Renzo Digs Downtown

The best part of the design for the new Whitney Museum may be what’s below it.

Everybody knows Renzo Piano’s museums as cheerful, elegant, and pretty. So when the dapper architect told a group of reporters about his plans for a new Whitney Museum of American Art in a corner of Manhattan rife with Carrie Bradshaw types, it came as a surprise to see a design model mixing the sturdy with the monumental. Piano’s creating a landmark in the trendy Meatpacking District with a hard exterior skin (which he’s still developing), a broad column of street-level open space, and a sustainability strategy that does most of its work below the surface.

Piano’s design-located on a dramatic spot where the Hudson River waterfront meets the High Line-is a five-story building that steps back from the trestle as it faces east and juts west to the riverfront. “On one side, you talk to the city,” Piano said yesterday, “and on the other you talk to the infinite.” Sounds highbrow, but hear Piano out for a second: “We’ve got to keep this building low on the street because the sun and the High Line are strong. And then as you go up [inside the museum] you start to forget where you are.”

Museums increasingly enlist themselves to juice urban neighborhoods and Piano says his Whitney acknowledges its role in glittering up Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with a public plaza at its eastern and western entrances. The first floor will offer all sorts of free programming and the terraces above may include temporary installations if the curators can agree on how to mount them. Piano is adamant, though, that the first floor-which will use lots of glass-continue the pedestrian hubbub of the vibrant neighborhood to the east. “The building should acknowledge that the world is fragile,” he said, playing with a model. “The first level is secular, and profane, and then you go up and at some point you take your shoes off into a place of seclusion. That is what museums are about.” (Great architects who are great talkers, perhaps, get sweeter commissions than ones who can merely describe shapes.)

The most stirring tactic I heard from Piano, though, involved work below the surface. He and his colleagues at Cooper, Robertson & Partners are digging geothermal wells, 1300 feet deep, to provide heating and cooling to the building. “We are recycling water,” Piano said, before helping himself to a brownie. “You see, recycling is not just about morality, not just about ethics; it is also about inventing.”

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