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New Whitney Art Museum Rises in New York City

Exterior rendering of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, from Gansevoort St
The new Whitney Museum of American Art’s fifth-floor gallery will cantilever as much as 42 ft beyond a row of ground-floor columns. The gallery will have 18,000 sq ft of temporary exhibition space. Renzo Piano Building Workshop, architects, in collaboration with Cooper Robertson & Partners (New York)

The new art museum designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop takes shape in response to its surroundings in New York City’s Meatpacking District.

November 12, 2013—In the early 2000s, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board of directors interviewed architects for a planned expansion of its New York City building. As part of that process, the board asked the architects to name their favorite museum, and each architect named a museum designed by preeminent Italian architect Renzo Piano. That got the board thinking that if other architects admired Piano’s work so much, perhaps it should reach out to Piano himself.

The Whitney interviewed Piano in 2004 about designing an addition to its existing museum, located at 75th Street and Madison Avenue in one of the city’s landmark districts. The project had been attempted several times before but failed to materialize because of costs and other challenges. Piano agreed to take on the project, and he and his firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, headquartered in Genoa, Italy, in collaboration with the New York City-based architecture firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners, soon began developing design concepts. “We worked on this for almost two years, doing all of the landmark review and schematics for the project,” says Elisabetta Trezzani, a partner in the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. “We ended up conceding to the fact that the program that they wanted to build was not easy to fit in that location. There were so many constraints.”

As the Whitney reevaluated the project, New York City officials approached it about relocating to a city-owned property in the Meatpacking District—a neighborhood once known for its slaughterhouses that has become a commercial center and an emerging cultural district. Located on Gansevoort Street, the property is bordered to the west by the West Side Highway and the Hudson River and to the east by the southern terminus of the High Line—a public park built on an elevated section of the former New York Central Railroad. (See “New York’s ‘High Line’ Railroad to Become an Elevated Park,” Civil Engineering, July 2006, page 14, 16-18.)

“The Meatpacking District is like the center of New York’s downtown now,” says Bill Maloney, the project director for the Whitney. Museum officials “looked at it, and they determined it was a great site, and they made the decision to relocate.”

The Whitney retained Renzo Piano Building Workshop to develop plans for the wholly new museum, and upon the architect’s recommendation selected New York City-based Robert Silman Associates as the structural engineer for the project.

Rendering of museum alongside the High Line, which is a public park located on an elevated section of the former New York Central Railroad

The museum is being constructed in New York City’s Meatpacking
District alongside the High Line, a public park located on an
elevated section of the former New York Central Railroad.
Piano Building Workshop, architects, in collaboration with Cooper
Robertson & Partners (New York)

The Whitney wanted a modern museum with 50,000 sq ft of gallery space, a theater, an education center, a conservation laboratory, outdoor exhibition space, and many offices. To that end, architects designed an approximately 220,000 sq ft museum that assumes an asymmetrical, sculptural shape in response to its surroundings. “Looking toward the Hudson, the building looks more massive, but when you turn toward the city and toward the High Line, it will be less overwhelming as we bring down the scale of the building,” Trezzani says. 

The museum will have eight above-grade levels—many of which will be two stories high to accommodate large works of art—and one substantial below-grade level for mechanical systems. Visitors will enter the museum’s south side. The ground floor will house an admission-free lobby gallery, a restaurant, and retail space as well as ticketing, information, and membership facilities. The second floor will be small, consisting mostly of mechanical systems. Above that, the third floor will accommodate a 170-seat theater and an education center comprising classrooms and seminar rooms for children and adults. The remainder of the third floor and the entire fourth floor will house offices.

