Bigger Than a Bread Box

Bigger Than a Bread Box

The maintenance building viewed from the High Line with the Whitney Museum in the background.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Beyer Blinder Belle

Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) with Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) as architect of record, the new High Line Maintenance and Operations (M&O) building is no incidental little shed for storing lawnmowers. It is a substantial 21,000-square-foot, four-story structure with a complex program that mixes public and private, back-stage functions and an open-air gallery.  “If I had only two words for the building: it would be frugal and robust,” said Mark Carroll, senior architect at RPBW.  

Huddling close to the High Line at Gansevoort Street and hemmed in to the South and West by the new Whitney Museum, the M&O is an exercise in compact composition. “The volume was given to us,” said Elizabeth Leber of BBB. “It was defined before it was designed.”  The strict parameters were an inspiration, she added.

A model of the maintenance building shows a sculpture garden on its roof.

In contrast to the painted steel and concrete Whitney, the M&O’s exposed dark grey brick frame blends into the surrounding historic Meatpacking District, while a hefty steel roof girder, holding up the fourth floor and a cantilever to the East, makes a direct reference to the industrial palette of the adjacent High Line. “One advantage of Renzo Piano being the designer of both projects is that it’s unusual that an architect gets to design the building and its context,” said Leber. In addition to all else, the building will also house a glazed cafe-restaurant at street level (whose operator is yet to be selected) along with a freight elevator, public elevators, and bathrooms.

The designers were keen not to impinge on the park and so backhouse functions—including a security post for the parks department police—are separated by a five-foot gap between the High Line and the building’s shell. The fourth floor is dedicated to a public meeting room, education center, and offices where Friends of the High Line (FHL) can accommodate about 20 staff. Crowning the building is a rooftop terrace and sculpture garden for the Whitney that, for now, will only be accessible to museum visitors.

For High Line staff, the building is testament to the full-time job of keeping the park in shape. “The maintenance and operations of the park includes everything from planting to cleaning up chewing gum,” said Peter Mullan, FHL’s Vice President of Planning and Design. “Every inch of it is managed.” 

The maintenance building can be accessed from street level and the High Line.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop with Cooper, Robertson & Partners

Indeed, the recent opening of section II shows what lessons were learned from section I. In the new bleachers, the designers had to swap reclaimed teak for the epay wood used in section I, now off the certified list. The feature lawn in section II will be dealing with heavy traffic and there have been conversations about closing it off twice a week to give it a rest and reseed it. Apart from the glass panel balustrades, reduced in number from section II, most of the High Line uses pre-cast concrete, which can be power washed. “The unusual condition of being exposed underneath and above means that plants freeze more easily than a green roof or groundscape,” said Lisa Switkin, senior designer at Field Operations. However, as parcels at street level develop over time, so will the park’s ecology and its maintenance needs.

Extremely different in program, the M&O and Whitney were still initially conceived as part of one design project, that is, until the financial crash placed the Whitney’s hopes of a new home on shaky ground and the M&O block was treated as a separate entity. “The Whitney is a monolith that has landed in the neighborhood, while the M&O looks like it has always been there,” said Carroll. Now, however, both projects are on track and due for completion in 2015.