Imagine a place where almost anything goes. How does it look? How does it make you feel? Where is it located?
Chances are the answer to this last question is not abutting a luxury high-rise a stone’s throw from a Sephora, within a private development whose public space code of conduct expressly prohibits, among lots of other things, removing items from trash or recycling bins; sitting or leaning on planters, railings, and steps; and ‘engaging in any non-commercial expressive activity.’ But The Shed, the most well-funded and self-confident new arts organization to open in New York this century, has erected a building on the southern fringe of the 28-acre nonplace known as Hudson Yards that it will have you believe is a temple to raw potential and eternal flexibility.
Architect Elizabeth Diller, whose firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the 200,000 square foot, $404 million facility in collaboration with the Rockwell Group, likes to say they devised an ethos before a building. Much like Hudson Yards created a brand before a neighborhood. Despite its distinct mandate – commissioning work across performance, visual arts and pop culture – The Shed isn’t a radically new institution so much as a purer form of what nearly every big contemporary arts organization aspires to be today: flexible, informal and phobic of disciplinary hierarchies. (Diller knows this better than anyone; her firm has facelifted two of New York’s most venerated, and stiffest, cultural institutions, Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art.)
The Shed’s main lobby, squeezed under the High Line and accessed from 30th Street, has the requisite high-end bar (Cedric’s at The Shed, by hospitality mogul Danny Meyer). Two exhibition galleries, on levels two and four, are column-free, which isn’t the exception but rather the rule in contemporary museums – as imperative these days as proper humidity levels. The Kenneth C. Griffin Theater, a sound-isolated black box space on level six, can seat 500 people, or, as is common in such venues, be subdivided into two smaller theaters. Considering the institution’s mandate to commission, develop and present works of art across all disciplines, with a particular emphasis on performances and large-scale installations, the relationship between production and presentation spaces is surprisingly conventional. With the exception of a rehearsal space and “creative lab” on the top (eighth) floor, the immense work of running such a flexible place remains mostly hidden behind the scenes.
Where The Shed does stand out comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed its construction. The defining feature of the building, and perhaps the entire institution, is its kinetic outer shell. A gantry crane system – the sort found in shipping ports and logistics hubs – was adapted into a three-sided enclosure that nests over the fixed part of the building (itself attached to the base of a 88-story residential tower). When deployed, it creates a 17,000 square foot, 120-foot-tall enclosed space with a capacity of 2,000. The surreal image of such a massive structure resting on six-feet-diameter wheels is not dissimilar to Thomas Heatherwick’s neighboring Vessel: both are oversize objects resting on, rather than part of, the plaza, emphatic about being read in contrast to the surrounding development. But where the Vessel is a spectacle of redundancy, The Shed, as Diller puts it, is “all muscle, no fat” – the modernist dogma that form follow function adapted for the wellness age.
The shell structure has two distinct precedents, according to its architects. The first and most obvious is New York’s industrial architecture, such as its riverfront piers, which hosted renegade performances and installations in the 1960s and ’70s. The second is the Fun Palace, a mega-structural project the British architect Cedric Price developed with avant-garde theater director Joan Littlewood over seven years, beginning in 1960, that sought to question society’s engagement with entertainment and learning. Though never realized, the Fun Palace is a paradigm of spatial indeterminacy that has inspired some of the most significant museums of the past half century – as far back as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou (1977), and more recently Lacaton & Vassal’s Palais de Tokyo expansion (2014). Yet, whereas Price envisioned a messy overlap of simultaneous activities and events, The Shed largely restricts its different programmes to spaces dedicated to their respective formats. Price and Littlewood also saw flexibility not as an infinite multiplier of possible outcomes, or as an engine of superfluous novelty, but as a humanistic and egalitarian ambition. They envisioned an architecture that would set its inhabitants free.
Such concepts have little room in The Shed, and in the market economy more generally. (“Did Thatcher kill off Cedric?,” Rem Koolhaas asked at a symposium following Price’s actual death in 2003.) When flexibility and risk-taking are so touted by the city’s cultural and business elite in conjunction with one of the most strictly controlled private developments in its history, it’s imperative to ask not just what is possible but also what possibilities have already been foreclosed.