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Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum
AF- Hi. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about the architecture of the Whitney Museum. This building was designed by Marcel Breuer and opened in 1966. The rest of the neighborhood initially viewed the building as aggressive and brutish, an assault on this warm, quiet, modest brownstone community, a monstrosity amidst humbler buildings.
The building was difficult to reconcile with the founder’s vision of playfulness and intimacy for a couple of reasons. One is the use of rough, raw materials, such as concrete, which can have a cold, distant feeling. The second is the repetitive use of angular geometric shapes, characteristic of the style of Brutalist architecture. Yet now, the building is looked at as a cherished city landmark. For over 40 years, the physical structure of the Whitney has really symbolized and defined the radical image of the Museum. Today Christine Kim and I will take a look at some important features of the Museum.
CK- When I look back over many years I have a vivid memory of my first visit to the Whitney. I arrived here at this immensely heavy and bold building. It felt as if the building was leaning out towards me, and this was the focal point of my vision, causing me to overlook the entrance and have to search to find it. Which, it happens is just this way, come on…
This is the main entrance. It reminds me of something the architect, Breuer said, “That this entryway symbolizes the passage into a private, exclusive world.” I concur. This entrance really consists of two entryways. First, by passing under this outside archway, it gives one the feeling of entering an enclosed space, safe and private. It’s not until you’ve passed through the second entrance that you find yourself in the Museum. This gives the chance to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of New York City and enter into the Museum Breuer envisioned.
AF- The architect Breuer believed in the importance of simple interior design, keeping the visitor’s visual focus on the objects in the room. There are a few windows situated around the Museum, but they do not put one in contact with the outside. This window behind me has a unique style, a bending sill. It is shaped in such a way that it almost prevents one from peering outside, and is very angular. In this way, we are not distracted from the objects in the room. Artists here will often play with the building’s windows and other features— This is one example of how the architecture interacts with different works of art.
(AF + CK)
AF- We’ve discussed how the use of materials such as raw concrete can give the museum a feeling of being disconnected and distant. Yet ironically this building is in the architectural style of Brutalism, a socialist philosophy that believes a building should help to bring people closer together.
CK- Interesting. Breuer’s goal was to design a building that would be an independent and self-reliant unit. Yet I find it strange—the building would be independent, unique, and disconnected from the outside world, and yet at the same time he wanted it to bring people together. It seems a little contradictory.
AF- To throw another spin on it, another question is what should a museum look like? Breuer believed in keeping the design simple, so as not to distract from the visual work on display. The size is another feature of the Whitney. It’s quite huge— the galleries are 12 feet in height. Many well-known Whitney works are famous for their size. If the height of the galleries were shortened, then the works on display would look quite different.
CK- This is a discussion that could continue on and on…
AF- I’m Andrew Fisher.
CK- I’m Christine Sun Kim.
AF + CK – Thank you for watching.