Can New York’s Next Mega Art Space Live Up to Its Grand Ambitions?
Don’t be confused by its humble name: The Shed, a mixed-use venue slated to open on New York’s west side in 2019, is all confidence. That proud bravado was on full display during a hard-hat press preview of the space this week, where the project’s principals were celebrating a just-announced $75 million bonanza from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropical outfit. (The Shed is angling for a total of $500 million; they’ve got a mere $80 million left to go.)
So what exactly is the Shed, and why does New York need it? At the most basic level, it’s a cultural center located on West 30th Street, co-designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group, set amid the feverish construction bustle of the larger Hudson Yards project.
It will be, apparently, a space that obsessively privileges flexibility, both in design and programming. Alex Poots—founder of the Manchester International Festival, and more recently the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory—is heading up the latter.
He recalled his early days in the U.K., working with artists and their varied needs: “Some, you could only do things in the Barbican; others, in the Tate. Others, in a field.” That led to the model of the Manchester International Festival, which staged various projects and interventions at a range of sites across the city. “I’ve never been in one institution, one building, I’ve always worked across different places,” he explained. But something about the Shed’s physical form and mission piqued his interest: “It was a model,” he said, “that looked as if it could do almost everything.”
The spirit of interdisciplinarity and high-low jumbling can get a bit heady at times. Poots is the sort of wide-eyed visionary who seems like he’d be very content if Carolee Schneemann and Kendrick Lamar got together to stage a theatrical adaptation of Magic Mike in conjunction with the Royal Ballet and a team of Danish scientists. (To be fair, I’d definitely go see that.)
“There is no institution that commissions across all art forms,” Poots said. “The Shed will be the first commissioning center for all arts, from performance to visual art to pop culture. If you can commission everything, you can choose artists from all walks of life, and welcome them here. And by welcoming them here, you welcome their audiences. You start to break down those silos.”
The building’s innovative architecture seems ready to withstand the weight of these grand ambitions. The site’s main component, as its designers note, is a fairly standard, six-level space with room for galleries, theaters, and a “lab” that will operate as a kind of open artistic residency. (Modularity is the key throughout, with movable walls and soundproofing options to allow multiple events to unfold simultaneously. They’ve also snuck in a space that can be rented for events.)
That part of the Shed directly abuts a high-rise residential building, also designed by the two architectural firms in tandem. As David Rockwell noted, that “symbiotic relationship allowed us to embed almost all of the Shed’s back-of-house into the [residential] tower, creating as much unadulterated creative open space for artists and audiences” as possible.
The flashiest and most prominent component of the structure is what the architects refer to as its “telescoping” exterior: a massive steel armature that can slide in and out to create various configurations for performances and events. It’s temperature-controlled thanks to ETFE “pillows” which insulate the structure (and are roughly 1/100th the weight of glass). “The Shed can be spontaneous and responsive to ever-changing artistic endeavors in all media. It’s in a perpetual state of change,” architect Elizabeth Diller said.
With two years before its opening, there isn’t much in the way of confirmed programming to fill all of this. Lawrence Weiner has been tapped to construct a text-based piece in the plaza, which spells out the phrase “IN FRONT OF ITSELF” using stones. (This work, which visitors will walk over when accessing the Shed, will be one of the only permanent commissions, Poots said.) The Shed has also worked in conjunction with Reggie Gray to launch FlexNYC, a community outreach program around dance, with plans to stage a performance when the space debuts.
As exciting as the Shed seems, there’s plenty to be cautious about here. Many have made the point that, in the midst of funding shortages for the arts, $500 million for an entirely new cultural center can be problematic. And, of course, the Shed joins a larger pattern of development—from the High Line to Hudson Yards—that has inevitably, though perhaps inadvertently, contributed to making New York ever less accessible for those without financial means.
That’s obviously not news to anyone involved—watch the excellent documentary Class Divide to hear Ricardo Scofidio himself weigh in on some of these issues. But amid all the fanfare, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what this latest wave of west-side development spells for New York. “The concept and opportunity to design a ground-up building for the arts forced us to ask: ‘What will the arts look like in 10, or 20, or 30 years?” Diller said. “We simply could not know.”
We might just as well ask what the larger social landscape of New York will look like in 30 years, and how flexible the city itself is to the pressures of development. Condos in 15 Hudson Yards, the building that connects to the Shed, range from $1.95 to nearly $14 million. Arts-supporting billionaires are terrific, but only so long as there are artists left to support.