NEW YORK — Architecture critics have been almost unanimous in their hatred of New York ’s new Hudson Yards development, a generic pop-up landscape of soulless glass towers and high-end retail built over the wasteland of midtown Manhattan’s west-side rail yard. Longtime New Yorkers, and transplants with taste, are inclined to agree: It’s as ugly as Dubai, it reeks of greed and mammon, and it only exacerbates the worst tendencies of a city that seems hellbent on erasing anything distinctive or humane in its built environment.
But now comes the Shed, the one bit of leavening in this whole miserable, embarrassing tale of urban gigantism and one-percenter excess. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group, the Shed is meant to be the cultural giveback that compensates for the vulgar mess of the larger Yards project. Looking a bit like a bubble-clad airplane hangar, it sits on the southern edge of the Yards with two distinct elements defining its architecture: a boxlike form projecting out of the bottom of a high-rise residential tower, and a canopy with translucent plastic side panels, mounted on wheels and rails, that opens onto a public plaza. When the extension canopy is open, it incorporates a huge volume of temporary space for performances or events.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro also designed New York’s enormously successful elevated park known as the High Line, a converted railway that terminates at the base of the Shed on 30th Street. More than decade ago, they teamed up with Rockwell Group and responded to a request for proposals for over 20,000 square feet of land at Hudson Yard, set aside by the city for a cultural use. Their idea: a large, flexible multipurpose arts and cultural venue, which opens to the public Friday.
The design, like the name, plays off the fashionable idea that culture should be both grand and provisional, spectacular and temporary, awe-inspiring and evanescent, like a giant dance party or an epic flash mob. People crave live entertainment that can compete with the power and enchantment of electronic media, the addictive engagement of video games, and the online hypnosis of social media. So cultural events must have a big impact, ideally made by people with big names, creating things that fill big spaces, appealing to crowds that can sense their own bigness.
But it also must be somehow transient, or fleeting — art that exists outside the idea of a lasting canon of art, work that reflects the cruel ideology of public space in cities like New York, where everything is always being remade, passing away, plowed under and built over. Hence, the Shed, which sounds like something found in a backyard but is built at industrial scale, with industrial elements, including six-foot-wide steel wheels that carry the 120-foot-tall canopy along the rails, like the giant cranes that load cargo ships in a modern seaport. Clad in pillows of synthetic material that mimic the thermal properties of glass (with a fraction of the weight), the Shed, when open, encloses some 2 million cubic feet of interior space and can accommodate up to 3,000 people when the inner galleries are configured for expanded seating.
So it is a building with a giant, extendible cover. When the canopy is closed, it is nestled over the permanent structure, which contains an array of galleries, theaters and event spaces. When the canopy is extended, it can be used for larger performances, blacked out with shades for theater or concerts, or left open on the sides to connect with the plaza outside. Events scheduled for the Shed’s first few months give a sense of the many ways it can be used: a multi-evening survey of African American music created by artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen; an exhibition by Gerhard Richter paired with immersive musical performances of works by composers Steve Reich and Arvo Part; and an adaptation of Euripides’s “Helen” by Anne Carson, starring soprano Renée Fleming and actor Ben Whishaw. The rest of the season is equally ambitious, with a theater piece by Bjork and a martial-arts musical; almost all of it is newly commissioned work.
Architecturally, the Shed can’t redeem the Hudson Yards debacle. It sits next to a giant folly known as the Vessel, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, which is fast becoming the neighborhood’s Instagram identity icon: An inverted ziggurat of open stairs and walkways, it is clad in gaudy polished copper, and it connects the district to the New York area of Trump Tower and other vulgarities. The Shed is perched too closely but to the side of the Vessel (now derisively called the Golden Shawarma), and it sits slightly aloof to the shopping plaza with all the usual dreary markers of nouveau riche aspiration (Coach, Dior, Cartier, Fendi and all the other trash). The underside of the High Line can be seen from the Shed’s street-level lobby, symbolically tethering the new cultural space to the New York neighborhoods of Chelsea and the Village, where a few bewildered souls may still cherish memories of these once bohemian areas before they were overrun by real estate developers.
The Shed’s impact on the larger cultural architecture of New York is uncertain. The city already has spaces, such as the Park Avenue Armory, that host multidisciplinary, large-format performance and exhibition events. Led by artistic director Alex Poots, the Shed will produce new work, which will probably be sui generis, reflecting the architectural possibilities of the building for which it was made, and thus not traveling beyond the space, or outside, of the particular cultural milieu that flocks to it. The Shed is meant to be a tool, infinitely adaptable, but it will also forge its own aesthetic. One hopes it will retain some kind of democratic sensibility, that it will intersect with the hard-working artistic grass-roots of the city without succumbing to the self-congratulatory, high-end cosmopolitan chic that defines much of what gets made in New York these days (remember Bjork’s crazy, pretentious one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art?).
If its relation to the Yards and the New York cultural scene remains ambivalent or ambiguous, the Shed’s architectural message is a bit clearer. It makes manifest something that was latent in the High Line — the evolving meaning of our old, industrial infrastructure. The High Line turned a rusting elevated rail line into the city’s most fashionable park, and in the process, it stimulated rapid economic development of its surrounding neighborhoods. At the time, repurposing industrial relics seemed a natural extension of an architectural ideal that sought connection across class lines, that paid homage to the kinds of people who once worked in the industrial economy.
But with the Shed, the industrial aesthetic is now fully divorced from any vestigial memories of the now decimated blue-collar America. It is industrial without any trace of the old grit. There’s a certain honesty in that — nostalgia for the working class easily becomes a kind of condescension — and the building’s primary charm (it moves!) is essential to its function. So perhaps we can at last acknowledge that the new architecture of cultural institutions, with its emphasis on breaking down barriers and Shed-like elements of impermanence and adaptability, is just a different language than the old architecture of elevated entrances and grand facades. It still requires a ticket to get in, you feel special when you’re there, and it’s probably sold out through January.