Even amid the bumper crop of distinctive architecture that sprouted across Manhattan in the 1960s, Marcel Breuer’s stark concrete-and-granite building for the Whitney Museum of American Art stood out for its odd monumentality. Its inverted-ziggurat structure, threatening to topple onto Madison Avenue, elicited strong reactions from the moment the scaffolding was removed, in the fall of 1966. But of all the adjectives in New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s review—“harsh,” “handsome,” “extraordinary,” “splendid,” “sophisticated”—one has survived as the building’s default characterization today: “brutalist.”
The term doesn’t sit well with the space’s new tenants, curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “This is what happens across the world—someone comes up with a moniker for a building, and it catches on, and everyone starts using it,” says Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, which has taken over the lease now that the Whitney has moved to bigger digs downtown. “It’s a building that has been misunderstood, really, from the time that it was opened.” Where passersby might see a fortresslike quality in the top-heavy cantilevered structure, Wagstaff and her colleagues see the opposite: a fortress on its head, “partially suspended,” about to take flight.
Like a jilted lover embarking on a new relationship, the Breuer is indulging in a makeover. In late December, workers were buffing and polishing, revealing subtle spectra of color in the galleries’ bluestone floors. “You realize that Breuer was a sensualist,” says Wagstaff.
Take the trench that separates the building from the sidewalk. Going back to Breuer’s original plans, the Met’s curators discovered that the architect intended it not as a moat—or a gum-wrapper strewn “jailyard,” as Huxtable called it—but rather as a “sunken garden.” To encourage that interpretation, Beatrice Galilee, the Met’s associate curator of architecture and design, intends to plant trees in it. “Quaking aspens,” she says, “which are very modernist, but also they change every season and are light and elegant.”
But what of the inside? Can a building designed for one institution’s collection be a turnkey home for another’s? “It was designed as a museum, ultimately,” says Galilee, “and I think that architects, when they build something, understand that it’s not going to remain the same.” The first test will be the inaugural exhibition “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a centuries-spanning assemblage of pieces that the artists, ranging from Titian to Jackson Pollock, have left incomplete, implying several possible destinies. Of all the works on display, none will better fit the theme—or attract more scrutiny—than the building itself.
“Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” runs March 18 through September 4.