New York City
For years, Manhattanites have suffered Brooklyn envy as the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and other institutions based in that borough have taken the baton of avant-gardism from Manhattan and run with it at uncatchable speeds. Manhattan was stuck. Many arts lovers hankered to be on the far side of the East River, living in other zip codes.
Now New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), in collaboration with Rockwell Group, has built a cure. Early this month, the Shed, a huge eight-level cultural venue in Hudson Yards, Manhattanâ€™s new development on the far west side, opened to the jazzy syncopations of marching bands and drummers, led by Howard Universityâ€™s Showtime band. Sousaphones swayed as the musicians snaked through the standing crowds in a 2,000-capacity mosh pit called the McCourt that sits within the extended retractable shell of the Shedâ€”a voluminous, 115-foot high adaptable space with a steel armature resembling the skeletal bones of a â€śgigantosaurus.â€ť Like the top of a convertible, the entire ballooning volume had been moved outâ€”rolling on eight huge steel bogie wheels, 6 feet in diameterâ€”from the structural-steel, glass, and concrete-base building of the Shed, which backs into a new 88-story residential tower, also designed by DS+R.
After the rousing opening, the concert continued on a temporary stage as musicians performed â€śThe Soundtrack of America,â€ť the first of a five-evening program of African American musical history produced by the British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, at the invitation of the Shedâ€™s artistic director and CEO, Alex Poots.
While that series unfolded, other visual and performing works opened elsewhere in the Shed, showing off just how nimble the architecture is. A stack of four adaptable loftlike spaces, each about 12,500 square feet, make up the base building (which cleverly poaches on the infrastructure of its host, the residential tower, doubling up on plumbing, elevators, and fire stairs, and gaining back-of-house areas and offices). One major debut was a synesthetic program, combining a digitally animated mural by Gerhard Richter and music by Steve Reich composed to the same algorithms, in the 19-foot-high gallery on level two. Artist Trisha Donnellyâ€™s enigmatic untitled installation commandeered level four, while in the Griffin Theater on level sixâ€”23 feet high and temporarily configured with a proscenium stage and raked seatingâ€”RenĂ©e Fleming sang in an original performance piece, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, written by the poet Anne Carson. Flemingâ€™s costar, Ben Whishaw, transformed himself into Marilyn Monroe in a play that ended, as it must, sadly.
The performances and art piecesâ€”original, ambitious, daring works that tested the $475 million building for flexibilityâ€”provide a foretaste of the scope of Pootsâ€™s goal to present newly commissioned works that cross disciplines for diverse audiences, whose tastes may range from street art to the intellectually occult. The Shed is the platter on which art that is not yet imagined will be served; itâ€™s a garage for creative start-ups. As Dan Doctoroffâ€”deputy mayor in the Bloomberg administration who helped initiate the creation of Hudson Yards and is now board chairman of the Shedâ€”explained, the institution got its name because it is â€śan open shelter for tools.â€ť
Sheathed in inflatable ETFE, the Teflon-like material that looks like bubble wrap, the Shed has a charismatic urban presence, especially at night, when it glows like a Japanese lantern along the Hudson Yardsâ€™ southern edge, adjacent to the High Line. The main south entrance is at street level, below the High Line, while the north entrance is at the higher level off Hudson Yardsâ€™ plaza.
But the Shed is not so much an object as a performance. Leaving its position against the indented side of DS+Râ€™s residential tower, the shell rides on tracks with elephantine slowness and grace, and, fully telescoped out, at 17,000 square feet, it doubles the footprint of the base building. Two rack-and-pinion systems on the roof, each with six 15-horsepower motors, drive the movement with a combined 180 horsepower (compared to a 134-horsepower Toyota Prius).
With state-of-the-art industrial parts taken from gantries and other portside structures, the design makes an unmistakable contextual reference to the wharves that once lined the Hudson River waterfront,