 ft. (9.1 m), each step revealing the section of one of the three gallery floors that are the museum’s reason for being.”

Those projected galleries draw visitors from the street into a kind of shelter, and serve as excellent exhibition spaces, each becoming successively longer as they rise, stepping out toward the west of the city.

Even the journey between floors is artfully conceived, since the building houses “one of the best examples of Breuer’s ability to make staircases into functional sculpture, “ McCarter writes. “The staircase changes subtly as it rises, every level bringing a slight modification in the dimensions and proportions of the consistently applied material and formal elements.”

 

The Met Breuer. Photo by Ed LedermanPhoto Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met Breuer. Photo by Ed LedermanPhoto Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The building’s finishing gilded its form; “the floor is paved with bluestone, the plaster walls are canvas-covered, and the ceiling of the main, 60 ft. wide space is a suspended precast-concrete grid of 2 ft. squares, each of which is open at the center, and the beveled, V-shaped beams have inset light tracks, matching the bronze reveals at the door frames.”

The Met Breuer has restored many of these delicate features, which Rose compares with Carlo Scarpa’s work. Even the bluestone floors have been polished with a low-sheen wax which, as Rose puts it “sounds inperceptible but cuts back significantly on the distracting glare in the galleries, and lets the stones' varying shades emerge.”

 

Marcel Breuer. From our new Breuer monograph
Marcel Breuer. From our new Breuer monograph

This last point demonstrates just why the Met’s sympathetic restoration program has worked so well. In an age when gallery architecture is supposed to either shrink back into white-box minimalism to make way for the art, or scream “Bilbao Effect!”, the Met Breuer is proof that a building can both maintain a strong identity and sense of place, while also facilitating art appreciation to the highest degree.

 

Phaidon x The Met Breuer bookstore. Photo Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Phaidon x The Met Breuer bookstore. Photo Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For more on Marcel Breuer’s work buy a copy of our new book here; and if you’re visiting the Met Breuer, then don’t forget to check out Phaidon x The Met Bookstore on the building’s fifth floor!


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