Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum

Marcel Breuer’s design of the Whitney Museum of American Art epitomized the architect and designer’s mature elaboration of constructivism as an architectural style and philosophy and ensured that the museum would not merely house American art but would also itself be an example of such art.

Summary of Event

In a unique building designed by Marcel Breuer, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its exhibitions on September 28, 1966. Occupying a corner lot measuring 100 by 125 feet at New York City’s East Seventy-fifth Street and Madison Avenue, with two levels below ground and only five above, the modestly sized museum nestled among the tall apartment and office buildings of what in 1966 was the city’s gallery district. Evoking images of cubist sculpture, the structure offered bold evidence of Breuer’s individualized constructivist architectural vocabulary and philosophy. It likewise emphasized the museum’s commitment to purchasing and exhibiting works of living American painters, sculptors, photographers, and other artists. Whitney Museum of American Art
Architecture;Marcel Breuer[Breuer]
Breuer Building
[kw]Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum (Sept. 28, 1966)
[kw]Whitney Museum, Breuer Designs a Building for the (Sept. 28, 1966)
[kw]Museum, Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney (Sept. 28, 1966)
Whitney Museum of American Art
Architecture;Marcel Breuer[Breuer]
Breuer Building
[g]North America;Sept. 28, 1966: Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum[08960]
[g]United States;Sept. 28, 1966: Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum[08960]
[c]Arts;Sept. 28, 1966: Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum[08960]
[c]Architecture;Sept. 28, 1966: Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum[08960]
Breuer, Marcel
Gropius, Walter
Yorke, Francis R. S.
Nervi, Pier Luigi
Zehrfuss, Bernard
Le Corbusier

Breuer’s design of the Whitney building reflected the museum directors’ philosophy. Permanent collections were eschewed; instead, changes and variety in exhibition became the rule. Three floors therefore were configured as spacious, open galleries. Their ceilings are two-by-two-foot “egg crates” of suspended, precast concrete to which movable wall panels and a flexible lighting system can be attached to ensure maximum effectiveness for the gallery’s showings. Detailing throughout the structure is meticulously modern and industrial, yet warmed to human sensibilities by Breuer’s hallmark selection of materials. Thus, gallery floors are bluestone while walls are dressed with white, painted canvas. Main stairwells are flanked by walls of bush-hammered concrete, and the stairs themselves are granite, with teak and bronze railings. Outdoor sculpture is displayed within a court formed by excavation one level below ground yet visible along Madison Avenue.

Breuer physically delineated the museum from its traditional neighbors by designing full-height, separating wing walls of poured concrete. The cubelike main structure he sheathed with mottled gray granite, dispelling potential monotony with six angled, protruding windows on the south side, each the shape of a truncated triangle, and one large, similar window several levels above the Madison Avenue entrance. The entrance itself is an inviting, partially covered concrete bridge leading into a warm lobby uniquely lighted by suspended aluminum disks reflecting illumination from specially devised lamp centers.

The museum can be interpreted as a pinnacle in the common artistic growth of the Whitney Museum directors and of Breuer. Evolution of the modernist museum and of Breuer’s architectural career were nearly synchronous. Launched in 1914, only a few months after New York’s famed Armory Show introduced Americans to the works of Europe’s leading postimpressionists and cubists, the Whitney Studio (1914-1918) sought, without much initial success, to inspire American interest in modern art. Modernism;art The venture enjoyed two subsequent incarnations, as the Whitney Studio Club from 1918 to 1928 and as the Whitney Studio Galleries from 1928 to 1930. Neither catered to what then could be characterized as general tastes or sound investments.

Under the aegis of Greenwich Village sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt , however, the galleries reopened in 1930 as the Whitney Museum of American Art, marking the increasing creativity, popular approval, and sales of contemporary American artists. By 1966 and Breuer’s completion of the museum, what three decades earlier had constituted mere acceptance of modern art had almost become a popular artistic and financial craze. To acknowledge the abundance of modern art, both the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art, for example, had opened in New York (in 1958 and 1964, respectively).

These two museums augmented the splendid Impressionist collections of the older Museum of Modern Art (opened in 1929). Similarly, the paintings of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Salvador Dalí, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Amadeo Modigliani, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, among other modernist painters, had won wide acceptance. Results of the concomitant architectural revolution initiated by Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Tony Garnier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef Hoffmann, Louis I. Kahn, and Alvar Aalto had become manifest in furniture, homes, industrial buildings, airports, and public buildings throughout the world.

