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Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York City, USA, by Foster + Partners

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It’s hard not to have a moment of nostalgia when approaching Foster + Partners’ recently completed Sperone Westwater Gallery in Manhattan, New York City, says Jaffer Kolb

Scratch that: it’s hard not to have a kind of century-spanning, transtemporal montage when approaching the building. This montage plays out in at least two tropes; probably more if you’re willing to go post-modern. For the sake of legible architectural language, let’s call the first trope ‘context’.

Located on Manhattan’s Bowery, a major thoroughfare in the city, Sperone Westwater marks a new point on a developing architectural constellation. Though one could argue it extends further, the major terminus of this trail heading south is the New Museum of Contemporary Art, completed by SANAA in 2007.

The New Museum, a stack of offset metal screen-clad boxes, is one of the city’s most notable contemporary architectural landmarks and neighbour to Foster’s gallery.

In addition to these ostensible highlights of 21st-century architecture, the Bowery has its own historic character. A mix of buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries, it shares the same rags-to-riches narrative as adjacent and perhaps better-known neighbourhoods like SoHo and the Lower East Side.

A multi-layered signifier, coherent in its spectacle

Until about five years ago, the Bowery was dominated by restaurant supply stores with silver stovetops and refrigerators spilling on to the sidewalk – an image tragically superimposed by the recent injection of upscale restaurants, brick cladding and the slick surfaces of new storefronts.

In the midst of this storm of history, architecture and now mass-consumerism (nearby shamelessly stands a Whole Foods Market, America’s organic emporium) is Foster’s gallery, itself a multi-layered signifier that is ultimately most coherent in its spectacle.

The first thing to mention about the gallery, beyond its obvious and Foster-esque slickness, is a large, blurry red cube seen through the curtain wall lumbering up and down the front facade of the building.

The curtain wall – a series of CNC-milled panels that I will return to later – serves to obscure the shape of the lift, so it appears slightly out of focus and is almost disorientating in its effect. Before describing this lift further, it’s worthwhile to note that it introduces the gallery’s second major montage-trope: history.

One of the most striking things about Sperone Westwater, at least to my mind, is its connection to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Foster’s reconnection with Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, and the early days of high-tech, is here both endearingly nostalgic and intelligently articulate.

To use a cliché, the moment of spectacle where the lift moves up and down, exposing the fundamental structural and programmatic strategy of the building and connecting it to the external escalators of the Pompidou, is very much a moment of ‘look how far we’ve come’.

Perhaps the connection to the Pompidou is a stretch, but the use of a dominant colour (red, even!) against a muted background, the spectacle of an externalised circulation and the machinery bound to the perimeter all connect with the Pompidou – particularly in the context of Norman Foster himself.

The lift becomes a kind of symbol of the past in the polished present

Notable differences date Sperone Westwater to the present. Slick corrugated metal panels clad the exterior to the north and south. The milled glass panels and aluminium frame of the front facade create a fantastic optical effect looking in and out. I was transfixed on one of the upper floors by the ghosted images produced by the shallow V-shaped channels; a rare example of a really well-executed optical effect.

In other words, gone are the formal gestures toward high-tech. The lift becomes a kind of symbol of the past in the polished present. In a strange way, it’s a perfect metaphor of New York. The creative energy that once made this neighbourhood so thrilling has been replaced by a kind of slick facsimile of the past.

Just as restaurants serving $35 entrees still decorate with quasi-crumbling brick and diamond chandeliers, so does Foster’s gallery appropriate and distill a moment of high-tech’s origins.

Inside, the spectacle of the lift continues. The small lobby, which measures 6.5 x 3.5m, is characterised by two crucial moments. The first is the two large pistons that stand on either side of the room and control the lift; a bit of custom detailing that is childishly thrilling. The second is the ceiling, the bottom of the red lift, which moves up and down between the second and fifth floors.

It’s a fantastic play on scale, and the designers make good use of windows to emphasise the effect by varying amounts of light. When the lift is at the second floor, the lobby feels dark and cramped; then, with barely a whisper, the ceiling is suddenly suspended four storeys above.

An aside about the lift: the architects very deliberately call it a ‘moving room’. Peter Han, associate partner at Foster’s New York office, says that it was treated as a room by the New York City Department of Buildings. The ‘room’ is a gallery, standing at 3.7 x 6m – certainly a respectable scale.

The idea is that you walk up stairs to the second floor, where you cross the length of the building and seamlessly transition to the third floor via the ‘moving room’. You’re too busy looking at art to notice it’s moving, or so they’d have you think.

Like many spectacular things, the fantasy trumps reality. At Sperone Westwater, the experience is far more pedestrian. It’s not a moving room – it is a lift. There is a lift operator; it’s of an entirely different scale than the galleries that lead to and from it; there are buttons; it is clad in steel where a lift would be and in panelling where a lift would be; it moves vertically between three floors. It is a lift, and this is indisputable no matter the semantic spin its authors put on it.

Were it not so self-conscious, this feature would hardly be problematic. However, nothing is quite as teeth-grating as architects trying to elevate the status of quotidian objects by renaming, reprogramming and ‘rethinking’ them. Despite this minor quibble, the spectacle of the lift from the exterior and the lobby make it well worth its pretensions.

Beyond the lift, the interior of the gallery is quite straightforward. Two sets of fire-door accessible stairs and a standard lift provide the circulation from the ground to second floors. The red lift serves the second to fifth floors, though the fourth and fifth are for private viewing only. The top three floors are set back as the red lift drops off due to zoning requirements, and they host administrative offices and a library. Each floor is well-lit.

The building, which is long and skinny at 7.6 x 30.5m, is short enough that windows on either end provide floor-through light. A cut-out of the second floor gives half the first floor double-height, accommodating larger art installations.

The building seems to work flawlessly

In plan, each floor narrows at the east and west (the ends of its length), giving the middle a swell that hosts the main gallery spaces and offices. It’s an elegant plan that takes advantage of the dimensions of the site, lighting and the requirements of the space.

The building seems to work flawlessly. Noise from the exterior is buffered by the front lift shaft, leaving the inside silent. Large windows to the back, which look on to a private park facing east, bring in indirect light and give great views out to the Lower East Side and beyond.

Where sometimes seamlessness can be sterile, here it is invisible, if a bit too nice. Once you leave the building and step out into the cacophony of the city, you cannot help feeling a little guilty, as one almost always does in New York now, that you’re participating in the destruction of an image that cannot exist in our current cultural, social and economic climate.

The windows that look on to the Bowery distort its view, fragmenting each object beyond into numerous blurry abstractions. It’s
a strangely poetic image of the disappearing city that buildings as superficially perfect as this are obscuring one block at a time.

Project Data

Start on site March 2009
Contract duration 18 months
Gross floor area 1,858m2
Form of contract Guaranteed Maximum Price
Total cost Confidential
Cost per m2Confidential
Client Sperone Westwater
Executive architect Adamson Associates
Project designer Foster + Partners
Structural and mechanical engineer/lighting designer Buro Happold
Lift Edgett Williams Consulting Group
Main contractor Sciame

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