The new Whitney Museum, located at the beginning of the High Line below 14th street, is a Renzo Piano creation that cost $422 million.
The building has received glowing reviews from the Times and the WSJ, neither of which mentioned some oddly perverse absences in a museum intended for heavy traffic. The first is that there is no interior staircase from the 8th floor down to the 5th.
Instead, there is an outdoor staircase from the terraces of those floors - something totally impractical in a city that gets very cold and snowy winters, that has rainy springs and that fronts the Hudson River, one of the windiest spots in lower Manhattan.
If you check your coat in inclement weather, you would be forced to wait for the over-crowded elevators, of which there are only a handful to handle a very large number of visitors. It remains to be seen how many intrepid people will venture outdoors past November. From the 5th floor down, there is an enclosed staircase that feels too narrow for the mass of users.
Missing from the outdoor sculpture on the terraces are any identifying plaques, either on the base of the work itself or on any nearby wall. To find out who the artist is, you would have to go back into the building, look for the names and titles, then try to fit them to the appropriate pieces. Why?
Whatever happened to the concept of improving the user-friendly quotient of museums? Despite the dramatic increase in wall space for exhibition, the wall texts are too small to read except at close range. A painting may be on a wall that is 30 feet wide but still have a label using small font type though a larger typeface would allow you to read from several feet away. Sculptures that are in the middle of the floor have no plaques at their base - in some cases, you have to guess which of 3 possible walls might contain the information you’re seeking. Again, the feeling is that the exhibition designer was not concerned with facilitating the comfort of the viewer, any more than the architect was in moving her from one floor to another.
Though the gallery space is bright and open, the white pine floors are already showing their scuff marks after only one week of being open to the public - we’ll see how they look after fall and winter bring dead leaves and slushy snow indoors. Do white floors even reference this formerly industrial part of the city with relics of factories, seaports and the old commercial railway line outside the door? After leaving the museum, I thought of Louis Sullivan, the architect considered to be the father of modernism and the one who said “form ever follows function,” a quote that has remained as relevant today as it was a century ago. An eight story museum in NYC should have a comfortable staircase running the full height of the building. Climbing up and down fire escapes may be whimsical but since function dictates practicality, it doesn’t pass muster. A handful of elevators is insufficient for the volume of people who will continue to visit the museum particularly because of its proximity to the High Line. It’s too late to create a new staircase but curators and exhibition designers should pay more attention to labeling the art - indoors and out - and remember that reading from a middle distance improves the traffic flow inside the galleries. If the function of a museum is to educate its visitors as well as enthrall them, make it easy to identify the artist, not a game of hide and seek. Innovative form may be glamorous and attractive but function must ever rule.
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