The Sperone Westwater gallery on the Bowery designed by Norman Foster has a room-sized elevator shuttling up and down the facade, but it escapes the trap that has tripped up other works of contemporary architecture deploying elaborate mechanical moves. Calatrava’s brise soleil at the Milwaukee Art Museum comes to mind as more of a crowd-pleaser along the lines of genuflecting figurines in a medieval town clock than an essential innovation. This is something altogether different.
The so-called “moving room” at Sperone Westwater is the major move at the eight-story gallery and office jimmied onto a 25-by-100-foot building footprint, a few doors north of the New Museum. Far from gimmicky, it feels exhilarating, new, and essential to the space as an architectural and art-viewing experience.
Foster, who was visiting the building today for the first time since it was just a construction site, seemed equally impressed that it had all worked out. Recalling the early days of design, he said, “Any approach we took was hopelessly compromised by the constraints of a 25-foot-wide slot for showing contemporary art and the need to move that big art around. It was like banging your head on the wall trying to figure it out. But once we realized the freight elevator didn’t have to be just for moving crates, but could be used to show art, sculpture, installations, whatever, there was a Eureka moment. And that became the dynamic for the facade.”
julie v. iovine
Of course, making that transformation from back of house workspace to a fireproofed, climate- and lighting-controlled gallery-on-the-move wasn’t easy. Buro Happold and Edgett Williams did much of the heavy lifting. Sciame was construction manager.
Foster called it “a leap of faith” as he took his first ride in the 12-by-20-foot elevator-gallery, now lined with 54 painted mattresses by the Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca. And the space did indeed seem to float on air as it moved from the third floor to the second in giddy and slightly disorienting slow-motion. It does not descend to the ground floor.
Detailing throughout is impressive, from the rubber door handles by Foster to the way an S-curved glass balcony just laps a plaster wall, as only a serious budget makes possible (this one has not been disclosed). A balcony off the back overlooking a who-knew-it-existed orchard provides a good vantage point to see the monochromatically black-ribbed cladding of the rear facade. There’s room enough for a Richard Long rock sculpture, too, although Foster was fussing with its proximity to the door.
But it is the space challenges and how Foster has manipulated them that are the most riveting. At eight stories—going higher than the surrounding tenements and almost as tall as SANAA’s New Museum—the building is considered a highrise and therefore required to have two exit staircases and a second elevator. The plan boils down to a dumbbell shape, with each floor allowed one gallery plus some hall space. Sadly on the ground floor, the gallery, so luminously lit with a hidden skylight trimming the back wall, is also crowded with two exit doors.
If riding the elevator is a trip, standing beneath it in the lobby is even stranger. The little lobby is nicely fitted out in metal cupboards and minimal detailing. Visitors arriving for the gallery’s official opening tomorrow may not realize that the red ceiling overhead is the floor of the elevator. That is, until it starts to move up, and suddenly a blast of light fills the entrance as it pours through the glass facade. Some may not get past this point—whether too fascinated or fearful, it will be hard to say. In any case, Foster has risen so brilliantly to the challenge of designing small that perhaps he should do less more often.
Julie V. Iovine