Protecting Priceless Art From Natural Disasters

The new Whitney Museum in Manhattan has been lauded for its cutting-edge architecture, but the most intriguing feature is the one that kicks in in case of emergency.

Nic Lehoux

In New York City, toward the southern end of the High Line, a new building seems to float gracefully above the ground. Some critics have compared it to a ship, a nod to New York’s nautical past. But its angled gray surfaces, and the way in which it hovers in the air suspended on thin columns, make it seem more like a spaceship version of Michael J. Fox’s DeLorean in Back to the Future.

The building, which opened on May 1, is the architect Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art, following a relocation from the museum’s old home on the Upper East Side. Piano himself has acknowledged the aeronautical aspects of the building’s design. “The new Whitney is almost ready to take off. But don’t worry, it won’t, because it weighs 28,000 tons,” he told a crowd at the official opening event.

The reviews of the new design have been glowing (The New York Times called it a “glittery emblem of a new urban capital.”) But the new Whitney’s most intriguing feature might be one that’s gone largely unnoticed: its custom flood-mitigation system, which was designed halfway through the museum’s construction, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, when more than five million gallons of water flooded the site. The system’s features include a 15,500-pound door designed by engineers who build water-tight latches for the U.S. Navy’s Destroyers. “Buildings now have to be designed like submarines,” said Kevin Schorn, an assistant to Piano, reflecting on the demands of a warming world and what it might mean for design. “Do we have to completely rethink our infrastructure? Do we have to completely rethink everything?”

Nic Lehoux

The Whitney’s system, with its technical sophistication and aesthetic sleekness, is proving to be a model for other U.S. art museums asking the same questions. While the country has been stuck in a surreal debate over the reality of climate change, disaster-preparedness has become a matter of pressing concern, and institutions in vulnerable areas are having to respond in real time. The museum’s actions—turning to specialists in naval engineering, for example—augur an era of improvised ingenuity, of localized efforts to address a problem in dire need of a global solution.


The Whitney, whose lobby is 10 feet above sea-level, is now designed to be water-tight against a flood level of 16.5 feet—seven feet higher than waters reached during Hurricane Sandy. The fortification includes a 500-foot-long mobile wall, comprised of stacked aluminum beams, that can be erected in less than seven hours. The flood door, located inside the building’s western facade facing the Hudson River, is 14 feet tall by 27 feet wide, and looks like something you might find at the back of an aircraft carrier. But despite its mass, the door is perfectly balanced so that a single person can push it shut. Both the wall and door are designed to withstand 6,750 pounds of impact from debris.

Schorn, an engineer who helped design almost every aspect of the Whitney’s exterior, has spent the past four years flying around the world while finalizing its various elements. As such, the story of the Whitney’s construction reads like a particularly rapturous passage from a Thomas Friedman book on globalization. The steel for the exterior gray planks originated in Belgium and was shipped to Germany to be cut and pressed by a special device. The pre-cast concrete was made in Quebec. The windows’ color-neutral, low-emissivity (i.e., heat-reflective) glass was made in Germany. The stone in the lobby is Spanish, but was shipped to Italy to be cut and fabricated. The lighting came from Italy; the audio-visual system from Canada.

Along with the more technical concerns, Piano also wanted to preserve the aesthetics of the building, which required engineers to design a flood-mitigation system that was all but invisible. And they succeeded: Reviews of the building have noted its interactiveness with the surrounding neighborhood, due to the lack of barriers between the interior and piazza-like space outdoors. “At the Whitney you’re kind of always in New York, always in the West Village, a little bit like you would be if you were with the artists in their studio,” Schorn said.

While flooding is a worldwide phenomenon—whether from storms or yearly rainy seasons—it’s only recently that interest in prevention has spiked. “After Sandy, the number of inquiries skyrocketed for us,” said Tom Themel, an engineer at Walz & Krenzer who helped design the Whitney’s system. “There’s no really comprehensive program that protects the entire city, literally building by building.”

