When my friend Jane told me she was doing a complete renovation of her pied-à-terre, I was disheartened because I liked the apartment just as it was (and, yeah, because change always depresses me). But when I visited her after the work was finished, I was surprised—and relieved—to find the place looking exactly the same as I remembered. “Yes,” said Jane, “I’ve just spent a fortune on things that only I can see.” I thought of this imperceptibly rehabbed apartment last week, when I paid my first visit to the Met Breuer.
The Breuer is the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which transferred itself to a new, Renzo Piano–designed building in the Meatpacking District last year. When I’d first heard the Metropolitan was taking over the Whitney’s old space (the Met has an eight-year lease, with a renewal option), I was apprehensive. That cantilevered, Cyclopean hulk at the corner of Madison and East 75th was hands-down my favorite modern building in New York City. I have a soft spot for the hard-to-like (and now endangered) architectural style called brutalism, and Marcel Breuer’s Whitney, which opened in 1966, was a peerless brutalist masterpiece. For me, going to the Whitney was always as much about having another chance to experience this extraordinary structure as it was about seeing whatever art was on display inside at the moment. So I was afraid the Met would significantly alter the building and ruin its weird perfection.
Phew. I am overjoyed to report that the Met has (undoubtedly) spent a fortune to do almost nothing to it—or almost nothing noticeable. The architecture firm in charge of the restoration, Beyer Blinder Belle, wisely restricted itself to returning the building to its original state. Or mostly so. The one major change is the transformation of the fifth floor into a coffee shop and bookstore. The coffee shop is run by Oakland-based company Blue Bottle, the bookstore by British American art book publisher Phaidon (besides catalogs of the Met’s current exhibitions, it sells only Phaidon titles).
These businesses are placeholders, and they seem like it—especially the coffee shop, whose Design Within Reach standard-issue Bantam sofas and Bellini chairs give the space an ersatz “midcentury” quality at odds with the Breuer’s genuine midcentury grandeur. Another wrong note: The coffee shop walls are hung—much too crowdedly—with prints by blue-chip artists, which are for sale at prices that probably seem affordable to those who can afford such things. But what the hell: Buy yourself an overpriced coffee, examine the prints’ price tags, and then let the rest of the building cure the resulting dyspepsia.
Details regarding the work Beyer Blinder Belle undertook in the restoration can be found elsewhere. But despite that list of interventions, the building appears so wonderfully the same that there’s not much to say about it, except thank you. Breuer created a building that seems to want to interact with you, and I’ve always admired its contradictory personality, which is both pleasing and annoying. The trapezoidal windows frame the all-too-ordinary adjacent buildings in refreshingly unexpected ways while letting in either too much light or not enough, depending on where in a gallery you’re standing. The curved walls leading from the stairwell to the galleries simultaneously embrace and expel you. The elevators impress you with their massiveness while making you feel like a pipsqueak. The heavy bronze doors offer tactile pleasure but threaten muscle strain. All that thrilling contrariness remains intact.
The stairwell—always my favorite part—is to this inexpert but loving eye likewise unchanged: underlit and vaguely threatening but also oddly safe, like a dungeon you’d like to hide in during a nuclear attack. I’d assumed that upon vacating the building the Whitney would have taken away Charles Simonds’s little clay-and-sticks pueblo, called Dwellings (pictured), from the corner of the stairwell landing where it has sat since the Whitney commissioned it, in 1981. But no, it’s still there. I dislike it—a blobby tchotchke marring an otherwise impeccable environment—but I was so happy to see that even it has stayed where it (sort of) belongs.
There’s no room left here to review the Met Breuer’s two opening exhibitions—Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible (on display through September 4) and a retrospective of South Asian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (through June 5). But let me say this: Although I found Unfinished overcooked—the rare museum show spoiled by having too many ideas rather than too few—and although I don’t much care for Mohamedi’s linear abstraction, everything looks just great in situ. The marvel of Marcel Breuer’s uncompromising museum—built to house modern American art—is that it can gracefully accommodate all sorts of stuff. And since the Metropolitan Museum has or has access to all sorts of stuff, I’m unexpectedly glad the Met has taken it over.
Feature photo by Ed Lederman/Metropolitan Museum of Art