One would think that objections to the proposed, and justifiably controversial, addition to the Whitney Museum in New York would vanish when reflected upon from the perspective of this oriental city, so far from the fray.
What architect Michael Graves plans to do, with the full support of the museum's director, trustees and curatorial staff, is more or less what goes on every day in Tokyo. The idea is to place the addition, in the form of an inverted "L," on top and to the side of the existing museum structure, designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1966.
Such strategies are business as usual here, where buildings go down and go up in less time than it takes a ginkgo leaf to yellow in autumn, and are reconceived, refaced, rebuilt and added to with what seems a peremptory disregard for stylistic consistency or historical integrity. Landmark structures are few, and even the most distinguished pedigrees (Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, for instance, dismantled in 1968) are not often sufficient to save them.
But even from Tokyo, the Graves design continues to strike a false chord, and not simply because Manhattan's East Side is not Ginza. Ironically, distance from the argument only increases awareness that in the name of architectural and urban civility, Graves is committing an extremely uncivil act.
The rationale is unexceptionable, even admirable -- who can argue with the museum's desire to better serve its public and better treat its collection of 20th-century American art, or with the architect's intention to "enhance the urban characteristics of the surrounding neighborhood"? At the same time, it is hard not to see an underlying, Oedipal hostility in the resulting design.
At its core this architectural argument of the year is a conflict between generations. Breuer represents the old generation, the Modernists, whose ideas triumphed in post-World War II American cities; Graves, both as a thinker and as a designer, has been a leading force in the movement to reject or revise Modernism's calcified orthodoxies. Thus his Whitney design -- which almost literally swallows up Breuer's building -- can be seen as a form of revenge.
Two strong criticisms can be made of the Breuer structure. The first is that its flexible, open-space galleries, though characteristic of the mid-'60s, are especially ill-suited to the type of permanent art display the museum now desires and needs.
The second is a more ideological objection. As Graves says, the existing building is a "modern monument in distinct contrast to the smaller scale and more elaborate fac,ades of the remainder of Madison Avenue." It is a species of pure form that is more than a tad standoffish in its physical and psychological relations with busy city streets. In fact, Breuer's cutaway cube, its gray granite walls punctuated by oddly shaped windows in just a few places, reverses the normal Manhattan order of things. Instead of meeting the sidewalk head-on in its lower portions and stepping back toward the top, the building is set back from the sidewalk and expands outward in three clearly defined planes as it gets higher. In the abstract, a building standing on its head like this in an established urban neighborhood sounds like a recipe for disaster.
But it wasn't. From the beginning Breuer's fortress had a strange, if solemn, allure. Like Wright's otherwise very different Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue, Breuer's brooding Madison Avenue masterwork was an immediate popular hit, and like the Wright building it remains proof positive that, in exceptional cases, architectural contrast wtih the surrounding urban environment -- a sharp break in the pattern -- can be an effective, moving idea. Obviously, neither Graves nor his client sees it this way.
Given the site (the other half of the city block south of the existing building) and the size requirements (more than doubling existing space, from 83,500 to 217,500 square feet), Graves had but two alternatives: to go up in skyscraper fashion on the southern site, leaving the Breuer building untouched, or to build over the existing building. (A third alternative, to destroy the present building and start over, apparently was not considered; a fourth, to locate the new building somewhere else, seems to have been ruled out at the start by the client.) Graves chose the second alternative, he says, because "it provides greater areas for individual museum floors and thereby better establishes the continuity of the museum experience."
Within these boundaries, Graves did fairly well. He balanced the mass of the Breuer building with a similar, though more richly inflected, mass to the south, and tied the two together with a semicircular "hinge." This hinge is a brilliant piece of work, mediating between two buildings of similar weight but discordant style and philosophy. It is the only really persuasive visual element of the Graves exterior.
Atop these two five-story buildings would rise another structure, also five floors high, in a series of gradual setbacks. The massing of these upper stories is ponderous at best; the detailing, featuring a huge "eyebrow" type window and an ungraceful horizontal tower, is bombastic. As a whole the design has a nervous, disparate, exaggerated quality. (To be sure, there is much to be said for establishing commercial retail outlets on the ground floor of such a center-city museum, although Graves' officious colonnade is by no means enticing in the conventional Madison Avenue way.)
Of course, in all of this very little allowance was made for the dignity and individuality of Breuer's building. Graves' "figurative" design converts Breuer's lone frontal window into one eye of a somewhat comically monstrous visage (the hinge being the nose and Graves' enormous triangle with a cat-like vertical "pupil" being the second eye). When seen in this light, the Graves plan would appear to be a natural consequence of the museum's disrespect (perhaps hatred would not be too strong a word) for its own building.
Graves' design is very clever, and also very mean.
The debate is replete with ironies. The existing building is not nearly so off-putting as its opponents would have it, nor would the proposed addition be so welcoming to the city as its admirers predict. Perhaps the crowning irony is that Graves' way of thinking -- his insistence upon traditional styles and patterns, and belief in the incremental, collage-like nature of urban growth -- is a richer and more appealing prescription for urban architecture than Breuer's functional, pure-form esthetics.
But the debate really isn't about ideologies. It is about effects. No one would want streets lined with Breuer-like buildings; nor would anyone care to live on streets crammed with monumental structures in the Graves mold. Graves' Whitney design is a "signature" product -- it is every bit as much a "Graves" as the existing museum is a "Breuer."
In the name of civility and reform, and because of "program requirements" (which sounds suspiciously like the old Modernist dogma of functionalism), Graves is doing something his generation has long resented about Modernist architecture. He is making a big, arrogant, singular statement at someone else's expense.