Almost 10 years ago, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron arrived in New York with a major statement: the 80-story Jenga Tower at 56 Leonard Street, whose pixelated appearance broke apart the standard skyscrapers into a stack of blocks that, at least from a distance, dissolved the new construction’s mass. Now the team has made another, in many ways opposite statement about how architecture can contribute to the cityscape: the renovation of a former power station serving suburban train lines into Powerhouse Arts, a new home for artists’ studios and workshops, exhibition spaces, and events. Realized in collaboration with New York–based PBDW Architects and anchoring the rapid gentrification of the industrial area of Gowanus in Brooklyn, the 170,000-square-foot facility signals the importance of imaginative reuse rather than new construction, the conversion of places of production into spaces for art, consumption, and experience, and the dissipation of our cities’ infrastructure for culture beyond the center city.
Powerhouse Arts is not actually Herzog & de Meuron’s first foray into renovation in New York. In 2016, the firm completed the renovation of the Park Avenue Armory, restoring that 1881 building’s ornate meeting rooms and open-span drill space into a venue for art exhibitions and events. That kind of use is also a bit of a trend: Whether newly built, such as The Shed in New York, or in renovations and additions to factory buildings, like The Momentary in Bentonville, Ark., the idea that you create compounds where art can be made and shown, and then pay for it, at least in part, by renting out the larger spaces when they are not being used for that purpose for parties and events, is becoming more commonplace.
Power stations and other monuments to the Industrial Revolution lend themselves particularly well to such programs, and in 2000 Herzog & de Meuron became famous, at least beyond the circle of architecture buffs, for one of the first such renovations, the conversion the former Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern. Such structures are not only large and contain, because of their now outdated ability to move big pieces of steel or piles of coal in and out of large machines, open-span spaces that artists and curators, let alone party planners, can easily use, but they also have a grandeur and expressive power that makes for great selfies.
So it is with Powerhouse Arts. Under the leadership of Studio Director USA Philip Schmerbeck, Herzog & de Meuron managed to preserve the scale and articulated masses, as well as the expressed steel members and brick infill panels, that continue to evoke the building’s industrial heritage while opening it up and making it accessible. To accomplish that openness, the architects cut through one of the building’s main walls to provide public access, while adding a double-height lobby with the by now requisite (or too fashionable) stair that doubles as a small theater seating area, as well as the less visible, but necessary panoply of elevators, exit stairs, and corridors. They made these, as is their wont, as simple as possible, preferring raw and exposed concrete floors and structural members, gray-painted stucco walls, large panes of glass running floor to ceiling, and fluorescent lighting.
The new workshops—outfitted with all kinds of fancy equipment to facilitate the activities of people making ceramics, works on paper, metal objects, or wood constructions—resemble laboratories more than the kind of messy warren of spaces you are used to seeing for such activities. Many of the cleanest spaces are also located in a new addition Herzog & de Meuron built on the base of an addition to the former power plant that had been torn down before the firm got to the site. The team made this building as recessive and minimal as the inside of their renovations so that it dissolves into the jumble of industrial buildings, most of which have been or are being renovated into or replaced by residential structures, all around this new arts anchor.
The showstopper, beside the existing building in its spiffy cleanliness, is what is known as the Batcave: a double-height space in the heart of the building that had been taken over by kids sneaking in over the years the plant sat empty and was then used as a site for graffiti artists to ply their trade and leave their mark. After a community outcry that this art might disappear, Herzog & de Meuron decided to not only keep, but restore these tags. It was good move, as the art provides a lively counterpoint to the firm’s more minimalist architecture.
That the Batcave is the main party space in the Powerhouse also points to the ambivalence many, including myself, feel about this beautiful act of renovation. Paid for by the somewhat eccentric and reclusive billionaire Joshua Rechnitz (before the Powerhouse Arts project, he had wanted to build a velodrome in Brooklyn), the new institution certainly is a welcome addition to the New York arts scene that will no doubt help retain many makers who otherwise are being priced out of their studios by the continued rise of real estate prices in the whole city. Yet the building is itself a major engine of gentrification in Gowanus. Like, say, the High Line in Manhattan did, it is already generating millions of dollars of new construction around its massive bulk. You also have to wonder whether preserving graffiti as the backdrop for weddings and bar mitzvahs is such a great idea. Finally, it might be naïve and perhaps even patronizing to ponder whether providing all this great new equipment and space to artists does not come with restrictions, whether explicit or not, on how and what they make. After all, as Rem Koolhaas famously wrote, “conditioned space inevitably becomes conditional space,” and the giant air handlers and filters in those workshops are doing a lot of conditioning.
That Herzog & de Meuron did a good job staying out of the way and enhancing the beauty of the original building is without a doubt. The building also appears to function well. The major flaw in the whole is that this part of Brooklyn is still relatively difficult to reach by public transportation, while the building’s front door remains hidden behind a storage building that fronts the major road on which the complex sits. With a patron apparently able to wait for the building to be discovered and the neighborhood to become economically powerful enough to attract the necessary services (there is already a Whole Foods store across the street), I can imagine these temporary problems will soon go away. Powerhouse Arts is a welcome, if also slightly troubling addition, to New York’s cultural scene, and proof that even a recessive architecture whose main task is revealing and opening up what is already there can achieve beautiful and effective results.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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