The Met Breuer: From Sculpture to Art Museum and Back Again

The Met Breuer, 2017

The Met Breuer, 2017

In April 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened architect Marcel Breuer’s iconic ziggurat building on Madison Avenue, leased for eight years from its former occupant, the Whitney Museum of American Art. Rebranded the Met Breuer, the building has undergone a $15 million renovation restoring it as close as possible to Breuer’s original design, and repositioning the iconic building as both an interface for, and object within, the Met’s collection. The Whitney Museum meanwhile has relocated to a purpose-built museum designed by architect Renzo Piano in New York’s Meatpacking District, after decades of mostly unrealised plans by Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano to extend the original.

In what appears to be a high-stakes game of musical chairs, the Met Breuer presents a very different kind of museum expansion and raises questions around the practice of collecting modernist architecture and its place in the curatorial strategies and approaches of encyclopaedic museums. Built in 1966, Breuer’s monumental design for the Whitney Museum asserted the dominance of American modern art to the world and at the same time, took on qualities of minimalist sculpture. The architect himself acknowledged this relationship when publicly presenting the designs in 1963: “… all this is to form the building itself as a sculpture. However a sculpture with rather serious functional requirements…”.

 The Met’s treatment of the former Whitney Museum building not only elevates the historical significance of the building, but also amplifies the place of twentieth century American architecture within the Met’s encyclopaedic collection. As such, this paper will investigate the changing status of Breuer’s building, from Whitney Museum to Met Breuer, as part of a broader trend of museums collecting modernist architecture, and the effect this has on architecture’s historical and cultural value.

This is the abstract of a paper presented at the 34th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. July 2017.

To read the full paper, visit www.isarchitectureart.com