The Whitney’s move to build a flood-protection system may be pointing to the future of Manhattan architecture. Until the city decides to invest in something like the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20-billion proposal for seawalls, buildings in vulnerable areas will be similarly exposed. The Harvard geologist Daniel P. Schrag has cited Hurricane Sandy's 13-foot storm surge as an example of what will, by 2050, be the “new norm on the Eastern seaboard.” And leading climate scientists have predicted that the intensity of hurricanes will increase in a warmer climate. (Sandy caused roughly $70 billion in damage overall and the deaths of more than 230 people.)

The Whitney’s flood-mitigation system includes a temporary wall and two flood doors, all designed by Walz & Krenzer. Kevin Schorn

Other art institutions are taking similar precautions, in New York and beyond. In 2013, the Pérez Art Museum Miami moved into a cutting-edge facility that was specifically designed to withstand hurricanes. The museum is raised on an elevated platform above the flood plain and features the largest sheets of hurricane-resistant glass in the U.S. Its art storage space is more than 46 feet above sea level, and its signature hanging gardens are reinforced with enough steel to withstand category-five hurricane winds. The museum also features an advanced backup-electricity system that runs on generators. “We can be refueled by truck or by barge,” noted Alexa Ferra, the Pérez’s public relations manager.

Similarly, the Rubin Museum of Art, in Manhattan’s Chelsea, has a disaster-preparedness plan that runs 151 pages, and a few years ago invested in fortifying its roof against flooding and high-speed winds. The museum faced challenges in the aftermath of Sandy that it never anticipated: “Simple things, like not being able to charge a cell phone,” said Patrick Sears, the museum’s executive director. “We now have high-capacity, long-term storage batteries on site just for that reason.” Sears compared the unpredictable, evolving challenge of protecting art from environmental threats to the mission of a hospital. “We think of the art as being patients,” he said. “And we don’t want them to die.”

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum, in lower Manhattan, took on 22 million gallons of water during Sandy and was flooded with seven feet of standing water, prompting it to work extensively with the Port Authority to assess its vulnerabilities. (An adjacent construction site had caused water to pour in.) Joe Daniels, the Memorial’s president and C.E.O., said the museum took precautions to make sure the premises were sealed and equipped with enough pumping power in case of leaks. Additional protocols were also put in place to move sensitive artifacts to higher ground if need be.

While the Museum of Modern Art sits on more protected ground in mid-Manhattan, its storage facility in Long Island City is near sea-level. Several years ago the museum invested in a flood-retaining pool, which helped keep the facility dry during Sandy. “Obviously we’re on higher alert post-Sandy,” said James Gara, the MoMA’s chief operating officer, “and we have more backups, as anyone would have.” Gara said the museum was considering other investments, looking ahead to the possibility of even more catastrophic events that could cause a longer-term loss of power.

These days, the Meatpacking District doesn’t feel like a neighborhood that’s threatened by the elements; rather, it’s enjoying a new cultural vibrancy. The Whitney—“a building that flies,” Renzo Piano said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, with Michelle Obama sitting nearby—looms large above it all, helping revitalize this little triangle of Manhattan between the West Village and Chelsea.

For now, the only sign of the threat looming on the horizon are the small, nearly inconspicuous holes on the sidewalk—where the mobile wall's posts lock into the concrete—wrapping around the eastern, southern, and western sides of the building in perfectly spaced pairs. The day will come when they’re needed. Until then, the aluminum beams remain stowed in a warehouse, the 15,500-pound door opened wide, waiting to protect billions of dollars’ worth of American art.

The piazza-like atmosphere outside is relaxed and festive, a testament to the power of architecture to take what might have been closed and forbidding and render it open and inviting. And this openness, the lack of barriers between the museum and the city, is made feasible by the simple fact that, in a matter of hours, this stunning new American landmark can transform itself into a fortress.