NEW YORK - I got a hard-hat tour of the new Whitney Museum of American Art building the other week, the under-construction project designed by Renzo Piano and planted right at the southern end of the High Line. It’s slated to open in 2015, so it was a vision of the near future.

It was a thrill to be in the shell of the building, with winds whipping off the Hudson River where walls will go up later. And the design is pretty thrilling, too—the galleries will be New York’s largest column-free space, and the entire structure has the light-filled, airy and thoroughly modern touches Piano has become known for. (For a look at his work beyond just museums, there’s a show called “Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Fragments” at Gagosian Gallery on 21st Street in Chelsea until August 2.)

A view of the building from the West Side Highway, June 2013. Photograph by Timothy Schenck.

I’ve grown to love the blocky oddity of Marcel Breuer’s 1960s Madison Avenue museum of course, but the Piano version is upping the space for the permanent collection display by three times—and that’s been the key mission of the museum ever since they grew out of the uptown space. (In a fascinating bit of museum real estate sharing, once they move downtown they are renting the Breuer building to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Piano gave a few remarks to the assembled journalists who got a tour. He eloquently emphasized how the Whitney was born in Greenwich Village—in the living room of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—and hence the entire project is something of a homecoming.

He is always genuinely humble, calling the museum “quite a simple structure,” essentially a spine with a stack of galleries going up seven floors. But there is ingenuity and smart planning everywhere, from the way the floors get bigger toward the top and the way the lower floors accommodate quite a bit of outdoor space for sculpture.

The building viewed from the roof of the Standard Hotel, June 2013. Photograph by Timothy Schenck.

Imagine: patios at the Whitney. And Piano placed them on the south end of the building, where it’s quieter, instead of the river-facing side, a tempting mistake. It’s beautiful, but incredibly noisy because of the West Side Highway.

The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, spoke about Piano’s talents in the museum field, particularly regarding respect for artworks, but also his feel for orienting the visitor: “You always know where you are in the building, but there’s always a sense of discovery.”                                                                           

Weinberg also stressed the environmental highlights. Most notably, it will be the first museum in New York City certified as LEED Gold, the highest environmental standard in architecture. And he noted that, given the wrath of Hurricane Sandy last year and the museum’s proximity to the water, the museum is painstakingly flood-proofed. There’s no art, not even any art storage, at ground level or below.

Great views are everywhere to be sure, and even the art handlers—a hardworking and often overlooked subset of the art world—are given fantastic windows looking across the city and to the river beyond, instead of being stuck in a basement.

This project has been a long time coming for the Whitney, after many painful false starts, and it’s encouraging to see it on track.