Mr. Piano’s project for a site on Gansevoort Street, west of Washington Street, is a striking departure from the ethereal glass creations that have made him a favorite of the art-world cognoscenti.
Mr. Piano has created a contemplative sanctuary where art reasserts its primary place in the cultural hierarchy.
In a recent interview Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, said the curators had yet to define the relationship between the two buildings. (One possibility is that the Breuer building will be used for exhibitions that focus on one aspect of the collection or a single artist, with the core of the collection relocated downtown.)
Mr. Piano’s design is certainly distinct from Breuer’s, presenting a strange, even forbidding aura. The building’s faceted surface seems hewed from a massive block of stone. Its main facade is slightly angled to make room for a small public plaza. The roof steps down in a series of big terraces on one side; on the other, it forms an impenetrable block facing the West Side Highway.
But as you study the form more intently, more layered meanings emerge. The stepped roof, for example, both supports a series of outdoor sculpture gardens and allows sunlight to spill down onto the High Line, the elevated rail bed that is being converted into a public garden. The angle of the facade allows people walking along the High Line to catch glimpses of the Hudson River down Gansevoort Street.
The feeling of a structure being carved apart to facilitate the flow of light and movement is magnified at ground level. Part of the structure rests on a glass base that houses a bookstore and cafe, so that you feel the full weight of the building bearing down. The underbelly of the building tilts up at one end, providing shade for the plaza and adding a sense of compression as you approach the entry.
This experience abruptly changes as you cross the threshold, for a window at the back of the lobby opens onto a view of the water and the height of the lobby space suddenly lets you breathe again. From there elevators whisk you up to the auditorium, library and galleries.
The new museum will have 50,000 square feet of gallery space, compared with 32,000 uptown. The third-floor gallery, at 17,500 square feet, will be the largest column-free space for viewing art in Manhattan, Mr. Weinberg said.