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Getting It Backwards: The Shed’s Architects Came 1st. Its Artistic Director, a Distant 2nd (with video)

More about this here.

When an ambitious new cultural institution chooses its architect six years before appointing an artistic director/CEO, you know its priorities are upside-down and backwards. Such was the case with The Shed, New York’s new multipurpose, multi-discipline cultural venue, which gave me a very mixed impression during its opening week.

For many reasons, it seemed not quite ready for its close-up during my three recent visits:

Late to open: Cedric’s bar and eatery, a Danny Meyer establishment (shades of the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art), in The Shed’s lobby
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Shed’s design was completed in 2011, while it was still “without a client, but with an ethos and a kind of hunch,” in the words of Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), the aggressively transgressive firm chosen in 2008 to design “The Shed,” in collaboration with the [David] Rockwell Group.

Elizabeth Diller and David Rockwell, speaking at The Shed’s press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

DS+R has a propensity for concocting appealing taglines for its projects: The buzzwords repeatedly attached to The Shed are “architecture of infrastructure—all muscle, no fat.” Another oft-used catchphrase: “It’s a Swiss Army knife for culture.” In other words, this tool-Shed will provide artists with lots of tools to create new works.

Whether this pearly, puffy protuberance suggests that spartan, utilitarian approach is open to debate:

Partial view of The Shed, chockablock with Thomas Heatherwick’s “Vessel” (upper left corner), whose coppery cast is seen reflected on the right side of The Shed’s polymer cladding
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That said, the interior spaces look puritanically pragmatic:

McCourt Theater, as seen from the balcony above
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although it’s new construction, its lobby has a faux-industrial look:

The Shed’s Lobby
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

As I’ve previously noted, a hallmark of DS+R’s proposals for cultural institutions (including its initial pitches to the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, The Broad and, most recently, the Museum of Modern Art) is the development of imaginative but gimmicky conceits that help them capture cultural commissions but are prudently put aside, upon due consideration, as whimsical but impracticable.

Case in point: DS+R’s now discarded plan for the Museum of Modern’s “Art Bay,” opening to the street, which Julie Iovine dismissed in the Wall Street Journal as “a design trick [that] sounds very expensive (not to mention noisy to operate and a nightmare to maintain).”

That might turn out to be an equally apt description for this:

Two of the six-foot “bogie wheels” that allow The Shed’s movable shell to run along 273-foot tracks
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

An experienced, rational cultural leader might have derailed The Shed’s movable shell as a potentially glitchy contraption, not to mention an imprudent expenditure of funds on a project that has required some $475 million for design and construction. But there was no responsible conductor to stop this train.

By 2014, when Alex Poots finally came on board as artistic director and CEO, the design for The Shed was already three years old.

Alex Poots, speaking at The Shed’s press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although it boasts of having a movable shell (one day, we’ll get to see how it rolls), The Shed immediately flunked a more basic mechanical test—escalators. Its down escalators were down (as in, “not working”) for the Apr. 3 press preview and still weren’t fully operational at the time of my third visit, on Apr. 9. (I’ve been told that they’re now fixed.)

Here are the workers I saw in the lobby on the evening of Apr. 9, on emergency duty at the base of the non-conveying conveyance:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Poots did “challenge the building to be smarter,” Diller recounted during The Shed’s press preview. “He thought it was smart, but actually it could be smarter and more agile and responsive.” His big concern, she said, was having a space that was able to handle performances as loud as 180 decibels (without disturbing those outside). Whether you could emerge from that with your hearing intact is another question. (I have it on good authority from my acoustic-engineer daughter that this is in the danger zone.)

Maybe The Shed can keep ear-splitting sounds within its own confines, but its cavernous 17,000-square-foot McCourt performance space couldn’t keep out the sounds from outside during the press preview. While Poots was telling us about one of The Shed’s opening programs—Soundtrack of America—the soundtrack of New York City (loud sirens) intruded. Also seeping in was the coldness from outside, even though it was a relatively mild early spring day.

When I asked her about this, Diller assured me that, when needed, everything is acoustically controlled and climate controlled. The galleries, she said, “are Class A galleries. You could take work from the Met. They’re humidified and totally controlled. That means that the Shed can have an art show where other institutions are not afraid to use this robust space.”

Maybe so, but I’m guessing institutional lenders may wait a while, to assure themselves that the building performs as expected. With a radiant-heat floor and forced-air heating and cooling, The Shed isn’t going for the Gold but does aspire to LEED Silver certification.

That said, in its too-narrow, crowded corridors where people form long queues for performances, the sun’s rays entering through the glass walls are not only hard on the eyes but, when I visited, also made this tight space uncomfortably warm:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Shed was built on city land, with and additional $75 million kicked in by the City of New York; $75 million from (Michael) Bloomberg Philanthropies. Other major contributions: $45 million from Shed board member Frank McCourt; $27.5 million from Shed board member and vice chairman Jonathan Tisch and his wife, Lizzie; $25 million from Altice USA (the communications and media company); $25 million from Ken Griffin. Some $10 million of the Tisch gift is a challenge grant for The Shed’s Commissioning Fund to support creation of new work.

Dan Doctoroff, who guided the project as NYC’s deputy mayor under Mike Bloomberg, is The Shed’s board chair:

Dan Doctoroff
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Now that I’ve gotten through the preliminaries (and aired my gripes), I need to mention that there was was a lot that I liked about The Shed—its programs, some of which were puzzling but all of which were interesting.

More details on that will have to wait for a future post, possibly not until next week. That’s because CultureDaughter and CultureSon-in-Law (our family’s guitar expert) will be flying in from California (along with the irrepressible CultureGrandson).

They’re going to accompany me to the Metropolitan Museum and explain everything about its Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibition that I didn’t know but was afraid to ask:

Detail from “The Frankenstein,” Eddie Van Halen’s guitar
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For now, come with me to see some of what I’ve described above, as well as why Thomas Heatherwick‘s excessively maligned Vessel and the rightly excoriated Hudson Yards seem to be a great public success, notwithstanding what the critics say:

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