The result of seven month’s work, involving copious amounts of organizing, planning, scheduling, revising, assembling, testing and eleventh-hour tweaking, culminated in a five-day art frenzy: The Armory Show 2017. Held on Piers 92 and 94 in New York City, this year’s fair hosted 200 galleries from 30 different countries—a significant reduction from the previous year’s showing (230). However, Bade Stageberg Cox Architects (BSC) designed the layout of the show and the New York firm was on hand to remind visitors how effective the Miesian principle, “less is more” can be.
“We’re always playing with scale,” said Jane Stageberg, a principle at BSC who showed The Architect’s Newspaper around. “The art is big, so the space must be big!” One way to get more space is to have fewer galleries, argued Stageberg, who added that on the flip side, this afforded galleries more floor space to work with themselves. The result was a more fluid and dynamic experience of The Armory Show.
In 2016, Pier 94 had three aisles of circulation, whereas this year two were employed, facilitating a much smoother and more logical route up and down the pier. This also allowed BSC to create what Stageberg called “town squares.” For an experience that had the potential to feel like a head-spinning cavalcade of art, the open spaces offered visual relief and acted as convenient meeting points. They also housed “big” public art, making them handy tools for way-finding. Saying “meet by the red and white polka-dotted mushrooms” (or to the more sophisticated “Yayoi Kusama’s 2016 work, Guidepost to the New World“) made for an easy-to-find reference point. Or, if that didn’t take your fancy: the champagne bar by the hanging piano (Sebastian Errazuriz’s 2017 piece, The awareness of uncertainty).
“Our goal was to open up the plan and create sight-lines, carving away corners to create diagonal views,” Stageberg explained. “The galleries realized that this was good for them too as it meant more exposure. Their goal is to sell art and that’s our goal too.” The risk paid off, though, as galleries did well. “We sold an enormous amount,” said Sean Kelly, whose Chelsea gallery can be found on 475 10th Avenue.
Additionally, Stageberg said that the bones (especially the roof) of Pier 94 itself were also exposed to acknowledge the site’s industrial past. In a refined environment predominantly comprised of white gallery walls, the juxtaposition of evident decay seen on the roof and odd bits of wall was a welcome sight.
On Pier 92, this was less the case, but the inclusion of generous amounts of daylight made possible by numerous windows, supplemented the sense of place BSC strove for. Around these areas of fenestration was more “public space.” (This year, public space made up more than a third of the square footage allocated to galleries.) In a setting where square footage and wall space are prime real estate for galleries, the decision to do so was justified as visitors came in record numbers (65,000 over five days—the most ever). In addition to this, the show’s busiest days over the weekend were gloriously sunny. Light shimmered off the Hudson and the pier—which is roughly 30 feet narrower than its neighbor—felt open and breathable.
Another advantage of this was simply being able to see where you were in the scope of the city. Be it views of BIG’s Via 57 or simply Pier 94, the windows aided orientation and provided a pleasing change of focus. This was particularly the case in the VIP Lounge on Pier 92 where a large window punched through the end of the pier was the highlight of the show’s premium venue.
BSC has been working The Armory Show since 2011 when the firm began designing the 2012 edition of the fair. Between then and now, two directors (Paul Morris and Noah Horowitz) have come and gone, but this year marked the second year BSC had been working with its current director, Ben Genocchio.
For the 2017 show, Genocchio wanted Piers 92 and 94 to be in greater unison. Curatorial programming at previous shows had created a disconnect between the two piers, a phenomenon amplified further due to their differences in elevation (Pier 92 is almost one story higher than its neighbor) resulting in tricky circulation. To challenge this, both modern and contemporary galleries could be found on the two piers and emphasis was placed on the corridor that linked them.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing on the water, however. While an oversized floating concrete block (Drifter, by Studio Drift) did well to draw visitors to the connecting stairwell, traveling between the two piers was still awkward. This problem, though, may be impossible to solve. Stageberg was disappointed in the food outlet “Mile End” at the end of Pier 94. “It felt like a dead-end space,” she said. Likewise, it’s hard to see how such an issue will be resolved without sacrificing more gallery space.
Stageberg, though, took this as a positive. “We’re learning what we can do next year,” she said. “We’re very pleased with how the public spaces in general turned out, they were really needed.” In the end, it’s the piers’ quirks that make The Armory Show what it is. There are few, if any, places where you can gaze over millions of dollars worth of art amid expertly organized chaos, all under one, slowly dying roof in the middle of New York.