Leaning out over Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, just a block from Central Park, the brutalist icon now known as the Met Breuer has been given a new lease of life by Beyer Blinder Belle.
Beloved of architects but often maligned by the public, brutalism represents a curious epoch within the discipline’s history. Architects sought, through an outwardly monumental and often immediately confrontational expression, to reconcile material honesty with a moralist agenda that is less present in other movements of 20th-century architecture. Flourishing between 1950 and 1970, brutalism was popular with government projects, educational buildings, and high-rise housing. Few were more prolific within the movement than Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer.
Originally opened in 1966 to house the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the Breuer building immediately occupied a distinctive position on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Considered somber and confrontational at its time of opening, the “Monster of Madison Avenue” is now recognized as one of New York’s most notable and iconic pieces of architecture. Over the following four decades, the building has endured various changes of ownership, renovations, ambitious plans for an extension, and at one stage even housed a restaurant. When the Whitney Museum shifted to its new Renzo Piano-designed premises in West Village in 2014, the Breuer building was left with no tenant and an uncertain future. Enter New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution with a burgeoning collection looking for extension space: with the shell of an iconic museum on their hands, the Met Breuer was born.
Architecturally, the building’s current iteration as the Met Breuer represents an ambitious plan to reinvest fully in one of New York’s most iconic and complex post-war buildings. The building was purchased by the Met as a reaffirmation of both the inherent spatial quality of Breuer’s work and the potential that lay within for future exhibition arrangements. Curatorially, the Met Breuer is an attempt to extend the range of art previously shown within the building, and to bring the Met’s collection of art to a new audience, situating antiquity’s most famous works with modern masterpieces from the past century.
Undertaken by New York office Beyer Blinder Belle, the restoration of the Met Breuer is subtle, leaving visible signs of the storied building’s use. The goal of the office was twofold: firstly, to return the building as close as possible to Breuer’s original design intent — this largely involved the removal of elements that were added to the building in various installments over its lifetime; and secondly, to “distinguish patina from damage”. Rather than cleaning out the building, Beyer Blinder Belle has cleaned it up; with a distinctly light touch, the architects have gone about repairing damages, updating railings and light fixtures while allowing the patina of aging materials to be preserved.
A challenge for any architect dealing with a masterpiece is knowing what not to do as much as what to do.
— Jack Beyer, Founding Partner, Beyer Blinder Belle
Perhaps the most radical move in the Met Breuer’s restoration is the conversion of the sunken garden at the front of the museum into a publicly accessible space, adding a cafe for visitors without tickets. This gesture not only changes the experience of entering the building but is also a nod to locals who might use and enjoy the space.
Brutalist buildings — Breuer’s especially — have always favored a directness of materiality and tectonics. In respecting this original intent, Beyer Blinder Belle has allowed Breuer’s ideas to shine through more clearly in a contemporary context.