A vast hangar of flexible space. A Modernist dream. From the Crystal Palace and the great glass-roofed railway stations to Kew’s greenhouses, Buckminster Fuller’s plan to cover Manhattan with a giant geodesic dome, moon bases and the mega mall, the ability to contain huge spaces while keeping the sky visible has been the signature landscape of modernity.
The newest manifestation of this ideal is the $475m Shed in New York, a colossal sliding roof that rolls on rails to nestle beneath a skyscraper on the edge of the city’s Hudson Yards development.
The Shed, which opened on April 5 2019, emanates from a late 20th-century fantasy of the flexible arts space in an era when the arts were undergoing radical change. British visionary Cedric Price’s designs for the Fun Palace for theatrical impresario Joan Littlewood, Constant Nieuwenhuys’ infinitely expandable New Babylon, a modular city as post-work playscape, and Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre emerged from that era, though only the last of these was realised. And here, beside a glassy, corporate development above Manhattan’s rail yards, is a colossal new space for forms of culture, some of which might not even have been invented yet.
The Shed’s director, British-born Alex Poots, has form. As director of the Manchester International Festival, he built a reputation for fearlessly commissioning new work, producing culture at the scale of the industrial city. The architects of The Shed, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (together with David Rockwell) have an avant-garde history as close to installation and conceptual art as to architecture, and a depth of experience sculpting urban theatrical spaces, from museums to rock gigs, parks to operas.
Architect Liz Diller suggests to me over coffee that the project “is an attempt to preserve space for experimentation. It was the scene in the city in New York in the 1970s that inspired us,” she says. “There was so much cultural production and experimentation and so much space.”
Many of those spaces were around here, in Chelsea, in the vast warehouses and industrial buildings. The desire to recreate the conditions of a city in economic decline but creative tumult seems the diametric opposite of the city that now surrounds it, in which space has been ruthlessly commodified. But that, Diller suggests, is the point. “How,” she asks, “can we keep space for producing culture?”
The Hudson Yards development is a monumental feat of engineering: $20bn worth of globalised skyscrapers, bland plazas and a mall built over the snaking railway tracks. But it hides the effort away. The Shed celebrates its engineering, especially through the sheer thrill of a huge structure moving on wheels (apparently it takes only the power of a single Toyota Prius to move it). The steel lattice of its carapace is mounted on bogeys; the bolts, rivets and welds are all there, everything is exposed and the gaps between the steel are filled in by puffy, silvery, plastic pillows. The effect is like a sci-fi, insectoid, almost steampunk counterblast to the corporate banality of the surrounding landscape.
With its grids, rigs and racks of lighting, being under it feels like being in the fly tower rather than the auditorium, where things are made, not just observed. It is a space where anything might happen, from a rock concert or art installation to avant-garde opera, so it seems ironic that for the first musical event (the “Soundtrack of America” series by African-American artists, conceived by the British artist and director Steve McQueen) a doll’s house of a timber proscenium arch has been built, looking a little underpowered amid all that steel and space. It’s as if the possibilities and sheer scale of the structure have not yet been quite grasped.
The rolling, puffy-pillowed canopy might be the most visible thing here, but it isn’t the whole story. The architects also designed the 88-storey residential tower that looms above it, a slender, silvery extrusion that morphs at its top into a four-leaf clover form. The conjoining of the structures allows their lower storeys to interlock, and at the base of the tower there is a black box theatre, two capacious galleries and a series of rehearsal spaces and production studios that will be subsidised for local artists and companies.
People have to learn how to use [the building]. It is like a kind of AI: it will become more intelligent
At street level, a large new lobby has been built beneath the riveted steel stanchions of the High Line, the linear park that Diller Scofidio + Renfro repurposed from the disused freight railway. Its effect was like a line of coke snorted up through Chelsea’s real estate, hyperactivating its development into a canyon of architectural posturing. But after all the architectural acrobatics around here, the public interiors look a little generic. An escalator taking visitors up to the level of The Shed could be in a mall or a convention centre. The galleries, which are enormous and have the capacity to be united into one colossal space, lack grain or texture. Even Gerhard Richter’s powerful, vivid works struggle slightly to overcome the anonymity of the galleries.
This generic quality is probably deliberate: the architects have sidestepped any architectural overdose to allow artists and curators to find new ways of occupying the space. But it may take time to adjust to the scale of the potential. “People have to learn how to use it,” Diller says. “The building is like a kind of AI: it will become more intelligent.”
An inevitable footnote here is The Shed’s immediate neighbour, Thomas Heatherwick’s “Vessel”, a gleaming metallic basket of interlocking staircases in the shape of a coppery kebab. Heatherwick’s piece is almost the exact opposite of The Shed: it is an object that, quite literally, has no content, whereas The Shed is all about what might happen inside.
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in his dense, often weird and often brilliant book Spheres, suggests that the basic unit of humanity, from the cell through the air-conditioned space of the contemporary interior to the globe itself, is the bubble, which we construct as a way of maintaining communal life in a hostile environment — a very architectural metaphor for the fragile biosphere. What The Shed attempts to do is to create a structure, a bubble, to protect the ecosystem of collective culture within the ruthlessly commercial city.
• Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.