The fifth floor will be the museum’s largest and most prominent level. Expressed as a rectangular box that projects beyond the lower levels and the museum’s entrance, the fifth floor will house an 18,000 sq ft open-span gallery, with a 17 1/2 ft high ceiling, for temporary exhibitions. Above that, the sixth floor will have a 11,400 sq ft gallery, also with a 17 1/2 ft high ceiling, dedicated to contemporary works from the Whitney’s permanent collection as well as a conservation lab and a works-on-paper study center. The seventh floor will have offices to the north, while the remainder of that level will include slightly more than 9,000 sq ft of space for the museum’s permanent collection of art dating prior the end of World War II. Under one of Piano’s signature skylights, the eighth floor gallery will act as a space for temporary exhibitions and a space where emerging artists can work on projects. The eighth floor will also include a cafe and provide one of several access points to the museum’s exterior terraces, which will provide outdoor exhibition space and further link the building to its surroundings, Trezzani says. The terraces will also be accessible from the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors.

While the site presents many opportunities for the project, the fact that it is on a reclaimed riverbank means that the soil conditions vary significantly from east to west toward the river and the water table is relatively high. As a result, the museum will be founded on piles measuring as much as 13 3/8 in. diameter and drilled to a depth of as much as 120 ft from grade into rock. The piles will have uplift capacity to hold down the museum’s bathtub foundation slab, which will be located approximately 30 ft below the standing groundwater level in order to create a basement large enough to house the museum’s complex mechanical systems, says Nat Oppenheimer, P.E., M.ASCE, a principal of Robert Silman Associates. “If you go down there, it’s like a submarine—it’s big,” he says. “But the way the mechanical engineers fit out and packed in the equipment, you realize that they need every single cubic inch of that basement.” 

3D rendering of the museum's steel framing

The museum’s steel framing will rise from a large bathtub
foundation. Robert Silman Associates

The museum will have a roughly 15 ft wide steel-framed core clad in precast concrete. The core will be offset from center, 2/3 of the building to the south and 1/3 to the north. The rest of the building will be framed in steel with a concrete composite metal deck. In keeping with the architects’ design, a steady grid of columns located 20 ft apart on center will align from east to west through the building. The building’s north side will also have a 20 ft on-center column grid, while the south side will feature a dramatic cantilever that will extend as much as 42 ft beyond a row of 15 in. diameter columns at the building’s ground floor. The cantilever will be achieved using a combination of full-story trusses and custom-designed plate girders, some as much as 6 ft deep and others with up to 8 in. thick flanges. As a result, the fifth-floor gallery will project out beyond the levels and entrance below. “The whole south facade basically is cantilevered out, and then the southeast corner is cantilevered from the cantilevers,” Oppenheimer says.

In addition to using transfer girders to create long open spans throughout the building, the structural engineers worked with museum officials to ensure that the galleries will have sufficient load-carrying and hanging capacities to accommodate many types of artwork. “The Whitney has a lot of unique art exhibitions,” Oppenheimer says. “There’s about a 10-page memo that we put together for them on the operating procedures for hanging different loads.” Furthermore, the team designed many of the outdoor terraces to carry heavy loads from sculptures, and it brought in a steel fabricator to create a custom screw-in tab system that will enable the museum to tie down tents or sculptures. “All of these terraces have these tie downs embedded into them that are meant to last for the lifetime of the building,” Oppenheimer says. “We wanted to make sure the building had the capacity that the Whitney needed.”

Like other Piano designs, this museum will feature a great deal of glass, even in the gallery spaces. The architects worked with museum officials and a natural lighting consultant to ensure that the artwork will be protected from direct sunlight while still allowing for views in and out of the building. “The galleries are very big, so even if you have a lot of light on one side, you have the option to create an exhibit toward the center with less light, if needed,” Trezzani says, adding that the windows will also be equipped with shading systems for additional flexibility. The remainder of the museum will be clad in steel panels of varying lengths, which are designed to highlight the building’s sculptural shape. “The challenge was to create an envelope that embraced all of the building with its inclined facade and angles,” Trezzani says.

Much of the structural work has been completed, and the museum is scheuled to open in spring 2015. At that time, the Whitney will finally have enough space to display its permanent collection and more. “We have a fabulous collection at the Whitney, but we’ve been able to show only three percent of it [due to space constraints],” Maloney says. “Now we’ll have about 25,000 square feet dedicated to the permanent collection, so we’ll be able to show much more of the collection. It will be a huge improvement.”



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