When Martha Beck left MoMA as chief curator of drawings to establish The Drawing Center in 1977, it was unclear whether the radical new downtown gallery would survive. Thirty-five years later, the center is about to open once more after an 18-month closure and a $10 million renovation by WXY architecture + urban design.
“It’s been an exercise in architecture, engineering, and efficiency,” said Brett Littman, the center’s director. With a new entrance, circulation, offices and three new galleries under the same roof, the project has also been an exercise in tentative space making. When the gallery opens on November 3, it will be 9,150 square feet in size, 50 percent bigger than before. The project also marks an important progression for the center itself, which has been embroiled in uncertainty for the last 10 years.
In 1999, The Drawing Center, with WXY and the Wooster Group, developed a plan for a new cultural facility in Chelsea. The plans were shelved when funding became scarce post-9/11. In 2004, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation selected the gallery as one of four institutions that would form the visual arts component of the World Trade Center site, to be housed in a Snohetta-designed complex, along with the Signature and Joyce theaters. However, a clash between the center’s programming integrity and that of the memorial site soon thwarted the partnership.
In 2006, plans were drawn up for a 30,000-square-foot commercial-arts building in the South Street Seaport. The global financial crisis delivered a reality check, however, and Littman—fresh from MoMA PS1—believed that bringing the disparate spaces into the existing gallery could provide a far better opportunity at a far smaller cost ($50 million less). They then purchased a second-floor condo above the gallery and briefed WXY for the project, titled ReDraw.
Led by WXY co-founder Claire Weisz with Buro Happold, the design and implementation has been swift. “There isn’t an architect in the world that knows this gallery or understands it better than Claire,” said Littman. Her involvement as its architect consultant for the last decade has put Weisz in a unique position to respond to the center’s agenda quickly and with confidence. “We didn’t want too much architecture,” said Wiesz.
The building has been gutted, and its foundations were extended by two feet and reinforced. At the front, an open lobby, integrated technology, and a built-in bookstore with flexible shelving open out to the characteristic Corinthian colonnade, whose bare flutes (many of the capitals were found to be false and were removed) punch a line through the main gallery. Behind the reception area, Weisz has designed a sculptural steel-plate picket railing with varying incisions that play on perspective. While little has been changed on the landmarked cast-iron facade, a broad diamond steel-plate staircase and ADA-compliant elevator make the Center more visible and welcoming to passers-by. The Drawing Room, once the experimental sister gallery opposite, has been nestled into the rear of the ground floor, and a “punk” gallery, the Lab, occupies the basement. Separated from the main space, these elements are connected by a bold white oak-panel staircase.
The architecture itself has exquisite composure. In the main gallery, a suspended ceiling stops short of the white walls in a razor-edge light cradle. In the Drawing Room, the same team has produced a skylight with a concave drop ceiling and a 12-inch wide slit that filters light onto the wall. WXY has drawn inspiration from natural light galleries and “galleries that successfully reinterpret in-place, such as the Serpentine in London,” said Weisz. The result is a series of generous, legible spaces with details that lift the interior and softly pull the outside in.
A case study for other small-scale institutions suffocating from ever-shrinking support, the Drawing Center has looked within to address such pressures. Given his aim to continue expanding and to eschew the trend to populate downtown with boutiques and condos, Littman puts forth a vision that is clear: “It’s all about intelligent growth.”