Breuer, The Whitney Museum of American Art (then The Met Breuer, and now the Frick Madison)

Marcel Breuer, The Whitney Museum of American Art (then The Met Breuer, and now the Frick Madison), 1963-66, Madison Avenue at East 75th Street, New York City

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re standing on the corner of East 75th Street at Madison Avenue, looking at one of my favorite buildings in all of New York. This is now known as The Met Breuer, but it was built as the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art by the architect Marcel Breuer.

Dr. Naraelle Hohensee: [0:20] Breuer is known for his association with the Bauhaus and with Walter Gropius.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] Gropius recognized his brilliance early on, took him under his wing, and soon enough, he became a master.

Dr. Hohensee: [0:32] At the Bauhaus he didn’t actually do architecture. He’s best known for his furniture designs, especially his cantilevered Cesca chair, and what’s now known as the Wassily chair.

Dr. Zucker: [0:43] Breuer spent his professional career rethinking materials for use not only in furniture but ultimately large institutional structures like the one before us.

Dr. Hohensee: [0:50] He was fascinated by contrasts. If you think about his design for the chair, or in this case, the cantilevered facade of the Whitney building, it seems to be floating on air.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] Modernist masters like Mies van der Rohe or Corbusier often created recessed shadows so that the bulk of the building above seemed to float, but this is a building that feels massive.

Dr. Hohensee: [1:12] It looks nothing like what you would think of as a typically International Style, Modernist building. It’s clad in granite, but that facade is broken up by these very unique trapezoidal windows.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] They animate the surface, but they also function practically. Like a bay window, they allow us to see not just across the street, but up the avenue.

Dr. Hohensee: [1:33] Breuer had come to the US specifically to work with Walter Gropius, and their mainstay had been domestic architecture, building houses.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] The Whitney Museum began its life in townhouses, formerly private homes that were joined together. The museum next moved close to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown, but it’s interesting to see the more human quality of this building relating back to those domestic aspects that define the early Whitney Museum.

[1:58] Breuer looked at this building almost as if it were a sculpture. In that way, I think he was competing with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which is just a few blocks down the street.

Dr. Hohensee: [2:08] Breuer is known as one of the leading architects in a movement called New Brutalism, which is named for “béton brut,” the French word for rough concrete.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] The title also references the sense of massiveness of these buildings that can, for some people, be off-putting. He’s distanced us by protecting the building with a moat, as if this was a medieval fortress.

[2:29] He’s also created this lovely fixed drawbridge with a low canopy that really does draw us in and creates a ceremonial entrance in a way that references the massive stairs, for example, just a few blocks away in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[2:43] We’ve crossed over the threshold, where the drawbridge doesn’t quite connect with the mass of the building itself, and we’ve walked into the spacious lobby.

Dr. Hohensee: [2:52] It’s spacious and yet it’s so intimate.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] The most mesmerizing aspect of the lobby, though, is the lighting above us.

Dr. Hohensee: [2:59] The ceiling is covered in a grid of circular, aluminum, concave light fixtures.

Dr. Zucker: [3:05] There’s so many of them. The effect is dazzling, especially against the more sober warm-gray concrete walls that surround us.

Dr. Hohensee: [3:13] The walls have been brush-hammered, which means a machine has been used to puncture the surface to give it a rough-hewn texture. Breuer also intentionally left the imprint of the forms used to pour the concrete.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] In many parts of the building, you can actually see traces of the grain of the wood that was used to mold the concrete.

Dr. Hohensee: [3:33] The seams between the panels of the concrete are also intentionally left visible. The wall bears visual witness to the history of its own making.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] A very Modernist idea and in stark contrast to the aesthetic of the white box, which was so dominant at museums such as the Museum of Modern Art. The galleries themselves are large, flexible, open spaces with high ceilings. These galleries can be configured and reconfigured.

Dr. Hohensee: [3:59] That will be done with sliding panels that are attached to rails installed in the ceiling. The other interesting thing about this ceiling is the gridded series of cast-concrete coffers.

[4:10] New Brutalism looked back to massive stone and concrete architecture of the ancient world, for instance the coffers in the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome. These coffers are a little bit different because they’re hollow.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] That allows us to see up through them to the exposed mechanicals of the building. You can see the pipes. You can see the wiring. Even in this later stage of Breuer’s career, he’s still wedded to those foundational ideas that come out of the Bauhaus.

[4:37] We’re sitting on a low bench in a part of the museum that is not entirely part of the museum. This is the staircase.

Dr. Hohensee: [4:44] He’s treated a functional purpose for the building with such care.

Dr. Zucker: [4:48] It’s dark and it’s quiet.

Dr. Hohensee: [4:50] As we move down from the upper floors, we proceed from this very enclosed, almost tomb-like space into a space fronted by windows that give us views back into the city.

Dr. Zucker: [5:01] There is beautiful attention to detail.

Dr. Hohensee: [5:05] We’re looking straight at an architectural detail that was very important to Breuer, a bronze and wooden handrail, two materials chosen specifically because they would acquire a patina over time.

Dr. Zucker: [5:16] The Whitney Museum of American Art, the museum for which this building was constructed, has moved out into a new building in the West Village. This building is now being leased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’ll be interesting to see what fate of this building is going forward.

Dr. Hohensee: [5:30] It already has a somewhat storied history. There have been attempts by three different architects to design expansions for this museum.

Dr. Zucker: [5:38] The first and probably the most famous was by Michael Graves, an architect who’s associated with Postmodernism. That design was largely ridiculed for subsuming the building and this gets to the tension that architects often feel; a building must be functional, but it’s also meant to be a work of art.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Naraelle Hohensee, "Breuer, The Whitney Museum of American Art (then The Met Breuer, and now the Frick Madison)," in Smarthistory, June 12, 2017, accessed June 14, 2024,