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Breuer’s Whitney to Met’s Breuer

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The new Whitney Museum of American Art opened last year in the Meatpacking District of the Lower West Side, leaving the old Whitney, which opened on Madison Avenue in 1966 and closed in 2014, empty of all but its symbolic baggage as an example of Brutalist modernism. Now the Metropolitan Museum of Art has leased the building to exhibit part of its collection of modern art, and is calling it The Met Breuer. Its new incarnation opened today.

Brutalism and the old Whitney

Rarely has any building better epitomized “form follows function” than the old Whitney. It was designed by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer (pronounced BROY-er) precisely to hold modern art. It’s difficult to imagine the Met exiling any of its vast collection of traditional art to the Met Breuer’s cold confines. So perhaps the building really cries “function follows form.” Like so many works of modern art and architecture (and their slogans), you can turn it any which way without affecting its ability to do its job.

The concrete building – Brutalism comes from béton brut, meaning raw concrete – has settled over the years. Before the art decamped to the new Whitney, aiming its track lighting at its works of modernism had become a challenge to its curatorial staff. You need not aim a gimlet eye at modern architecture to wonder what difference it would make if the shadows thrown were akimbo.

In fact, were it possible to turn the building on its head, its top-heavy upside-down staircase reverse-ziggurat form would look more plausible than it does now, all the more if they punched some real windows into it. But the Whitney never wanted to look like a regular building. It never wanted to sing in harmony with its neighborly dowagers. Perish the thought! It was initially described as “somber, heavy and brutal,” according to a reverential ArchDaily piece in 2011.

“This has changed over the years,” and it is now described “with more positive adjectives of being daring, strong and innovative.”

Some East Siders always saw the old Whitney as a dash of cold water in the fat face of the bourgeoisie. They look upon it as in tune with the times, a Johnny whose neighbors are the ones marching out of step. Others look down their nose at it, taking no small pleasure from its reminder that they, at least, had dodged the modernist bullet – “There but for the grace of God goes my building.”

Yes, the denizens of the Upper East Side have grown accustomed to its face. Its survival powers a massive sigh of relief, given the (slender) likelihood, were it torn down, of its replacement by something better. What that might mean in the topsy-turvy world of Manhattan architecture beggars the imagination. We may rely on one thing: Its current occupation by the Met’s moderns will not change the face of the old Whitney – at least not for now.