Michelle Obama, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, were in charge of cutting the ribbon of the new and, obviously, improved Whitney Museum. Designed by Renzo Piano, it makes the visitor feel, as The New York Times’ art critic Roberta Smith puts it, as if he or she ‘walks on air’. The fact is that the new building seems to balance prioritising the needs of the collection (by giving to it much more exhibition space) and those of the public (by making it more ‘welcoming’).
According to Roberta Smith, Renzo Piano’s building is a triumph after ‘a lot of disappointing architectural activity among the city’s museums: expansions and new structures that displayed glaring flaws from the outset that either got worse or became, at best, bearable. The most prominent include two expansions at the Museum of Modern Art, one at the Guggenheim, two at the Brooklyn Museum, two at the Morgan Library & Museum, a new building for the New Museum and the coming — and going — of the American Folk Art Museum’s’. And she adds: ‘The Whitney is palpably a different order of achievement. Art looks better here, to my eyes, than it did in the old Whitney, and it is amazingly comfortable to be in. I didn’t understand this fully until last Friday night, my third time inside the building’.
I think, however, that the Renzo Piano building embodies the contradictions of what we could call the ‘late-capitalist-cultural-touristic-institutions’ where the only thing that seems to matter is to make it appealing and welcoming for the visitor while, at the same time, making sure that the visitor does not get too comfortable. Something similar happens with the High Line. It is not a place to wander but to queue. There are no different paths but one path that forces the pedestrian to pace his walk so as not to bump into the person that is in front of him. In a way, these architectural icons require the same inercia and lack of choice than an escalator. In other words, they prioritise the visitor’s experience only to condition it. I am saying this because museums since the Louvre and the Prado are built as corridors where the visitor can lose himself in order to find himself both literally and metaphorically. At the Whitney, however, the visitor coalesces around ‘event spaces’ only to be asked to leave after a while.
This is the same kind of principle of those Hipster-ish communal tables that we can ‘enjoy’ in restaurants like Ottolenghi or Wagamama (both in London). They are cool and inclusive but no one talks to anyone and everything is designed for the client to leave at a certain point. So how public is a museum these days? Thus, it does not come as a surprise that the most successful shows in MoMA’s recent history (from Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present to Björk) have had timed tickets. Are we heading towards a kind of cultural experience where the visitor is controlled during the performance of viewing. Blade Runner, anyone?
As mentioned, the new Whitney Museum is organised around ‘event spaces’ which means that the main ‘event space’ that at MoMA is the atrium, for example, has been distributed into at least five different areas: a flexible auditorium and four large terraces, three of which are linked by an outdoor staircase. Plus people can retire to the eighth-floor cafe, the terraces or the lines of comfy leather couches facing glass walls overlooking the Hudson and Greenwich Village at either end of the fifth floor (an unmitigated luxury for denizens of New York museums). So what is this building about? Is it about viewing art or about having been ‘there’? It is this post-participatory illusion that I think we must start paying attention to if we consider democracy as a value. J A T