With the Whitney really, truly, finally for sure moving downtown — into a Vader-like new building, no less — its old ominous digs will soon be forlorn and vacant. The Met has expressed interest in moving in in some capacity, but New York architecture critic Justin Davidson and design doyen Robert A.M. Stern have hatched a different plan.
They want to turn the Whitney into the city’s first, and perhaps the world’s premier, museum dedicated to architecture. Considering this is New York, the idea makes a good deal of sense:
We are all consumers of architecture, and if we treat it like garbage collection, gratefully relegating it to the margins of our attention unless it goes wrong, we wind up with the surroundings we deserve. Cities and suburbs can only be as dull and oppressive as we allow them to be.
An architecture museum done right would help cultivate a public that, in the past decade, has been shocked into caring about building.
The shock he is referring to is the events of 9/11, which indeed seemed to be a turning point for design awareness both in New York and across the country, one that only continued through the real estate boom as architects became showmen and marketers.
Though let us not pretend that a lot of lowest-common-denomentator dreck wasn’t hastily thrown up to make a quick buck, as well. Which is probably why there will never be a full-scale architecture museum in the city, at least on the Whitney site. Though, really, do we need one at all?
The skyline is our museum, the reminder of the highs and lows. We’ve been getting on fine for more than a century without one, building bigger, brasher and sometimes boring-er with each passing day.
As Davidson points out, “Architecture is the aesthetic side of New York’s abiding obsession — real estate — yet the city lacks a comprehensive museum to tell that story.” And that will probably always be the case, because someone with more money and idle plans, like the Met, or Gucci or Fairway, will come along with designs of their own, for a “higher and better” use.
Yet so long as we keep building, so long as we never turn into Paris, New York will survive and even thrive. Our best art has always been in the studios and on the street, and there it should remain.