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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Public Realm Modern Museums and Concert Halls
The Whitney Museum
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Modern Museums and Concert Halls
The Whitney Museum
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Breuer's most famous building, and one of his great masterpieces, is the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was begun in 1963. The Whitney Museum had been founded several decades earlier by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as a place where American art could be shown. But it never had an identity of its own. It was originally in a small building on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, and when it outgrew that building it moved into a building next door to the Museum of Modern Art. And you could actually enter the museum from the Museum of Modern Art. And most people saw the Whitney as an adjunct to the Museum of Modern Art.

And in the early 1960s the Museum of Modern Art told the Whitney that they wanted to use the space, and the Whitney was going to have to leave. And so they chose to build a new building, but they wanted a building that would instantly give the museum a symbol, that it would be seen as a separate institution, and one that would be a destination point that people would want to come and visit.

So Breuer designed a building that is really interesting because it clearly stands out from its surroundings. It's different from anything else. It's a reversed or upside-down ziggurat, that is, it's a stepped pyramid that's sort of turned upside down. But it also is an incredibly contextual building.

The color is similar to the color of the brownstone row houses next door, the height is very similar to the height of nearby buildings, and Breuer uses a concrete wall at the side of the building to separate the building from its neighbors, so that this was a building that would be part of the community but separate from the community, and would be a separate institutional entity within the community.

The building is an incredibly sophisticated structure and one that you have to walk through very carefully in order to appreciate exactly what Breuer was doing to create this great masterpiece.

As you walk along Madison Avenue at Seventy-fifth Street, a concrete canopy projects out over the sidewalk, and you're walking along the street and the canopy sort of draws you into the building. Now you've already been drawn toward the building because you have these windows that are projecting out and sort of winking at you on the street as you're going down.

But as you're moving toward the entrance to the museum, the canopy ends, and you can then look up, but you're not under the sky anymore, you're now under the steps of the museum. So you're sort of being engulfed by the museum. And if you look straight ahead it's not a stone wall but a glass wall, and so there's a sense of transparency. So you're drawn into the glass-walled lobby.

You go up one flight of stairs and there's a window looking out at Madison Avenue. And it's the last time that you're going to have a connection with the world outside. And nothing is more beautiful in this building than the stair itself.

And here more than anyplace else this use of natural and man-made materials comes to the fore. You have cast-terrazzo stairs with little insets, so that your foot will glide very gently into the stair. And you have concrete walls. But the walls have been hammered, they're bush-hammered so that the top layer of the concrete, except at the base, the top layer of the concrete has come off, and now you have this rugged textured concrete, which contrasts then with the incredible bronze and teak of the stair rail.

When this museum opened, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of the New York Times, said that the stair was the best work of art on view.

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