A doctor’s son born in Pecs, Hungary, in 1902, Marcel Breuer trained at the chief source of twentieth century architectural change, the Bauhaus school Bauhaus school , led by Gropius. Originally a strict functionalist or purist, Breuer, while master of the Bauhaus cabinet and joinery shop, established himself in 1925 by designing a revolutionary tubular steel chair. He later designed other furniture and cabinetry that earned wide recognition. His early development paralleled that of Wright, Mies van der Rohe, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Aalto insofar as his mastery of craft, materials, and design (the essence of Bauhaus teaching) began with furnishings. To these Breuer soon added architectural works, such as the landmark Harnischmacher House and Dolderthal apartments. By the 1930’s, his reputation augured well for his future importance.

After two years’ association with England’s pioneer of the International Modern style, Francis R. S. Yorke, Breuer joined Gropius in graduate teaching at Harvard University in 1937. They entered into a collaborative exploration of American regional architecture that lasted until Breuer entered private practice in 1947. Meanwhile, entranced with integrating a New England idiom into his International Style, he designed several classics: the Breuer House (Lincoln, Massachusetts), the Chamberlain Cottage (Wayland, Massachusetts), the Haggerty House (with Gropius in Cohassett, Massachusetts), the Cantilevered House (New Canaan, Connecticut), the Thompson House (Ligonier, Pennsylvania), the Robinson House (Williamstown, Massachusetts), and several other stunning “binuclear” homes and multiple dwellings. Thus, by 1963, when he received the Whitney commission, Breuer’s constructivism had matured. His demonstrated philosophy was to exalt structure—simple materials, novel technology, and fine finishing—but to separate his requirements for structure (usefulness and longevity) aesthetically from the nonstructural elements of design in order to humanize his clients’ immediate personal environments. The Whitney Museum satisfied these major criteria with distinction.


An increasing public appreciation of functionalism, of the International Modern style (which was its American architectural counterpart), and accordingly of architects’ signature variations on these themes coincided with the evolution of Breuer’s career. Breuer benefited from this happy trend just as he contributed to it. Although the Whitney Museum bore Breuer’s unique imprimatur, it also carried the stamps of its times.

The Whitney ultimately proved to be a success for its architect while simultaneously finding general favor in the artistic community. The museum’s early days, as Breuer had expected, were beclouded by controversy, dramatized by one of the 1960’s increasingly frequent bomb threats. Critic Ada Louise Huxtable Huxtable, Ada Louise reported, just prior to the museum’s opening, that it was New York’s most disliked structure, that nearly the entire community’s sensibilities appeared violated by this brashly unconventional building. Her own views lauded its superb setting and its brutal beauty. Other complaints about Breuer’s work, brought to focus by the Whitney, were of a cumulative nature. Several architectural historians, exemplified by Wayne Andrews Andrews, Wayne and Carl Condit, had voiced disappointment either with the apparent derivativeness of Breuer’s work as an associate of Gropius or, speaking to specifics, with Breuer’s denial of his textures and his purported conservative shift—almost to Georgian style—in his translations of New England idioms into the design of his homes.

Completion of the Whitney, along with concurrent grand projects such as the Paris headquarters for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), designed in collaboration with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss, proved redemptive. Andrews, by 1973, included the Whitney (and Breuer’s Tompkins House) among his selections of New York State’s major architecture. Other professional observers, already impressed with Breuer’s work, continued their applause. Foremost among these were architectural historian and critic Peter Blake Blake, Peter , who had produced two studies of Breuer, and Gropius himself, who despite his previous quarrels with Breuer at Harvard praised Breuer’s objectivity, boldness, and independence in meeting the challenges of technical and aesthetic problems.

By the late 1970’s, a modicum of appreciation for the Whitney likewise had come from initially trenchant media pundits. Typical of them was The New York Times’ former architectural critic, Paul Goldberger Goldberger, Paul . Goldberger found the museum to be a defiance of common sense, an utterly abstract, arrogant granite fortress, overbearing and almost brutal in form, that blatantly cantilevered itself onto Madison Avenue. It could never be ideal either for its site or for its program, for in his judgment, like all Breuer structures, it could never banish the impression that it was more object than building. Nevertheless, more than a decade after the Whitney’s opening, Goldberger accorded it “grudging respect.”

