Michael Graves shakes Manhattan with his museum add-on

Architect Michael Graves seems to attract controversy wherever he builds, and once again he is in the middle of an increasingly harsh debate. As perhaps the nation's most visible proponent of post-modernism, a trend that is reinvesting architecture with historical allusions and color, Mr. Graves has become the point man for a great deal of criticism from devout modernists and others. In part for his pastel-colored designs that look to some more like pretty pictures than buildings, but also for his notoriety from designing sterling silver tea sets and shopping bags, Graves has been described as the ``architectural equivalent of a punk-rock hai rcut'' and the ``Michael Jackson of architecture.''

Just a few years ago, he was excoriated for his Municipal Services Building in Portland, Ore., which was described by some critics as an oversize jukebox or a Bavarian tile oven. Graves responded calmly, suggesting that his mostly Oregonian detractors were being provincial and saying that this would never happen in New York City.

But now in a strange twist of irony, a design by Graves for supposedly cosmopolitan Manhattan is attracting even stronger negative reaction. At the October dedication of ``Portlandia,'' a huge hammered-copper sculpture by Raymond Kaskey on Graves's Oregon building, the architect said the current brouhaha ``makes Portland seem like a picnic.''

What hath Graves wrought this time?

A mammoth, temple-topped addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art that will nearly triple its size. The museum, no stranger to controversy itself, has been housed since 1966 in a dark granite structure designed by the noted modernist Marcel Breuer. The ponderous building, which seems to hang out over Madison Avenue, is considered by some to be the epitome of the brutalist style and by others to be a perfect example of why modern architecture never attracted a larger following.

For the Whitney, Graves has matched the size and form of Breuer's building, although changing the color from gray to warm pink on the addition, which was proclaimed with great fanfare in May. A triangular window provides a counterpoint to Breuer's protruding bay window, and he has linked the old and new masses with a semicircular device he describes as a ``hinge.'' Even to critics, that part of the solution does not seem unreasonable, but the Whitney's massive program -- 40,000 square feet t o exhibit the permanent collection, less than 1 percent of which is now visible; a 250-seat theater; expanded library, archives, and study center; new offices; a larger restaurant; and 13,600 square feet of income-producing commercial retail space -- mandated a considerably larger building, and that's the source of the trouble. To meet these needs, and to provide what he calls an aesthetically cohesive assemblage, Graves proposes a huge pink-and-gray structure with a pergola, all set on a ziggurat that will

more than double the height of the existing building, to 188 feet.

While some of the debate is over the program, with opponents asking whether the Whitney must be all things to all people, most of the criticism is architectural. Graves, it is said, has trivialized the Breuer building by enveloping it in his unique architectural grammar. Some have pointed out that if you turn the design upside down, the view is that of a grinning face. Last month, 600 prominent architects and artists signed a petition decrying the Graves plan.

Supporters of the $37.5 million expansion are no less illustrious. They include the dean of American architects, Philip Johnson, who says the opponents of the design are ``modern-architecture holdouts who still yearn for the days of old''; critic Brendan Gill, who sits on the building committee of the Whitney; and Yale professor Vincent Scully, a noted architectural historian.

Clearly the debate is far from over at the Whitney, but it offers a sharp contrast to the admittedly more modest, but potentially far more deleterious, expansion plans of another museum just 15 blocks to the north. Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral-form Guggenheim Museum is widely considered to be one of the great buildings of the modern world. The museum hired the distinguished architectural firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates to add 13,000 square feet that would double the permanent collection exhibition s pace and permit better organization of the museum's other areas. The architects' solution, announced quietly last month, is an 11-story gray-green box that cantilevers out over the north end of the existing curvilinear structure, partially covering the rotunda skylight.

That addition would change inalterably the overall ambiance of Wright's design, which, unlike the Whitney, is more of a work of art than the art inside. But surprisingly little has been said to date about the proposal.

Although the Guggenheim is not designated historic -- it is only 27 years old, and thus the $12 million addition does not fall under the purview of the city's landmarks commission -- there will be other city reviews. Since several town houses within the Upper East Side Historic District must be demolished for the Whitney design to proceed, landmarks review is mandated and is expected to begin this winter. Whether the followers of Wright and his unique brand of architecture will be as vocifer ous as those of Breuer and modernism remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Whitney, in laying down this architectural challenge, has achieved some long-sought attention, if nothing else.

Carleton Knight III is a Washington, D.C., architectural writer. His reports for the Monitor will appear monthly.

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