White Paper: Exterior as Gallery

When designing a contemporary museum building, the exterior can afford opportunities to display art that can become as important as its exhibits inside for attracting new audiences.

The new Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper Robertson and built adjacent to the High Line in downtown Manhattan, uses its façade and exterior terraces to present art to the audience outside its walls. The building engages the elevated linear park's year-round crowds with super-scale works of art mounted on its exterior planes and visible from a variety of vantage points along the park. Installation points include the western facade of the building facing the Hudson River; a portion of the eastern facade fronting the High Line Maintenance & Operations (M&O) building; the northern facade directly facing the M&O building, and the museum building's four art terraces, the largest of which is the roof of the adjacent M&O building. Works of art can be anchored to the terraces or suspending from the facades. High-transparency, clear, low-iron glass walls make the outdoor space an extension of the galleries, allow glimpses of the art inside, and provide dramatic exterior views to the city beyond for museum visitors.

The combination of vertical anchor points on the façade with a grid of horizontal ones on the terraces enables the installation of both two and three dimensional artwork visible from multiple angles and levels. Unusual vantage points from above and below provide new opportunities for the experience of sculpture and encourage the procurement or commissioning of site-specific works. Many of the museum's exterior surfaces were designed for the deployment of three dimensional art and projection. Ideal for an institution heavily involved with living artists, the terraces provide display opportunities that will inspire artists working in a wide variety of media.

The four art terraces are connected by a highly designed exterior stair that leads from one terrace to another and encourages visitors to move slowly through the building, experiencing the exterior art from varied and unusual vantage points in the context of the city. The terraces also function as party spaces; events could move from one level to the next, experiencing the art. The stair also accommodates the infrastructure of lighting and other service, forming the armature for permanent and temporary lighting.

Technical Solutions for Vertical Surfaces

The building façade consists of architectural precast concrete panels and a steel plate-clad unitized curtain wall system. Because of its height, the building required a façade system that allowed the safe tethering of maintenance platforms. These systems typically consist of stainless steel bolts that project half an inch off the face of the building to which crews tether a lanyard to lock in, level, and stabilize a platform. For the Whitney, the team took that idea and created a denser pattern of anchors that could also accommodate art installation.

The pattern of bolts works for the façade maintenance system and also meets the programming requirements of the Whitney. The team deployed a standard system of bolts that can be tethered to or removed and replaced with eye hooks or other hardware. These anchors enable the museum to attach a screen, stretch a canvas, or suspend a super-scale object from the side of the building. Increasing the load on the façade did require additional local structural frame engineering. Structural engineers Silman reinforced the structure to accommodate the addition of a 600-pound pull out load.

The pre-cast system comprises seven-inch thick pre-cast panels, some of which weigh more than twenty thousand pounds apiece. A recess is cast into the panels then fit with a receptor, a threaded insert, and either a bolt or other piece of hardware as needed. When the threaded inserts are exposed, they add visual texture and sparkle in the sunlight, adding another level of detail to the building.

In order to legally suspend artwork off the façade facing the M&O building and facilitate installation and maintenance, the Whitney acquired air rights over the M&O terrace.

Technical Solutions for Horizontal Surfaces

To anchor art to the terraces and prevent lifting during heavy winds, the team integrated hardware produced by TriPyramid, a manufacturer that provides specialty architectural hardware and high performance yacht rigging. A cylinder is bolted to a base plate, which in turn is fastened to the structure below. An interior cylinder can be raised as needed and otherwise sits flush with the roof surface.

The non-corrosive stainless steel cylinders are filled with foamed-in-place insulation. Since the M&O building has a flat roof and weight limitations, the cylinders align with the beams of the building's rigorous structural grid. A two foot by two foot grid of pavers sits above the roof surface with disks in the pavers that allow access to the anchors. The terraces in the new building are 4-inch thick cast-in-place concrete wearing course.

Use of the art anchor system required horizontal roof penetrations. To eliminate thermal transfer and mitigate concerns for condensation, the team recommended the installation of wire-cute polystyrene foam to fill the void.

All of the terraces have technology consolidation points with company switches for theatrical performances and AV needs, cable passes for broadcast events, as well as power and data receptacles to support the anticipated year-round exterior exhibition program.