Although it was no foregone conclusion that they would do so, Breuer’s former associates praised both Breuer and his work. These associates included Hamilton Smith Smith, Hamilton , who had worked with him on the Whitney as well as on the Priory of the Annunciation and Mary College (both in Bismarck, North Dakota) and New York University Technology Building II, in addition to other large undertakings. Similar approbation came from Tician Papachristou Papachristou, Tician , who had become a Breuer associate (joining Herbert Beckhard and Robert Gatje) in 1965 and subsequently produced a major survey of Breuer’s plans and projects undertaken during the 1960’s.

Signals of his creative influences also came from Breuer’s coterie of former Harvard graduate students. By the time that the Whitney was completed many of these had carved their own significant careers and were well-qualified assessors of their former teacher’s concepts and designs. Among those who had earned international reputations by the 1970’s were Eduardo Catalano, Emilio Duhart, Eliot Noyes, I. M. Pei, and Harry Seidler. All retained positive views of Breuer’s corpus of works, the Whitney included. Seidler accurately synthesized their laudable evaluations of Breuer as an architect the validity of whose contributions—both visual and technical—were unequaled over the previous half century.

Breuer was unrivaled in his handling of sunlight and shadow, unmatched for his juxtapositions of materials—natural woods against white industrial masonry, against indigenous stones, even against rubble—as well as for contrasting these materials with glass and smooth synthetics. He was praised not only for his furnishings but also for housing and building designs that had become prototypes worldwide, specifically, for the principles embodied in his binuclear and cantilevered homes, and for his famed “Y”-shaped and sculptured structures.

Breuer, in the Whitney Museum and in the larger body of his work, transformed brutalism into beauty. It was therefore appropriate that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated its first one-man architecture show to Breuer’s accomplishments. Whitney Museum of American Art
Architecture;Marcel Breuer[Breuer]
Breuer Building

Further Reading

  • Blake, Peter. Marcel Breuer: Architect and Designer. New York: Architectural Record in Collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, 1949. Written before design of the Whitney, but an excellent introduction both verbally and visually to Breuer’s earlier works. The author is a respected architectural historian and critic. An easy, enjoyable preview of Breuer before maturation of his work. Like many architectural studies, it includes many fine plates and designs. Standard in public, college, and university libraries.
  • _______, ed. Marcel Breuer: Sun and Shadow, the Philosophy of an Architect. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955. Blake offers his own notes and a fine synthesis of Breuer’s distillations of his own philosophy. Breuer’s designs and structures, however, are clearer statements of his purpose and principles than are his words. Many plates and designs, happily including Breuer’s furniture and a résumé of his early works. Indispensable and widely available.
  • Breuer, Marcel. Marcel Breuer: New Buildings and Projects. New York: Praeger, 1970. Outstanding visual and textual detailing of Breuer’s work, including much on the Whitney, in the decade of the 1960’s. Indispensable and delightful. Hundreds of photo plates and designs. Available in major libraries.
  • Dixon, John Harris. “The Whitney: Big for Its Size.” Architectural Forum 125 (September, 1966): 80-86. Detailed professional description of the Whitney, with pictures and text.
  • Gatje, Robert F. Marcel Breuer: A Memoir. New York: Monacelli Press, 2000. Combined biography and critical study of Breuer’s work. Includes a foreword by I. M. Pei. Index.
  • Goldberger, Paul. The City Observed: New York. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Remarks on the Whitney and on Breuer are few but pithy. Goldberger, an architectural critic and historian, places the Whitney in the context of architecture in its own Manhattan neighborhood and the city’s other major structures. Plenty of photos and diagrams; detailed index.
  • Hitchcock, Henry Russell. Marcel Breuer and the American Tradition in Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1938. Old but prescient and interpretive. The only early treatment in English on Breuer’s furniture, cabinetry, and homes. Good context. Photos and index.
  • Hyman, Isabelle. Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings. New York: H. N. Abrams, 2001. Comprehensive study of Breuer’s work and its relation to the modern movement in architecture. Bibliographic references and index.

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