“We’re here to celebrate the completion of our steel erection,” said Dan Doctoroff, setting off the requisite titters, “and a remarkable gift.”
Doctoroff, formerly CEO of Bloomberg LP, and before that deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding in the Bloomberg administration, is chairman and president of the Shed, the multi-arts center that is rising amid the forest of deluxe construction in Hudson Yards, on Manhattan’s far West Side. On Wednesday, he was addressing reporters assembled to check out progress on the site — and to pay obeisance to the former mayor, who was not present in person but hovered in spirit, as the Shed’s initiator and marquee patron.
The Shed is very much mid-build, but its distinctive feature — the huge retractable steel carapace that can roll out from around the otherwise conventional six-level building and cover the adjacent plaza, then roll back, on eight massive wheels set on superthick rails welded by the method used for high-speed rail lines — is up and operating. When complete, the lower part of the carapace will have raisable glass doors, and the upper parts will be filled in with air-filled pillows made of a super-lightweight polymer that offers light, sound, and temperature insulation. Once the Shed opens, in 2019, the building itself will feature a large ground-floor lobby and entertainment area, two levels of gallery space, a double-height floor devoted to a theater, one floor of artist workspace, and, above all that, an engine and equipment area where the motors for the steel structure live.
But it’s the retractable shell — “a giant fly loft,” as architect Elizabeth Diller put it, with ample load-bearing and rigging capacity — that’s the star of the show, allowing an infinite range of configurations for exhibition and performance, indoor and outdoor, in daylight or dark. It epitomizes the project’s vision, which Diller (whose firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfrow, also designed the High Line, and designed the Shed in partnership with Rockwell Group) called “an architecture of infrastructure, purpose-built for flexibility.”
As reporters gathered beneath the steel skeleton, they were treated to a demonstration of its telescoping powers (an impressively noiseless operation) and a tour of the building. But the full reason for the event had become clear the day before, with the announcement that Mike Bloomberg was gifting the Shed $75 million, bringing the venture up to $421 million in its half-billion-dollar capital campaign.
The vision, commitment, high standards, generosity, and other paragon-like traits of our former three-term mayor were a main theme of the event, which included comments from Doctoroff and Patti Harris, Bloomberg’s twelve-year deputy mayor who is now CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, and a shout-out to Kate Levin, the former commissioner of the department of cultural affairs who now runs the philanthropy’s arts program. Mayor Bill de Blasio was mentioned in passing after 22 minutes, and if anyone from his administration was in attendance, they did not manifest themselves.
Hudson Yards is indeed a Bloomberg concept, a result of the rezoning of the West Side that the former mayor led in 2005. True to the Bloomberg signature, it is a private-sector affair: The Related Companies, the real estate conglomerate, is leading the area’s construction of high-end office and residential towers, shopping malls, and privately operated public space that is hurtling toward completion, connected to the transit system by the new 34th Street terminus of the 7 train. The parcel under the Shed, however, remains city-owned, and the arts center is constituted as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its mezzanine plaza, which the steel contraption will cover when extended, connects to the High Line at 30th Street. Under construction on the other side, north of the Shed, is the Vessel, the odd honeycomb-like sculpture of staircases that will rise 150 feet, commissioned by Related’s billionaire chairman Stephen M. Ross from British designer Thomas Heatherwick, and costing a reported $150 million. The area smells of steel and money, and that’s before the posh restaurants and Neiman Marcus–anchored mall arrive.
As for what will happen inside the Shed, no one knows. So far, it has announced two initiatives: a commission of a public piece for the plaza by the venerable conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, and FlexNYC, a three-year offsite youth dance program with Brooklyn dancer and flexn pioneer Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray. Beyond that lies the mystery of the first season, which is due to begin in spring 2019. The Shed’s principle, however, will be to exhibit commissioned work across all artistic disciplines, guided by its CEO and artistic director, the Scottish arts impresario Alex Poots, formerly of the Park Avenue Armory and the Manchester International Festival. “It can do everything,” Poots said. “The Shed will be the first commissioning center for all arts, from performing arts to visual arts to pop culture,” with a mission to transcend the high/low distinction (“We’re beyond that,” Poots said) and reach all audiences. It even has a newly appointed chief science and technology officer, Kevin Slavin, imported from the MIT Media Lab.
Programming the Shed is a deluxe challenge: Though created by fiat, like a museum in a Gulf emirate, the venture has lavish funding and proven artistic leadership. The building, with its structural versatility and abundant connectivity, is truly up for anything; electricity and broadband will be accessible inside every ten feet. As for whether it’s “a way to democratize the arts,” as Poots said, that will only become clear in the making.
It fell to Lawrence Weiner to lay out the stakes, if cryptically. “The entire idea of the Shed is that it’s not a parallel reality in New York City, it’s a simultaneous reality,” the conceptual artist said. “It’s going to have no definition until it, by itself and its presence, defines itself.”
“I’m just a happy passenger,” he added.